Sally Rae and I own The Waterin’ Hole Café, the best (and only) restaurant in Heartbreak, Texas. Heartbreak is a tiny dash of humanity lost somewhere 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s degenerate sushi bars. Here, some of the cows are almost human, and some of the humans are decidedly bovine, but we always got it sorted out right about supper time.
Arney Shaw, our town policeman, and I were eating breakfast together. This isn’t too unusual; we shared information. We both had the job of keeping our citizens safe, each in our own way.
He told me about his broken septic system. It was backing up, I told him (yet again) that he had to take out a loan for a $6,000 tank and lateral lines, and pay Boss Plemmons $500 for a bribe to get it approved for the county, just like the rest of us.
Arney hated paying bribes, ’cause of his law-and-order thing. I reminded him of how last time he had this problem I ended up having to dive into his septic tank to save him after I saw his white hat on the surface of his septic pool.
Then his radio piped up: “There has been a shooting at Jess Winters’ place, two miles north of your current location, go immediately to meet state troopers!”
Arney said, “I have to go, want to come with me?”
The reason Arney let me ride along with him was that he needed his septic system repaired. Arney is the densest, slowest man I ever met, but he knew I wasn’t going to go swimming in his septic system again, no matter how good friends we might be.
We arrived. There was little question about murder. Winters lay spread-eagle on his back, a hole between his eyes and most of his brains on the floor, the furniture and the walls behind him. There was no gun nearby, and he had a surprised look on his face. This was murder, straight-up.
A state trooper said, “Officer Shaw, you and your buddy just sit down right over here. We’re the professionals. Although we are about a mile north of your jurisdiction, we invited you as a professional courtesy.”
From there on, the troopers ignored us as they took photographs, printed the area, and otherwise patronized Arney as if he was as ignorant as the yellow dog that crawled out from under Winters’ house. Me, they just ignored.
After an hour, a trooper came over and asked, “Do you know anything about this, Shaw?”
Well, ol’ Arney was gormless, as usual, but I stuck up my hand and said, “Well, I do, maybe.”
I explained how last night Jess Winters argued with Gert and her current man, Joe Gibbs, in my restaurant. It got kind of loud, and I sort of listened up. If I had to exclude anyone, I wanted to be on the right side of the thing.
Gert, I explained, ran a convenience store down in Quick Fix. Us locals called it “The Food Museum,” due to the ancient nature of the awful stuff she sold.
“Who seemed violent?” Trooper Evans asked me.
“Well, none of them, so far as I know,” I answered. “It was about someone owed someone money. Wait. I did hear Joe tell Jess Winters that he was tempted to reach down his throat and yank him inside-out, but I hear that sort of talk all the time.”
Evans said, “It’s time that we go to Quick Fix and question this Joe Gibbs fella. It’s usually the boyfriend. Follow me, Officer Shaw.”
Well, the Texas state troopers had a hot scent. They all followed behind Arney, ’cause he knew where Gert lived.
Now Quick Fix is just a little bit south of town. Heartbreak is an incorporated town. We have standards: a government (sort of), a number of churches, a few bars (well, more bars than churches, truth be told), and my place, The Waterin’ Hole Café, where we sell drinks a bit too expensive to be the main reason for being there.
Quick Fix has cheap drinks, cheap women and cheap thrills. It is a dangerous place and most men (and women) pack pistols. It is a place of decaying wooden homes backed by uncharted dirt roads that have many old mobile homes, and pit bulls as the favorite pet.
Some of the oldest, most run-down homes have rooms of “nine-liners” that pay top-dollar wins, and illegal bars run inside trailer homes with kids playing in the front yards. Things are seldom as they look in Quick Fix. Arney and I stay out of that area as best we can.
When we got to Gert’s, Arney said, “Stop for a minute.” He looked in his log book and said, “Yeah, this old Chevy Sedan came through Heartbreak, heading north, about 2 in the morning. About 2:45 it came back, this direction, towards Quick Fix.”
“Why would you make a note of this?” Trooper Evans asked.
