Deputy: Once Upon A Time In Mississippi

Deputy-280wWith that, his eyes went wild and glassy. He seized his pistol from the nightstand, shouted, “Get back! Get back!” and fired five deafening rounds in the small echo chamber until there were only the dry clicks and snaps of the trigger. He was trying to kill Star again.

He attempted to reload, but his quivering fingers turned into ten thumbs. He fumbled, juggled, and dropped the bullets, and they rolled around the floor like errant dice in a game of chance. He dropped to his knees, trying desperately to find them before Star’s icy fingers clawed at his soul and pulled him into the grave. He grasped at bullets balled up like roly-poly bugs, which mocked him and eluded his clumsy pawing.

He swallowed hard, foaming at the mouth, and his sphincter suddenly relaxed. He laughed an empty laugh and said, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
His face went slack, his eyes rolled back up into his head, and he fell face first, mouth open, into the grimy, yellowed carpet of a motel that survived only through payoffs to the health inspector.

The Pusher, whom everyone feared, passed out in a pool of his own vomit, right at the ephemeral feet and curled toes of his accusing ghost, whispering one last guttural exhalation...“You was buried six feet under. Who woke you up?”

“There is the presence of the Lord in this house. I can feel him here right now. He’s breaking every shackle. He’s mending the broken. I thank Him. I thank Him. Oh, someone is here, someone who has traveled the hard road home to New Orleans. This is your night. This is your night! God has brought you here to be healed. God made an appointment with you. It is no accident that your path led to the front door of His house. Don’t be ashamed.

“He designated this night long ago. Walk away from darkness. Walk into the Light. He is here right now. Come forward and see your chains fall to the floor. You think He won’t forgive you, but He is waiting. Why do you delay? Run to Him now! Deliverance is at hand,” the Bishop preached, hanging on to the pulpit with one hand, waving his Bible with the other.

“Somebody can rebuke the grip of the enemy. Somebody can break free of the prison of sin they’ve lived in since they were a child. Satan, take your filthy hand off this child of God. He’s not yours any longer. The Holy Spirit is working on him, purging you from his mind and heart…the blood he has spilt is like the waters of the Red Sea, but he can see those waters being parted and his sins swallowed up. He is hearing the Sermon on the Mount pouring through him, and he is almost ready…almost ready to bow before the Savior of the world, who stoops to serve the lowly…almost ready to pick up his cross and follow Jesus. He is being prepared for communion with his new family…the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Come down! Come down here tonight and break the yoke of sin,” the Bishop shouted.

The organist began to make the keys weep, and the choir began to sing and sway, “All to Jesus, I surrender. All to Him I freely give…I surrender all. I surrender all…


Blood On The Ground: Living And Dying In Nod

Book Cover“But I’ve known Director John Edwards Collins since he was an ATF agent, head of the LEAA, and a reporter for the Clarion Ledger. Democrats have done well by him, and Governor J.P. Coleman swore by him. Collins once liked the bottle more than he should have, but we stuck with him. He owes us, but he’s also stubborn and independent. That team of college boys he’s hired couldn’t manage a flea circus, but it could be hard to put the genie back in the bottle once it’s been uncorked.

“What irritates me is how we let him bamboozle us into setting such tough requirements to be an agent. Their resumes should only contain the important qualifications. Did you vote Democrat, who do you know, who you kin to, and what’re you willing to do for us when asked. We have to replenish our voter base. Not everybody who votes Democrat has a home address in the graveyards, but the dead are among our most loyal voters.

“Our county sheriffs will still nab the boys with a couple of joints or maybe even a pound of weed and send ’em straight to Parchman. That won’t interfere with the cooperative players who fly their planes to and from Belize from our crop-duster airfields in the Delta. The feds don’t care too much as long as their gun-running mercenaries have the state’s remote airfields to launch their flights. They can fly under radar all the way to Central America and back,” he said.

He ignored Michael and touched Rose, brushing her hair lightly. Michael noticed every time she got near Corndog, he seemed compelled to touch her.

