Danny Gardner impressed audiences with his performance on the 3rd season of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam (All-Stars Vol. 12). He has enjoyed a career as an actor, director, and screenwriter. He is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for his creative non-fiction piece Forever. In an Instant., published by Literary Orphans Journal. A Negro and an Ofay, published by Double Life Press, is his first novel.
"Southville County Sheriff. Deputy Reilly speaking."
"The bastard's dead," said a muffled voice through the phone receiver.
"Wouldja narrow that down a bit?"
Ned grabbed a pencil, scribbled DEAD BASTARD on the desk blotter, and underlined it twice. The calendar on the page reminded him it was Labor Day.
"Pettengill," said the voice. "S.E. Pettingill!"
Ned's stomach sank at the name and he hoped it was an accident. Farming. Hunting. With that surname, anything would have been better than murder.
"Up at the house," said the voice.
"What's your na …" said Ned, but the line went dead.
George M. Stingley, Jr., first Negro sheriff of Southville County, IL, walked in from the car park and saw his deputy hang up the phone the Ned way, by dropping it from his two fingers atop the carriage, with a faint look of disgust. George didn't even stop. Only checked his gun and turned right back around. Ned ripped the notes from the blotter page and followed.
"S.E. Pettingill," said Ned.
"Lord, have mercy."
"Tits-up, after all these years."
It was going to be one of those days.
Everyone hated the Pettingills, going back to when Samuel Eugene Pettingill founded the county. Through his contract farms, he was the largest employer in town, and he put the squeeze on everyone, but especially Negroes, for whom he had particular disdain. Pettingill came north as a teen with cash absconded from his friends and neighbors who lost everything in the fall of the South. What land he didn't steal, he bought at cut-rate and fleeced poor farmers out of their futures. He went on to grow an empire based upon southern principles right in the Land of Lincoln, out of spite. And everyone, colored and white alike, hated him for it.
Pettingill's son, S.E., was a fop who never had to work a day in his life. He and his sister, Clarissa—the shut in—lived it up in the old Pettingill manse as if they were stuck in an Antebellum fantasy. The county brass and family handlers maintained appearances and the status quo. Now the colored county sheriff would have to enter their northern plantation, shuffle his feet and figure out who killed the prodigal son.
George and Ned didn't speak as they drove up Main. The two were on coarse terms since Elliot Caprice returned. A crowd of kids playing double-dutch in the street was a welcome distraction. He stopped and rolled down the window.
"You kids get yourselves to a park. It's Labor Day and folks are drinking already."
"Cain't be in the park today, Reverend," said a young girl. He had been sheriff not more than a month, thus citizens still referred to him by his common handle. "They got it marked off, for the parade."
George looked to Ned, who only faced forward.
"Told you about that last week, George," he said.
"Well, mind the traffic then."
"Bye, Reverend," said the girls, and they returned to their singing and rope jumping with glee. George pulled off.
"Did you call …"
"… the coroner? Yeah."
"You'll likely need to go in ahead of me."
"Buncha assholes behind that gate."
"Some things can't be helped."
"Don't I know it," said Ned, watching the road, as they turned on Pettingill, named for the family of jerks.
They passed Sugartown, where the previous evening's summer rain turned the dirt roads to mud. A stream of drunks stumbled across the street. Ned yanked the pull bar of the siren.
"Get outta the street, you goddamned bums!"
The harshness in Ned's tone alarmed George, enough for him to blow through the red light.
"Nice example you're setting, sheriff," said Ned. Finally, George couldn't take anymore.
"We going to talk about it?"
"Nothing to talk about."
"You've had an attitude for weeks."
"I just don't like how you've been making decisions."
Once they passed Sugartown, they could see, far in the distance, the Pettingill Manse. They were already 5 minutes outside of Southville proper, and they still had a two-mile drive to the front of its gigantic gate.
"I understand you have a problem with Elliot Caprice," said George.
"You shouldn't have gotten us involved."
"Ned, men die in police custody in St. Louis."
Ned opened the glove box and rummaged around until he found a pad for case notes.
"You know what they're sayin' about him on the wire? That he was on the scene when two off-dutys from Chicago wound up dead."
"He's our own, Ned."
"Nah," said Ned, as he made notes of the initial report on the blank spaces of the top margin of the pad. "He's yours. And his uncle's, who he abandoned."
