Our next guest on the Crime Cafe podcast is Phillip Thompson who’s provided a guest post and book giveaway for you to enjoy during the
ass-end of this awful awesome interesting unusual year we’ve endured.
To enter the giveaway for a copy of his latest novel, Old Anger, just send an email with the subject line “Crime Cafe giveaway” to Phillip at tombigbeewriter[at]gmail[dot]com. Enter by Tuesday, January 12, 2021.
Now, let’s hear from our next guest! 🙂
Writing about race in the Deep South is never easy. Especially during the tumult of 2020.
I am white. Born and raised in Mississippi. I was a youngster growing up when the state was going through the painful ending of the American apartheid called “segregation” or “separate but equal.” And decades later, the sad truth is race is still central to the identity of nearly every person in the state. The reasons for this are complex and myriad, and all too often boil down to one oversimplified argument as to which side you’re on: white or black.
That’s the central question I tried to answer when I wrote my latest crime novel, Old Anger, the third Colt Harper novel. When it comes to his view of justice and enforcing the law, Mississippi sheriff Colt believes he is color blind. But is he? When the murder of a black man leads Colt to a black suspect, Colt finds himself isolated between two volatile factions in his county—whites apathetic about the murder and blacks who distrust him, especially when one rumored suspect is a man Harper has known most of his life.
Of course, there have been numerous novels written over the years about the sides of race in the South, and the complications attendant to the issue. Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Larry Brown’s entire body of work, and the gold standard, To Kill a Mockingbird. So, I can’t claim any new ground on this issue, but I was more interested in the in-between space, not one side or another. What happens to a person caught between the two?
And that’s where Colt Harper finds himself, right from the start.
From Chapter 1:
Sheriff Colt Harper stared at the dead black man dangling from the dragline bucket. The perforated steel basket, as big as a pickup bed, hung over a water-filled gravel pit. Underneath, the corpse dangled like a discarded doll. Colt squinted from the glare of a lemon sun as he scanned the moonscape of craters and dunes before turning to the lanky man standing next to him.
Colt studied Donnie Wample, who looked like he was no more than one generation off a cotton farm. A gristle of a man, his arms were like steel cables that shot out of his short-sleeve shirt and ended in hands that, Colt was sure, made fists like wrecking balls.
Wample turned. “I ain’t in no trouble, am I, Shurff?”
“Well, Mr. Wample, you called my office. So, at the moment, I’m gonna say, no, you’re not in any trouble.”
“Ahite, then. I’m mighty glad to hear that,” he said in a Tombigbee sharecropper drawl.
Colt knew that if he bothered to look, which he wouldn’t, Mr. Wample had already been in trouble with the law once or twice. “Why don’t you walk me through how you found this?”
“Right over here,” Wample said, gesturing to his right.
“You touch anything in the vicinity?” he said as they stepped back from the lip of the pit, one of several gouged out of a vast field of gravel just south of the sluggish brown Buttahatchie River, which defined the northern edge of the county before emptying into the Tombigbee.
Colt heard what had to be Freddie Mac Baldwin’s ancient government-issued coroner van rattling down the gravel road leading to the foreman’s shed. He didn’t bother to look back. Wample did, though.
“Who’s that?” Wample said.
“That’d be the coroner. He’ll join us directly.”
“Okay, then,” Wample said, then pointed toward the mustard-colored dragline that crouched over the pit like a heron looking for fish. The massive boom angled out over the shimmering water. Wample stood silently by, looking everywhere, anywhere but . . . at whoever was hanging over the still, green water. Four men stood near the cab of the dragline, two of them smoking and all shifting on their feet, nervous and silent. Across the water sat a dump truck that had been backed up to the edge of the pit. The truck’s rusty bed held a pile of wet, shiny gravel the size of a pitcher’s mound.
The massive boom angled out over the shimmering water. Wample stood silently by, looking everywhere, anywhere but . . . at whoever was hanging over the still, green water.
“What happened?” Colt said, still staring at the body.
Wample cleared his throat. “Marvin, my dragline operator, was loading that dump truck when he come up with that.” Wample nodded toward the dangling corpse. “Kinda spooked him. He stopped everything and called me on the radio the operators have in the cab. I ran over, saw this here, and then called you.”
“Anybody touch anything?”
“No, sir,” Wample said. “Nobody wanted to get anywhere near that.”
“Which one is Marvin?”
Wample swung his arm. “Blue shirt.”
Behind them, the gravel crunched like a ragged metronome, then stopped. Then heavy breathing. Freddie Mac.
“Ain’t that something,” the coroner said. Freddie Mac Baldwin was panting, his red face beginning to sweat. He wore his usual white short-sleeve shirt. His twisted black tie stopped a good eight inches above his belt and over a belly that belied his claim of losing weight.
