Excerpt from Final Justice
Sheriff Luke Ballard knew firsthand just how mean some folks could be in Hampton, Alabama. It was why he had left, but the hunger for revenge had brought him back, and when he showed a few people paybacks were hell, he'd go again, never to return.
Like a lot of southern towns, Hampton's business section squared around the courthouse. Luke saw the supermarket windows had been soaped, and he just could make out the signs advertising 59 cents a pound for ground beef and a quarter for a dozen eggs.
He hit the brakes and came to a dead stop in front of the movie theater. Easy Rider had been playing nearly a month, and the glass case next to the ticket booth had been broken and the poster of Peter Fonda was gone.
Shaking his head and thinking how he and his deputies were going to be blamed for not being on their toes to stop all the meanness, Luke drove on down to the end of Elm Street and the railroad tracks that served as an unofficial border between town and the mill village.
In the distance he could see the lights from the mill itself. Operating around the clock, it was the financial heartbeat of Buford County. Everybody was tied to it either by employment or dependency on the payroll to stay in business.
He made it a point to avoid the village as much as possible. It stirred too many bad memories. He hated the area around the tracks even more. Kearney's Corner was a cluster of rundown wooden shacks built behind a greasy cafe and cheap gas station. It hadn't always been so trashy. As the story went, right after the Civil War, it was where the trains stopped at the water tank. Jebediah Kearney built a little stand and bought vegetables and fruit from desperate farmers and sold them to the rail passengers at a big profit.
Business boomed when carpetbagger Cleve Hampton built the cotton mill to take advantage of workers willing to work for peanuts to keep their families from starving. Kearney's Corner was passed on to his descendants, and eventually the motor court was built, but the town grew in the opposite direction. The depot was moved, trains no longer stopped there, and the superhighway to Birmingham came in at the other end of the county. By then, Jebediah's great-grandson was the owner. To keep the business going, he got into gambling, prostitution, and selling moonshine. But all that was before Luke got elected sheriff. Things were different now.
He turned into the parking lot, red dust from the dry clay settling on the hood and fenders of the white Torino. At once, a screen door opened and banged shut, and Junior Kearney came toward him waving his arms. "What the hell are you doin' here, Luke? You'll drive away my customers. Nobody wants to turn in when they see the sheriff's car, and there ain't no reason for you to spy on me anyhow, 'cause I ain't doing nothing wrong."
"And the only reason you aren't doing anything wrong is because I do keep an eye on you." In the glow of a mercury yard light, he could see Junior's face and how he'd aged since he'd got his comeuppance. Still, Luke had gone light on him because even though he'd treated his mother like shit all those years, he had given her shelter when she was homeless, unwed, and pregnant with him.
Junior's face crumpled. "Please. Just get out of here before you run off what business I've got left. I swear I ain't doing nothing wrong. I don't have no whores working for me. The guys have to bring their own. And I ain't selling moonshine, neither."
"And we made a deal, remember?" Junior leaned in the open window, looking as desperate as a drowning man gulping for air. "I did what you wanted, and I'll never live it down. You made me look like a fool in front of God and everybody. Isn't that enough? What more do you want? How come you got to keep hounding me?"
Any other time Luke would have hung around just to aggravate him, but he was tired and ready to call it a night. "Just keep walking a chalk line, Junior, because if you make one little slip, you can bet your ass you'll do hard time."
As he drove away, he glanced in the rear view mirror and saw Junior angrily raise his middle finger. Luke didn't care. He was just living for the day when he could see the whole damn town reflected in his mirror.
The radio crackled. He heard Matt calling in to Ned Tucker, the dispatcher back in the basement office at the courthouse. Ned answered, sounding tired. Luke knew as soon as everybody signed off for the night, Ned would lean back in his chair and sleep the rest of his shift.
"Tell the sheriff I'm going ten-seven," Matt said.
Luke pressed the button on his mike. "Where's Kirby?"
Ned answered. "He went off a half hour ago. Didn't you hear him?"
"Must have been when I was chasing off the brats soaping the windows at the library."
Matt asked how long he was going to stay on duty, and Luke explained he was about to call it a night. "Alma has to work today and wants me to take Tammy shopping in Birmingham, so I need to get to bed pretty soon."
He released the button. He was going to bed, all right, but not his own. Once he signed off with Ned, he planned to head out to the country where the sweetest girl in the world was waiting. At least he hoped she was still waiting, just like he hoped it was still safe to sneak in her house.
