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John Brown’s Body

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Cops are people, too - Editor

John Brown’s Body

by Michael Guillebeau

John Brown’s body sat next to his killer. The seat belt held him in the passenger seat of the big Ford truck, slumped over like a man asleep after a long fishing trip, trusting his buddy in the driver’s seat to get him home in the pre-dawn night. A Florida Gators hat was pulled low, covering the neat hole in the center of his head, the hole long since drained of blood and life. The man in the driver’s seat pulled into the short driveway to his townhouse. He swore quietly, hushed.

There were men inside his house, men that he did not expect. He could see two young punks trying to disconnect his TV in the dark and making a mess of it. An old white panel truck with “Fresh Shrimp” hand-painted on the side sat in his driveway, backed up to the open garage.

“What the hell now?” he thought. His idea was to put John Brown’s body in the freezer and deal with him later. Part of him was outraged at the kids in his house, messing up his life, no respect for the law or anything. He wanted to rush in with his gun drawn like on TV, and arrest them and be a hero. Of course, the silent witness in the truck would make that awkward. He backed the truck out of the driveway, lights off, and pulled up the street behind a palm tree where he could see the guys in the living room while he thought about it.

He thought of the seminar at work: the importance of turning negatives into positives, and he smiled. Of course. Watching the guys still working, he eased out of his truck and around the side. He threw John Brown over his shoulder and cut through the side yard to the back of the shrimp truck. The boys in the house had been optimists and left the truck open, sure they’d be back in a minute. The boys were also ambitious. There were probably a half dozen big flat screen TVs lined up with a couple of moving blankets to keep them apart. He wrapped John Brown in a blanket from the floor, shoved him back between two big TVs, and eased back to the truck. Soon he was heading down the road, lights on now that he was out of the neighborhood, radio up, singing along. Might as well head on in to work early, he thought. He had an important job, and there were things he needed to do.

#

A couple of hours later, Detectives Blackbeard and Terry sat in a black Crown Vic parked outside of the Waffle House on Highway 98 just inside the Panama City Beach city limits. Blackbeard closed his cell phone and shook his head at Terry.

“What I want to know,” said Terry, “why’s the call always come in when we’re getting ready to eat? Used to be, calls always came in while we were eating. Now they come in before and we don’t even get part of our breakfast. Probably calling us out just to chase drunk college kids running naked up and down the beach yelling ‘War Damn Eagle’ and picking fights.”

Blackbeard handed him a granola bar from the plastic Publix bag on the floorboard, snacks he’d picked up for his daughter’s soccer game that night.

“Ain’t no girl soccer player,” growled Terry, but he took it.

“You know,” said Terry, opening the bar careful, like he didn’t want to get any on his hands, “one of the things I like about the Florida Panhandle, one reason I moved down here from the Chicago cold, is that people take their food seriously here, particularly breakfast. I’m just not myself before coffee.”

“And eggs,” said Blackbeard, cranking up the car. “And grits. Maybe a biscuit or two for the road, while you’re at it. Course, being yourself isn’t always an improvement.”

Terry sat fuming; staring at the granola bar like it was to blame.

“Maybe, problem is, we’re always eating,” said Blackbeard.

They pulled out onto Highway 98, heading west. Blackbeard was driving. He was the senior partner, had been a detective here in Panama City Beach in the Sunshine State when Terry was still walking a beat up in Chicago, stealing apples or whatever it was they did up there.

They turned the corner then and came up on the crime scene. Several patrol cars, flashing red and blue, surrounded a lone white panel truck, yellow crime scene tape marking off everything. That was fine. What wasn’t fine was the big WJHG TV truck, and the young woman reporter, the bubbly one, standing talking to a Panama City Beach patrolman, big spotlight on him in the early morning gray, cute smile on her.

“Brandon, what have you done?” muttered Blackbeard, walking up.

