Mystery Fiction by Harry Neil
“This ain’t a hearin’ or anything formal like that, but we got two people dead, one of ’em a deputy, and I need to figger out why. I been chief in Tin City for over twenty years, and ain’t nothin’ like this ever happened before. Last real murder we had was that Rodney Miller thing back in ’75, and that was, Lord, musta been fifteen years ago now.” Chief Jasper Tucker led his two deputies, Jarvis Wright and Mike Gowan, into his office, leaving Secretary May Watson on the front desk. “I just need to get my head around this thing and figger out what has to be done. You’re the people saw it all, and I need you all to tell me just what it was you saw. May’s bringin’ in Louise Clark; apparently she saw some of it too.”
Chief Tucker dumped some powdered creamer into his big coffee mug. He was a portly man, with thinning red hair and a scraggly beard hiding the beginnings of a double chin. His office was a melding of police station and man cave. The walls sported a buckhead and a sailfish, and the weapons used to capture them. “I know it all started with Ruby, but I can’t for the life of me figure how or why. Jarvis, you’re the one shot her, right? Tell me just what happened.”
Deputy Jarvis Wright shifted nervously from one foot to the other. “Well, she come runnin’ down the road toward the Police Station, like she was comin’ from her house, you know. Only she was screamin’ and wavin’ her arms all around like a crazy woman. Well, I reckon she was a crazy woman, ’cause she headed right fer Billy Ray and she pulled out this gun and put a bullet right through his head. Real clean shot too. Don’t know how she did it so clean, the state she was in. And with that funny old pistol, too.” Jarvis raked a bony hand through jet black hair.
“Then she just kept screamin’ and cryin’ and jumpin’ up and down and wavin’ that gun around. I figured she was gonna kill us all if nobody stopped her, so I shot her. Didn’t aim to kill her, you understand, but I reckon I didn’t have time to be careful, so I reckon I did. She went down kinda slow, and more sobbin’ than screamin’, kinda like she couldn’t really catch her breath. I don’t think she even knew she was shot. It was kinda like she just gave up and crumpled down on her own, only by the time she hit the ground she was dead.” Jarvis took a deep breath.
“I ran up to her to try to do whatever I could, but there really wasn’t nothin’. I just stood there and stared for a minute. Never saw anything like it, you know? She was wearin’ this tacky dress, not like anything I ever saw on her before. And her face was all red and wet, and slobber all over her chin. She was actually foamin’ at the mouth. It hit my mind that she mighta actually been bit by a mad dog, but I didn’t stop to think about that. I ran over here fast as I could and called for the medics. Don’t know why—nothin’ they could do. She was dead.”
Jarvis sat down heavily. “That’s about it. Damnedest thing I ever saw. Damnedest thing I ever want to see. I ain’t gonna sleep tonight; I know I ain’t.”
The chief looked puzzled. “What did you mean about a funny old pistol, Jarvis?”
Deputy Mike Gowan piped up. “It’s just like that one LeeRoy tried to use when you raided his liquor still, Chief, remember? A matched set of old duelin’ pistols. You wouldn’t think LeeRoy’d know anything about duelin’ pistols or antique ammunition, but I guess to him guns were just guns. You kept the one, but apparently LeeRoy hid the other one somewhere, and I guess Ruby knew where to find it and how to use it. LeeRoy woulda taught her how to scare off strangers who got too close to the still. Anyway, we got both of ‘em now—the guns, I mean. They’re single-shot pistols, but ‘course Jarvis didn’t know that in time.” Mike puttered over to the coffee machine and started mixing a brew.
“Now I don’t know why anybody’s surprised. Everybody knows Ruby’s crazy. My pa calls her Delta Dawn, from that song, you know? ‘All the folks ‘round Brownsville say she’s crazy.’[i] This was bound to happen sometime, or somethin’ like it. It’s what we get for lettin’ crazies run ‘round on the streets.” He paused thoughtfully. “There oughta be laws.”
“There’s another song that’s better,” the chief said thoughtfully. “A lot older, though.
‘They say, Ruby, you’re like a song. You don’t know right from wrong.’[i] Used to be real popular, back before rock ‘n’ roll. That was around ’52, ’53. I remember ’cause of that new Studebaker Starliner. That was one beautiful car! Lord, how I wanted that car!” He stared into space, remembering. “I swore that when I was old enough to drive, I was gonna get me a Starliner, and I was gonna name her ‘Ruby,’ after that song. Course, by the time I was old enough, I had other interests. So I never did get one.”
