From the novel Rufus, by Jeff Lowe
As Rose started to climb the steps to the front porch of the old farmhouse, a huge, fat, black fly buzzed right in her face and ricocheted off her forehead. She jerked backward and nearly lost her balance, and as she watched the fly buzz down the length of the open porch, she realized she had put her hand on the gun she carried in a holster under her blouse.
Her heart was pounding as she stood there in the shade of the sprawling, ancient magnolia, holding the package under her left arm, with one foot on the first step. She moved her hand from the gun and grasped the railing as she blew out a slow breath and tried to calm her nerves. Other than at the practice range, she had never fired her service weapon—never yet had to, and hoped she never would.
She shook her head and forced out a fake laugh. “Shoo fly, not shoot fly,” she muttered. “Damn.” She held her hand out and controlled her breathing until the trembling subsided. Her husband was right. This anxiety was getting out of hand. Perhaps this visit to Alabama would put it to rest; that was the plan, anyway. She climbed the three steps to the porch, but before she could knock, the front door opened and a woman looked out.
“May I help you, young lady?” the woman said. She likely was in her fifties, slender, with gray streaks in her well-coiffed hair. Her smile seemed both welcoming and guarded. Like the old farmhouse itself and the magnolia whose gnarled limbs and vast canopy shaded the front yard, she had what Rose imagined to be the stately bearing of a Southern aristocrat, brought somewhat low by life.
“Uhh, hi, good morning. My name is Rose Grissom and I’m looking for Sheriff Kimball. The sheriff’s department in Crockett gave me the address. Are you Mrs. Kimball?”
“Yes, I am,” she said. “But you do realize that Chet’s not the sheriff anymore?”
“Yes, ma’am. I stopped by the courthouse this morning, but I was told the new sheriff, Delaney, was too busy to talk to me—something about getting ready for a protest of some kind—and that Chet Kimball would be able to answer the questions I had better than they could anyway. I hope I’m not intruding. Is he here? It’s kind of important.”
The woman was watching her like she was trying to piece together a puzzle. “You look familiar. Do you know Chet personally?”
“Well, we’ve met before. Umm… Five years ago, my parents… were murdered by D’Mon Brown.”
The older woman gasped and covered her mouth with one hand while she reached out and touched Rose’s shoulder with the other. “Oh, my heavens, yes! You’re the Trippentree girl!”
“Yes, well, that’s what people around here called your parents. Let’s see, don’t tell me. Your father was… somebody ‘the third.’ Oh, what was it?”
“Abner Cole the third, that’s right,” Rose said.
“Abner Cole the third, of course! And your mother was… Oh, don’t tell me… Suzanne… Langtree? Is that correct? Langtree?”
“Well, Suzette Langtree, yes, ma’am.”
“Of course, Suzette, I remember now.” She reached out and hugged Rose around the neck. “Oh, honey, I am so, so sorry for your loss. What a terrible, terrible thing to happen.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Kimball.”
“Oh, honey, call me Mott. My name’s Mary, but folks call me Mott. Please come in.”
Mott led Rose into the front room where the morning light, speckled by the leaves of the magnolia, danced in through a picture window. “Please,” she said, “sit anywhere you like. I’ll get Chet, he should be finished shaving by now.”
Rose noticed that a large old, plank-wood table had been set up in the sitting room with chairs around it. In the middle was an iced cake with two unlit candles—one a six and the other a zero—and the message “Happy Birthday, Chet!” written in icing.
“I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” she said. “I’ll try not to take too long.”
Mott looked in from the kitchen. “Not at all, dear! We are absolutely delighted to have you. Unfortunately, because of that protest going on in town today, the few guests we were expecting probably won’t be able to make it. It may end up being just us. Coffee?”
“No, thank you.” Normally, coffee would have been an automatic ‘yes’ for Rose, but she decided her nerves didn’t need any accelerant.
“Sweet tea, then?”
“No, thank you, Mott. A glass of water would be nice, though.”