"You've seen Buster Caprice?"
"He and my mother are friends."
"How is he?"
"Stuck in Betty Bridges' flophouse," said Ned. "No thanks to his nephew."
"You give me some song and dance about processing everyone we arrest, then run off to St. Louis and help him evade the law."
"Ned," said George, and the Deputy could tell that he was readying a sermon. "You're not Negro."
"I gotta be Negro now?" Ned waved off his oldest friend and superior officer.
"The life of a colored man bears its own unique problems."
"Pettingill's dead, no chance it's natural causes."
"He's constantly surrounded by Negro house staff and employees."
"What's your point?"
"Looks to me the colored people I know abandon their relations, kill their own employers and aid and abet their no-good friends." Ned shifted in his seat and stared out the passenger window. "Maybe it's good I'm not Negro."
They spent the rest of the trip in silence.
The grounds to the plantation were quiet. Perhaps someone in charge had taken pity on their overworked employees and given them Labor Day off. Or one of them took care of that for the rest of them, by bodying up the bossman.
McWhirter, the family attorney, opened the front door. He was squat, and balding, and employed a comb-over to no effect. He wore a suit that was darker than anyone with the sense God gave him should wear on a Midwestern Labor Day.
"I'm Deputy Reilly," said Ned. "This is Sheriff Stingley."
"The Reverend's boy," said McWhirter, without really looking at him. "Fine achievement for your people."
"Thank you. Where's the body," said George, and his jowls tensed atop his shirt collar.
"Upstairs," said McWhirter. "In the bathroom."
"Always the bathroom," said Ned.
McWhirter turned and led the two into the house. As they walked through the foyer, they could see the family's colored servants, all in uniform, milling about. They seemed aloof. As if being there was a waste of their time.
"We'll need to question everyone," said Ned.
As they climbed the large staircase to the second floor, he noticed a woman down the hall, peering out through a bedroom door.
"And that means everyone," said George.
"Understood, Sheriff," said McWhirter, who bristled at George's authoritative tone.
S.E. Pettingill's mortal coil lay on the tiled floor of the hall bathroom underneath a satin bed sheet. George and Ned gave McWhirter the side-eye.
"He was lying there," said McWhirter. "Naked."
"We only received an anonymous tip," said George. "We never got a call from the family."
"The Pettingill's are important people, Deputy," said McWhirter. "I have my duties …"
George leaned in on the attorney and fixed fierce eyes upon him. Ned stepped in.
"He's been known to tie one on now and again …" said McWhirter.
"We've fetched him from the dives in Sugartown more than now and again," said George.
"There's a housekeeper named Hattie who works the night shift," said McWhirter, and he cut his eyes. "She takes care of Clarissa Pettingill. She may know something."
"Where is she now?" asked George.
"She lives off the grounds," said McWhirter.
"Any other household staff live off the grounds?"
"No," said McWhirter, and Ned and George looked at each other.
"Time to ask the staff what they may know," said George. McWhirter looked over to Ned Reilly.
"Is that absolutely necessary? Most of them weren't on duty …"
"Sheriff said to get the staff together," said Ned, who gave no quarter. McWhirter shuffled off.
George walked through the bathroom taking in the crime scene. He reached into the large double-pedestal bathtub, ran his finger across the porcelain and it made a squeaking sound. He rubbed his fingers together.
"Dry as a bone."
He then looked around. Stacks of folded Egyptian cotton bath towels lay in a credenza, but none on the floor or draped over the bath. George knelt down and lifted up the sheet on Pettingill's body. His lips here blue, and his eyes were wide open, staring up at nothing.
"He's supposed to look as if he'd fallen," said George.
"That your medical opinion, Reverend?"
Southville County Coroner Bobby Shaeffer walked into the bathroom. He was carrying a black medical bag, dressed in a tan linen suit, no tie, and a white handkerchief around his neck. He was dripping with sweat.
"Doc," said Ned.
"Humid as a son-of-a-bitch out there, Deputy," said Shaeffer. "Sheriff, please unhand my corpse."
George stepped away and Shaeffer walked over.
"He was strangled."
"Not until I say so," said Shaeffer.
"We need a time of death right away," said George, and he walked out.
"Seems more pleasant than usual," said Shaeffer.