“Blackie,” yelled the patrolman, Brandon. “Uh, Detective Blackbeard…”

The cameraman started to swing the camera in Blackbeard’s direction, but Terry stopped him. “You’ll need to step back over there, behind the yellow tape, sir,” he said. He remembered to be polite to the press this time. The reporter and the cameraman moved away.

“Blackie, I got one,” said Brandon. “Cousin, this is it, this is the bust that’s going to move me up the ladder, probably be wearing a suit like you tomorrow. Chief put out a reminder this morning, be on the alert for gypsies selling uninspected seafood from the back of trucks. Saw this guy, pulled him over, asked for a license, he gave me some song and dance about my not needing to see the back of the truck. I called for backup, we found a truck load of TVs, and this guy.”

Brandon pointed to the body lying on the pavement at the back of the truck, still partly wrapped in the moving blanket, just the head sticking out. “That means I’ve got a murder arrest and a major burglary arrest both in my jacket. Going to be moving up.”

“What’s he doing out here on the ground like that?” Blackbeard said, pointing at the victim.

“Tonya--the reporter, she asked me to call her Tonya, we may get together tonight--thought it would be a good idea to have him outside for the interview.”

Terry said, “What’s wrong with you, mess up our crime scene for the sake of your social life?” Blackbeard put his hand on Terry’s arm. Brandon was Blackbeard’s cousin, and Blackbeard tried to keep him out of trouble.

“OK,” was all Blackbeard said, staying calm. “OK, did you let the techs get pictures before you moved the body?”

“What for? Open and shut. I’ve already read them their rights, told them they’re under arrest for murder.”

“They confess?”

“’Course not.”

“You got a motive here, weapon, anything like that?”

“’Course I got a motive. They’re mooks.”

“Mooks?”

“Yeah, mooks. Saw it on TV last night, mooks: typical criminal types do stupid things for no good reason. Waste of time trying to explain it. We’re the heroes; we lock up the mooks.”

Blackbeard tried to stay cool. “Turn off the damned TV and read the procedure manual sometime. Tired of you patrol guys messing up my crime scene before I even get here.”

Brandon started to say something and Blackbeard gave up on staying cool. “Mooks? Mooks? What’s Fred Simpson, the DA supposed to say at trial, judge asks him for a motive. ‘They’re mooks, your honor. We took them downtown, put them on the mook detector, they came up 99 and 45/100ths mook, purer than Ivory soap.’ Judge going to look at Fred, say: ‘All right then, let’s hang them and go get supper. Give that Brandon fellow a medal while we’re at it.’ You think that’s what’s going to happen here? Damn it, Brandon, you may have lost us the whole case, some detail missing we’ll never get back. And you may lose more when the chief finds out about this. He’s a good cop and won’t put up with this crap.”

“You’re just a pain, Blackie,” said Brandon, going back to the reporter. “You’re always a pain. Some things you just know. You don’t always have to get every detail.”

“Yes, you do,” said Blackbeard, more to himself than to Brandon’s back.

“Yeah,” agreed Terry. Then he grinned, “Course the boy is right, at least about you being a pain.”

“Let’s work the case.”

That’s what they did, most of the morning. The two kids owned up to stealing the TVs, too busy trying to convince Blackbeard and Terry that they didn’t know anything about the body to even worry about confessing to a pretty major crime. The body had no ID, just a few dollars and some odds and ends. One of the TVs had an address sticker on the back from a nice neighborhood, one of those planned communities on the bay with a golf course and a pool and a little shuttle bus that ran to the beach on the hour. Blackbeard sent a couple of patrolmen over to ask around the neighborhood. Blackbeard and Terry did what they could and released the body.

As they were leaving, Terry leaned against the truck and squinted into the hot Florida sun.

“Lord, no,” said Blackbeard.

“This is no TV murder,” said Terry, trying to look dramatic.

“Your lines get worse every day.”

“Got to have a tag line, something to set up the case.”

“How about, ‘Do your job,’” said Blackbeard.