He shot Freddie Mac a look. “I just got here myself.”
“What you reckon happened?”
Colt shrugged. “Somebody got drunk or high last night and decided to go swimming?”
Freddie Mac turned his bulk to the left, then right. “How’d did he get out here? Walk?”
“Why don’t you pull him out and ask?” Colt said.
Wample cleared his throat. “Shurff, no disrespect, but, ah, that’s a dead person there. In my dragline.”
Colt turned to Wample. “You’re right, Mr. Wample. Why don’t you head back to your office. I’ll stop by on my way out.”
“Ahite.” Wample was gone faster than smoke in high wind.
To Freddie Mac: “When your photographer gets here, get some shots of the whole perimeter of this pit.”
Freddie Mac laughed. “I am the photographer today. All my interns up and left on me, and I ain’t hiring a full-time.”
“Course not,” Colt said. Freddie Mac could be a pain in the ass. He watched the coroner huff and clamber his way down the steep lip of loose dirt, then unlimber the camera swinging from his neck. He snapped here and there. Colt walked over to the men by the dragline, aiming for the one in the blue shirt.
He watched the coroner huff and clamber his way down the steep lip of loose dirt, then unlimber the camera swinging from his neck
“Marvin?” Colt said to the man.
Marvin tossed his cigarette to the ground and stepped away from the other men. He was shorter than Colt, only about five and half feet, mustache like a shoe brush on a leathery face. Filthy ball cap mashed on his head. “That’s me, Sheriff. Marvin Adams.”
Colt shook hands with Marvin. “Mr. Adams, tell me what happened.”
Marvin told a story similar to Wample’s, the only real difference being that the body came up on Marvin’s third hoist of the morning. “I’s filling up that truck over there, got two buckets in it, then this.”
“And you stopped the dragline soon as you saw it?”
“Yes, sir, I did.”
Colt nodded. “All right. I’m going to ask that you come down to the station and give a statement to that effect later today. You okay with that?”
Adams shrugged. “Sure, Sheriff.”
Colt turned his attention to the other three men, whose appearances were a variation of Adams. “Any of y’all see anything?”
Heads shook no. One man, taller than the other two, wearing glasses, raised his hand. “We all walked over when we saw Wample walking out here,” he said.
“All right, well, this is a crime scene now,” Colt said, “including that dump truck. So I need you all to clear out of here.”
“That’s my truck,” the spectacled man said. “I need it to work.”
“I understand that,” Colt said. “And you’ll have it back as soon as we can process the scene.”
“How long’s that going to take?”
Colt looked over at the man. “As long as it takes.”
The three men exchanged looks, then shuffled away. Adams leaned against the tracks of his dragline and lit another cigarette.
“Hey, Colt,” Freddie Mac called.
Colt turned. The coroner stood near the edge of the pit, looking down. Colt walked over to the spot, saw what looked like drag marks in the gravel. Freddie Mac snapped a couple more pictures.
“What do you think?” Freddie Mac asked.
“Could be anything but looks like some kind of scuffle or something dragged through here.”
“That’s what I thought, too, and look here.” Freddie Mac leaned over and pointed a sausage finger at a red splatter about the size of a quarter. Colt squinted at the blood, noticed several other smaller spots. He straightened up, looked toward the dragline, then back at the blood spots.
“Get a sample,” he said.
“Don’t tell me how to do my job, Colt.”
“Wouldn’t think of it. I’m going to have the dragline operator swing that bucket over so we can pull the body down.”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Freddie Mac said, but Colt was already walking away.
Adams pounced into the cab of the huge machine, cranked it up to an ear-piercing roar, then swung the bucket toward the bank and lowered it with what struck Colt as respect for the dead. Colt watched the body swing toward him, and as it came closer, he could see that the back of the man’s shirt had gotten snagged on the bucket and pulled up, giving him the appearance of being hanged. He also could see that the man’s head didn’t look quite right. Adams maneuvered the bucket some more. Colt signaled to Adams to kill the diesel engine, and the massive machine fell silent. Adams clambered down and stood next to the cab.
Adams pounced into the cab of the huge machine, cranked it up to an ear-piercing roar, then swung the bucket toward the bank and lowered it with what struck Colt as respect for the dead.
“You might as well go get a cup of coffee,” Colt said as he approached the body.
Adams took off like a rabbit, clearly wanting nothing to do with a dead body.
Freddie Mac appeared as Colt stared at the body. The man’s head didn’t look right because of the wide, ragged exit wound on the left side of the forehead and the sunken skull. Freddie Mac snapped a couple of photos.
“Goddammit,” Colt said.
“Yeah, I know,” Freddie Mac said. “You ready?”