"This ain't the usual," said Ned.
"Fine Labor Day we're having." Shaeffer put on his pinch-frame glasses and waved Ned off.
Ned stepped into the hallway to see George facing the bedroom at the long end. The door cracked, and the woman inside peeked out.
"Clarissa Pettingill," said Ned.
"We know each other," said George. "My father …"
"Perhaps you should start on the staff," said George, and he walked down the hall. Ned descended the stairs, where he found a teenage Negro woman in a maid's uniform in the lobby.
"Mr. McWhirter told me to fetch you to the dining room," she said, with little respect at all.
"What's your name?"
"Got a last name, Dorothy?"
"Not around here, I don't."
George knocked on the bedroom door.
"Ms. Pettingill," he said, softening the tone of his preacher's voice. "It's Sheriff Stingley."
He heard nothing, then knocked again.
"Clarissa. It's Georgie. May we talk …"
Clarissa Pettingill threw open the door and yanked him inside the room. George wasn't a little man, but she had the strength of someone off her rocker. She slammed the door and then, to George's surprise, hugged him tight. She wore a silk bedgown, although it was afternoon. Her salt and pepper hair was tousled, yet still flowed as if it was well-tended. She put on makeup, obviously to receive a special guest.
"It's so good to see you, Georgie," she said.
"It's been a long time."
"Remember when we used to play in these halls?"
"I do," said George, smiling. "When my father would have one of those meetings with yours."
"Only coloreds he'd let in the house," she said. "Remember when you would sneak me kisses, Georgie?"
George slowly and gently peeled Clarissa's arms from his waist.
"I'm here to find out what happened to your brother," he said, sitting her down on her bed. He noticed dead roses in a vase on her valet. A tray of uneaten food sat on the nightstand.
"Why are you cooped up in here?"
"It's what they do to the crazy ones."
"Crazy, like a fox," said George, and he gripped her hands as if he were a reverend again, calling upon the sick.
"They treat me like the problem child."
"No," said George. "That was S.E."
"He was seeing that colored housekeeper," she whispered. "Hattie. She's terribly mean. I know she switches my pills on me. That's why I'm …"
Clarissa twirled her finger around her ear.
"Last night, I heard bumping around in the dark. I looked out my door, as I always do. I saw two large colored boys leave the bathroom."
"Did you see their faces?"
"They were dark," she said. "It was dark. It's not safe for me here, Georgie. The house workers all hate me."
"I'll take care of that," said George, and he squeezed her hands again.
"A little kiss," said Clarissa, and she leaned in on George, who leaned away.
"I'm on duty," he said and smiled.
"Town finally has a good man as sheriff," she said. "Even if they won't like he's a nigger."
George looked in the eyes of his old crush, found nothing, and rose to leave.
"Do come back to see me, Georgie."
George left the room, not saying a word.
Ned Reilly was questioning the staff all together as George walked in the dining room.
"Your real name," said the Deputy.
"Mister Pettingill calls—called—me Dobie," said a youngish Negro fellow, dressed in a smock.
"What's your mother call you?" said Ned, with exasperation.
"Robert," he said. "Robert Peale. But I gotta go by Dobie at work."
Ned looked over at George.
"Pettingill nicknamed all the staff. Each one, he's callin' something ridiculous. Like they're children."
"I need to know about Hattie," said George, with deep base in his voice. "When's the last time she'd been to work?"
The staff all were silent.
"A murder was committed," said George. "Speak up."
The staff all looked at each other but didn't say a word. Shaeffer walked in the doorway.
"Sheriff Stingley," he said. George turned and walked into the hall. Ned continued the questioning.
"You were right," said Shaeffer. "Definitely strangled, but I'd guess somewhere off the grounds. He was brought back here post mortem. Imagine he died a day ago. There's more."
Shaeffer reached into his shirt pocket.
"I found these in his mouth."
Shaeffer produced three pennies.
"Not sure what it means," he said.
George nodded and returned to the dining room. Ned approached and pulled him to the side.
"Her house name is Hattie," said Ned. "Real name is Merriam Robichaux. Early 20s. She hasn't been to work in a week. No one wants to say more."
"Someone needs to tell us about Merriam's relationship with Pettingill?" said George. No one answered. Ned walked over to Robert and got in his ear.