#

Blackbeard and Terry sat in the Sunrise Grill the next morning, papers from the case piled on the table between the eggs and bacon and coffee.

Terry turned over a sheet and looked at Blackbeard.

“All the stolen TVs identified but one, all from that same neighborhood. People will report stolen TVs sooner than they’ll report missing children. Looks like our mooks--I like Brandon’s word, even if neither he nor I know what it means, it’s what I’m going to call them--just went shopping in Bayside like you’d go shopping at Best Buy.”

“Speaking of buy, you buy they did it?” asked Blackbeard.

“Everybody else does.”

Blackbeard just stared. Terry always had his own opinion, would always say what he thought, if Blackbeard just waited him out. “But no,” Terry continued. “I really don’t. We’ll see, but right now, I don’t. Those kids--the mooks--were scared. Their record is small time. If they did do it--not saying they did--something else or somebody else was involved.”

“Ok,” said Blackbeard, pulling up another report. “The victim’s clearly an alien or some kind of swamp creature. There’s no match on the prints, no ID, nobody knows him. Odd, place as small as Panama City Beach, you’d think we’d know him. You got the GSR report?”

“Haven’t seen it. That’ll nail it, though. One of the mooks tests positive for firing a gun on the GSR report and they’re on the hook for this one, no matter what we think. You got it over there?”

“No.” Blackbeard fumbled his cell phone out of the pile, took another sip of coffee, dialed and mumbled into the phone for a couple of minutes. The last little bit was louder, with Blackbeard saying, “You clear that with me next time,” but not saying it that nice.

“No GSR.”

“What do you mean, no GSR,” said Terry. “That’s as standard as locking the door of the jail. We got a victim with a bullet hole in his head and nobody checked to see if the suspects had gunshot residue on their hands?”

“DA called down, said don’t bother with any more tests, kids are going to take a plea, don’t need evidence.”

“They bought that? Lab let the DA tell them what to do?”

“Chief relayed the message. Told them there was nothing he could do about it, budgets, all that crap.”

Terry said, “I ain’t buying that. Don’t care what you say, you ain’t buying it either.”

Terry raised an empty bottle of hot sauce, waved it at the waitress on the other side of the room. “Mae, I need a real bottle of sauce, something to make these eggs of yours taste like real eggs.”

Mae rolled her eyes and snatched up the big bottle, quart size from the kitchen window, walked across the room and slammed it down.

“Here. Bottle I gave you was half full when I brought it to you. Maybe you should just skip the eggs and eat a bowl of hot sauce. Better yet, maybe you two could get out of here, act like real detectives.”

Blackbeard stood up, threw his half of the bill on the table. “Mae, we can always count on you for good advice.”

Terry stood up. “Where we going?”

“Let’s go talk to the swamp creatures. Maybe they know our mystery man.”

#

It was hard to call it a marina anymore, but then again it was hard to call the fishing boats there fishing boats anymore, their decks littered with more beer cans than nets. But the old men who lived there in the backwater marina had watched their view turn from sea oats and sand dunes to a line of tall buildings and pancake houses. Thirty years ago, this marina had been the only thing that stood out here in the backwater. Now, it was lost in pastel developments.

Blackbeard stood on the dock, called out to the boat, asked permission to come aboard, and heard someone yell something from inside the pilot house.

A tall grey man, stooped from years of living in a cabin way too small for a man his size, stepped out onto the deck. “Little John?” he said to Blackbeard.

“John?” said Terry, looking at Blackbeard. “Didn’t know you even had a first name.”

“Terr, meet Captain David. Old friend of my father’s. Years ago.”

Captain David just kind of waved at Terry. “Not only has a first name, had a father. Pretty good cop, even better fisherman. Back in the days when Panama City Beach was just a sleepy little town where people made more money from fishing and smuggling grass than from tourists.”

Terry grinned. “Don’t suppose they smuggle grass anymore?”