“Well, I know my town. I didn’t know this car. I mean, Gert’s been here forever, but she trades off her boyfriends, well, sort of seasonally. Also, he or she wasn’t weaving or acting drunk. I didn’t see who was driving.”
“You mean you noticed a car because the owner wasn’t driving drunk?” Evans asked, incredulous.
“Well, it was 2 o’clock Saturday morning. I mean, it’s my town. I guess it’s what you might call ‘digressionary enforcement.’”
“You mean, discretionary enforcement, like ‘selective law enforcement?’” Evans asked, sort of sharply.
“No, it means that if a person digresses too far off the center line, I pull them over and run ’em home … hey, don’t look at me that way, it works for us.”
Arney didn’t have a law degree, needed dental work and a septic system, but he was darn good with people. What most people call “professional” law enforcement nowadays is usually just code for “bad-tempered and suspicious.” If Arney had a fault, it was his belief in humans.
Trooper Evans marched up to Gert’s trailer home and knocked a patrolman’s knock; that is, the door almost fell off the hinges.
There was some movement inside, followed by, “Go away!”
Evans commanded, “Open up, we’re the law!”
Eventually, Joe Gibbs opened the door. It was obvious that he had slept the night on the couch.
Evans started in with the Full Trooper Stare. Heck, I considered confessing when he just glanced my way.
“Did you drive into Heartbreak, and out to Jess Winters’ place about 2 a.m. and shoot him dead?” Evans accused.
Well, poor old Joe Gibbs stood there with a dumb look on his face, and then he filled his pants. That Evans sure had a way with words, I thought. Then Joe sort of waddled off to the bathroom and we heard a sink and a toilet running. I guess you might call that “a sign of guilty knowledge.”
Gert came staggering in from her bedroom. Lordy, all her decades showed.
“What’s going on?’ she asked, rubbing her eyes. Poor old Gert hadn’t been a beauty in her younger years, when Truman was president, and time had been most unkind to her.
“I had my CPAP breather machine running, sound asleep, and all of a sudden I heard a huge commotion in my living room. What’s up?”
“I am arresting Joe Gibbs for first-degree murder of Jess Winters, at or around 2:30 this morning, at his place of residence, by means of firearm. Do you know about this? Better speak up right now, ma’am!”
Evans had cop-speak down. I always wondered how many years it took to learn how to be so rude, and always murder syntax, in the true crime manner of almost all cops.
“Why, I was asleep the whole time. I had a few too many drinks last night, and I rode home with Joe. I slept ’til just now,” she said. “Doesn’t surprise me, though. Joe always seemed sort of a bad ’un.”
So much for love in the golden years.
“Can you prove it? If you rode along with him, you’re going down, too,” Evans said.
“Uh, sure I can prove it.” Gert went into her bedroom and came out with her CPAP breather. “Let me load this little chip in my card reader.”
“I’m an innocent man!” Joe wailed from the bathroom.
“Hurry up,” Evans said. “Justice delayed is justice denied!”
Now, I didn’t care about Joe Gibbs, but, like most of Gert’s men, he was weak and, well, just a bit desperate: desperate to eat, desperate to have a roof, but not a “desperate killer.” Gert, on the other hand, was harder than a Texas summer with no air conditioning. Something wasn’t right.
“There!” Gert said. “That’s my sleep report. I was out from 10 after midnight until 15 minutes ago, except for a couple of short trips to the bathroom.”
I asked, “Let me see this; I have a CPAP machine myself.”
I clicked it a couple of times. The GPS feature of the sleep report popped up. It showed when the machine had paused, been switched to a 12-volt mode, and made a 10-mile journey to the north, then back to this location again.
Gert walloped me behind my ear and sent me spinning onto the floor. In short order, she was handcuffed and in the back of Evans’ cruiser.
“What put you on to her?” Arney asked.
“Old Joe is lazy to the point of being sorry. Gert always takes the bull by the horns. And I’d do most anything to keep that stinking Joe out of this car.”