The evening before, when he and Emma Jean Veazey had run into each other accidentally on purpose at Creech's filling station, she'd said her husband, Rudy, was complaining that his stomach hurt. She was afraid he might call in to work sick. If he did, they wouldn't have a chance to be together for a couple of weeks because his shift was changing to days. And with her working at the laundromat, she wouldn't be able to get away.
Luke needed to see her bad, too, and not just for the love-making. He had made up his mind they couldn't keep sneaking around. Rudy was a hot-headed redneck who would fight at the drop of his fertilizer cap. Luke wasn't worried about tangling with him. He just shuddered to think of what Rudy would do to Emma Jean if he found out. Besides, he knew he loved her and wanted to be with her for always.
He had done a lot of thinking and come up with a plan he was sure would work. He had confided in an old army buddy in Birmingham who was manager of a big supermarket. The friend promised Emma Jean a job and even said she could stay with him and his wife where she'd be safe. Once Luke got her there, he would tell Rudy to his face how it was.
He'd have to tell Alma real quick, too, because the story would spread like butter on hot grits. Not that she would give a damn, except for her pride. They only got married because she was pregnant, not because they loved each other. But he knew she didn't want a divorce, because she had things just like she wanted them: complete control over their daughter Tammy and her job as a floor supervisor at the mill, which paid more than his job as sheriff. Plus the respectability of marriage, which was real important to women raised like her. A sorry man is better than no man at all, they liked to say.
As for his own future, he didn't plan to hang around Alabama for long. He figured he could always find a job just about anywhere in law enforcement. He also had his disability pay from the army, and with his job and Emma Jean's working, he could pay child support and they would still live well.
Life was going to be good again. He just felt it in his bones. President Nixon was said to be bringing 75,000 troops home from Vietnam by the end of the year. Maybe soon, the hellish war would be over and everybody could get back to peaceful times.
But before he made too many plans he needed to make sure Emma Jean felt the same way he did. He was pretty sure she did, although she'd never come right out and said so. Tonight he was going to find out.
Finally signing off, Luke headed in the direction of Sid Dootree's farm where Rudy rented a tenant shack. It wasn't much, but Emma Jean had fixed it up nice with what she had to work with. Luke liked the location. It was on a side road that dead-ended in a swamp, so there was never much traffic, especially this time of night.
He was almost to the turnoff when the radio crackled.
"Base to sheriff. Come in."
For a few seconds Luke was tempted not to respond, but Ned knew he hadn't had time to get home yet. It might look funny. He snatched up the mike. "Yeah, I'm here. What is it?"
There was a brief, hesitant silence, then, "Just got a call about somebody messing around at the cemetery."
"Who was it—Cecil Curry? Hell, he's always hearing noises over there. He ought to move. He's too big a sissy to live near a graveyard."
Another pause. "It wasn't Cecil."
Luke glanced impatiently at the clock on the dash. It was almost 4 a.m. It would start getting light around 6:30 a.m. If Rudy had gone to work—and he wouldn't know till he saw whether his pickup was in the driveway—he and Emma Jean would have less than three hours together. He didn't have time to check out the cemetery. "So who was it, Ned?"
"They wouldn't say... just said they saw lights in there and hung up."
"So what do you expect on Halloween? Remember that old legend about the talking grave? Some kids are fooling around, that's all, and I'm too tired to care."
"The talking grave is at the Hampton monument. That's not where they saw the lights."
Irritated, Luke snapped, "Damn it, will you just tell me word for word what they did say and get it over with? I've been in this car almost twelve hours now."
Another maddening moment of silence, then, "They said the lights were near where your momma is buried. I thought you'd want to check it out. Maybe I should call Matt for backup. He's probably not got to bed yet."
Luke had already spun the car around so fast it jumped the curb and knocked down Lula Porter's mailbox. "Listen and listen good, Ned. I don't need backup, and you just forget that call ever came in. You hear me?"
Luke took a short cut to the cemetery and came in the back way. If the vandals didn't know they had been spotted, he might be able to catch them. And if he did, by the time he finished with them, they wouldn't go near a cemetery again till they were in their own coffins.
Mess with his momma's grave, would they? Lord, he was going to make them pay. And he had a good idea who they were, too—the Scroggins boys. They had it in for him, and Rossie, the oldest, had even hinted at something like this. Easing the patrol car behind a utility shed, Luke carefully, quietly, got out. He was in the oldest section where some of the graves dated back to the 1800s.