“Not so much. Big money now is in smuggling condos.” He waved the back of his hand at the tall buildings at the beach. “I’m afraid to go to sleep these days. Wake up and find five more of those monsters landed on the beach. More money in any one of them than all the nickel and dime stuff we used to pull. And some of what the condo developers do is even legal. Some of it.”

Blackbeard said, “Marina seems kind of empty. We stopped at a couple of boats before, couldn’t find anybody home.”

Captain David smiled. “They’re home. Hung over. Or still drunk. Or don’t talk to guys in suits. Reminds me. Y’all want a cold one?” He ducked under the transom when they shook their heads, came back with a Dos Equis and two Millers.

Blackbeard said, “Thanks, Captain, we’re on duty.”

“Who said they were for you?” He sat the Millers down and drained half the Dos Equis. Blackbeard pulled out a print of the victim, the one cleaned up enough to show people.

Captain David laughed. “Seen the pose on him many a time, but never with the bullet hole. Spanish John. What’s his last name? Green, brown, one of those colors. Don’t matter much, nobody ever called him anything but Spanish John, spoke more Spanish than English, always made a big deal of saying ‘Vaya con Dios,’ when most folks would say goodbye.” He handed the picture back. “Did he get it here, or down there?”

“Where’s there?”

“Cuba. Used to make runs down to Cuba, come back with a couple of dozen new American citizens. Claimed he had a house and a family down there, too, police greased on both sides.” He looked back at Blackbeard and Terry. “Course that was a few years ago, nobody cared about those things.”

“How about lately? Live here?”

“No, he’d show up every now and then with a case of beer or a bottle of Jack. Claimed he had an annuity, starting about fifteen years ago, about the same time as that mess with your dad. Don’t know where he lived. May have been back in Cuba, all I know.”

Blackbeard tensed and then dropped it and went back to being just a detective again: calm, deliberate, pro.

“When was the last you saw him?”

Captain David drained the last of the beers, looked up. “Long time. No. Wait. Sometime lately, maybe couple of weeks ago, he came by with a cooler of beer, case of Jack, everything. Told everybody he was cashing in, one last big payoff and then done. Maybe that’s his payoff.” He gestured at the bullet hole.

They went over it a couple of times. Captain David became less coherent and they left. As they left, Captain David yelled at their backs, “Little John, your daddy was a good man, no matter what they said at the end.” Blackbeard’s back stiffened and he kept walking. “Better than you.” Captain David yelled when Blackbeard didn’t reply.

Their black Crown Vic fishtailed leaving the parking lot, Blackbeard throwing gravel behind him. Terry said nothing. Blackbeard’s cell rang. He picked it up, listened, said, “Got it,” and hung up.

“How about lunch over in Destin, little place over in the outlet mall?” he said, the marina behind him now, just back to being Terry’s partner.

Terry looked. “I can always be talked into a thirty mile drive for lunch,” and left it at that, not asking for a reason.

“We got a witness,” Blackbeard said. “Jeweler says he knows our victim.”

They caught 98 West, through pine forests into Walton County, past the Sandestin development, and parked in the big factory outlet. Terry grabbed the case folder from the glove compartment.

“Hand me that other one, the hit and run, for a minute,” said Blackbeard.

“Getting tricky?” said Terry. Blackbeard took the picture from the hit and run victim, put it in the John Brown folder, and they walked in and went to the manager’s office in the back.

“That’s him,” said the manager, looking at the picture of the hit and run victim, a department store manager from Panama City. “Said his name was John Brown. Used to come around here, trying to sell me jewelry from time to time. Figured it was hot, thought he was some kind of a small time fence, told him not to come around. Came around anyway last week, said he was going to have some electronics, other stuff, cheap, wanted to know if I was interested. I threatened to call the cops, he left, and I thought I’d seen the last of him. Except when I read the paper today, I thought, ‘Maybe he was working with those kids. Maybe they got into a fight and killed him.’”

