Starville Texas wouldn’t normally be my first choice for a late July vacation spot. The whole place seems frozen in oppressive confederate charm. Overalls. Straw hats. Dirt roads littered with Nixon-era vehicles just sitting there, hoods up and tires long gone. Tumbleweed seems to be the town’s chief export.
And then there’s the sun, pressing down like a steam iron on a stubbornly wrinkled sweatshirt. But everybody just ambles along anyway. Like they can’t feel that angry blanket of heat punishing them for unpardonable sins of the past.
Stepping inside Valerie’s Diner for an iced tea should be a break from the sun’s unforgiving glare. But in this place, with these stares and this ocean of unwelcoming grimaces I get the feeling the heat wave has just begun. The place is a ‘whites only’ sign away from being a trip back to 1954. Save for my own, the only coffee-colored face I’ve spotted so far belongs to an ice delivery man
who didn’t seem eager to stick around. But I’m not here to fall in love with a tiny hamlet just west of the middle of nowhere. I’m here to make July 23rd a very bad day for four unlucky Starville citizens.
Citizen number one goes by the name of Tommy Kane – Duck, to his friends. He’s left-handed and likes The Allman Brothers.
And there’s Donnie McCormic, an avid angler and father of four who was a bank teller for forty-seven years.
Wally Rivers is a retired security guard and amateur taxidermist.
Harmon Dainsworth speaks fluent Portuguese and doesn’t get around much since the accident.
You could say I’ve done my homework. I know where these men live, the names of their wives and kids. I know Wally suffered an undescended testicle until his early twenties. I also know these four life-long buddies meet every Friday evening at nine in the Hines street Baptist church basement for the “men’s Christian council meeting” – actually, a poker game. I know that forty years ago they orchestrated the lynching of my brother for the alleged raping of a white woman. I was five then. I haven’t forgotten a thing.
I step out of Valerie’s diner and back into the oven. But the sky is now cooling, and blurring into a bold shade of burgundy as night falls. Giving me just the cover I need to get down to business.
I slip away from the leery gaze of the town’s busybodies and into an alley. The gloves go on in spite of the heat and I check the Glock 17 at my hip, ninja- stepping my way towards the Hines Street Baptist church with nothing to stop me save for the untimely buzz of my cell phone.
This is strictly a solo mission, so the call can’t be related to the business at hand. But whoever the Hell it is demands to be swatted away with a third and fourth ring. With the fifth ring I surrender:
“Goddamn if you don’t look just like your big brother. All Grown up and handsome.” A woman’s voice, husky, older, weighted down by the lilt of a Texas drawl.
“Who is this?”
“Call me Shadow Lady.”
“Shadow Lady, I appreciate the warm welcome, but I’ve got no time for jokes.”
“This is no joke. I know who you are, and I know why you’re here.”
A chill washes over me, freezes me into a statue before I can step over to Hines street.
“How did you get this number?” I ask.
“Let’s just say I’ve been watching you. And I know exactly what you’ve been up to.”
“It’s too late to stop me, Shadow Lady.”
“Maybe,” she answers. “But you just think long and hard about what you’re fixin’ to do. That’s all I’m saying.”
With a CLICK she’s gone.
If I’m going to do this thing I have to shrug off Shadow Lady and move on.
And so I move on, first ducking into the bushes across the street from the church, then making a daring dash to the back door, with nothing for cover but a thicket of shade trees.
At the backdoor I reach into my sock for a door jimmy. I’m a little clumsy – I’ve been out of practice since my teens – but I’m safely inside a minute later.
I should be relieved to be in the door, but there’s a haunting quiet inside that churches are required by law to possess. It feels like somebody’s here. It feels like somebody’s always here.
According to my research, Wally typically arrives first with refreshments, sets up the chairs and helps himself to any leftovers of Mrs. Willis’s apple pie. Tonight he gets no pie.
I hear him fumble with his keys at the door. It takes him thirty-seven seconds to step inside, walk to the basement and drop the bags of refreshments on the floor at the sight of a black man shoving a Glock 17 in his face.
“Right on time, Wally.”
He can’t speak. I shoot him in the belly because a quicker death is too good for him. He curls to the floor, wheezing, reaching for something. Seeking answers with his cartoonishly bulged eyes.
I stoop to his face.
“Just so you know, this was for the 1970 lynching thing,” I whisper. “Wouldn’t want you to meet your maker without knowing why.”
His mouth snaps into a grimace and he pushes out everything he has left. He’s suffered enough. So I give him a shot to the forehead that sends him away. Seconds later he’s gone. Not just lifeless – soulless.
Next up is Tommy Kane. His steps to the basement are slow, cautious – maybe he’s heard something.
“Wally?” he calls. His answer: the scariest silence he’s ever heard.
I step up and imbibe his terrified look. He gets one to the head right away, because I have no time to play with him. I can hear his buddies at the front door, stepping inside at the same time. This will be tricky for a novice like me. But with this music racing through my veins, I’m determined to make this happen.
As Tommy obligingly drops to the floor below, I follow the shadows upstairs and greet Donnie and Harmon with the storm of bullets they asked for forty years ago. Their bodies dance for a while then stop. They land in a messy pile of each other, limbs entwined like lovers. How sweet.
Now it’s time for phase two. I take off my shirt and wrap my gun in it, moving to the back door. But I hear something. Another set of footsteps?
“Jesus H. Christ!” cries a horrified voice. But whose?
I try to unwrap my gun…
But I’m not fast enough. A uniformed cop charges in, pistol drawn.
“Do not move, boy!”
“I don’t know what you’re doing here, but you picked the wrong day to do it,” he growls. He steps back, steadies his gun.
I’m on my knees, eyes slammed shut. I hear a shot, but it’s all wrong. It’s a shotgun blast from down the hallway. He lurches forward, swept up by the blast and lands before me, a giant gap where his left shoulder once was.
A woman emerges from the shadows, pump-action shotgun at her hip. She’s not young, maybe sixty. And she’s stunned speechless by what she’s just done.
“Shadow Lady?” I ask.
Words are still a problem, so she nods.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Your brother and me… we were just kids. Didn’t care what the world thought. Till we caught busted. Then… well, you know the rest.”
Now it’s my turn to struggle with words. I’ve got nothing.
“You weren’t the only one who lost somebody special that day,” she says.
“So you came here to… help me?”
“I was hoping to take care if it alone. That’s why I tried to scare you away. No sense in the both of us getting involved in… this.”
We both drink in the carnage, the landscape of ripped apart flesh.
“Yeah,” I answer. “No sense at all.”
We agree that it’d be a good idea to get out of there pretty quickly. And we will. But first we have to breathe again.
Copper Smith lives in Minneapolis where he plays the mandolin like that makes him badass or something. He has contributed to A Twist of Noir, Oysters and Chocolate, Sloth Jockey and the downfall of Western civilization. And like every other living vertebrate, he has a blog: http://uppercutavenue.blogspot.com/