From the novel Rufus, by Jeff Lowe
When Coop got out of the car, Mott was skipping down the porch steps to meet him and he called out, “Mama Coach!” She put her finger to her lips and said, “Shh! You’re supposed to be a surprise,” and then hugged him.
It was too late. Chet came out from the house and as the screen door slammed behind him, called from the porch, “Mott! I thought I told you not to let the riff-raff camp out in the yard!” He broke out into a huge grin as he limped down the steps.
Rose watched from the porch as the others greeted one another, sharing all that happy small-talk and good-natured banter that old friends do on such occasions. She stood there with her arms crossed, studying Coop as the group came up the steps. When Coop made it to the top he glanced at Rose and instinctively held out his hand and said, “Hi. Cooper Benjamin. You can call me Coop.”
She shook his hand. “Rose Grissom,” she said.
“Nice to meet you…” he hesitated and studied her, still holding her hand in his. “Rose,” he said, digging into his memory. “Oh my God, you’re the Trippentree girl!”
“How… did you know that?” she asked.
“Oh, you probably don’t remember me, but when you were here for, you know, the incident with your parents, I was a senior in high school and I asked you if I could interview you for the newspaper.” He smiled. “You said no.”
“Well, I apologize, Coop…”
“Oh, no! Not at all. It was… It was a very tough time for you, I understand. I’ve been a sports journalist long enough to be used to it; heck, I’ve been turned down for interviews and called dirty names for a lot less reason than you had.”
Chet said, “Well come on, y’all, let’s go inside.”
Coop hesitated, staring wide-eyed at Rose. “I can’t believe it! I mean, this is amazing!”
“What’s amazing, Coop?” Mott said.
“Well, that Rose is here. I mean… I was actually going to try to get in touch with you. I was hoping Coach might have your contact information since he dealt with you back… y’know, back in the day.”
“Contact me?” Rose said. “Why?”
“Well,” he said, “I’m writing a book, and…”
“Come on, everybody,” Chet said, “inside. I gotta take a load off this hip.”
As they settled into chairs around the table with the cake on it, Mott said, “So tell us about your book, dear. This is so exciting!”
“OK,” he said, “so awhile back I was walking in my neighborhood and I passed by a high school and there were some kids on the track practicing for a relay race, looked like it was the four-by-one-hundred. Anyway, I’m watching them and these two guys go to make the handoff, and they drop the baton. And they start arguing about it, y’know, blaming each other. It got so bad, they actually got into a fistfight, and the other guys and the coach came running over to break it up.
“And immediately I thought, man, that’s exactly what happened between Horace and D’Mon when we were practicing for that last meet, remember, Coach? That was, like, two days before… y’know…” He looked at Rose, then down.
“Before D’Mon Brown murdered my parents?” she said.
“Yeah. I’m sorry for your loss, Rose. I really am.”
“Anyway, the working title of my book is The Dropped Baton. I had done a story for The Times about how a team can have great chemistry, but one little mistake can sort of break open all these underlying tensions, and the players start to squabble, or get grudges, and it all just falls apart. And a lot of times it’s when they bring on some new guy, y’know, some huge talent who, for whatever reason, just destroys the team chemistry. Happens a lot, actually.
“And I couldn’t get it out of my head how what happened with us and D’Mon was just like that.” He glanced at Rose. “Only, so… so much worse.”
“We never should have broken up the team,” Mott said. “It’s one of Chet’s real regrets, isn’t it, Chet?”
Chet sighed and stared at the cake. “Yeah,” he whispered.
“No,” Coop said. “It wasn’t Coach’s doing, he left the decision up to us, and we made it. There was no way we could have competed for state and regional without D’Mon. Fastest guy I ever saw in person. I mean, Horace was the fastest guy in school, but D’Mon was faster in the four-hundred by a whole second or more. And half the time I don’t even think he was trying that hard. Dude was a natural.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment, then Rose said, “Coop, may I ask you a few questions?”
Coop grinned. “That depends. Can I get an interview?”
“Deal. Me first.”
Chet patted Coop on the shoulder. “Watch your six, kid, she’s a pro. Criminal investigator for the Pittsburgh DA.”
Coop’s expression sobered. “Is this a criminal investigation?” he said.
“No,” she said, “not yet, anyway. At this point it’s… personal.”
“Well,” Coop said, “either way, I’m game. OK, shoot.”
Rose thought for a minute, then slowly slid the contents of her package across the table to Coop. “Do these mean anything to you? Have you ever seen them?”
