BY: TRISHA O’KEEFE
Grover Moss is bored. A former big-city detective, he misses the mind-numbing parade of bums, drug dealers, prostitutes, murderers, and violence only big cities can provide. He has followed the beautiful but capricious Chantal West to her home town buried deep in the thickets and swamps of South Georgia where he feels buried as well—until he discovers a reclusive wraith of a man who says he’s murdered his father and buried his body under the floor of the mill, that is. As the Julia Springs Police Chief, Moss is intrigued enough to follow up on the story. But as he digs for the truth, he gets a bagful of shocks and discovers corruption on a massive scale…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Gator Hunter by Trisha O’Keefe, Grover Moss is the chief of police for Julia Springs, Georgia. Bored to tears, he doesn’t know what to do with himself until he meets an old man who claims to have killed his own father. Moss doesn’t believe him as the man can give no details, doesn’t know if it was two years ago or ten, and claims he only knows he killed his father because his mother said so. As Moss digs for the truth in an attempt to save the old man from being charged with a crime he didn’t commit, Moss discovers corruption of giant proportions. Can he bring these criminal to justice, or will he die trying?
As with all of O’Keefe’s books, this one is filled with marvelous characters, plenty of suspense, and numerous surprises. A really great read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Gator Hunter by Trisha O’Keefe reunites us with the charming characters in South Georgia. Grover Moss is now the chief of police for Julia Springs, and his wife Kenya is still in demand as a singer. As there isn’t a lot of crime in Julia Springs, a big-city cop like Moss is bound to be bored out of his mind. This is until they find a body buried beneath the floor of the old mill, and an old man comes forth claiming the body is his father and he killed him. He doesn’t remember when or how, but his mother told him he did so it must be true. Moss doesn’t buy it. And as he begins to investigate, he discovers that the problems in South Georgia go way beyond a simple body in the old mill. Moss also discovers that practically everyone is out to get him…
Well written, fast paced, and intriguing, The Gator Hunter combines superb character development with suspense, mystery, and a chilling look at organized crime. You won’t be able to put it down.
“Die, damn you, die!”
With a muffled shout, Grover Moss catapulted upright in his desk chair, fighting off a dream. The dream, as was the way with cowards, took the easy way out. It slipped through the half-open window and joined the mist dancing in the street among the passing cars, leaving its victim feeling like a fool, mopping the sweat running down his face.
“Say what, Chief?” From the other room, Earlene’s nasal twang sliced like a knife through the heavy air.
Embarrassed, Moss cleared his throat. “Nothing, Earlene. I was just trying to swat a fly.” He knew he wouldn’t get away with that excuse. His secretary’s hearing was as sharp as her knitting needles.
He pictured Earlene’s thin eyebrows rising to her hairline. “Oh, I just thought you was dreaming about killing Mayor Clark, is all. Don’t blame you one bit, only you’d have to get in line. There’s lots of people ahead of you.”
The police radio warbled just then, but Moss didn’t get his hopes up. Even Earlene had a defeatist attitude in her running commentary. “That’s probably Martha Wilkes again, saying her husband’s ghost is up in her attic eating her out of house and home which is what killed him in the first place. Weighed over three hundred pounds when he died. If he’s up there, bet that old attic’s squeaking up a storm.”
Moss shook the shadow of the dream off. Probably what was chasing him had been the specter of boredom which was enough to kill anybody, let alone an inner-city detective. He checked himself—former inner-city detective. There hadn’t been enough action around this little berg to raise the pulse of a meth head.
Another warble and a voice came over the police radio. “Hello? This is Prescott. Is anybody home? Over.”
Moss squirmed and fought the urge to pick up the receiver. “Ears, you gonna get that?”
“I’m on it, Chief.”
It would take a four-alarm fire to make Ears lose his online game and actually play dispatcher for the Julia Springs Police Department. Things moved slowly down here in Georgia. He was still getting used to that after five years. An image of thick syrup slowly dripping from a jug formed in Moss’s mind as Ears got to the phone.
“Yeah, Sarge, come in.”