When Mott brought the water, Rose thanked her and said, “Trippentree?”
Mott laughed. “Oh, that’s what the kids called your parents. The Trippentrees. Down here, a man who is a ‘third,’ you know, so-and-so ‘the third,’ he’s often called Tripp, for ‘triple.’ So it was Tripp for your daddy and ‘tree’ for your mama, from Langtree. Put them together and you’ve got Trippentree. I guess it was just easier to say than ‘the Cole-Langtrees’ or something like that.”
Rose nodded. “I like it.”
As Mott sipped her coffee, Rose said, “I must say, you have some huge flies here in Alabama. When I was coming up your steps, this fly hit me right in the face. Oh, my God, it was the biggest fly I’ve ever seen. Must’ve been the size of a bumblebee.”
“Oh, my word, I can’t stand them,” Mott said. “You’re lucky it didn’t bite you.”
“Yes. They’re horseflies. I’ve seen them bother horses and cattle nearly to madness. People around here call them blue-tail flies.”
Rose cocked her head. “Blue-tail flies? Like in the song?”
Mott smiled. “Now where would a young girl like you learn an old song like that?” she said.
“My father was a big Pete Seeger fan. He sang it to me when I was little. It’s one of my first memories. My mother made him stop.”
“She said it was racist. My father tried to argue that it was secretly about a slave killing his master and getting away with it, but she wouldn’t hear it. He never sang it again. But I remembered it, and I’d sing it to myself when they weren’t around. My private little rebellion, I guess.”
When Chet Kimball walked into the sitting room the first thing Rose noticed, as did Mott, was the blood. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Chet,” Mott said, “when are you going to learn to shave?” She took a piece of tissue from an embroidered box on the sofa side table, tore off a piece and pressed it against his neck. “It’s already gotten onto your collar.”
“Hello, Rose,” Chet said, shaking her hand. “It’s good to see you again. And let me say again, how sorry I am for your loss. I hope this visit is of a happier occasion than the last time we met. What was it… five years ago?” He motioned to a chair and they sat at the table. Mott sat on the arm of a wing-back chair and draped her elbow over the back.
“Five years, yes,” Rose said. “And I’m sorry… I never did thank you for all you did back then.”
“I just did my job,” he said. “And none too well, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, come on, Chet,” Mott said, “I’ve told you a thousand times it was not your fault. The guilty party is in prison and that’s where he’s going to stay.”
To Rose, Chet Kimball had aged a lot more than she expected since last she saw him, after the murder of her parents. He had gained weight, he moved slower and with a limp, had more gray in his hair, and just seemed to have had the vigor drained out of him. Even his eyes were duller. They had less of a spark in them, and she feared his memory might not be where she needed it to be.
“Your last name is Grissom now?” he asked. “You get married?”
“Yes. His name’s Sam. Sam Grissom.”
“One. A boy, two years old. Sam Junior.” She looked at Mott. “Or is it Dub, for Double?”
“I think it’s Junior,” she said with a smile.
“Did they come with you?” he said.
“Yes, actually they did,” she said. “Sam’s a real military history buff and when he found that Horseshoe Bend was close by, he was eager to tag along. He’s taking Sammy there today.”
“Oh, they’ll love Horseshoe Bend,” Mott said. “It’s a lovely place. Fascinating history. Andrew Jackson versus Chief Menawa.”
Chet took the tissue from his neck and looked at it, then rolled it up with his fingers. “So, Rose, weren’t you in police work, or studying to be?”
“That’s right. I’m an investigator for the DA’s office in Pittsburgh now.”
“Pittsburgh. I thought I remembered you were from up that way somewhere. So what brings you to Crockett, Alabama? I figured, once you deeded your parents’ property back to the county, we’d never see you again. Not that I would have blamed you, of course.”
Rose laid the package on the table and hesitated before she spoke. “A few days ago I got this package in the mail. I don’t know who sent it. There’s a name in the upper left, but no return address. I checked with the postmaster, and there’s no one by that name on any of the routes here. But it was mailed from the post office here in Crockett. So my first question is, do you know anyone by this name?”
