Friday, July 24, 2015

FICTION: The Strange Case of the Man in Black - Part I

July 2, 2015
1:31 a.m.
The Cotton House
River Street
Claiborne, Alabama

I’d just finished my first beer when Big Eddie entered the bar through the wooden double doors behind me. The giant-sized cab driver was one of my best sources, and I hoped he had something good for me tonight.

At the start of my shift, my editor told me that he couldn’t cover for me any more. I had to come back with a good story if I wanted to keep my job. So far, I had nothing, but Eddie could change all that.

I watched him in the mirror behind the bar as he shucked off his raincoat and hung it on the stand beside the door. His wet hair, Viking blonde, was plastered to his skull, but his uniform shirt was as dry as chalk. Our eyes met in the mirror, and he nodded a greeting.

It had been a while since I’d last seen Eddie. I’d missed a lot of work while on sick leave and during my “vacation.” As far as I could tell, nothing about Claiborne had changed in my absence. It was dark and rainy when I left, and it was dark and rainy when I got back.

Eddie sat on the red, padded stool beside me, and it creaked under his bulk. He hadn’t always been a taxi driver. In fact, he’d been The Claiborne Herald’s top photographer before he figured out that he could make more money as a cab driver in Alabama’s fifth largest city than he could as a newspaperman.

Eddie still sent us a picture from time to time, usually of a bad car wreck or house fire, and I liked him because he was always good for a strong news tip. More times than I can remember, Eddie’s tips had led to big stories. On the other side of the coin, his tips had landed me in the emergency room more than once.

Eddie motioned to Chuck the bartender with one hand and used the other to hook a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He shook one out and lit it with a butane lighter that looked like it had been discarded at the Battle of the Bulge. “What you heard, McMorn?” he asked, his voice raspy.

“You tell me,” I said, my first words to him since my return to Claiborne from my misadventures up north in witch country.

Eddie exhaled smoke, and it drifted around us in an acrid cloud. We were at the far end of the bar, and the smoke made it hard to see the two other people in the long room, Chuck and an ugly, yellow-skinned stranger, dressed in black, who sat in a back booth at the other end of the long saloon.

This stranger pretended not to watch us. I pretended not to notice.

I turned my attention back to Eddie, ready to listen, and my back suddenly throbbed. The spot where I’d been shot four months ago ached like a bad tooth, and the 1,300-mile, all-in-one-day drive down from Salem yesterday hadn’t done it any favors.

“I don’t know how you’d be able to work it into the newspaper,” Eddie began. “But I picked up an Air Force officer named Landon at the airfield earlier tonight, and we talked while I drove him to his hotel. He said he’d never been to Claiborne before, but had heard a lot about it.”

I glanced over Eddie’s meaty shoulder at the stranger in the back booth. The moment I looked his way, he raised his glass to his lips and pretended to study the sheet of newspaper spread out in front of him. “And then what happened?” I asked Eddie.

“Then things took a turn for the weird,” Eddie said. “Of all things, we got on the subject of car tags, about how all but the first three are in alphabetical order, and he said it was set up that way on purpose so that Monroe County would be number 51.”

I drained the last warm swallow of beer from the bottom of my glass and set it down on the bar. I wanted a pain pill bad, but they were long gone. I’d flushed the last of them down the toilet weeks ago.

“Why so that all of the county’s license plates start with the number 51?”

Eddie took one last drag off his cigarette then crushed the butt into a golden, metal ashtray on the bar between us. I motioned to Chuck for one last beer.

“I asked the flyboy the same thing,” Eddie said. “He laughed and asked me if I’d ever heard of Area 51.”

Chuck appeared with another beer in a fresh glass. He set it down, grabbed my empty and walked away.

“I told him that everybody’s heard of Area 51. It’s the Air Force base where all the weird stuff happens way out in the middle of the New Mexico desert.”

“I think it’s actually in Nevada.”

“Whatever,” Eddie said as he fiddled for another cigarette. “Anyway, this Air Force guy says that anytime you see the number 51 put into official use, it’s the how the government tags unusual places, weird spots on the map.”

“Why would they label our county that way?”

“He said it’s because of the county’s unique reputation. He said Monroe County’s unique, special but that most people who live here don’t realize it because they’ve lived here all their lives and it’s normal to them.”

“And then what happened?”

“I told him I thought it was a bunch of bull, but he told me to consider the county’s history – Prince Madoc, DeSoto, the Old Federal Road, Lafayette, the Civil War, the steamboat legends, the ghost stories, the Freemasons and on and on and on.”

“You’re right. It’ll be hard to work this up into a newspaper story.”

“I’m not finished yet. When we pulled up to his hotel, before he got out, he asked me if I’d ever heard of the bad yellow fever epidemic that hit Claiborne back in the 1800s and nearly wiped out the town. I told him every local kid learns about that in school and right before he shut the door and walked off, he said it that wasn’t yellow fever at all. It was vampires.”

Just then, Eddie’s cell phone dinged. He glanced at it, frowned and said, “Got to go. Got a fare down the street.” He crushed out his cigarette and tossed a few dollars on the bar for Chuck. “See you later.”

“Watch your back out there.”

In the mirror behind the bar, I watched the big double doors of the Cotton House swing closed behind Eddie as he left. I began to think. How could I spin his tip into a story that would keep me from losing my job? Maybe I could track down the Air Force guy and get him on record. Would he talk or would he clam up the minute I begin to ask questions?

Suddenly and without warning, the glass in the door behind me shattered as the reports of three gunshots sounded from right outside. The gunman was close, perhaps on the sidewalk or out in the street. I threw myself to the dirty floor and low crawled to the door.

My thoughts raced. Had some street thug tried to mug Eddie on the sidewalk or rob him of the little bit of money in his cab? Had Eddie fired the shots in self defense or was it something else?

I reached the right-hand half of the door and peaked over the bottom of the broken window. All was quiet, but what I saw caused a wave of disgust and anger to wash over me. There was Eddie on the sidewalk, on his back and unconscious. I jumped up, shoved open the door and squatted down beside him.

At first glance, he looked dead. Blood oozed from two gunshot wounds, one high up on the right side of his chest and the other in his belly. I checked the pulse in his neck and almost could feel it. His eyes were closed, and I could just barely see the shallow rise and fall of his chest. He was still alive.

Just then, Chuck burst through the doors with a sawed-off shotgun. He glanced down at us and then scanned down one end of the street and then the other. The streets were empty except for a black god that crossed the street a block away, headed towards the Alabama River.

“Call 911,” I told Chuck. “Tell them we need an ambulance right now or somebody’s going to die. Then, bring me some clean towels.” Without a word, Chuck disappeared inside and a minute later, I heard the approach of sirens.

The last police officer left an hour later. He took statements from us as soon as the ambulance left with Eddie. My hands were covered in Eddie’s blood.

Back in the bar, Chuck brought me another beer. “No charge,” he said as he picked up a broom and started to sweep up the glass from the shot-up door.

I nursed my beer and pondered the situation. My biggest problem seemed to be solved. I had a story, but it came at Eddie’s expense. A late night shooting in downtown Claiborne is a front page story for sure.

At that point, it dawned on me. I turned, looked at the other end of the bar and found it deserted.

“Chuck, what happened to the guy in the back booth, the weird guy dressed all in black?”

Chuck leaned on his broom and frowned. “I didn’t mention it to the police, McMorn, but when I ran back in to call 911, he was gone. At first, I thought he’d stepped into the men’s room, but it’s empty. I checked. He just disappeared.”

(All rights reserved. This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.)

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