Bare tree branches rattled together like bones, and spidery beams of moonlight cast an eerie glow over the crumbling, mold-crusted tombstones. The new section was on the hill above. His stomach twisted with anger to see lights flashing around right where his mother was buried.
Most of the moonlight was spilling into the main path, which had no trees to block his view. Wanting to keep to the shadows, he had to cross graves, which meant moving slower than he wanted. It was dangerous going. Earlier burials had been in wooden coffins, not in vaults. When they had rotted, the graves had sunk. He didn't want to risk stepping in one of the holes and breaking an ankle. The funeral home was supposed to keep the graves up, but evidently Hardy Moon was getting lazy. Luke made a mental note to say something to Hardy's wife, Lucy. She'd straighten him out.
Luke set his jaw to think about Hardy. If he was behind this instead of the Scroggins boys, Luke was going to wreak revenge all over again. And this time it would be much worse.
As he got closer, he saw there were two lights, which probably meant only two people were involved. He calculated it had been about 15 minutes since he'd got the call, and they were still there. But what the hell were they doing? He was getting madder with each careful, plodding step.
He moved around the Hampton family monument. It was the tallest and biggest in the cemetery, and the one he had been referring to with Ned as the talking grave. For as long as he could remember, it had been the focus for a silly prank the kids liked to play on newcomers to town. He had done it a few times himself when he was a teenager. A new kid was told the legend of somebody going to the grave at midnight and quietly asking, "What do you want for supper?" After turning around three times, the bodies buried within the iron picket enclosure would answer. If the new kid refused to try it, he was forever-more branded a chicken—something boys wanted to avoid at all costs.
The trick, of course, was to intimidate somebody into doing it. After he'd asked the question and spun around without anything happening, he was informed, amidst taunting laughter because he was so stupid and gullible, that the corpses had, indeed, answered. They didn't want anything for supper, so they said... nothing.
As it turned out, it was, ironically, a Hampton who put an end to the tradition. It happened the first year Luke was elected sheriff. Old lady Clara Hampton had died, and Hardy had her grave dug the evening before her funeral was scheduled. The kids who played the joke on two unsuspecting newcomers didn't know about it. The newcomers fell in the grave, and the kids thought that made it all the funnier and took off, leaving them to climb out by themselves.
What they had not known, however, was that the hole was way deeper than six feet in order to accommodate an expensive vault. Neatly dug by a backhoe, the walls were straight up with nowhere to get a handhold in the red clay. As it turned out, that didn't matter anyway because one of the boys died of a broken neck the instant he landed. The other boy broke his leg and went mad from pain and having to lay next to his dead buddy all night.
It wasn't till late in the morning that the funeral procession arrived. It was summer, and the dead boy was already starting to smell. The other kid's hair had turned stone white. His name was Robbie Kershaw. Luke would never forget helping to lift him out of the grave. He was babbling and drooling, and his eyes were rolling around his head like he'd stuck his finger in a light socket. The last Luke heard, he was still in the state insane asylum down in Tuscaloosa.
Luke unbuckled the strap over his gun handle. If he wasn't able to take them by surprise, they might come at him swinging shovels or some other weapons.
In the glow of the lights, he could see the canopy over Jake Petrie's waiting grave. His funeral was set for ten the next morning. Luke was real grateful to the person who called in because he would have hated mighty bad not to have found out about any vandalism before then. Now he'd have a chance to make repairs and be spared the humiliation of everyone knowing about it.
His view was temporarily blocked when he had to go around the last obstacle, huge box hedges planted around the Odom family plot. Chester Odom owned the local nursery and, even though none of the graves were occupied, he had already landscaped them. He said he did it to make sure he would have a nice resting place, but everyone knew the old coot used it to advertise his business. Why else would he have a little sign stuck in the ground proclaiming, "Odom's Nursery—Let us make your loved one's resting place a garden of Eden"? Hardy kept taking down the signs, but Chester put them right back up.
Luke stepped around the end of the hedge, blinked against the lights... and cursed to realize he'd been had. Two flashlights had been tied to low-hanging branches from a tree over the grave. It was undisturbed, and the bouquet of artificial pink and white roses he'd put there over a month ago was still in place at the foot of the marker carved with the inscription:
ORLENA PEARL BALLARD
ASLEEP IN JESUS
Hands shaking with rage, Luke took out his pocket knife and reached up to cut the ropes. While he was really pissed off to think somebody had dared rile him this way, he was relieved it wasn't worse and told himself he still had time to make it to Emma Jean's. The evening wasn't totally ruined.
...until the shots rang out.