Coop picked up the photocopy and studied it. “Well, let’s see,” he said, “a pawpaw tree and a cottonmouth. AJ… Charlie… Horace… well, looks like I didn’t make the team again, but… Rufus? Did he beat out D’Mon?” His joke fell flat and he frowned at the paper. He was quiet for a while. “I’ve never seen this. Where’d you get it?”
“It was mailed to me at my home in Pittsburgh. From here in Crockett.” She handed him the envelope and pointed to the name in the corner. “Does this look familiar to you?”
“Myriel Justice,” he read. “No. Never heard of her. Him. Whatever.”
She handed him the historical manuscript. “What about this?” she said.
He studied the cover. “The Confession of Myriel Justice,” he said. “Eighteen sixty-six. Wow. That’s old. You sure you want me touching this? Looks like it belongs in a museum.”
“It’s fine. Go ahead. Look through it if you want. Let me know if you recognize anything.”
Coop sifted through the manuscript, scanning the pages one after another. As he went, his gaze became more curious and focused until he sat back and said, “Whoa.” He looked at Rose, then at Chet and Mott, and back to Rose. “I mean just… whoa. Has Horace seen this?”
“What is it, Coop?” Mott said.
“It’s, uhh…” He looked back at Rose. “No, seriously, has Horace seen this? Horace King…” he tapped on the “Hurricane Horace” nickname pasted onto the photocopy.
“I don’t know if he has or not,” Rose said. “Do you think he may have seen it before?”
Coop didn’t answer as he flipped through more of the pages. He said, “Whoa… Rufus was a real person?” Then: “Oh, holy shit!... Sorry… Sorry Coach, Mama Coach… I didn’t mean to…” He looked back at Rose.
“No,” he said, “I don’t think he’s seen it, but… Good Lord, he’d just about kill for this.”
Chet leaned forward in his chair. “Why do you say that, Coop?”
Coop thumbed through some more pages for several minutes, then set the manuscript down on the table. He drummed his fingers on it as if trying to figure out how to proceed. He looked up at Rose.
“I don’t know if Coach has told you anything about him, but Horace was real smart, top student at Crockett High, was going to be a civil engineer. You know he was named after the famous bridge-builder, Horace King.”
She glanced at Chet. “So I heard,” she said.
“Well, that’s what he started as, but he changed. I mean, he changed his major, his… his whole outlook on life. He switched to, I guess you could say, some kind of African American studies, social justice activism thing. He’s working on his dissertation now.”
“Where does he go to school?” she asked.
“UCLA,” Coop said. “Mr. Ben wanted him to go to Auburn, of course, but he wanted to get as far away from Crockett as he could. He’s actually not too far from where I live. I stopped by his apartment a while back. I wanted to interview him for The Dropped Baton. I didn’t think he’d let me in. We hadn’t spoken in a good while.”
“Why hadn’t you spoken?” Rose said.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve kinda chalked it up to the whole Dropped Baton thing. We all just drifted apart after D’Mon… After high school. I tried to keep in touch with all of them, and we did, for a while. But they just… I don’t know. AJ, Charlie, Horace, they all just seemed to drift deeper into their… ethnic group, race, whatever. Weird. Usually that’s what they accuse us Jews of. Anyway, he let me in, I think because he was looking for something that was missing in his dissertation, he thought maybe I could help.”
Coop looked at Chet. “Coach, I swear, I think Horace is heading down the same path as his Uncle Willie.”
“Schizophrenia?” Chet said. “I know his dad’s worried about him. What makes you think that?”
“You should have seen his apartment,” Coop said. “He had scraps of paper, like notes, tacked everywhere, I mean, every inch of the walls was covered with these notes and pictures and maps and stuff, and they were all connected with this huge spiderweb of string that went every which way, I mean it was utter chaos. And he was trying to show me what it all meant, but the more he did, the more frustrated he got with pieces that were missing and connections that didn’t make sense, and he’d move a note from here to there and reconnect the string… And this was supposedly the basis for his dissertation. Utter. Freaking. Chaos. He was obsessed. It got so I couldn’t even get his attention, like he forgot I was there. I finally left him in there, talking to himself.”
“What was the subject?” Rose said. “Of the dissertation, I mean.”
He stared at her before answering. “Rufus.”
Mott let out a stifled cry and covered her mouth with her hand. She started to walk out of the room, but then stopped, and after gathering her resolve, slowly returned to her chair.
“Rufus!” Chet said. “Rufus isn’t real. How can you write a dissertation on something that’s not real?”
“People write dissertations on fictional characters all the time, Coach,” Coop said. He let out a sigh and looked at Rose. “If you’re looking for who sent you that package… I don’t know. It wasn’t me. And it sure as heck wasn’t Horace, I mean, if he had that Confession of Myriel Justice, there’s no way he’d have parted with it.” He studied the photocopy with the ransom-note names. “As for AJ and Charlie… I don’t know. I can’t see it. But…”
“But what, Coop?” Rose said.