“Prob’ly just as well,” Mike said. “My grandpa had one, and he said it was made outa tin foil; you could bend it like a garden hose. Couldn’t even open the door if the thing was up on a jack. Pretty, but dumb, kinda like Addie.” Mike and Jarvis exchanged knowing glances. Pretty little Addie Thompson was known around town as the very essence of the dumb blonde stereotype.
“Now don’t you boys go trashin’ Addie Thompson,” the chief said. “She does the best she can. After all, look what she’s got for parents.”
The change of subject visibly relaxed Jarvis. “Ain’t that one of them telescopin’ arguments?” he asked. “I reckon Ike and Laura Thompson had parents too. How far back you suppose this goes?”
“Not Ike,” Mike volunteered. “They said he was a virgin birth. Least his mama did. Personally, I got my doubts.”
“Boys!” The chief pounded his desk. “Billy Ray’s lyin’ down in Sutton’s Parlor with a bullet in his head! This ain’t the time…”
Mercifully, the door opened, and May Watson brought in Louise Clark, a dark-haired scarecrow of a woman in a plain black dress. “Thank you for comin’, Louise.” The chief poured her a coffee. “You take it black, right? What did you see?”
Louise was more than willing to share. “Well Jasper, I get an hour for lunch, and I always take my sandwich over to the park. It was real nice out there today, so I musta stayed there for pretty much the whole hour, just watchin’ the world go by, you know? You can see most everything that happens in Tin City from the park. Anyway, Ruby was there too, just sittin’ on a bench across the park. First time I’d seen her for a while—no, wait—I saw her just yesterday. She was goin’ into Foster’s store just as I was goin’ back to work, so you might wanna talk to Bertha. She runs the register at Foster’s in the middle of the day.”
Jasper motioned her to stop. He punched a button on his intercom. “May, call Ted Foster and tell him to send Bertha over here for a few minutes. We need her. He can run his own register for a little while.” He turned back to Louise, and she went on.
“Do you know, Mr. Mitchell won’t even let me have a cash register? That man is a piece of work! He sits up there in that barbed-wire cage where he can see the whole store, and he registers every sale himself. When I sell somethin’ I hafta put the sales slip and the money on that chain thing and it rattles up to him. He makes the change and rattles it back to me. Ain’t nobody used that kinda thing for twenty, thirty years. Nobody but Mr. Mitchell, I mean. When it breaks, he can’t get parts for weeks, and I have to run up and down those stairs for every sale.. What a miser! I don’t know why I put up with it!
“Anyway, today Ruby was just sittin’ there. I didn’t pay her no mind, except to wonder why she was all gussied up in that tacky blue taffeta dress. I never thought of Ruby and taffeta in the same breath before. She’s more the feed-sack-frock kind, you know. I figured somethin’ special musta been goin’ on in that crazy head of hers, and she musta pulled out her old prom dress.”
The Chief interrupted her again. “Prom dress? What’s a prom dress got to do with anything?”
Louise smiled indulgently. “I forget, Jasper. You’re a man. What would you know? You see, most any girl’s still got that dress she wore to her high-school prom hangin’ way back in the back of the closet. Ain’t no use no more—too fancy for church, or for anything else that’s like’ to happen in a little place like Tin City. But she keeps it ’cause it’s the only thing reminds her o’ what used to be.
“When she’s happy, it reminds her o’ bein’ a pretty young girl with the boys linin’ up to dance with her. When she’s sad, it reminds her o’ what mighta been, and how different things turned out from what they oughta. Sometimes when she’s by herself she takes it out and holds it up to her in front o’ the mirror. Most girls don’t ever try to put it on— after all, she ain’t that skinny no more—and maybe sometimes she thinks she oughta throw it away. But she don’t, ’cause that’d be throwin’ away her girlhood.”
Louise got a faraway look in her eyes, remembering. “It’s like in that Glenn Campbell song, Jasper, ‘Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,’ ‘She touches the house dress that suddenly disappears. Just for the moment she’s wearin’ the gown that broke all their minds back so many years.’[i] Lord, I loved that song. Made me think maybe there was one man out there somewhere understood.
“Anyway, if a girl’s lucky enough to still be skinny and fit in that dress, she may put it on once or twice in her life, in some real special, private moment when she feels like a girl again, and when ain’t nobody but her gonna see. Or maybe in some awful moment when she’s so down she’s actually gonna kill herself, and she wants them that finds her to remember her how she used to be.”
“It’s the truth, Boss,” Mike interrupted. “My wife has one, and she treats it like some kind of religious relic.”