“Rose, you’re a sweet little girl, but you think too much of these new kids on the block. If they get contrary and impudent and try to get off the leash, it may take us a while, but there’re ways to hobble them when they do. That’ll never interfere with our recreational activities here in the Leg Room and down at Moondog Square. We’re like gods here in Jackson. Sure, we play poker with the devil. His deck is stacked, but he’s always happy to accept our IOUs,” Corndog said.

He took another long toke on the joint he carried, held it, and began to talk in a squeaky voice, like a constipated man who had snorted helium.

He smoked. He drank. He talked. He bragged…too much.

“You know, son, I grew up in the Delta, picking cotton in the hot sun, dragging that heavy sack, my hands bleeding from them sharp cotton burrs. My pants would be full of cockle burrs, and my back would hurt so bad from stooping over to pick that sometimes I had to crawl down the rows. I knew I had to find a way out, and I vowed to never crawl again for no man.

“It was hard because I was nobody…a poor student, a sickly child, but the local political boss told me I had a certain charm and a way with words. He said my future might be in the pulpit or…in politics.

“I just couldn’t see myself as no polecat preacher. So I cleaned myself up and decided to go right to the top. I’d run for the state senate slot held by the Honorable Justin Johnson, the man who wore bow ties with seersucker suits and looked like he had sucked on a persimmon.

“He had a mistress in every county in the flatland of the Mississippi Delta. They’d put on their best cotton dresses and sit on the front porch of their little shanties and wait for him. They’d see a cloud of dust across the cotton fields and know he was coming. He’d give them some little token of his affection when he left and leave some poor man to raise the children he sired,” he said.

The Delta politician gestured wildly, like a man swatting at flies. He weaved a bit, steadied himself, and then continued his recollections. Power and pot had seduced him into believing his self-manufactured legend, and every telling of his tall tales got better and better.

“Senator Johnson crushed me twice, and he mocked me one day in public…in front of my friends. That old boy laughed in my face and told me I’d better pick up my sack and get on back to the cotton fields. Right there and then, I swore I’d get him.

“I prayed and prayed for God to let me defeat him and be elected to the legislature, but it wasn’t happening. One night I had this dream where I was in this big stew pot, and the cannibals were about to eat me. Then the head cannibal came up to the pot and sprinkled some dust in the stew, and he told me, ‘It’s all in the seasoning.’

“I finally realized that praying for the seat wasn’t how God works. I figured God helps those who help themselves, and it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission. So I found out one of his girlfriends was mad at him. He’d done her wrong. I convinced her to season his stew with this animal tranquilizer I got from an old veterinarian. She did, sprinkled it in his bowl right there in a famous Greenville restaurant.

“Senator Bowtie got violently ill in public. It was on him like skunk spray, and he collapsed to the floor of the restaurant like a glass-jawed boxer who had just run into Marciano’s right hook. It wasn’t pretty, but I had hit the perfecta. All my nags had come in under the wire, and all his chickens had come home to roost. It ain’t about breaking even, it’s about getting even. That’s what I told Johnny Vaught after Ole Miss lost a game. Coach, it’s all about winning and scoring touchdowns. Don’t you kids ever forget it!” he said.

Rose said, “We won’t, Corndog.” But Senator Ball was stoned in the end zone, his tongue thick but loose.

“God knows we’re just souls in animal bodies, and right or wrong, the animal wants what it wants. So I asked God to forgive me for my methods, and here I am. I have men picking up satchels full of money for me in every county. I’ve been milking the cows better than Johnson ever did. I just give ’em what they want and tell ’em what they want to hear.

“While I’ve been oratatin’ about the boogeymen taking their jobs and defiling and deflowering their women, the voters are still stuck on stupid. While they’re reading romance novels and the tabloids and pretending their pathetic little lives matter, I’ve been deep drilling and it’s thrilling,” he said.

He let out a big whoosh of smoke, and his eyes rolled back up in his head for a moment.

