Confrontation with Watkins
The courthouse building in Roseville is well over a hundred and fifty years old. It’s rumored that Sherman headquartered here a couple of nights when he stormed Atlanta, but of course that’s not the kind of thing we like to tell strangers. We’re much more likely to tell them about the Reb army camping in the meadow that’s now the churchyard. Actually, most of that meadow is now the Kroger parking lot, but we don’t advertise that either. At that point, our visitors almost invariably ask if General Lee ever headquartered in town, and if we’ve had a particularly frustrating day, we sometimes make up something like one time Pop told a man that Leedom’s Drugstore was named that because that land was Lee’s kingdom, and Jacob Leedom was standing right there behind the man laughing up his sleeve. Pop’s too honest though. He couldn’t stand it. Finally he told the man that Virginia was Lee’s territory, and he never came anywhere near Georgia. The funny thing was though, that time I
don’t think the man believed him.
Anyway, the courthouse hasn’t changed much since those times. The thick stone walls are as strong as a medieval castle. The Sheriff’s office and the jail are in the basement. With the only heat coming from ancient radiators that don’t work about half the time if you’re more than two feet away from them, we tend to freeze in there pretty much year round. In summer, the secretaries from the upstairs offices find every excuse possible to escape from their sweltering saunas for our dungeon paradise. At least, about fifteen years ago, they finally plastered the walls. Before that, a prisoner who was thrown in the single cell could really go berserk staring at those stones carved and stacked by the bleeding hands of slave labor and begin to think he’d been tossed back into the dark ages, and was awaiting the inquisition. Fifteen years is an awfully long time though. Nowadays the plaster is so cracked and the graffiti so profuse that I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better to stare at stones. Town Council has had it on the budget agenda to renovate for at least three years. Every year they’ve voted it down.
I got to the office early this morning, before the sun even hit the top of the trees, but still not before Watkins. He was waiting for me when I put my key in the lock. He pulled the door open.
“Good morning, Sam,”
From the stench in the office, and the overflowing ashtray on his desk, it seemed obvious that he had been here a good part of the night fuming over the problem and bracing himself to face me. Normally Sam Watkins is the image of everybody’s favorite cop. He’s so big and round, he spends most of December playing Santa Claus for every party and charity fund in town. Today, though, his cheeks were cherry red, not with mirth, but with sheer anger. He was so angry with me, in fact, that for several minutes, he said nothing at all. He just paced.
“Good morning,” I said for the second time.
More pacing. Finally he came over to his desk and sat down, only to immediately pop back up and pace some more.
“Look, Sam,” I began, but he cut me off.
As he strode over to my desk, his anger exploded. “What’s this I hear, you’re going to drag my baby back from her honeymoon, Sheriff?” he demanded. “Why on earth would you think she had anything to do with this tragedy? She hardly knew Kit Shannon!”
The veins stood out on his neck, and his knuckles turned white on the desk in front of me. “I’m a reasonable man, Sheriff. Everybody in town will tell you that if you haven’t figured it out yourself already, but I won’t put up with you playing the big shot and ruining Charlene’s honeymoon just to make yourself out like some John Wayne running roughshod over this town! He turned away and crossed over to the other side of the room, firing his words over his shoulder. “A girl only has one honeymoon, you know, at least, that’s enough for my baby, maybe not for some girls nowadays!”
I knew the emphasis on the “some” was a shot at me, but I ignored it. Watkins was usually the mildest of men. Pop always said he was the gentlest cop God ever put on this earth, and this rebuke amounted to a a diatribe for him. Boy was he mad. He alternated between pacing back and forth, shedding his ashes on the carpet, and halting in front of me with one thumb hooked in his belt and the other shaking the cigar at me.
Waving ineffectually at the smoke, I attempted again to calm him. “Listen, Sam, don’t get your dandruff up. I won’t bring her home unless I have to. It’s just that I never realized she was still at the beauty shop so late. She may have seen something that might be important. I don’t know what it might be. If I did, I wouldn’t need to question her, would I? I just don’t want to miss anything.”
For several minutes, I returned stare for stare. This was too important. Without Sam’s support, I couldn’t hope to get the cooperation of the town’s people. I’d taken over as Sheriff less than a year ago when the man who’d taken Pop’s place had a heart attack and decided not to run again. He moved to Florida instead Sam could have had the job easily, but he’d said he was too old and too close to retirement himself to take on the added responsibility. He’d winked, and told Pop he’d rather sit back and watch how the “city slicker cop” ran things.
That was ten months ago. It’d actually gone pretty smooth up until now, but then, this was my first big case. I was a beat cop in Philly. What I knew about detecting, you could put in a thimble and still have room for your thumb. I kept my hands hidden beneath my desk so Sam wouldn’t see them trembling.