Louise didn’t appreciate the interruption, and she went on, “So when I saw Ruby all dressed up so fancy, and when it flashed in my mind that maybe she was wearin’ her old prom dress, I figured something really important was happenin’, at least in her mind. But since she’s crazy, I figured whatever it was prob’ly just that, just in her mind. We’ve all got used to ignorin’ Ruby since she’s got so crazy, ‘specially since LeeRoy’s in jail.
“Anyway, there wasn’t nothin’ goin’ on, really. Almost nobody about. I saw Wilbur Paget pull up in that old red Travelall and put his boy Walter on the bus to Raleigh. He’s takin’ agerculture at State, you know. And I saw Carrie Anderson pushin’ the Johnson baby around in a stroller. She babysits, you know, while Becky’s teachin’ school. But that was about it.”
Louise finished her coffee and covered the cup with her hand as both deputies jumped to refill it. She continued, “Then just as I was gettin’ up to go, I saw Billy Ray pull up to the police station in the police pickup truck. Nothin’ special about that, I reckon, but I saw Ruby jump up and stare at him. She looked like she’d been cryin, but then all of a sudden, she got real upset. She yelled out and she ran outa the park to the Police Station like the Devil. She was yellin’ and screamin’ and carryin’ on like a banshee. I never saw her like that. I never saw nobody like that. Billy Ray just kinda stared at her, kinda dumbfounded, and I don’t know if he said anything or not, but then she turned around all of a sudden and headed back towards her house, runnin’ like a scared rabbit.
“I figured whatever it was had happened was over, and I was gonna be late getting’ back to my counter, so I went back to work. Mr. Mitchell don’t put up with my bein’ late. He’s a penny-pinchin’ miser, you know. And now I better get back there before he gets mad.”
The chief nodded, “Thanks, Louise—that’ll probably help us figger it out.” Louise slipped out the door.
The chief packed his pipe thoughtfully. “So Walter Paget’s already gone back to school, huh? Sorry to hear that. Wanted to talk to him about some vandalism out on the highway. Somebody decorated up the old Christmas tree. Looked like one-a them toilet paper jobs you hear about frat boys doin’. I figger Walter’s picked up some of them frat tricks from the boys at State, and maybe he’s leadin’ our local boys astray.
“I ‘member one time him askin’ why we don’t decorate the old Christmas tree no more. I told him times had changed, and what with TV and all we couldn’t get away with callin’ it ‘the world’s biggest small-town Christmas tree’ no more. And anyway, in the daytime anybody could tell it was just a big flagpole with lights strung down from the top to that old live oak tree at the bottom. It was a nice old tradition back then, but now’s different. Anyway, somebody got the notion to decorate it up, and that’s just vandalism. I told Billy Ray to go out there and clean it up, but I don’t know if he ever got around to it, and now he’s dead. Well, it’s not important right now. We got bigger problems.”
May brought in Bertha Miller. Bertha settled her little round body into a chair, her short legs dangling. “I gotta be quick, Jasper. Mr. Foster made me clock out to come over here, so I’m not gettin’ paid for this.”
“We’ll be quick,” the chief assured her. “Just tell us when you saw Ruby last and what happened.”
“Ruby? Well yeah, she was in the store just yesterday. Acted real funny. Pawed through all my dry goods like she was lookin’ for somethin’ special, but never said just what. Finally, she found a bolt o’ taffeta she liked, and she bought the whole bolt. Cost her thirty-five dollars, too. I remember I thought to myself, ‘where’s a woman like her get thirty-five dollars to spend on fancy stuff? And with LeeRoy gone and all.’ But she had the money in her pocketbook, so she bought it, and off she went. Seemed happy as a lark, all of a sudden. Just danced outa there. I didn’t think any more about it, ‘cause everybody knows she’s crazy, what with LeeRoy gone and all.
“You know, she really misses that man. He just adored her, and he was always bringin’ her flowers and candy and stuff. You wouldn’t think it to look at him, but he was a real romantic, he was. He’d play her love songs on that old guitar and sing to her like a teenaged suitor. Sometimes he’d send her up to the attic to look out the dormer window, and he’d serenade her like on her balcony with flamenco music. He could actchl’y play that stuff just like a Spaniard. Sometimes he’d act out little romantic scenes with her—stuff from Broadway or Shakespeare—and she’d just lap it up, she would. ‘Course she always played coy with him. Wouldn’t let him get too sure of her, you know? She was a pretty wise woman back then, and she knew just how to use what God gave her. But not no more; now she’s just lost. For all her coyness, she really loved that man. And I think maybe she never got the chance to tell him. Not face to face anyway.
“Reminds me of that Judy Garland song, remember? ‘Ever since this world began, there is nothing sadder than a one-man woman, looking for the man that got away.’[i]”
“Nothin’ else happened?” the chief asked. “She didn’t say nothin’ out of the ordinary?”