Pulling the corpse of a full-grown man down from the machine took all of Colt’s—and Freddie Mac’s—strength and had his hip screaming by the time the man’s body lay stretched out, faceup, at the water’s edge.
“You all right?” Freddie Mac said.
“Fine,” Colt said as he wiped sweat off his forehead. His drenched shirt stuck to his back.
“What you make of this, Colt?”
“Somebody who was improvising. Or just not very good at this sort of thing.”
“Maybe,” Freddie Mac said as he squatted over the corpse. “He mighta been drunk or high, but he got his brains blowed out before he went in here.”
Colt leaned over the body. No other distinguishing marks visible. “Turn him over?”
“Yep,” Freddie Mac said, moving into position by the corpse’s shoulders. They rolled the body over. Colt studied the small hole at the base of the man’s skull.
“Another here,” Freddie Mac said, pointing at a neat, dime-sized hole in the corpse’s back just below the ribs, similar to the wound to the base of the skull. “No exit wound. So that’s two gunshot wounds.”
Colt reached into the hip pocket of the man’s jeans, flipped through the thin, worn, imitation-leather wallet, coming up with only a single bill and a driver’s license. He stared down at the body, then at the coroner. “According to this, his name is Lucius Wallace.” He handed the wallet to Freddie Mac.
“At least we have an ID,” Freddie Mac said.
“Yes,” Colt said, squatting down. He recognized the face, or what was left of it, from the driver’s license.
“You find a cell phone in his pockets?” Colt said.
“Damn thing’s probably at the bottom of this pit,” Colt said.
“Good luck with that one,” Freddie Mac said. “Help me roll him back over.”
Colt pivoted on his haunches, scanned the scuffed-up gravel leading up to the lip of the pit. “Looks like he might have slid down here before he went in.”
“That would make sense,” Freddie Mac said, staring at the man’s face. “Looks like he took a punch to the head, too. See here?”
Colt followed Freddie Mac’s pointing finger to a welt just above and between Wallace’s eyebrows. “Or he could have gotten that falling headfirst,” Colt said.
“I’ll know more after I do an autopsy.”
Colt stood up straight, tried to stretch out his hip. “I’m gonna call in. I’ll leave you to it and catch up to you when you have a report.”
Colt walked back to the blood spots. He leaned over and examined the uneven surface of gravel, sand, and loam. He straightened up and spied the metal administrative building squatting next to a ragged line of storage containers a good forty yards away. He started limping toward the building, his hip barking at him as he did so, reminding him that even a year after being shot, his body still needed to heal. He dug a Percocet from his hip pocket and popped it into his mouth as he stepped toward the building he now realized was nothing more than an oversized shed. Wample was leaning against the jamb of the open door and squinting at him, like he was watching a far-off ship come into port.
He leaned over and examined the uneven surface of gravel, sand, and loam. He straightened up and spied the metal administrative building squatting next to a ragged line of storage containers a good forty yards away. He started limping toward the building …
“Any idea who it is, Shurff?” Wample asked.
“Not at the moment,” he said. He pointed toward the interior of the shed. “You mind? I reckon it’s cooler inside.”
Wample stepped aside.
Colt glanced at Wample’s workspace, a rathole cluttered with flimsy papers, several calendars sporting either concrete trucks or women in bikinis, and a five-drawer file cabinet that looked abandoned. Wample’s desk was awash in fast-food wrappers, a massive plastic coffee mug, and a computer that should have been scrapped ten years ago.
“You said you’re the owner, Mr. Wample?”
“Yep. I’m a one-man operation when it comes to management.”
“I noticed you don’t have a gate on your property, so it’s pretty easy to access. What about security cameras?”
Wample shook his head like a sleepy hound.
“Uh-uh. That a problem?”
“Only in trying to figure out what exactly happened. But, you ain’t afoul of the law, if that’s what you’re asking. The coroner’s still down there, and I got a car coming out to work this crime scene, so I’d appreciate your cooperation.”
“You got it, Shurff,” Wample said.
“I thank you. If you think of anything, anything at all, call my office.”
Colt left Wample in the shed, climbed into the Crown Vic, cranked the air-conditioning, and wheeled the car around. He stopped at the edge of the highway, watched a pulpwood truck rumble north toward Hamilton. He turned, headed in the other direction, toward town.
Twenty minutes later, he wheeled into the sheriff’s office parking lot feeling unsettled, his hip still aching. He made his way through the outer office straight to Becky’s desk and stopped when he saw the mop top of blond and Becky’s pale arm shoot up, palm out: Hold on.
Becky wore a headset and nodded at something a caller was saying. Colt noticed, again, that she reminded him of a fortyish version of Jodie Foster. Becky ended the call, scribbled something on a pad with her trademark green pen, and looked up at Colt. Exhaled loudly. Not happy.
“These people, Colt, I swear,” she said.
