COZY NOIR FINALIST

HOGWASH

By Susan M. Boyer


I was thirty-four years old when it came to me that life is one big masquerade ball, with all of the guests carefully concealing their true selves behind elaborate disguises. Some of us dance so gracefully in our costumes that no one ever suspects that they only see what we allow. Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “I figured that out by the time I was, oh, about…twelve.” I always have been a late bloomer.

Looking back, I guess the epiphany had been pushing towards the surface for a while. I had quite a few hints—a series of incidents where people close to me let their masks slip. But it all became clear the spring I saw Zeke Lyerly, a man I would have sworn I knew, for the first time.

Like so many things in my life, it all started with my daddy.

Before she would let Daddy retire, Mamma insisted that he find something to occupy his time besides sandpapering her nerves all day. Since his two favorite pastimes were haunting flea markets and cussin’ at the stock reports on MSNBC, we all put our heads together and came up with the idea for Talbot’s Treasures.

It was an old red barn several miles from Mamma’s house that we renovated and air-conditioned to the point that you could have hung meat in there. Daddy didn’t like to sweat. To help pay the outrageous electricity bills, he rented booths to a few of his cronies and the occasional bored housewife. Near the front door, he sat vigil over the stock ticker, surfed the World Wide Web, and occasionally sold junk.

I went by the flea market one morning late that March to see about Daddy.

“Mornin’ Tootie,” he called out, not taking his eyes off the television.

Apparently, he had trouble remembering the name they’d put on my birth certificate—Elizabeth—because I never once heard him use it. Tootie was the latest in a long succession of nicknames that came from the vast, unknown frontiers of my daddy’s brain. It wasn’t just me; he never called anyone by their actual name, or anything that sounded remotely like it.

I hugged his neck, careful not to muss his hair. He looked much younger than his fifty-two years and was quite vain. There wasn’t a single gray hair in his sandy blonde head, which was the exact same color as mine before Dori—the town’s best beautician and only Yankee transplant who was generally well-liked, not just politely tolerated—added my multi-toned highlights.

“Hey, Daddy. How are you feeling this morning? Mamma says your blood pressure’s up.”

“The whistle pigs got into your mamma’s bulbs again last night,” he said, eyes still glued to the stock ticker.

The island off the coast of South Carolina where we lived had a thriving herd of wild hogs. In the aftermath of some hurricane or other back in the 1800’s, most of the livestock wandered the island until fences and barns were repaired or rebuilt. This particular gang of hogs was never apprehended. Daddy called them whistle pigs—don’t ask me why. I was pretty sure that whistle pig was technically another name for a woodchuck, but Daddy never was much troubled by technicalities. Anyway, as far as I knew, no one had ever heard one of the hogs whistle.

They were mostly harmless, but they liked to snack on delicacies found in flowerbeds and vegetable gardens, which made them unpopular among the human residents of the island. It wasn’t clear to me from his response whether the hogs had Daddy’s blood pressure up, or if it was something on the stock ticker.

“Those things are a menace,” I said. The idea of hogs running loose had always bothered me. I harbored the suspicion that one of them might attack somebody, although I’d never heard of such a thing happening. There had been a lot of discussion regarding what to do about the infestation, but no consensus was reached. Several of the island’s matriarchs were too tenderhearted to hear tell of the hogs being exterminated, and the swine were wily enough to evade efforts at rounding them up.

I noticed Tammy Sue Lyerly frantically trying to get my attention from across the barn. Tammy Sue had a booth in the flea market where she sold such handmade items as purses, appliquéd sweatshirts, and inspirational cross-stitched home décor. Since Daddy was preoccupied and unlikely to move from his recliner, I went on over to see what had Tammy Sue so worked up.

She grabbed a hold of my arm like it was a branch extended to her while she dangled from the side of a cliff. Her other arm clutched her ample chest, and her eyes, round with import, darted from side to side, as if to make sure that no one was eavesdropping. Since it was only 8:30, the only other occupants of the barn were my daddy and his bassett hound, who were both oblivious.