“No Jasper, she didn’t talk much, not even as much as usual. Kinda like she had a little secret she was keepin’ to herself. No idea what it mighta been. A crazy woman probably has a lotta secrets she makes up and enjoys playin’ ‘round with. Can I get back to work?”
“Sure, Bertha. Thanks a lot for comin’ over. Let me know if you think of anything else.” As Bertha hurried out, the Chief leaned back and stared at the ceiling. “Looks like maybe that wasn’t a prom dress after all, boys. Looks like Ruby bought that taffeta just yesterday. Still don’t make no sense though.”
May stuck her head in the door. “Chief, the mayor just called. Said they let LeeRoy out yesterday. Good behavior. Shouldn’t somebody ‘a’ notified you about that?”
The chief bolted upright. “Hell, yes, somebody shouda! Another bureaucratic mess-up! Lord, this is the age of the snafu! Is he comin’ this way?”
May came on into the room. “The mayor said he oughta been on the 12:30 bus. Anybody seen him?”
Just then Bertha burst back into the room. “Hey, you idiots!” she screamed. “What’s that in that police pickup out there? That’s that yellow taffeta Ruby bought, ain’t it? Somebody’s shredded it to ribbons, they have! How’d it all get torn up and in that pickup? Well? Answer me, somebody! Somebody must know what’s goin’ on around here, don’t they? Is this a Police station or a loony ward?”
Everybody stared, first at Bertha, then at each other. Then they all spoke at once.
Jarvis: “Yellow? Good Lord! Boss, Ruby didn’t buy blue taffeta for a dress, she bought yellow taffeta for welcome ribbons! That was a prom dress after all! And that wasn’t toilet paper on that old oak tree, that was yellow ribbons!”
Mike: “Omigod! LeeRoy was playin’ one of his romantic games! You know how that song goes, Boss. ‘If I don’t see a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree, I’ll stay on the bus, forget about us, and put the blame on me!’[i] Boss, Billy Ray destroyed Ruby’s life just by cleanin’ up that tree! We been singin’ the wrong song!”
May was almost in tears. “Boss, you gotta get somebody to stop that bus, and get LeeRoy off! Boss, LeeRoy don’t know what’s happened here!”
The chief cradled his head for only a moment. “And he mustn’t never, May. Ruby’s dead, and LeeRoy never had nothin’ in Tin City but Ruby. Even his liquor still was hid in somebody else’s woods. Which would be worse, May, lettin’ him go through life thinkin’ Ruby didn’t want him back, or knowin’ she did want him, and it got her killed? Bringin’ him back here now would just be cruel. Ruby’s dead.
“Okay everybody, let’s get back to work now. I know what happened, and I know who’s gotta be called, and what papers gotta be filled out. And Jarvis, don’t you worry. There’ll be an investigation and all, but nothin’s gonna happen to you. You didn’t do nothin’ wrong. Nobody’s done nothin’ wrong here. Like Mike said, we just been singin’ the wrong song.”
“Ruby, You’re Like a Song” was previously published
in Screaming and Other Tales,
December 2020, Donella Press, https://donellapress.com/ )
[i] From “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree”, by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, recorded by Tony Orlando and Dawn in 1973.
[i] From “The Man That Got Away,” lyrics by Ira Gershwin, 1953, a production number for the 1954 film A Star Is Born, produced by Sid Luft, directed by George Cukor, performed by Judy Garland, and covered since by innumerable artists.
[i] From “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” by Chris Gantry, first recorded by Glen Campbell in 1968, and later by Wayne Newton, Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, Mike Minor on Petticoat Junction, and k.d. lang.
[i] From “Delta Dawn,”by Larry Collins and Alex Harvey, recorded by Harvey, Bette Midler, Tanya Tucker, Helen Reddy, and others, between 1971 and 1973.
[i] From “Ruby,”lyrics by Mitchell Parish, the theme song for the movie Ruby Gentry, produced by Joseph Bernhard and King Vidor, directed by King Vidor, and released in 1952. Vocal recordings by Ray Charles, Neil Diamond, Vic Damone, and others.
Bio: Harry Neil is a gay retired computer programmer who gets much of his material from his birthplace in North Carolina’s Cape Fear Basin. He is now a permanent California desert transplant – preferring sidewinders to moccasins and cactus to kudzu – where he lives without the need for clothing or social media. His first collection of short fiction was recently published by Donella Press as “Screaming and Other Tales.” His short stories have been published in Carmina Magazine, Pink Disco, and in the“Revenge” collection from Free Spirit Press.
Harry has published several stories with The Yard. They can be found HERE
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