Coop looked around at the walls. He found the clock. “Is that the right time?” he said.
Mott said, “That clock’s right twice a day, I’m afraid.” She looked at her wristwatch. “It’s 9:30. You in a hurry to get somewhere?”
“Coach,” Coop said, “Have you talked to Mr. Ben? Does he know what time Horace is going to get here for the protest?”
“Sometime before noon,” Chet said. “Sheriff Delaney asked me to come and help out. AJ’s going to be there with his militia, too. I tried to talk him out of it.” He shrugged. “He doesn’t listen to his old coach anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Rose said. “Can someone fill me in about this protest? Who’s protesting what?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t see it,” Coop said with a sly grin, “being a professional investigator and all. It’s been all over the internet for a day or two.” He smiled at Chet, then turned back to Rose. “Well, in a nutshell, a few days ago, one of our local boys in blue, Chief Deputy Jake ‘The Snake’ Boone beat up Horace’s Uncle Willie. He’s the schizophrenic one.”
“He’s harmless,” Chet said.
“Jake Boone,” Rose said. “That name sounds familiar. Wasn’t he the deputy who found my parents’ bodies?”
“Yeah, that was Jake,” Chet said. “He was one of my deputies. The new sheriff promoted him to chief deputy.”
“I think he’s a damn sociopath, pardon my French,” Mott said. “I’m just glad someone was there to catch him on video, abusing poor Willie like that. He deserves whatever he gets. I, for one, plan to go to that protest to support him and Horace. Do you know that, as of this morning, they still haven’t found poor Willie?”
“Well…” Chet drawled, “I’m not sure I’d read too much into that. Willie’s been known to disappear for weeks at a time. He lives outside.” He turned to Rose. “If you remember Jake Boone, you may also remember Willie. If you recall, when Jake found your parents, he arrested somebody at the house. That was Willie King. That was before we realized it was D’Mon who did the crime. I’ve known Willie since we were kids. He’d never do something like that.”
“I do remember, yes,” Rose said. “Wasn’t he the guy who walked around all these roads around here, waving a sack over his head? I remember seeing him do that when I was here.”
“That’s him,” Chet said. “Wavin’ Willie. He’s done that for forty years, give or take. Walking these roads, flapping that old burlap sack over his head, mumbling to himself. We can’t put him in jail, and they don’t institutionalize people like that anymore. He hasn’t proven to be a danger to himself or anyone else. Anyway, a few days ago they got a 911 call from this daycare operator, asking them to come and get Willie, he was scaring the kids. He does scare the kids sometimes, though I’m sure he doesn’t mean anything ill by it. Warns ‘em to stay out of Hell’s Back Forty. And so Jake answered the call…”
“Why?” Mott said. “Why send your chief deputy on a call like that? Maggie told me she dispatched Dabney, but Jake overruled her, said he’d do it himself. Rose, dear, I’m talking about Dabney Sheets, he’s one of the deputies. He’s a good Christian man, patient and honest as the day is long. He would have handled the situation with a gentle touch, but no, Jake Boone had to go. I believe that Jake’s had it in for Willie ever since he came out looking a fool when he falsely arrested Willie for the murder of your parents.”
“Don’t you ‘now Mott’ me, Chester Kimball! That’s my opinion, and it’s the opinion of a lot of other people, too. Ask anybody at the salon. If anybody deserves the nickname of ‘Snake,’ it’s Jake Boone, and he’s proud of it! He is a snake in the grass, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Anyway,” Chet said, “Jake took the call, and then reported that everything went fine, he just carted Willie off to another part of the county and let him out, no problem, like we’ve done plenty of times before.”
“But somebody took a video of it,” Coop said. “Posted to the internet. It shows Jake basically body-slamming Willie to the ground, then just… hitting him with his flashlight and kneeling on his back while he took his sweet time handcuffing him. Then he dragged him into the patrol car and drove off. Horace got wind of it pretty quick and started raising hell. I mean, Willie’s his uncle, who can blame him?
“And it sure fit the narrative. White cop brutalizes unarmed, mentally impaired black man, in Alabama, no less, then takes him off and dumps him who knows where.”
“So what happened to Willie?” Rose said.
“Nobody knows,” Chet said. “He hasn’t been seen since. But like I said, he’s disappeared plenty of times before of his own accord.”
“Not after getting beat up like that,” Mott said.
Coop said, “Crockett County’s getting slammed. Phone calls, emails, Facebook comments, tweets, from all over the country, the world, really.”