She handed the package to Chet, who took his reading glasses out of his shirt pocket and put them on. He read the name: Myriel Justice. “No,” he said, “I don’t recognize it. I knew of some Justices up in Randolph County a long time ago, but none by that name. I don’t know of any in Crockett County.” He showed the name to his wife.
Mott said, “No, not off the top of my head, but why don’t we check the phone book?” She pulled the book from the side table by the sofa and leafed through it. “No, no ‘Justice’ in Crockett County… My, but that doesn’t sound appropriate, does it?”
Chet handed the package back to Rose. “Sorry.”
“The package has two items in it,” Rose said, drawing them out of the envelope. “One is what appears to be a manuscript, written in 1866. It’s called ‘The Confession of Myriel Justice,’ which obviously is the same name as on the envelope. Now, I have reason to believe that this manuscript was in my father’s possession at the time he and my mother were killed by D’Mon Brown. As you may know—or may not—my father was, in addition to being a lawyer, a historian. He had written several books, all with a ‘social justice’ view of American history, especially the slavery and Jim Crow eras, and he was working on another when he was killed. I think this manuscript was related to that book.
“As you know, after the murder I came down to dispose of their estate. I went through everything—all their client files, their financial records, Dad’s history writings and research material. And I know for a fact that this manuscript was not among those effects.”
Chet looked at the cover of the manuscript and shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never seen it either. I never actually was in their house when they lived here. Never was invited. They weren’t too fond of law enforcement people… as you know.”
“I understand,” Rose said. “I didn’t expect you to know about that. This, however…” she held a piece of paper out for him to take, “is something I hope you can help me with.”
“What’s this?” he said as he accepted the paper.
“I call it a ransom note,” she said.
He looked at her over his glasses. “Ransom note.”
“Well, I’m not saying anybody’s been kidnapped, but it just looks like one. See how those names are made from letters cut out of newspapers and magazines and pasted on? Like a ransom note from an old movie.”
Rose described the note as Chet adjusted his reading glasses and studied it. “As you can see, it’s a cheap photocopy of two pictures, side-by-side. On the left is a picture of a fruit tree of some kind…”
“It’s a pawpaw tree,” Chet said, “see the fruit?” He tapped the paper with his finger.
“OK,” she said. “Would you happen to know where it is?”
“This particular tree?”
He shrugged. “Well, there are quite a few pawpaws around here, but… No. Sorry.”
“OK. The picture on the right, obviously, is a snake.”
“Cottonmouth,” he said. “Also called a water moccasin. Little known fact about this area, Rose, is that the largest cottonmouth ever found was found right here in Crockett County, Alabama. In fact, the three largest cottonmouths ever found anywhere in the world. Right here in Hell’s… well, let’s just say in Crockett County.”
“You were going to say ‘Hell’s Back Forty’?”
He looked at her over his reading glasses. “You’ve heard of it?”
“Yes. My father told me about it. The old house they lived in was right next to that plot of land. Or swamp. There doesn’t seem to be much dry land there.” She patted the manuscript. “It’s also written about in here. According to this manuscript, the swamp there was a puddle left over from the Flood, where all the wickedness of the world collected, or that’s what the people back then believed.”
He chuckled. “Well then you know more about it than I do. I’m sorry if I haven’t been of much help.”
“It’s the names I’m mostly looking for help with now,” she said. “As you can see, there are four names, or nicknames, I guess you could say, pasted on that sheet. Do you know who they are?”
Rose saw Chet slip his thumb over the name on the bottom of the sheet as Mott got up from the armchair to look over his shoulder. Mott smiled as she read the first name: “The Crockett Rocket! AJ!” She tapped him playfully on the shoulder. “Chet, move your fat thumb, I can’t see the last…”
When he moved his thumb, the cheerfulness drained from Mott’s face. Silently, she stood straight, then turned and walked into the kitchen. Chet waited without speaking until Mott came back from the kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee in her hand, crossed the sitting room to the front door and went out onto the porch.