“Twenty years later, and I’m still here. The story about what I did to Bowtie got around, and now no one will run against me. It’s all about cannibals and the seasoning. That’s my theology, son…that and the Leg Room here in Jackson. I’m still fishing, and my political worm ain’t lost his wiggle. I’m making out like a peg-legged pirate on the deck of the Good Ship Lollipop.

“We’re the heaven and hell party, Jim. Support us, and it will be heaven on earth. Go against us, and the fire can get pretty hot. I had to explain it to the pup from Arkansas who’s running McGovern’s presidential campaign. I told Bill there ain’t no way a socialist is going to carry Mississippi or be President, and the national party had better recognize our regular slate of delegates to the convention, not this rabble of pretenders down here.

“He smiled a lot and had this catch in his voice, but the boy wasn’t dumb. He was a Rhodes scholar, but I heard Oxford University ‘rode’ him right of England when he got rough with some girl. I can’t fault him too much for liking the ladies, but I told him the forecast for McGovern’s chances are about as good as the chances for a snow blizzard in hell,” he said.

A man came up to Corndog to whisper in his ear, something about Bad Eye Tutor’s wife dying and him being released early from Parchman Penitentiary.

“Don’t worry me about cotton-picking, nitpicking nonsense. Just alert the sheriff and our local boys. They’ll take care of it. I’m off the clock, on R and R time now…rest and recreation and rock n’ roll,” he said.

“Rose understands, don’t you, darling? She’s a veteran of the Leg Room,” he said, patting her leg.

She smiled vacantly and mouthed the required words with mock sincerity. “Yes, sir, Senator. You’re the best.”

“Sure as a chicken’s got feathers, that’s right,” he said as he slapped her backside.

“I was a lowly whitetail, but here in the garden of good and evil, I’m a god, the baddest buck in the forest. I’m as lost as Alice and as mad as the Hatter, but I’m a bad boy senator, and the bad girls like me and my foreign cars. All of us in this room know we’ve offended the gods and are cursed, so we’re prepared to appease them, to throw some virgins into the volcano here in the Leg Room.

“But that means girls like you don’t have to worry, Rose!” he said with the cackle of a lunatic who had sold his soul to the devil.

He wandered off but called out to Michael as they were leaving. “Just remember, kids, everyone talks about rooting for the underdog, but it’s the top dogs they follow. You have to choose carefully which dogs you gonna bark with when you howl at the moon. They say you can have it all. That’s a lie, but I do have everything that old Delta patrician once had, and winners get to write and rewrite history books and epitaphs. Remember, it’s us versus them,” he said.

“Who are them, Senator?” Michael asked.

“Anyone who ain’t us, boy. Don’t you be falling in the ditch with them,” he said, giving Michael a hard look.

“There are ditches on both sides of the road, Senator,” Michael said with a big smile.

“Well, son, I guess you’ll have a shoulder to cry on either way, won’t you?” Corndog said.

On the way to Rose’s house, Michael didn’t talk much.

Rose said, “Those old men got a bad case of the sweet tooth for booze, drugs, and girls, but it was good having you as my escort. It was our first date,” she said with a big, sad smile.

When he didn’t respond, she said, “You know they’re really not such bad people, Michael. They just like to have a good time, and they’ve been kind to me. They don’t hurt nobody unless they deserve it.”

Michael looked at her and said, “Rose, I was born at night, but not last night. Those guys are as twisted as old phone cords. It’s hard to believe the people of Mississippi cast their pearls before such swine. I’m not buying what they’re selling, not even on double Green Stamp days, and you shouldn’t either. They tell you a lot, too much, and one day they may start wondering how much they told you when they were high on drugs or their brains were numbed by lust. You need to be careful.”

Rose smiled an innocent, childlike smile and almost swooned. “I knew you cared about me, Michael. I just knew it,” she said.

He looked at his sweet and harmless CI and thought she struggled to stay in touch with reality, that this was all grand theater and the stuff of romance novels to her. She most likely suffered from a mild case of manic depression and appeared to be circling the drain of life. It broke his heart for her, and he wished the MBN didn’t have to use girls like Rose.

“Crack the window, Rose. We both need to breathe some fresh air after tonight and clear our heads of Corndog’s game of smoke and mirrors.”