“Liz! Am I glad to see you,” she said.

“Tammy Sue, what on earth is wrong?” I asked.

She was wound so tight, for a moment she couldn’t get the words out. She just stood there, clutching my arm and her bosom for dear life and shaking the biggest head of long red hair anybody’s seen since 1980. Then, in a stage whisper, she told me. “I am in need of your services in a professional capacity.”

I was the only private investigator on the island. There really wasn’t much to investigate in my hometown—most of my business came from old-money Charleston. Within our palm tree and live oak-lined streets, everybody loved secrets so much that their first instinct was to share them over iced tea on the front porch, making it impossible to hide anything. This made it unusual for anybody to need my services. I was intrigued.

“What’s going on?” I asked her.

Her chest began to heave in little spasms. I thought for a moment she was hyperventilating. Finally, she choked out the problem. “Zeke… has been…out cattin’ around.”

Then came the wailing.

I glanced over my shoulder just in time to catch Daddy looking up from the TV to see where the racket was coming from. He took in all he cared to see and quickly averted his eyes back to MSNBC.

I tried to comfort her. “Now Tammy Sue, I’m sure that’s not true.” I was praying to God that it wasn’t. Zeke Lyerly’s matrimonial problems were the stuff small town folklore was made of. His first wife had left town, never to be heard from again, after Zeke fired a few rounds of buckshot at her lover. From his vantage point across the street from the Lyerly home, perched high in one of my daddy’s live oak trees, Zeke had caught the hapless Casanova creeping out the front door at an hour uncommon for social visits.

Stroking Tammy Sue’s back with my free hand, I probed for more information. “What makes you think Zeke has a girlfriend?”

The wails simmered down into sniffles and heaves. “Lately, when I get home in the evenings, he’s…clean.”

I absorbed this for a moment. “Is that unusual?” I asked.

“Well, normally, he gets home just in time for supper, and he still has his work clothes on. Now, as you might imagine, working on cars all day is a grimy business. But for the last two weeks, every day when I get home, he’s already had a shower and changed his clothes…and he smells good.” She dissolved into sobs.

“Maybe he’s getting cleaned up for you,” I suggested.

“No.” She shook her head solemnly. “He’s got something on the side, I just know it. A woman can feel these things.”

I took a deep breath, resigned. “So, you want me to follow him and see what he’s up to, is that it?”

“Would you, please? I just have to know for sure.”

I took in the rivulets of mascara running down her cheeks. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll check it out.”

***


Anxious to get this particular job over and done with, I parked myself across the street from Lyerly’s Automotive, in the Edward’s Grocery parking lot at 2:00 that afternoon. You might think surveillance is difficult in a lime green Beetle, and normally, you’d be right. But since I flit around this island most days like a butterfly, perching occasionally here and there, folks are used to seeing me out and about. So on the rare occasion when I actually investigate something in town, it’s easy to hide in plain sight.

I had no sooner settled into stakeout mode—slid low in the seat with the engine off and Jimmy Buffett on, small cooler with Dasani and Diet Cheerwine on the passenger floorboard, camera at the ready, and an open bag of Dove Milk Chocolate Promises handy—when Zeke, whom people often mistake for Alan Jackson—I swear, when he’s cleaned up good the resemblance is remarkable—hopped in his Ford F-350 and drove off. I pulled out behind him, and smiled and waved as he glanced in the rearview—it would have been rude not to. He waved back and went about his business.

He proceeded down Palmetto Boulevard, around the palm tree-lined park that occupies the town square, and turned down a side street a few blocks beyond the courthouse. I followed him into one of our town’s older residential neighborhoods. The cottage-style houses were well maintained, the yards neat. Conveniently, my sister lived a block over, so I had a plausible destination.

