Sheriff Biggs walks me right over to the jail cell, holding my elbow tight. Snatches of conversation trail behind us. “Serves her right, uppity bit..”, “That don’t seem likely to me…”, “Wonder what he’s got on her…”.
. . . . . . . . . .
“Honey was there, ask her.” My lawyer is shushing me as I say it. My lawyer…that is a laugh. It is Ronna McItee, our town’s only Public Defender, and its only woman attorney. There is a joke around town that if you are in need of Ronna, you may as well make out your will and get a two-fer, ‘cause you are going get the death sentence no matter what you done.
“It’s Honey who helped us i.d. you as a suspect. We have ourselves an eye witness.” Ben looks self-satisfied as he blurts this out. This must be fun for him, must be the pinnacle of his career. Investigating a murder and arresting a suspect in a town that doesn’t even have a stoplight is a big-deal.
“Did you ask her what she was doing there? Huh? Huh?” I think I am making a great point but Ronna grabs at me, turning purple.
“Just hush, IllaMae. I am advising you to be quiet.”
I clam up then. Ben Biggs sends me back to my cell.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sitting there, I try to decide how much I am going to spill. Should I tell Ronna I did meet poor old Jimmy Ray down at the quarry? And should I let her in what happened there?
I mean, everyone knows that we used to be an item. I was his main squeeze, his sugar pot pie, his lollipop for a short time there, until I found out he was fillin’ more tanks than Elmer down at the Texaco. But we haven’t had anything to do with each other since and that has been quite a while. Not, that is, until I got his phone call night before last.
“Illa? This here is Jimmy Ray speaking. Are you alone?”
“Sure am, just like the last time you saw me,” ‘cause I couldn’t help myself leave off the dig.
“Well, I am in bigger trouble than that time, this is for sure.” Jimmy Ray did sound scared. “Can you hep’ me out here?”
“Depends on what you need, my friend. As long as I don’t have to touch your slimy self.” I guess I was just a little bit still-pissed-off.
“I don’t want to go into any detail on this here phone. I could be wire-tapped.”
“Oh, for Gawd’s sake, J.R. (see, that’s what I call him when I am not upset). Come on out with it. Who is the name of our Savior would want to tap you?”
“That’s what I want to talk to you about. Meet me at the quarry straight up noon time tomorrow.”
And so I did. I climbed on down to the place we used to meet as kids to smoke grape-vines and read dirty books, like Peyton Place. It was kinda out of the way, hard to see when you are standing at the edge of the rocks even. He was waiting there for me.
He looked like hell, hair mussed and dirty. The pocket of his khaki shirt was stained and ripped, the “J.R”. embroidered on it sagging. Looked like somebody tried to pull it off his shirt and stuff it in his mouth.
“Can you loan me $500 bucks?” No hello, no nothing, just this ridiculous request.
“Why, as a matter a fact, no. What do you need that kind of dough fer?” I was too surprised to even act indignant. Jimmy Ray was the type to never even let you put the quarter in the jukebox, he was so proud about money and all.
“I don’t have nobody else to ask. I gotta get out of town today. There is a Trailways leaving at 4 o’clock and I aim to be on it. I need money for the ticket and a little cash to carry me until I can get a job where I am going. Can you spare less, like mebbe two hunnert?”
“Well, it seems like you mean it, J.R. I can take a look- see what I got in my tea kettle for emergencies. But why do you got to go so quick? What about your job down to the repair shop, fixin’ appliances? What about your kin? What about your friends?” I did not say, what about me?
He started to say something more, then looked over my shoulder and crouched a little lower. He shooed me away, whispering, “Please don’t ask any more questions. If you can do it, leave what you can in the bottom of the coke cooler at the station. You know the spot.”
And then he was gone. I walked back up the roadside and climbed back in my car. I would think about it.
. . . .
I was still thinking about giving the money to him when all this happened. And now it’s too late. Looks like I’ll be spending my emergency fund on Ronna. All that and then some. What kind of trouble had Jimmy Ray been in and who did this awful thing? I’d better get Ronna back in here and set her on it because I do believe the sheriff believes he has done caught his criminal.
Just then, Shirlanne, Sheriff Bigg’s wife comes in the jail’s front door and starts screaming at the sheriff.
“Why didn’t you tell me? What happened? Where is he?” her words run altogether like a broken yolk on a plate of grits.
The Sheriff turns the color of ketchup when he replies, “Shut your damn mouth, woman. Quiet down.”
I can see all this through the bars because the jail cell in our pea-pickin’ town is only about 6feet from the front door of the Sheriff’s office. This place also serves as the coroner’s office and the place where you get fingerprints for anything official, like your driver’s license. A one-stop-shop. If I wasn’t so freaked out, it might be a fun place to hang out for the local gossip.
Shirlanne leans into Ben Biggs like she is going to be comforted but changes her mind at the last second and starts swinging at him. “You did this! I know you did! You and your little ‘friend’, Honey, I’ll bet.”
Ben puts his big mitt on Shirlanne’s mouth and escorts her roughly out the door. I hear her muffled cries through the door for a minute, then it is very, very quiet, inside and out.
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