“Maybe. Anything stick out about him, way he walked or talked, anything he did?” Terry asked, looking bored.

“No. Kind of looked like he might have been hung over some, you know how those people are.”

“Yeah. Those people.”

They went over his story a couple of times, new details coming out each time, not matching the things he said the last time. As they were leaving, Terry turned, big chamber of commerce smile now.

“So how’s business over here, these days? Got a friend thinking about expanding this way.”

“Not bad, but he’s swimming against the tide right now. Most things are expanding your way now. I got a new store coming to Panama City Beach, in Pier Park, opening next year, if I can get all the permits and financing in place over there.”

“Shame all the bureaucracy involved,” said Terry, still friendly. “Bet you’re getting to know the movers and shakers pretty good. Trade favors to get things done.”

The jeweler and Terry looked at each other a minute. The jeweler turned away and said, “No, nothing like that.”

#

Blackbeard and Terry sat in the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant, working on lunch.

“You know we’re being played,” said Terry.

“True that,” said Blackbeard.

Blackbeard looked around at the fake cute beach signs and pastel colors in the restaurant, tourists dressed to match, and wondered if the tourists matched the bar, or the bar matched the tourists.

Blackbeard said, “We finish lunch, we’re going back there and follow up. Let him know we know and ask him if he wants to tell us who called him or if he wants to go back to PCB and think about it.”

“Yeah, that’s the procedure,” said Terry. “But if we do that, we’ve got to get Destin PD in, probably our DA, too. Most that will happen is we’ll get a name over there. No real proof, that person will deny everything, just a misunderstanding. The mooks will take the fall, case closed.”

“Sometimes it’s like that,” Blackbeard said. “Work the job, sometimes it turns out right, sometimes not. Doing it the cowboy way will get you in trouble, though, every time.”

“Look, why don’t we just shake the tree, see what falls out?” said Terry. “You said the lab guys were told by the DA not to run the GSR. Let’s tell the DA we know they’re dirty, see what happens.”

Blackbeard thought about it a minute and then said, “All right. But let’s run it through the chief, he can shake the tree a hell of a lot harder than we can. Used to be a good cop, too. He was my dad’s partner, back in the day.” He picked up his cell, waited until he got the chief on the line and explained what they wanted.

“What’d he say?”

“Thinks it’s a good idea. Going to talk to the DA, tell him we know something’s wrong, hint that we know who and we’ve got proof. Try to do it someway that other people in the office know, get people talking. We’re supposed to meet with the chief tomorrow morning and see what’s happening.”

The waitress came by with the check. As they counted out money to put down, Blackbeard said to Terry. “While the chief’s got that cooking, let’s go tie up a loose end.”

#

The two boys sat across from Blackbeard and Terry in the jail commons area.

“Mister Sir, we never killed nobody, and that’s God’s honest truth,” said the older one. Older was relative; he looked about 20 and the other about 16.

“Is God willing to testify for you, maybe tell us you didn’t take the TVs, too, as long as he’s down here sitting in the witness chair as a personal favor to the Mook brothers?” said Terry.

“No sir.”

“Then we got us a problem, don’t we?”

“We told you, we took the TVs. But we never killed nobody.”

Blackbeard pulled out a map of Panama City Beach and spread it on a table.

“Look, son, we just need to get the facts nailed down here. See these x’s? Those are houses where you stole TVs. Only one of the x’s is missing. We need you to tell us where the last TV came from.”

The boys looked at the map and argued between themselves a couple of minutes. Terry fidgeted and Blackbeard sat motionless, fingers pressed together on the table, eyes on the boys as they talked.

They turned the map around. “This block, here.” The older one pointed. “The one with the bright red shutters.”

It was dark when Blackbeard and Terry got to the neighborhood, cruising slowly with the windows down to catch the cool Florida night air.

“That’s got to be it,” said Terry.

Blackbeard pulled the car to a stop in front of the townhouse with the red shutters.