"We were getting along pretty good there, Robert," he said. "I'd hate to have to arrest you."
"Dunno," said Ned. "I'll figure out somethin'."
"We'll charge you with obstruction," said George. "Every one of you!"
Dorothy found the nerve to speak.
"She and ol' S.E. had a thang," she said.
"Shut up, Dorothy!" said Robert.
"I ain't goin' to jail for that heifer!"
"Why does everyone think they were involved?"
"He liked her," said Robert. "Let her live off the property. Only had to work at night, and look after the crazy sister."
"We all hated her 'cuz she didn't have to do no real work," said Dorothy.
"There were two associates," said George.
"Her brother likely one of 'em," said Dorothy. "Don't know the other. They live in one o' dem apartments over the pawn shop."
"Majestic?" said Ned.
"He snuck out regularly, to Sugartown," said an older Negro man, who wore a white shirt and bowtie.
"What's your name," said George.
"S.E. call me Skipper. My real name is Walter," said the man. "Walter Gibson."
"Tell us somethin' we don't know, Walter Gibson," said Ned.
"He been in the safe a whole lot," said Walter. "Sometimes he has me run him to the bank in the middle of the day. Take his purse with him when he go out at night. Then back in the safe the next mornin'."
"Someone is still not telling me something," said George.
"I'll run over to the jail," said Ned. "Bring the paddy wagon back with me."
"She got a baby. Rumor is, could be S.E.'s."
George waved Ned into the hall.
"Find a phone and call the state boys. Ask for a couple of units to meet us at Majestic Loans. Make sure they keep it quiet. We don't need this blowing apart on the holiday."
"You can use the one in the kitchen," said Dorothy, who had been eavesdropping.
"We free to go?" asked Robert.
George looked at them all, without pity, and walked away. He ran into McWhirter in the foyer.
"Sheriff?" he said.
"Want my advice?" said George. "Fire them all. Replace them with white folks."
George walked out the door to wait for Ned in the car.
True to type, the Illinois State Police overdid it, with three units, plus a paddy wagon and barricades on both ends of the street. The cops were talking through the loudspeaker up at the window when George and Ned arrived.
"What's all this?!" said George.
"Who are you?" said the lead uniform, who wore a name tag that said Sgt. Burke.
"Southville County Sheriff George Stingley," said George. Burke blinked twice but didn't say a word. The other uniforms chuckled. Ned stepped up.
"I'm Deputy Ned Reilly," he said. "I called you, but I didn't ask for this."
"S.E. Pettingill is an …"
"… important man," said Ned. "Yeah, yeah, we know."
"We're gonna need for you to step back."
"This is my jurisdiction, Sergeant," said George. "I demand to know what's going on here!"
"As far as we can tell, one of 'em is dead. Shot by the other one. There's a woman with a baby up there."
"Merriam Robichaux," said Ned.
"Yeah, well, whatever her name is, she's a hostage," said Burke.
"She wouldn't be a hostage if you didn't come in guns blazing!" George was livid, and he snatched the microphone for the loudspeaker from Burke.
"Not fella! Sheriff!" George shouted in Burke's face and Ned moved in.
"Step back!" said Ned. "We know how to handle this."
"Ms. Robichaux!" said George. "This is Sheriff Stingley!"
A dark face peered out from the curtains.
"The sheriff is colored?!" a male voice shouted. George let go of the microphone button and shook his head.
"I'm outside with Deputy Ned Reilly," said George, and the face peered out of the curtains once more.
"This doesn't have to get any worse," said George. "I'm coming up."
"Georgie!" said Ned.
George handed him the microphone, and then his gun.
"Give me five minutes," he said. "If I don't come down, they can come up."
George ran in the apartment door next to the pawn shop and up the stairs.
"Ya know, pally," said Burke. "If you didn't need us here …"
"Shut up," said Ned.
George found the front door to the tiny single apartment wide open. By the door was an altar to Baron Samedi, complete with cayenne peppers, a black wax candle shaped into a crucifix and what appeared to be dried blood. There was a bassinet by the kitchen sink with a crying baby wrapped in a hand-knitted blanket. A large colored man, dark complected and portly, lay prone atop a murphy bed. He had a hole in his forehead. George could hear whimpering coming from the side of the tall ice box.