Michael thought about the Leg Room and politicians like Corndog. Ticks are not the only bloodsucking creatures in Mississippi.


A Ghostly Shade of Pale

Book CoverBack at the Ace of Diamonds Club, Fredrick had been put up in one of the apartments in the rear of the club that Ace kept for “special” clients. During the night, Fredrick began to awaken with convulsions and shrieks which the frightened women attending him thought was “madness.” Fredrick rose and demanded lights everywhere. He normally couldn’t bear bright lights, but now seemed afraid of the dark. He shook violently, his pale lips turning blue.

He grabbed the attendants and cried, “He’s been here. He!”

Sweat running down his ghostly face onto his blue lips, he stood swaying to and fro, reeling off garbled phrases and quotes from the Satanic bible. He used words from a language no one knew in a voice not his. It was hoarse and wild...not really speech, but eruption. His red eyes were feverish with fear, then excitement. He seemed possessed by demonic forces, with him as a temporary vehicle, prey for things the hapless girls at the club could not see.

“He’s been here! Help me!” he would cry and roughly grab them as he waved a stiletto madly.

“Who? Who’s been here, Mr. Hammel?” they asked. “Is it the devil?” one terrified girl asked.

“It was him… him…with her!” he screamed.

The girls, frightened out of their minds, looked at each other.

“Who are you talking about?”

Then he became quiet suddenly and fell onto the bed, where he twitched and then was still. They approached him carefully, but the duality in him had disappeared. They sighed with relief, but suddenly, he sat up one last time and asked, “There! In the shadows in the corner! Who is there?”

He closed his eyes, swayed and whispered, “Oh, it’s you.”

A smothering, pulsing presence of evil then filled the room, and the girls started running and never stopped.

The doctor paused, sighed heavily, and said, “I’ve never seen anything like it in twenty years in the ER. If not for this vest, it would’ve taken out his heart and lungs, and he would’ve been dead before he hit the ground… Michael, do you hear me? Agent Parker?”

But Michael was far away, hearing Pearl say of the world, “None of this has anything to do with us, son.” He closed his eyes, remembering and feeling the presence in his car, the command to get the vests, and what his childhood pastor had said one Sunday long ago—“The Comforter is near—never leaving us or forsaking us.” 

He shuddered at the thin line between life and death, and cold chills racked his body. He knew they weren’t alone that day. Michael felt a presence in that room of life and death—standing vigil, the soft fluttering of angels’ wings almost perceptible, an almost discernible murmuring of words he couldn’t hear and embraces he couldn’t quite feel. He staggered to the small chapel, fell to his knees, and said a prayer for goodness and mercy, for Jack—for them all.


A Rented World

Book CoverThe club on the north end of Peachtree Boulevard was far from the gleaming lights of the Braves’ stadium, the gold of the Capitol dome, and the venerable Fox Theater where locals swore they saw the ghost of Margaret Mitchell.

Patrons of Atlanta’s Cougar Club could barely see the clock that registered 4:09 a.m. The incandescence of the stage footlights couldn’t cut through the pungent odor and strange amalgamation of smoke, sweat, drug cookers, poor hygiene, casual intimacy, and broken hearts—a toxic stew in Hotlanta’s most notorious strip club.

The antique air conditioner barely moved the dense air, creating an eerie churn of the combustible fumes that seemed to form the outlines of spirits which swirled into existence and then were gone. Some said they were ectoplasmic echoes of strippers and hookers lost to the hot shots of heroin, the hepatitis of bad needles, or the violence of jilted lovers.

The club with the emerald-green door and the peephole for admittance sat squarely in the middle of an area of cultural convergence that locals called the Twilight Zone. The TZ was bordered on one side by the Atlanta Museum and the Atlanta Symphony, on another by the large park that had become the central recreational site for the gay community, and on the other by several strip clubs and bars. The nightspots were the hives of peddlers of the forbidden that attracted the curious tourists of suburbia, professional politicians, and the Dixie Mafia.