“The Crockett Rocket,” he said. “That would be AJ Crockett. Fastest white boy I ever knew. Grew up on a farm. His folks never had much. Joined the army after high school. Sniper. That boy could shoot a fly off a cow’s butt from across the pasture. Lost his legs from a bomb in Afghanistan. Can’t run a lick now. I believe he’s on a full disability from the military.
“Next… The Savage Creek. That would be Charlie Hawk. Full blooded Creek Indian. His mom, Maggie, works at the sheriff’s department. Dispatcher. Great gal. As I recall, his daddy, Lamar, was a client of your parents at some point. Lamar was sort of a jack of all trades, really good with cars, but the poor guy couldn’t stay off the booze for long. Died from it, in fact, I think it was maybe a year after your parents were killed. That hit Charlie real hard. Not sure what Charlie does for a living now. Maggie says he works on motorcycles. He’s still in the area, though.
“Let’s see. Hurricane Horace. Horace King. Hands down the smartest and fastest kid in Crockett High. Only kid in this county ever to achieve a perfect score on his SATs. Valedictorian. Anchor of our four-by-four-hundred relay team. Daddy’s Ben King, good friend of mine. Ben owns several barbecue restaurants in the area. Has done very well for himself. Named his son after the famous Horace King—you ever hear of him?”
“Well, back in the 1800s Horace King was born a slave, but his owner saw something special in him, taught him to read and write and all that—which was illegal back then, y’know—and Horace became a famous architect, or civil engineer, I guess you could say. Built lots of bridges and whatnot across the South. Lived down in Phenix City, as I recall. Ben desperately wanted his son to become an engineer. I don’t think that’s working out quite as planned, though. Kids, you know. They don’t always go the way they’re pointed.
“These were my boys,” he said with a grin. “Only one missing is Coop. ‘Super Cooper,’ it should say. Cooper Benjamin. He’s a sportswriter now out on the west coast. Coop, AJ, Charlie, and Horace. They were my team. I was their coach in high school. Well… until D’Mon came.”
“That last name on there,” Rose said, “does that refer to D’Mon Brown?”
Chet sighed. “Rufus. No. The boys all had nicknames. Coop made them up. I think he came up with ‘Speed demon’ for D’Mon, or something like that. Play on his name. Of course, when your parents brought D’Mon here as a foster child from Mobile, well… he was by far the fastest runner any of us had ever seen. Never had any training. Hadn’t ever even run track before. I’d have been fine with the team staying as it was, but your folks started pushing to get D’Mon involved in school activities, started accusing me of being a racist for not letting him on the team.”
“They were radical lawyers,” she said. “Accusing people of racism was their bread and butter. I’m sorry.”
He took his glasses off and scowled. “Me, a racist! I mean, those four boys—AJ, Coop, Charlie, and Horace—I mean, it don’t get much more diverse than that.” He counted off on his fingers: “AJ was white, Coop was Jewish, Charlie was Indian, and Horace was black. These boys had been best friends since they were in grade school, and just happened to be the four fastest kids in their grade. What a team. I was proud of them. But they decided the team would go farther with D’Mon, so they had a race to see… well, basically, who D’Mon would replace. Everybody knew. It was Coop. He was just a step slower than the others. And he didn’t seem to mind. He was a good sport about it.”
He stared at the paper thoughtfully. “Coop’s the only one who still keeps in touch with me.”
“What about Rufus?” Rose said.
Chet scowled. “Rufus is nothing and nobody. He’s a name, is all. He doesn’t exist. He’s just a… a boogeyman story parents around here use to scare their children into staying put. Y’know, ‘Now don’t go wandering off, Billy Jo, or Rufus’ll snatch you up in his sack.’ That sort of thing. He doesn’t belong on this list any more than… I don’t know… Frankenstein… or the Joker.”
“Or Slender Man?” she said.