"Help me, Sheriff!"
Merriam Robichaux's tear-soaked face peered out from the recess. She was the color of Café au lait, with large eyes and a tight bun underneath a purple patterned head scarf. She spoke in thick creole dialect.
"He killed my brother!" she said.
"Imma kill you too, you double-dealin' whore!"
"Who is that?" said George.
"Buck!" said the man. "Buck Williams! And I been done wrong!"
"Mr. Williams, there's nothing left for you to do but give up!"
"You the real sheriff?" said Buck. It was all George could do not to roll his eyes.
"Then shoot this fool!" said Merriam.
"Shut up, bitch!"
"Mr. Williams, the street is filled with Illinois state police," said George. "You have about three minutes before they get up here. You will not survive."
"I wanna negotiate!" said Buck, and he stepped out from the recess near the ice box. He had Merriam around the neck with a gun to her head.
"She led me on for weeks, tellin' me she had some scam to take that fat cat for all we could get."
"And it was workin' fine, too," said Merriam. "Until you killed him."
"I wouldn't have you fuckin' him on my bed!" said Buck.
"Fool, you ain't got shit around heah!"
Buck clubbed her on the side of the head. The baby seemed to scream louder.
"That's enough, Williams!" said George.
"I said I wanna negotiate!"
"There's nothing to negotiate!"
"That's 'cuz you a nigger sheriff!" said Buck.
"It's because we already know everything," said George. "You killed Pettingill in a fit of jealousy, before you could finish the plan of blackmailing him over the child."
Merriam looked at George with nervous contrition.
"He was nice," she said. "Wasn't so bad at all."
"He was an asshole!" said Buck.
"At least he was about sum'n!" she said. "At least he wanted to take care of his baby!"
"That deah is my baby!" said Williams.
"Why did you take him back to his house?" said George. "Why didn't you just dump him someplace?"
"Folk usually come around heah lookin' fo' 'im," said Buck. "That Skipper, what used to drive him around. The lawyer fella. We needed time!"
"He didn't believe the baby was his," said Merriam, as she calmed down. "Said he knew we were hustlin' him, but he didn't care. He loved me."
"He loved yo' cooze," said Buck.
"Shut up!" said Merriam. "We wuz supposed to divide up the loot and split. Buck and I were gonna go one way. And Barry—my brother—was gonna go back to Baton Rouge. Then this fool up and strangle S.E., right there on top of me."
"He was fuckin' my woman!"
"He had been fuckin' me, fool!"
"Put three pennies in him, like he special."
"I ain't gonna have him cursin' me from the next world!"
"You killed Barry over the money," said George.
"They wuz gonna take my cut and split. With my baby!"
Buck waved the gun around again.
"I said I wanna make a deal!"
"Buck, do you want your baby to see it's daddy die, right here in this apartment?"
Buck began to panic. George spoke sincere words in his preacher's baritone.
"You're right," said George. "I am just a Negro sheriff, and I can't stop those white officers from the state police from coming up here and killing you. Both of you."
George looked at Merriam, and then to the bassinet.
"All of you."
Merriam shuddered, and Buck blinked his eyes rapidly, as he attempted to think through the stress.
"Let her go, and give me the gun," said George. "For your child's sake. Please."
Buck thought of putting up a fight, then immediately let go of Merriam, dropped the gun and dove onto the floor.
"I give up!" said Buck. "Don't kill me!"
Merriam ran to the bassinet and picked up her crying child. George dove atop Buck and cuffed him, then looked up and saw Ned Reilly, gun in hand, standing in the doorway.
"Don't kill me!" said Buck.
George finally rolled his eyes.
The next morning, Ned Reilly picked up a box of donuts from Mamie's which contained all of the sheriff's favorites. Labor Day was eye-opening, and he wanted to do something nice for his boss and lifelong pal. He opened the door to find George behind closed doors in his office with a couple of fat cats from the bank. After they had their way with him and left, George walked out, ashen-faced and distressed.
"What's goin' on, Georgie?"
"The bank man found a body out at the Caprice family farm," said George. "Go to Ms. Betty's, pick up Elliot and bring him there."
George checked his gun and walked toward the door that lead out to the car park.
"Wear your uniform," he said. "Arrest him if you have to. Don't be nice."
Copyright © 2015 Danny Gardner.