At the apex of this triangle rose the peach tower and olive roof of the Peachtree Condominiums, standing like a modern Tower of Babel. It was home to all the worker bees of this cosmopolitan area. Elevators in the tower house seemed to go so high that passengers might kiss the balcony of heaven—that is, if they could see the Celestial City through the yellow-green haze of Atlanta pollution. A ticket to ride might mean sharing a car with concert pianists, strippers and enterprising hookers, military officers, wrestlers, professionals in demure business attire, or even older men with their concubines. From tuxedos to fishnet stockings and military surplus to wrestling tights, it was a cosmopolis where travelers did not speak the same language but moved past each other like ships in the night.

Billy Joe Estes was a portly man with a receding hairline, penguin body, and rosy-red cheeks that hinted of long hours, bad diet, and a penchant for hard liquor. He sat motionless and expressionless at a table filled with dirty glasses in the Cougar nightclub. Darlene Darling, an exotic dancer at the club, delivered a grotesque imitation of intimacy in an opera of the absurd where mechanical and contrived gyrations were passable for intoxicated patrons. Her moves were more or less choreographed to the beats of Carl Perkins on the jukebox: “It’s almost dawn, and the cops are gone. Let’s all get Dixie fried.”

Billy Joe had seen it all before as the gofer for “Big Jim” Martin, the undisputed boss of Georgia politics as Georgia’s Speaker of the House—a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Sanders.

Everyone called Billy Joe “Hoss,” not for his size or resemblance to Dan Blocker or his reputation as a “take no prisoners” political enforcer, but for a horse farm he invested in near Bonanza, Georgia. It was a front group buying old horses and selling them to glue factories, and it took all the speaker’s clout to rescue him when the Feds found out.

Each time he was asked (for the umpteenth time) to explain his nickname, people hee-hawed, brayed, and then inquired, “Where’s the rest of them Cartwright boys? Why’d they shoot Trigger and Buttermilk?” The double entendres and guffaws were endless. Billy Joe just hated it.

Tonight, Billy Joe was working—sort of. His job this night, as many evenings, was to ride herd on three drunken legislators who were unshackled from the restrictions and conventions of their home districts. Far from the front pews of the churches where these Pharisees parked on Sundays, they were free to indulge their proclivities for whiskey and wild women, to rub shoulders with the rich and famous who proved that money can’t buy happiness.

They also collected “get out of jail free cards” from a local federal judge who frequented the club with a young female defendant he had shown leniency to in his court. To show her gratitude, she furnished him with her favors and all the cocaine he could ingest. At the Cougar Club, legislators and judges could take that anonymous walk on the wild side that they had only dreamed of before their call to serve the people.

Billy Joe, who wheezed now and then when he walked, was there on orders from Big Jim, who told him, “Just make sure these boys don’t break anything, hurt any gals, or run afoul of the law. But if they do, it’s your job to remind the local boys in blue that all our legislators are in session and, therefore, immune to the laws that we make for the common folks.”

Big Jim told him that the ancients of tender, state-government beginnings passed session immunity because adversaries were always having their rivals arrested by friendly gendarmes on the day of critical votes. In modern times, enterprising legislators pumped up with grandiosity and arrogance used their immunity as a weapon and a shield—the absolute power that Lord Acton warned could corrupt absolutely.

Some of these juveniles fancied themselves as supermen or demigods entitled to breach the rules of civilized society. It was difficult to cover up some of their addictions and excesses. Lots of money was paid to squelch rumors and to salve injured parties. If the people knew it, they would never stand for such abuses. The old arguments for immunity shields weren’t that strong.

Billy Joe was shepherding three legislators from East Georgia, as well as Bill Cook, a newspaper editor from Augusta, who enjoyed the spoils of the boys he protected in his daily columns. Ricky Garcia, a rotund legislator from Augusta who looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s long-lost twin brother, brought Cook to the party. Representative Joey Tomlin, a diminutive, baby-faced alcoholic with a penchant for crashing his car into Georgia Power Company poles, was along for the ride.