Even before his accident, Pop had wanted me to be a cop almost as much as I’d wanted to be one. Often, when I was a little kid, he’d bring me down here, and I’d sit on Sam’s lap and play with his handcuffs. When I graduated from the Academy, I was beginning to think Pop was going to go out and hire a big brass band to play “Dixie” on the Academy lawn. Now, if Sam declared me incompetent, how…?
He stubbed out his cigar. I sighed with relief.
“Sorry, M.J.. I guess I should have trusted you more. I just know your Pop wouldn’t have brought an innocent kid home from her honeymoon just to ask her some stupid questions about something she knew nothing about.”
I tossed my purse into the bottom drawer of my scarred up wooden desk, and reached up to open the tiny windows near the ceiling on the right which was the only side not completely underground. I had to have some air. Sam watched me, but for once he didn’t offer to help. Layers of paint make the things stick, and usually he and Donaldson were more than ready to open it for me. It had only taken me a couple of futile tries to learn to stop playing the feminist and stand back with a smile and a thank you.
“She’s not a kid anymore, Sam,” I said over my shoulder. “She’s a grown woman. Give her some credit. Tell me where she is. If I do have to pull her back, she’ll survive it.”
He collapses into his overstuffed vinyl chair. “Maybe she will, Sheriff,” he sighed, “but maybe her marriage won’t.”
“What?” I cried. “You’re kidding? Is it that fragile already?” I gave up on the window, and sat down on the edge of my desk. I searched his face.
He leaned back, closed his eyes, and ran his fingers through the short salt and pepper curls. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “Maybe.” His eyes opened, and I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think I saw tears. He arose, turned away, and started pacing again, more slowly this time. “For the last several weeks, Charlene and Gary have been arguing almost constantly. I wanted them to call off the wedding until they got the problems between them settled, but Charlene wouldn’t hear of it. The invitations had already been sent, and everything bought, and I was afraid she just didn’t want to disappoint us. You know how much weddings cost, and since Charlene was our only child, Emma had let things get out of hand. That didn’t matter to me. I wouldn’t want her to go through with it just because…Anyway. I know she loves him. And I’m pretty sure he loves her. I’d always thought they were going to be a great match.”
“What were they fighting about, Sam?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Every time I came within earshot, they shut up like clams.”
“Was he angry with her, or she with him?”
He looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “Who yelled at whom?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I think they both yelled a lot. Charlene’s got a pretty hot temper sometimes, being an only child and used to getting her own way, but who started it, I have no idea. I tried to talk to both of them, but, like I said, they clammed up and said it was nothing to worry about, that they’d work it out.”
“Could it have been about Kit Shannon?”
“You’re a cop, Sam. You’ve been one all your life. Just for a minute, stop being her Pop and think like a cop. Did Gary know Kit? Do you know?”
Silently he dumped the cigar butts in the plastic lined trash can. This was more the Sam I knew. He was always much more tidy than I was.
He sighed. I thought for a moment he was going to start fuming again, but he didn’t. “Yeah,” he said. “He knew her. Unfortunately, your Pop brought her to a party at our house Christmas before last, and I think Gary met her again at the Reilly’s about six months ago. She found reasons to drop by his office at least two or three times after that. She was almost twice his age, but I guess she wanted him, and she was a woman who was used to getting what she wanted.”
I bit my bottom lip. “What about him? Was it all on her side?”
“Good grief, Sheriff! He’s my son-in-law. I like the boy! I like the boy a lot! He’s bright and ambitious, and he has an old-fashioned sense of respect that’s mighty rare nowadays. He even asked my permission to marry Charlene.” Rubbing his mouth with the back of his hand, he walked over, and without noticeable effort, opened the two windows. “They’re in a little cottage up in the Smoky Mountains.”
The fresh air felt so good I had to stop a minute just to breathe. “Thanks, Sam.” I patted his shoulder. “I like Gary too, what little I know of him. And it probably doesn’t mean anything.” I went over to the small refrigerator we keep behind the counter and pulled out a couple of Cokes. “Here, have a drink.”
“Thanks.” He pulled the tab, and took a big gulp. “She was a real beautiful woman, Sheriff. I think Gary was mostly flattered by her attention. I really don’t think it had gone any further than that, but then, how would I know? It’s a crazy world we live in nowadays. When I was a kid, we got married before we went to bed together, not after, and one woman was plenty for a lifetime, not just a weekend.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s a shame the world had to lose its virginity. It’s been acting like a teenager whose Pop kept in the house too long for most of my lifetime now.” Yeah, I know, my metaphor stunk. But it worked. He laughed. And I think most of the tension between us dissolved. For the time being at least, we were two cops again who had a tough job to do. We got down to it. Interviews still had to be scheduled with everyone who had been in the shop earlier that morning, which considering the wedding, seemed to be about half to two thirds of the folks in Roseville.