Rather abruptly, Zeke turned into Dori Tomei’s driveway and pulled into her open garage. Immediately, the automatic door closed behind him. The chicken salad sandwich I’d had for lunch turned sour in my stomach. My imagination failed me in a desperate attempt to invent some innocent explanation as to why Zeke would visit Dori at her house in the middle of the afternoon and hide his truck. Things were looking bleak for Tammy Sue and coiffeurs all over the island.

Once Southern women grant a Yankee Nouveau Southern status, it’s an ungodly mess if she proves herself to have been unworthy of such an honor. Adultery committed with a local boy would no doubt qualify as evidence that we native females had been too generous in admitting Dori into our sorority, no matter how well she hid the gray. While we might eventually forgive one of our own for such a grievous lapse in manners as sleeping with one of our husbands, the indigenous feminine establishment would never grant clemency to someone who wasn’t from here.

I drove around the block and pulled into my sister’s driveway. She was at work, and I made no pretense of knocking on the door. I slung my Nikon around my neck, walked through her backyard, crossed through two neighboring yards, grateful that they were empty, and climbed over the privacy fence into Dori’s Garden of Eden.

In addition to being an accomplished hairstylist, Dori was an aromatherapist and an avid gardener. Her backyard smelled like a candle shop. Every herb, flower and tree that had a therapeutic use was growing there. A homemade waterfall in one corner gurgled and sluiced into a small pond where goldfish played. The yard was full of birds happily singing, eating from a collection of feeders and drinking from the birdbath. Had one sat on my shoulder as I climbed out of the bougainvillea that I landed in, it would have seemed perfectly natural.

I crept up to the back corner of the house and peered into a window. It was a bedroom, decorated in an eclectic style that conjured visions of belly dancers and kidnapped Arabian princesses. No one was currently being ravished within its draped walls. As I moved towards the French doors that stood open to the patio, I heard voices. I froze and listened.

Dori’s nasal tones wafted through the doors. “You want the usual, or are we getting kinky today?”

I had visited her house a few times, and knew that these doors opened into her living room. It seemed an odd setting for getting kinky in broad daylight, but hey, I’m pretty much a champagne, candlelight and soft music kind of girl myself, what do I know about kinky?

“You know how I like it, that’s why I come here.”

I wasn’t expecting romance—it’s just not in Zeke’s nature. But his tone was so matter-of-fact it made me scrunch up my face in that expression that Mamma has warned me thousands of times is going to give me early wrinkles.

I dropped to my belly. Carefully gripping my camera in my hands, I used my elbows and hipbones to propel myself across the patio. I raised my camera and scanned the living room for my subjects, sending up a silent prayer that they still had their clothes on. Finding my targets, I brought them into focus.

Convulsions of stifled belly laughter racked my body, making it difficult to hold on to the camera. I caught them flagrante delicto, all right. Just as they were preparing for a clandestine haircut. I took a picture; I’m not sure why—maybe it was the sheer incongruity of Zeke with the pink drape over his work clothes—then slithered back across the patio and sat down to mull the situation over.

Luther Baynard was the town’s only barber and he was within shouting distance of seventy years old. He was a cantankerous but beloved old coot who had cut the hair of virtually every man on the island from the first time their mammas had brought them into his shop with tears and cameras. A fashion slave Luther was not. He cut hair the same way he always had—short—regardless of what the client asked for. Zeke wore his curly golden locks a couple of inches past his collar; Luther had obviously not taken scissors to his head.

But for a guy like Zeke, sitting in the beauty shop amidst matrons in curlers and soccer moms in foils would not be an option. Dori had obviously been prevailed upon to give him private haircuts. I sat there long enough to verify that a trim was the only service he’d come for, then slipped back to my car the same way I came.

From there I followed Zeke straight home. It was still early, not even 3:00, and I had planned to wait around and see if he came back out, but Daddy called me on my cell phone. He’d gotten another computer virus—this one was displaying random pictures of naked men and he couldn’t make it stop—and he needed me back over at the flea market ASAP.

