Groundswell is a pulp-noir detective story that popped into my head the other day. It will be presented here, serialized, as I write it.
“First that Cotton boy went and shot hisself right there in front of the whole class, then they found that poor little Stanford girl down at Bobcat Creek with her damn head on backwards. And who knows what happened to ol’ Charlie Bishop? Only way they knew it was him was they found his MedicAlert bracelet in the wood chipper. Rest of him was all ground chuck. And now this. All in one month! Now you tell me there ain’t some crazy devil worshipper shit goin’ on around here. This shit ain’t normal.”
Logan Hayes sipped what remained of his lukewarm coffee as he eavesdropped on the diners occupying the booth behind him at Rosie’s Cafe. He wasn’t trying to snoop, but Okies tended to be loud talkers, and these folks were no exception–their voices carried.
Not that they were saying anything useful–not to him, anyway–it was just more of the same idle, speculative chatter he’d heard spilling from most everyone’s lips since he’d pulled into the dusty little town of Axton, Oklahoma three days earlier.
Word spread fast in small towns, especially when the details were exceptionally sordid and grisly–and it didn’t get much grislier than what had happened to Chance Miller.
Once everyone found out Logan was a P.I. hired by Chance’s family, he was bombarded with a whole lot of wildly contradictory information–some of it potentially useful, some of it not.
On this particular afternoon, he was following up a lead that fell into the former category, observing a waitress named Candy with whom Miller had reportedly been having an affair.
They were both married, and Candy’s husband was a big, beefy trucker with, according to multiple accounts, a hair-trigger temper.
Logan was certain he was looking at a jealousy-based homicide. Not that he understood going to such extremes over something like that, but he’d seen it time and time again. He’d been cheated on plenty, and likened it to finding out someone had driven his car without his knowledge. It felt weird for awhile, but life went on. He knew, though, that most folks weren’t that blasé about infidelity.
Once he’d gathered enough evidence to build a solid case, he’d turn everything over to the state police and collect his twenty grand.
Ordinarily, he’d have turned the info over to the local PD, but he didn’t trust them. He’d been hired in the first place due to their supposed incompetence and corruption. At least, that was the story he’d gotten from Miller’s family. Based upon his brief encounter with Chief Kimball, though, he was inclined to believe it.
The man was, for lack of a better term, an imbecile. And he was mean–just for the sheer hell of it. Yeah, he was one of those guys. Logan hated those guys.
He’d taken personal offense at Logan’s requests for information, which spoke volumes to the veteran P.I. right off the bat.
“We can handle our own problems around here, Hayes. Now I suggest you hop in your vehicle and go back to wherever the hell you come from before you get yourself in trouble,” he’d said.
Logan had tried being diplomatic–he’d dealt with this type of ego-driven good ol’ boy system his entire career, after all. This guy, though? Insufferable.
“We’re both on the same side here, Chief. We both want the same thing. I can help you find your killer, and you can keep all the glory for yourself. It’s a win-win for both of us. All I want is the money.”
All that offer had gotten him was a not-so-gentle escort out of the building by two of Kimball’s dumb redneck lackeys.
“Stubborn son of a bitch,” he muttered under his breath as Candy came over to refill his coffee.
She was a moderately attractive woman in her early thirties–cute face, nice ass, dirty blonde hair with faded pink highlights… Little chubby, but in all the right spots. He could see why an old man like Miller might’ve been taken by her. She was only moderately attractive by conventional standards, but possessed the kind undefinable allure that drew men in and made them do stupid things.
She didn’t look at anyone when she spoke, and the dark circles beneath her eyes stood in stark contrast to her dull, pale cheeks. She hadn’t been sleeping.
Why? Grief certainly had to be factored in. Anxiety, too, because everyone was looking at her and talking about her. There was something else, though. Maybe she’d been there when it happened. Maybe she was keeping mum to protect her husband. Maybe he was threatening her.
An old man who’d been sitting quietly at the counter since before Logan had arrived pounded his fists down, rattling his half-emptied plate of chicken fried steak and gravy-coated silverware. His knife clattered to the floor.
“Y’all don’t know what the hell you’re dealing with here! Tried to tell y’all all these years, an’ everbody just laughed at me!”
He turned around, baring a mouthful of crooked teeth, his wild, bloodshot eyes blazing with… insanity? No, Logan decided, Exasperation.
“Y’all ain’t gonna be laughin’ no more,” he grumbled, fishing in his pocket for a grimy, crumpled five dollar bill and some change. He slammed the whole mess down next to his plate without counting it and stormed out. The bells hanging from the door continued to jingle against the glass for a few moments after he was gone, like an echo of his anger.
Everybody looked around at each other and a few nervous snickers broke the uncomfortable silence. Then they started to talk again.
“…hell does he think he is?”
“…ought to lock him up…”
“–prolly the murderer…”
Logan didn’t want to follow the old man outside, but he did anyway. A gut feeling forced the issue.
He laid a crisp twenty down on the table and grabbed a piece of toast for the road, munching on it as he charged out after–he paused in the doorway. “What’s that guy’s name?” he called to no one in particular.
“That’s Nate Hollis,” someone said. “Don’t listen to that old dummy, he don’t have anything–”
Logan was outside before the man completed his sentence. All he needed was the name.
“Mr. Hollis!” he called, breaking into a jog to catch up with the old man, who had already traversed an impressive distance down the sun-cracked, litter-strewn street.
Nate finally stopped; turned around. He squinted.
“Who the hell are you?”
Logan jogged up, panting. Sweating, too–It was hot out and he was wearing a suit, because he always did. No exceptions, ever. Not while working a case, anyway. Anything less would have felt unprofessional.
“Good afternoon sir, my name is Logan Hayes. I’m a private detective hired by the family of Chance Miller.
Logan studied his eyes. He could tell a lot about a man that way, and he’d gazed into his fair share of crazy eyes over the years–Not this time, though.
“What do you want from me?”
Suspicion. Side with him against the assholes in the diner. They’re the crazy ones.
“You said nobody believed you. What did you mean by that?”
“You come runnin’ all the way out here after me to make fun?”
“Not at all, sir,” said Logan in a knowing voice. He leaned closer and elbowed the man playfully in the ribs. “Truth is, I can’t get jack shit out of any of these idiots around here. They don’t know what’s really going on. There are things in this world that only the smart guys like you and I pick up on, see?”
Nate’s eyes widened, and his face lit up as if a long-lost memory had suddenly resurfaced in his mind in vivid detail. “You believe me?”
The old man was probably in his late sixties or early seventies, but his face said at least eighty. He’d lived a hard life, the past decade or more of which he’d devoted to convincing himself of his own utter worthlessness. He’d forgotten that he was once part of the human race, and that he was a man with feelings and dreams like anyone else. He smelled like cigarettes, piss and old body odor–it was the multilayered stench of a man who no longer cared about anything.
Now, though, someone was actually listening to him.
“Depends,” said Logan with a shrug. “I haven’t heard your story yet. But I’d really, really like to.”
“Well come on!” said Nate, already shuffling away and beckoning Logan to follow him.
“Where we going?”
“Back to my place. It’s a long story, and you’re gonna wanna sit down for it.”
“Lead the way, then,” said Logan, smiling and hoping his house didn’t smell as bad as he did.