Louella sat on the sunset side of a wraparound porch, sipping coffee from a teacup. Former Sheriff Maddox sat beside her in the second of five wooden rocking chairs facing the yard, the fence, and the highway beyond.
“Are you getting everything you need from Ford’s people?” Maddox sipped from a glass of lemonade and gazed off at something only he could see.
“He’s been very cooperative,” Louella replied. “How are you enjoying your retirement?”
“I try and keep busy.”
“It must have been awful, having to run an election against your own deputy.” Louella noticed the coffee grounds at the bottom of her cup and set it beside her on the porch.
“Just as well it was him as anyone else,” Maddox said. “Madelyn was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of that election. Being sheriff didn’t seem as important after that.”
Louella folded her hands in her lap. “I was sorry to hear of your loss.”
Maddox looked off in the direction of a dog barking. A light breeze carried in the aroma of honeysuckle and ragweed.
“I understand Ford made the Reverend a campaign issue,” Louella said.
“That was how he went about courting the black vote. His campaign slogan was, ‘You shouldn’t have to live in fear.’” Maddox shook his head.
“You must have felt betrayed.”
“I never could make an arrest on that one. I wanted to though. I wanted to make an arrest and the DA wanted to prosecute. The man just never gave us anything to work with.” Maddox leaned toward Louella. “And neither did his attorney.”
“Do you save some blame for Melvin Little?” Louella asked.
“You don’t blame a weasel for stealing a chicken, and you don’t blame a peacock for showing its feathers, so I guess I can’t blame Melvin Little for being a lawyer. He was paid to protect his client.”
“And paid well I understand.” The wooden slats creaked under Louella’s rocking chair.
Have you been to the new building?” Maddox asked.
“Melvin’s office?” Louella nodded.
“That building was paid for with the Reverend’s insurance claims.”
A car whooshed by on the highway. Louella stopped rocking and leaned forward in her chair. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, Sheriff. In the course of my research, I’ve learned that the Reverend wasn’t the only person collecting insurance claims. Do you think he was working alone?”
“I could never prove a criminal conspiracy.”
“So, it was just a coincidence that the Reverend and Ernie Johnson were both suspected of killing people for insurance money? Was that the thing to do around here?”
“I’d never say this publicly, but the insurance companies basically incentivized murder. They’re changing the rules now.”
“So you don’t think Reverend Baxter and Ernie Johnson were in cahoots?”
“After he was paroled, Ernie worked hard to change his image to that of an honest business man.”
“But he could never change the fact that he was convicted of murder.”
“Apparently he learned a lot from that experience.”
“Did he learn to delegate certain responsibilities so they couldn’t be traced back to him?”
“He’s a smart man,” Maddox said.
“So, what would that make the Reverend? His lieutenant?”
Maddox smiled bitterly. “I could never prove anything on him either. It cost me an election.”
“You make it sound like you were powerless to stop any of it,” Louella said.
Maddox let out a sigh. “When I came into office, the former sheriff—Everett was his name—he made it clear to me that he looked the other way when it came to illegal activity among the colored folks. He said he let them do whatever they wanted to as long as they did it in on their side of town.
“I didn’t want it to be that way. I swore to protect the people. All of the people. And that’s what I tried to do.” He sipped his lemonade. “I guess I failed.”
Go to Chapter 18