Steve Palmer, a silver-haired pharmacist and committee chairman, was there as well. He frequently warned women he encountered in Atlanta clubs that just because there was “snow on the roof” didn’t mean there wasn’t “fire in the chimney.” Palmer couldn’t handle the pills he brought to Atlanta from his store back home—the same store he allowed enterprising drug dealers to burgle as cover for his inventory shortages that turned up when auditors came to call.

In the midst of the night’s performance, Doughboy lurched suddenly toward the dance stage and Darlene, whom he nicknamed Honeysuckle. He thrust a wad of money into the young dancer’s immodest outfit just above a slight roll of baby fat. The glassy-eyed, flaxen-haired child—that was what she was when the makeup was scraped away—was new to the game and startled by the move. Her fatuous smile showed more gum than teeth and contorted into a scowl, betraying the semi-permanent pout of her stage persona.

“Ow, Billy Joe! He pinched me!” the nubile dancer cried.

Billy Joe waved off Rex, the burly bouncer and former tight end for the Falcons. Coming out of the University of Georgia, he had great promise until he blew out his knee. Rex puffed his chest out in his too-tight muscle shirt, but deferred to Billy Joe and the reflected power of his patrons.

“Ricky, make nice with the dancer. No touching!” Billy Joe scolded.

“Aw, Hoss…I just wanted to show her some appreciation,” a contrite Ricky whined.

“Shut up, Ricky, and sit down. Big Jim needs you sober and ready to vote on the highway bill at ten this morning. You can’t do that in jail, now can you?” Billy Joe admonished the baby-faced legislator as a distant grumble of thunder punctuated the moment.

Ricky swayed to and fro, almost fell, then bowed before young Honeysuckle and said, “I am so sorrrrrrrreeee, missee.”

Just as things seemed poised to return to normal, a red-faced, middle-aged man who apparently had a thing for the young dancer came from the rear of the club and charged the legislator. The man bellowed like an enraged moose and brandished a flash of cold steel from the knife suddenly produced from his back pocket. Veins swollen with blood protruded from his temples and forehead. He was infused with a rush of adrenalin and the righteous anger of a guy whose woman-girl had been wronged.

“That’s my girl, you cheap suit,” he yelled as he reached for Ricky. Tables went flying, and shattering glass from the whiskey tumblers and beer mugs fractured the normal night-spot murmuring and chattering. The bouncer was too far away to stop him.

Patrons who didn’t know Billy Joe were surprised by what followed. Seen by some as an unlikely intervener, he jumped into the path of the offended Romeo and hobbled the raging bull by stepping hard on the man’s instep as he passed. He brought the thunder of the storm raging outside the club indoors with lightning-quick claps to both ears and an elbow across the side of the man’s head. The anguished knight crumpled to the concrete floor of the Cougar Club with a thud, as a trickle of crimson blood oozed from his right ear.

Billy Joe bent to retrieve the knife, exposing the blue steel of his snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38 beneath his belt. An antique watch of pitted gold had fallen from the man’s pocket; it popped open on the scarred concrete floor and chimed a haunting ode to his “Beautiful Dreamer.” The Speaker’s “babysitter of wayward legislators” snapped it shut and shot the crowd a challenging look. Hushed patrons, suddenly sober, looked on with wide eyes and raised eyebrows—exhibiting a new respect for Billy Joe.

The bouncer rushed in to make a show, muscles rippling, but the drama and theater was over. The local blue-and-white Atlanta police cruiser arrived as if on cue, and the officers, who were regulars on the strip club beat, asked the perfunctory questions with rote efficiency, strutting around as if they had never laid eyes on the usual suspects.

Carmen Rodriguez, the club owner of record and front for the real owners and investors, nodded at the bouncer, who slipped the senior officer a wad of Federal Reserve notes. Carmen was given the Cougar Club to manage, along with controlling interest in two others. He was rewarded for taking the fall for tax charges and Mann Act violations for both city politicians and Dixie Mafia members out of Biloxi. The Dixie Mafia laundered money through the clubs and used them as hideaways after armed robberies ranging from New Orleans to Miami. Carmen served eighteen months at the Atlanta federal prison camp for his silent partners, and they rewarded him as promised.