***


The next afternoon, I once again assumed my surveillance position and waited. After two Diet Cheerwines and too many Dove Promises, Zeke left in his truck and drove over to the town offices. I followed, and watched him disappear inside Mac Sullivan’s door. Mac was the town solicitor, a member of the Town Council, and a certified pompous ass. Now here was a curiosity. There was no chance that this was a social visit: Mackie was cocktails on the verandah before dinner; Zeke was a Budweiser in front of the TV with supper.

I didn’t have long to wait. Zeke was headed back to the truck inside of five minutes. From there, he drove straight to the brick ranch he shared with Tammy Sue across the street from the house I grew up in, and I thought I had hit another dead end. It was 3:45, and he was home alone. Since Tammy usually didn’t leave the flea market until 5:30, I decided to stick around just in case he left again. Hoping Daddy wouldn’t have another pornography-related emergency that demanded my attention, I pulled into my parents’ driveway and slid down in my seat, watching the Lyerly door through my driver’s side mirror.

Ten minutes later, Zeke came back out of the house, sporting full military camouflage attire. He stole a couple of furtive glances around and then climbed back into his truck and peeled out.

I followed him out Marsh Point Drive, to the northwest side of the island. One thing was clear, unless he was having an affair with an outdoorsy sort who favored daytime romps in the sweetgrass—a type of woman in short supply in our town—he wasn’t meeting a girlfriend. He pulled down an old dirt road that led back to nothing but forty acres of woods and a freshwater lagoon that backed up to the salt marsh. I knew that the road dead-ended about a mile down, so just before the last curve, I pulled over and got out for a stroll through the woods. I slipped my Sig Sauer 9 out of my Kate Spade bag, tucked it into the back of my Ann Taylor capris, and made a mental note to charge Tammy Sue extra for this.

I waded through the dense, exotic vegetation that grows between the pine trees and live oaks, watching carefully for snakes. I hate snakes. After about ten minutes, I heard someone tromping through the woods ahead of me. I made my way towards the noise, darting behind trees for cover.

According to the legend of Zeke Lyerly, as told by Zeke Lyerly, he was once an Army Ranger, and had spent years fighting the drug lords in the South American jungles for the DEA. His stories were the kind that his buddies pretended to believe while consuming mass quantities of alcohol, but no one in town took seriously. The only verifiable facts were that he had been in the Army, and he had spent twenty years away from home. If there were any truth to his tales—a possibility I had never before entertained—he would surely pick up on the fact that I was trailing him through the woods.

Suddenly, he was right in front of me. I crouched behind a big oak and watched him for a moment. In his hand he held a pistol with a silencer attached. He was creeping through the woods, obviously stalking someone. About this time, I started to question the wisdom of following Zeke Lyerly into the woods. I retrieved my friend Sig from the small of my back.

Zeke assumed a firing stance—feet wide, arms locked forward—and took aim. He was standing directly between me and his target, so I couldn’t see the victim.

I cringed as I heard the pfft pfft sound of the gun being fired.

“Gotcha, you sonavabitch!” he muttered.

I watched wide-eyed as he stuck the pistol in the back of his pants, strode though the trees and reached down to grab his prey. He was dragging something dead as he backed up. As he passed not ten feet in front of me, I saw what it was.

It was a large pink hog.

I watched him drag that hog all the way over to the edge of the lagoon, where he dropped it by the water. Then he backed up a few strides, sat down on the bank and lit a cigarette. He just sat there, smoking and staring at the water, as if he was waiting on something. After a few moments, I noticed what looked like a log drifting in the lagoon toward the shoreline. Then, the log had eyes. In horror, I watched as an alligator that must have been fourteen feet long opened its great mouth and snatched up that hog. Zeke just sat there calmly smoking his Camel.

The alligator retreated with its dinner, and I walked up and collapsed beside Zeke. He didn’t even look up. It was as if he’d known I was there the whole time.