“So now we just go in, ask them if they killed anybody lately?” said Terry, checking his gun.

“Of course not,” said Blackbeard. “That would be unprofessionally vague. We ask them if they killed John Brown two nights ago.” He opened the door and got out. Terry followed.

The door opened on the first knock and the chief stood there in full dress uniform. Terry looked at Blackbeard and saw that he wasn’t surprised. The three stood staring at each other for an awkward moment.

“C’mon in,” the chief finally turned and walked into the living room. Blackbeard and Terry followed. Terry went over to the TV and fingered the plastic still covering the stand.

“Not even unwrapped yet,” he said.

“No,” said the chief, picking up his hat. “Let’s take a ride.”

#

They pulled into a deserted boat ramp outside of town, weeds growing up through the concrete and no lights anymore. They got out and the chief turned to Terry.

“Detective Terry, do you mind going back to that convenience store and getting us three coffees? I need to talk to Detective Blackbeard alone for a minute.”

Terry started to say, hell, no, but Blackbeard nodded to him and threw him the car keys.

Blackbeard and the chief stood looking at the water for a long time after Terry left. Blackbeard was quiet, waiting for the chief.

“This is the last place I saw your father,” the chief finally said to Blackbeard. “Blackie was a good man. I wanted you to know that.”

“I knew.”

The chief stood looking at the weeds growing out of another ramp on the other side of the inlet, too far to reach but close enough to see.

“Panama City Beach was a dirty little beach town when your Daddy and I worked together, back when. Somebody had to do something. Blackie took the fall so I could be the hero and move forward. He ever talk about that?”

“No. He just came home and went fishing with Captain David. People would try to get him to talk, joke about him changing jobs to get to the easy life, he’d just smile. But as soon as they looked away, the smile was gone. I told him one time to tell them to go to hell. That was what I told kids in school when they said something about him, usually just before the fight broke out. He said, ‘Do your job, son. Don’t matter what other folks think.’”

They stood looking at the other ramp and the other weeds.

“John Brown knew,” said the chief. “I didn’t mind paying him as long as it was a little here and there, kind of like giving a buck to a panhandler. When he decided to cash in, I knew it would just get bigger unless I did something to stop it.”

He turned to Blackbeard. “No way you’re going to just let this drop, is there?”

Blackbeard stood watching the water.

“Panama City Beach is one of the prettiest and cleanest places in the world,” said the chief. “You bring all this down, we’ll lose that.”

Blackbeard just watched the ramp. “I’ll do my job. You know that.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” said the chief. “You just do your job. Brandon just wants to put away mooks and get on TV. Terry wants to be Superman. Who does the dirty work you got to do to keep things clean for everybody else?”

Blackbeard didn’t answer. Terry pulled back, the car lights outlining Blackbeard and the chief as Terry got out of the car.

“Not my problem, anymore,” said the chief. He pulled out his Glock and started to raise it at Blackbeard.

Terry dropped the coffee and grabbed his gun, the gun hitting one of the cups as the cup fell and his gun came up.

“Drop it!” he yelled. “Drop! Drop! Drop!”

The chief looked at Terry and started to bring his gun around to Terry. The chief’s gun came around and Terry kept yelling, “Drop,” over and over. Then Terry fired three times, quick, and the chief went down.

#

They stood over the chief’s body a couple of minutes later as the sirens grew louder. Terry kept muttering, “Goddamn it all,” under

his breath, over and over, quietly, more like somebody reciting a prayer than cursing.

They hadn’t taken their eyes off the chief.

“He tell you he killed Brown?” said Terry.

“Yeah,” said Blackbeard.

“He say why?”

Blackbeard stood looking at the chief for a long time.

“Didn’t say,” he said finally.

“Goddamn it all,” said Terry, one last time.

The first squad car pulled up in a cloud of dust. Brandon jumped out and ran to them and then stood there with his gun drawn and his mouth open, not sure what to do next.

©2011

 

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