Billy Joe whispered sweet nothings in the second officer’s ear. “The Speaker is eternally grateful for your help. Here’s something for your trouble and some passes for you boys and your families to attend House sessions. You can even eat free in the section of the state cafeteria reserved for legislators.”

The man they nicknamed “Romeo” was cuffed amidst his protestations about the legislator from Augusta. The police dragged him to a cursory stop at Grady Memorial’s emergency room, the depository for Atlanta’s trauma cases, and then to a night in the drunk tank for disorderly conduct, where he was encouraged to forget it all.

Everyone settled down, tables were righted, and the music cranked up, just as the bartender announced last call and “a round on the house.” The rhythm of the dirty dance of the used and the users began again: actors taking their places and reciting their lines as the planet spun on uninterrupted.


The Redeemed: A Leap Of Faith

Book CoverTupelo’s Tammy Sue Jenkins, a sallow blonde of nineteen, was dreaming the dreams of concussions and contusions on the unsparing shoals of fantasia.

She was way down in a well of silent screams where oily, black waters were crushing and smothering her. The air was thick and as hot as the furnaces of Hades. She breathed in rasping, gulping sighs to fill her lungs with the acrid air that pinched her nostrils and burned her lungs.

Just as she was going under for the third time, she seemed to float up and up, away from darkness and death, to what should be light. But there was no light, only darkness.

As she strained for the surface, she suddenly raised her head and thumped it against something hard just above her in the gloom. Pain radiated throughout her head and neck, and shooting blasts of electrical pulses raced along her severed nerves.

The back of her head, which now felt pumpkin-sized, throbbed each time the percussionist in there struck the bass drum of her brain. There was no beginning and no end to the pain. Every pathway in her neural net was tortured, and all the fibers of her body were screaming. She was a broken ragdoll torn asunder.

Tammy felt her golden hair. It was matted and caked with a substance that smelled like old, burnt copper. She felt something crawling on her, but it was only a final, tiny trickle of blood running from her forehead to the bridge of her broken nose. Her elbows and knees ached, and as she began to squirm, her extremities bumped into the close confines of what felt to her like some sort of tomb.

Panic, confusion, and overwhelming claustrophobia seized her. Her blood pumped and raced to escape the confines of her heart, which only increased the throbbing pain.

Buried alive, buried alive! Oh God, oh God, oh God! she screamed inside her bruised head. She began to wildly thrash about, hyperventilated, and began to retch again and again until there were only dry heaves.

A new darkness swirled around her. She almost passed out before her mind cleared. She remembered the beating, the savage attack behind the old weathered house on Carnation Street in Tupelo. She grew quiet and still, fear gripping her. Tammy groped carefully in the dark and felt the cold steel of a tire iron. She could smell and feel the stickiness of her own blood there. 

It was this they used on me…hitting me again and again, striking me like wild beasts, pounding me in the face and head until I no longer cared…until I couldn’t feel the crack of the iron against my skull, no longer whimpered with each blow, couldn’t feel anything…until I passed out.

Tammy moved tentatively in the blackness and instinctively tried not to moan. She bumped into a tire to go with the iron in her hand, and she remembered the two drug dealers talking.

The young one with the dreadlocks had a tooth cap with a gold heart cut-out. He had said, “She’s dead. Won’t cause no more trouble. Dump her for now, and we’ll come back and bury her. Tell the detective that his problem is solved.”

Then they tumbled her bruised, bleeding, and almost unrecog­nizable body into the trunk of the old Chevy, tossing the tire iron in after her. It bounced off the hard bone of her forehead, but Tammy was numb, beyond feeling pain. As the lid slowly closed, Tammy remembered squinting through one swollen, blue eye as her sepulcher was sealed, squelching all light.

Just before she passed out, she remembered thinking, This is how it ends…dead at nineteen.

Lapsing in and out of consciousness, she saw flashes of images, vignettes of her young life, and a tumultuous walk on the wild side.