“Zeke.” I greeted him as casually as if I’d passed him on the street.

“Liz.” He nodded.

“What in the name of common sense are you doing?” I asked him straight up.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” he retorted.

I thought that over for a minute. “Well, it looks like you’re assassinating hogs and feeding them to an alligator…which I’m pretty sure that no one else knows resides in that lagoon.”

“Oh, there’s a whole family of them,” he said easily. “Nobody ever comes out here except high school students, and they’re too preoccupied with discovering sex to pay much attention to what’s in the water—it’s too murky for skinny dipping.”

“So why are you feeding the hogs to them?”

“This is a covert operation,” he informed me. “I’ll need your word that you won’t compromise it, or else I may have to feed you to the alligators.” He grinned amiably, as if to let me know that he was just kidding about that last part, but I wasn’t a hundred percent sure. He was still staring at the water.

“Okay, my lips are sealed.”

He nodded. “A small group of concerned citizens—Mackie, your daddy, and our mayor—is paying me to transport the hogs to the hereafter. I use a silencer so no one will hear the gunshots. I feed the hogs to the alligators to get rid of the evidence, and because it’s easier than burying them or hauling them off. The idea is for folks to think they’re dying out of natural causes.”

For the first time since I had sat down, he looked straight at me. “Now what are you doing here?” There was a hard edge to his voice that I’d never heard before, one that seemed unaccountably at home on his tongue. I suddenly realized that I was sitting beside a stranger. I felt more mystified than threatened.

Dark currents roiled in intelligent green eyes. There was a worldly awareness, layers of a person I had never suspected lived inside this personification of a Southern cliché. In retrospect, I think it must have been that while he was stalking those hogs, he flashed back to another place and time. He was doing familiar things, tracking his prey through the dense forest, and in the act, he had inadvertently slipped out of character, just for a moment. It was a revelation. Only later would I realize how brilliant Zeke Lyerly’s disguise was: he hid his genuine self, at least a large part of him, behind the truth. In telling us his colorful, larger-than-life adventures all these years, he had deliberately created the persona of a slightly nutty but loveable, harmless good ole boy that told unbelievable but entertaining stories.

A long moment went by as I considered how to answer his question. Client confidentiality is important to me, but in this case, it seemed like the best thing was to simply tell him the truth. “Your wife thinks you’re having an affair.”

“What?” He screwed up his face in disbelief, mask safely back in place. “Why in the hell would she think that?”

“Apparently because you’re clean when she gets home these days.”

“Ahhh.” His face lit with understanding.

“What am I supposed to tell her?”

“Well, you can’t tell her the truth. First, she’d be mad as hell. She doesn’t want the hogs hurt. Second, she never could keep a secret, and if this gets out, Mackie will have a seizure, and he won’t pay me, either.”

We both sat there for a minute, staring across the water.

Then, I had an idea. “What if I tell her the truth, up to a point? I’ll tell her I followed you home, and you got there at 3:45. Then, it will be up to you to convince her that you’re all clean and sweet smelling for some reason other than you’ve been dragging dead hogs around and needed to wash the stench off.” I batted my eyelashes flirtatiously at him to drive home my point.

He grinned. “Sounds like a plan.”

“I won’t take any money from her.” I stood and brushed myself off. Still unsettled, I was eager to leave that isolated corner of the island with its wild hogs, alligators and faux-redneck Rambo.

“I’ll pay you for your time,” he offered.

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ll write it off as research.”

“Huh?”

“I’m writing a book on the eccentricities of the Southern Male.”

“Don’t use my name,” he warned, some of the earlier edge creeping back into his voice.

“Oh, don’t worry,” I assured him. “All the names have been changed to protect the wives and mothers.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susan M. Boyer lives and writes in Greenville, SC. Her fiction appears in Catfish Stew, Volume IV. She is currently polishing the first in a series of Southern suspense novels.


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