“Spare me unless it’s about this thing out at the gravel pit.”
“No, of course not. Some woman complaining about her ex-husband not paying child support.”
Colt shook his head. “Not really our problem. You help her out?”
“Yep, I told her to contact the court.”
The office main door squealed open, and Colt turned from Becky to see Craig Battles coming down the corridor with a full head of steam. Straight at him. “Goddammit,” he said under his breath.
Colt started toward Battles, held up a hand. “Stop right there, Craig,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
Battles pulled himself to a stop, notebook in one hand, ballpoint in the other. As usual, he looked like he’d dressed in the dark: collar points flying in opposite directions, the knot in his tie clinging desperately to his open collar, above which yesterday’s shave had begun to wear off. Sleepy face punctuated with squinty dark eyes, curly brown hair combed with his hand.
“Heard about it on the newsroom scanner,” Battles said, referring to his place of employment, the only newspaper in town.
“Heard about what?”
Battles cocked his head. “The body at the gravel pit.”
“Of course you did,” Colt said, hands on hips.
“So, what happened?”
Colt frowned at the reporter. He had to give him something—and not a shove out the door. “We responded to a report of a body found in a gravel pit near the county line, out on Highway 45 North. We’re currently conducting an investigation and, as such, you know I can’t comment any further.”
Battles stared at him. “Foul play? Is this is a homicide or an accident?”
“Not now, Craig,” Colt said as he turned and walked back toward Becky’s station.
“Sheriff,” Battles called after him, “is this a murder or not? Are the people in the county safe?”
Colt stopped. Becky stopped speaking in mid-sentence and stared up at him, her blue eyes showing a hint of alarm. Colt spun, marched back to Battles, and stood an inch away, staring the reporter down. Battles took a step back.
“Like I said,” Colt said in a low voice. “Not. Now.”
Battles relented, bobbed his head, and ducked away.
When Colt stomped past Becky, she kept her head down, and he was glad she did. He walked into his office and slammed the door behind him. He stood in the cool, dark room, chasing down his profane thoughts, then walked to the window overlooking the ancient cemetery across the road. The gray stones, chipped and tilted, with barely readable inscriptions, smiled back mockingly like crooked old teeth, reminding him that he was still aboveground. But also reminding him that he would one day be as forgotten as the souls under those stones. He shook his head clear.
He walked into his office and slammed the door behind him. He stood in the cool, dark room, chasing down his profane thoughts, then walked to the window overlooking the ancient cemetery across the road.
He stepped out into his doorway. “Becky,” he said, “get John on the horn and tell him I need him here.”
“You got it, Colt,” Becky said, but he was already back in his office answering a ringing phone.
“Colt, it’s Freddie Mac. Just wanted to let you know I confirmed our corpse’s ID. Fingerprints match the same name: Lucius Wallace. Just figured you’d want to know.”
“Fingerprints?” Colt said and sat behind his desk. He spun the chair toward the computer keyboard and started logging into the state police database. “Does our vic have a record?”
“That’s your lane, Colt.”
Several entries for “Wallace” appeared on-screen, and Colt scrolled down until he found the right one. “Ten years ago, DUI,” he said. “First offense. Looks like his only offense.”
“There you go, then,” the coroner said.
“Thanks, Freddie Mac. Anything else?”
“The two wounds we saw were all he had. One exit wound. So there’s probably a bullet to be found. The GSW to the torso probably wasn’t fatal.”
“And you’re doing the autopsy today?” Colt said.
“Soon as I can get to it. You going to notify? You need the address for notification? I got his license right here.”
Freddie rattled off Wallace’s address, and Colt scribbled it on a page of the notebook he kept in his shirt pocket. “Got it,” he said. “Thanks.” He hung up the phone and exhaled a long breath, not relishing his next move.
He walked to Becky’s desk. “Heard from John?”
“He’s working an accident out near the airport.
“Okay, I’m going to notify the next of kin.”
Becky looked up at him, kindness and concern in her blue eyes. “Good luck.”
Best-selling author Phillip Thompson, a native of rural East Mississippi, received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Ole Miss. A Marine Corps combat veteran, he has worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Mississippi and Virginia. He has also worked as a defense analyst, media spokesman, consultant, speechwriter, and Senate aide. Thompson is the author of five novels: “Old Anger,” the Amazon Best Seller “Outside the Law,” Deep Blood,” “A Simple Murder,” and “Enemy Within.” His short fiction has appeared in O-Dark-Thirty; The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature; Out of the Gutter Online; Thrills, Kills ‘N ‘ Chaos; Near to the Knuckle; Yellow Mama; and The Shamus Sampler II. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers Conference as a fiction writer.
He lives in Virginia. Find him on Twitter at @olemissgrad38 and online at phillipthompsonbooks.com