“So Sheriff Delaney announced that he suspended Jake without pay,” Chet said. “But when Horace announced he was organizing a big protest, the sheriff went ahead and fired Jake. Of course, that wasn’t enough, either. They want his hide. Prosecution for police brutality. Defund and disband the sheriff’s department. The whole nine yards.”
“And they want to find Willie,” Mott said. “So do I. So do all of us.”
“So, Coach,” Coop said, “you say AJ’s going to be there?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t like it. I tried to talk him out of it, but…”
“Did you tell Rose about AJ?”
“He told me AJ joined the military and got his legs blown off in a bomb explosion in Afghanistan,” Rose said. She looked at her notes. “You said his last name is Crockett? I take it that has some connection to Crockett County, and the town of Crockett?”
“AJ’s ancestors founded this place,” Chet said. “Fought with Andrew Jackson in the Creek wars. Let’s just say the family has fallen on hard times in recent generations.”
“AJ was the best shot anybody around here ever saw,” Coop said. “He had eyes like an eagle. I once saw him aim this old twenty-two, single-shot rifle at a rabbit, must’ve been about fifty yards away. He said, ‘which eye?’ I said ‘left.’ And he shot it through the left eye. No scope, just mechanical sights. I swear. I’m not lying. Anyway, he was a sniper in the Army. When he got out… well, once he recovered from his wounds, he started the Crockett Militia. He’s been training them… If these protesters start getting rowdy, y’know, rioting and looting like they’ve done elsewhere…” He shook his head. “I don’t know… Not good.”
“What makes it worse is that the state police aren’t going to be offering any help,” Chet said.
“Is that because of the riot at the prison?” Rose said.
“Yeah. Heard about that, huh?” Chet said.
Rose said, “I’ve been in contact with the prison staff ever since I received the package. First thing I thought of was D’Mon Brown, so I called to see if he was still there, what he’s been up to, whether…”
“D’Mon?” Coop said. “Unless he learned to read and write in prison, he didn’t put that together. I’ve never seen anyone so totally illiterate in all my life.”
“No, he didn’t put it together, and he didn’t send it,” she said. “They told me he never sends or receives mail. He hasn’t been off prison grounds since he got there. He gets no visitors. Apparently he doesn’t get along with the other inmates, either. They think he’s weird. I still think he has some connection to this, though. I just have to find it.”
“My word,” Mott said. “Suddenly there’s a lot going on in our boring little neck of the woods. I don’t know if I should be excited or frightened.”
No one spoke for a while. Then Coop said, “Where were we?”
Rose slid the photocopy toward him. “You were going to help me with this.”
Chet interjected: “Just so you know, Coop, Rose suspects there’s a Rufus cult hereabouts and that so-called ransom note there’s some kind of… what’d you call it, Rose?... terroristic threat, I believe it was. Against her and her family. Like it was with… what’d you call it, ‘Skinny Man?”
His attitude was gently challenging, protective of his boys, Rose surmised. She filed it away in the mental folder she was keeping for each of them and focused on Coop.
Coop looked from Chet to Rose. “You mean Slender Man?”
“Slender Man, yeah, that’s what it was,” Chet said. “Slender Man.”
Coop studied the ransom note again. Slowly, he began to nod. “I can see that,” he said.
“What?” Chet said with a frown. “Coop, this is Rufus we’re talking about. He ain’t real. People don’t get up a cult over something like Rufus. Not down here, anyway.”
“Any help you can give me, Coop,” Rose said, “I’d appreciate it.”
Coop looked at the paper again. “Dang,” he said, “You know what? This would make a perfect cover for my book.” He shook his head slowly. “OK,” he said. “I’ll tell you my story, then you can tell me yours. Kill two mockingbirds with one stone. So to speak.
“Uhh… this is going to involve some language you may not like, Mama Coach,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ll want to be here.”
“Cooper Benjamin! I’ll have you know I am not some hothouse flower! When I’m angry I can throw f-bombs with any sailor. Isn’t that right, Chester Kimball? Now you just tell your story and don’t worry about me. The saucier, the better, in fact.”
“All right,” he said. He took a deep breath and began to rap:
A nigger, a honky, a redskin, a kike
Your daddy’s a fag, your mama’s a dyke
But the only thing standing ‘tween Rufus and you
Is this nigger, this honky, this redskin and Jew-boy
Rufus comin’, better get ready to run, BOYZ
Rufus comin’, better get ready to run, HUH!
Rufus comin’, better get ready to run, BOYZ,
Rufus comin’, better get ready to run, LET’S GO!
To keep reading Rufus, buy it here.