“Wisconsin, 2014. Two twelve-year-old girls stab a friend of theirs nineteen times to prove that Slender Man was real. Slender Man was just a horror character some people created on the internet. Totally made up. Fan fiction. And yet it motivated two girls to try to murder their friend.”
“OK… So your point is…”
“Sheriff… I’m sorry… Chet, this package was sent directly to my home address, to me under my married name. I didn’t have the Grissom name five years ago, and I didn’t live at this address. Whoever sent it had to do some research. I’ve talked with other investigators who have worked serial killer and cult killer cases, and they say that this has all the earmarks of that kind of thing.”
Chet shifted in his chair. “A cult.”
“A Rufus cult.”
“And they’re out to get you.”
“Yes. Well… maybe. I hope not, but it’s possible.”
He frowned at her. “Rose. There’s no Rufus cult. I may not be sheriff anymore, but people still talk to me. And what I don’t hear, Mott hears at the hair salon. If there was a Rufus cult, we would have heard of it. Wouldn’t a simpler explanation be that one of your parents’ clients somehow got ahold of this manuscript, or found it, and decided to return it to you, since you’re their daughter? Just a… I don’t know, an act of kindness?”
She held the photocopy. “Sure. But why would they include this? This looks like a threat to me.”
“A threat. Or, as the lady editor down at the Crockett County Times would call it, ‘local color.’ I mean, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Crockett County is known for pawpaws, cottonmouths, a great four-by-four-hundred track team and a boogeyman legend named Rufus. Everybody around here knew those nicknames. The boys had their day in the sun, I must say. This looks more like a postcard from Crockett than a ransom note from some cult. I’m sorry, I just don’t see the threat. I think you’re wasting your time.”
“That’s exactly what my husband says. Sam’s in law enforcement, too, in cybercrime investigations. He’s a super geek and super skeptical about stuff like this.” She sighed and rubbed her temples. “If you could read this manuscript, this Confession of Myriel Justice, it may change your mind. It tells more about the historical Rufus.” She nudged the manuscript toward him.
“Rose, it’s all I can do to read this… ransom note or whatever you called it. I’ve got some macular degeneration setting in, and trying to read books and whatnot just gives me a splitting headache. I just can’t do that sort of thing anymore.”
Rose dropped her eyes to the manuscript and didn’t speak for a minute. When she looked back up at him, he saw the worry in her eyes.
“Well,” he said. “I suppose I could have Mott read it to me, if you want to leave it here.”
“Thank you, Chet. I appreciate that. One other thing. Can you tell me how I can get in touch with…” she looked at the pad she had been scribbling notes on, “these boys… AJ, Charlie, Horace, and Coop?”
“Rose, it’s one of the great disappointments in my life to have to say that, except for Coop, those boys don’t really seem to want to have much to do with their old coach anymore. Or with each other, for that matter. Not sure I’d be much of a reference at this point.”
“I’d still like to talk to them. You know us investigators. We have to check off all the boxes, even if just to eliminate suspects.”
“Suspects,” he said. “In the crime of mailing a package?”
“Well, that or making a terroristic threat against me and my family.”
“Terroristic… I will have you know, young lady, that these boys, these young men, AJ Crockett, Charlie Hawk, Horace King, and Cooper Benjamin are by far the finest young men I know—or have ever known. Why, AJ lost his legs in service to his country. Lost his damn legs, and very nearly his life, mind you! All of them, Horace, Charlie, Coop, AJ, all of them would not only give you the shirt off their back, they’d jump in front of a bullet for you! And they don’t even know you. Sure, they have their own personal troubles, we all do, but they will get through them, and they will come together again one day and they will never, ever be a threat to you or any innocent person, I can guaran-damn-tee you that.” Chet pushed himself up out of his chair with some difficulty. “Excuse me for a minute, Rose,” he said. “It’s time for this old man to take his blood pressure. I’ll be back in just a bit.”
As he left the room, a sharp swatting sound came through the window from the porch, and Rose heard Mott say, “Damn! Missed again.
(End Chapter 1. Go to Chapter 2.)