The dealers were protected by local police, Captain said. Cops were wiretapping everyone. Beat prisoners at the Tupelo jail. He had to rescue two of his undercover men. Strapped them to chairs, put on leather gloves to beat them, until Captain arrived. Cops mad he didn’t tell them he had men in town. He told them they shouldn’t be beating anybody.

Yes, yes, that’s right. I remember. They taunted him, said this was their town. “You better watch that little blonde snitch who’s working for you, too!”

Captain told me to be careful. They were the ones who told the dealers. Must’ve been them. Saw ’em that day behind the Ramada Inn when I was cleaning rooms, peeking through the curtains when I heard the car. The second car came with Louisiana plates. The men, rough men, got out with a briefcase. It was full of money, never seen so much. They gave it to the police. I hid…afraid they’d kill me if they saw me. Captain told me to be careful, not to trust any local police. Maybe they saw me. I should’ve listened to Captain Michael.

Tammy became very still in the car trunk, quietly panting for breath, floating on a sea of pain, shock, and dehydration. She listened for what felt like an eternity, to make sure they hadn’t come back for her. She heard nothing but the morning song of a distant mockingbird and then the blaring of a train whistle. Must be at Crosstown.

She grasped the tire iron and muffled her moans by stuffing a piece of her torn skirt into her mouth where her perfect, white teeth once were. She began to cry softly.

She felt along to find where the trunk lid sealed with the body of the car. Searing pain burned through her at every joint, but she positioned the sharp end of the iron in the place that felt right and pried with everything left in her.

She screamed. She prayed. She called out to God.

Then, she saw her first glimpse of light and a burst of fresh air. She rolled over and forced her face into the opening to take breath after breath of the purest air she thought she had ever breathed. She gasped as her lungs filled with life, and then she put all of her weight and strength on the tire iron once more, until she heard the loud cracking and the thunk as the seal broke and the trunk lid popped up.

She squinted out at the world with one good eye like a young, disfigured Cyclops, saw no one, and thought…I must get a message to Michael.

Michael sat straight up in bed as he was wrenched from his tortured dreams of yesteryear by the bloody dream image of his one-time informant. He remembered the call from the Barber’s Milk truck driver.

“I found her crawling down the road, Captain Parker. I tried to call the police, but she wouldn’t let me. She kept saying, ‘Just get me to the ER and call Michael, take a message to Michael.’ I’ve never seen anything like that, Captain Parker. Don’t know if I can ever get that image of her out of my mind,” the shaken young driver said.

When Michael first saw the pretty young woman in the hospital, she was beaten beyond recognition: one eye swollen shut, the other eye moved way over to the left side of her face and leaking constantly. Her jaw was fractured and wired shut. The small button nose was crushed.

Her porcelain-white face was black and blue, and her blonde hair had been so matted with blood that the ER attendants had crudely sheared it in a patchy cut, giving her the look of a prisoner from a World War II concentration camp.

She recounted to him not just the pain and abandonment, but the suffocation—the fear that she was buried alive and forgotten, how the walls closed in around her and fingers seemed to be gripping her throat to choke the life out of her. She screamed and screamed inside her head until she thought her heart would burst.

Tammy looked up at Michael and whispered a hissing, guttural confession through the wires holding her jaws together, “I dreamed that this preacher was bending over me at my funeral, Captain. He said, ‘Leave the light on for these dearly departed on their long journey. Somewhere, someone loves them.’

“There was a big cathedral with a steeple pointing toward heaven, and I could see a door opening. A man was on a cross and his mother was weeping for him, but he was asking God to forgive me and the men who tried to kill me, too. His death was pleading for my life, you know? It was a scene that I couldn’t wake up from because it was real, you know?  I felt so helpless, so alone, so confused. ‘I’m not ready. I’m not ready,’ I thought. ‘Please, please—not yet, not yet. It can’t end this way, can it?’ ”

She paused and looked at Michael with her one bloodied eye and said, “But there was this peace, too, you know. And love…such love like I’d never known. I always thought love was dead, Michael, that I was unlovable. It was like I had to die to live again, to know that love. Crazy, huh?”