Even the clouds groaned with boredom, squeezing out drops the size of quarters to plink out a lazy tune on the brown hydrangea leaves. In winter, everything in Georgia got brown and drippy, even his mood. Moss couldn’t resist a moment of nostalgia, remembering how the buskers in front of the Memphis train station, sporting bright mufflers and Santa hats, would be competing with the Salvation Army to see who could play the worst Christmas songs. Their instrument cases would be filled with baggies of fake meth, presents for the druggies who shuffled along, hunched against the biting wind off the Mississippi.
Ears’s cell phone clattered on the desk beside him, a sure sign either Mrs. Wilkes wasn’t wrong or it was really a four alarmer. “Oh, my god, no kidding? Where abouts?”
“Real professional, Ears.” Moss gave a big man’s sigh and went to the door of his office. “What?” he asked, expecting no more than a cat up a tree or a cow on the road.
The dispatcher turned around in his chair, his eyes round with horror. “They found a body at Howland’s Mill, Chief.”
Moss was unmoved although this beat swatting flies. “So follow procedure, Marv, take down the address, caller’s names, phone num—”
“Yeah, I did all that, but get this, Chief. It’s Mr. Howland and he’s been missing for nearly fifty years.”
“How do you know it’s him if they just found the body? Maybe it is, maybe not. People don’t look the same after fifty years of being dead.” As he strapped on his sidearm, Moss shooed away the thought of the cold beer and Mrs. Wilkes cringing on her porch among the Boston ferns.
“But they always said—”
“Tell Prescott I’m on the way.”
“That’s the thing, Chief. He hung up.”
Marvin Thomas looked around blinking, his long, horsy face squeezed between the headphones. You could tell he was Earlene’s nephew. There was a family resemblance.
Moss sighed again. “When will you guys learn to follow police procedures? Hold the fort, Ears. And tell Prescott to meet me at…what’s the address again?”
Ears looked up from his game, a weak eye muscle allowing his left eye to slide toward his beaked nose. “Howland’s Mill, Chief. You know, out Howland’s Mill Road,” he said, as if the mill were a building etched in everybody’s memory like the Washington Monument or the Alamo.
His quizzical look had “outsider” written all over it.
Thank God for the GPS, Moss thought. I could end up in Siberia. “And when Lee comes on at five, will you tell him to take a look in Mrs. Wilkes attic again?”
“Come on, not again, Chief. That’s the fourth time today!” Earlene was all set to go home, even though it was just four forty-five. Her shopping bag was crammed full of knitting yarn, a pair of knitting needles stuck like crossed swords in the bun at the back of her head. “I’ll go by her house on the way home and see what’s wrong. She and my mother go to the same church. Poor guy. If that’s his ghost, I don’t blame one bit for coming back to haunt her, the way she henpecked him.”
He avoided getting into a discussion about the existence of ghosts. “Last time I looked, Earlene, you weren’t a sworn officer of the law, and if you should get hurt going over there—”
“Aw, don’t worry about that. I won’t sue or anything. Relax, Chief. It’s just a friendly visit, okay? Besides, I’ve always got my knitting needles, just in case. Just like James Bond, licensed to kill except I’d hesitate at poking a hole in poor old Mr. Wilkes.”
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. Like I said, get Lee to go over to Mrs. Wilkes’ place when he comes in.” Shutting the station door, he stepped gratefully out into the late afternoon.
It was one of those humid December afternoons in South Central Georgia when not even the fleas on a yellow dog had the energy to move. Even the forecast was nothing to celebrate, promising to be seventy-nine degrees and rain on Christmas Day. However, Grover Moss was always hopeful things were going to change. Julia Springs and Kenya, wife Number Two, had taught him that. Both the town and his wife were survivors who had changed up their game after a rocky start. Both the town and his wife had changed their names and their appearance to suit the demands of others.
However, he was learning hope could be a two-edged sword. Like love, hope could hurt more times than not. Like the times he had gone home at the end of the day thinking he was getting old and fat, and, sure enough, Sheldon had called him old and fat. Of course, Kenya’s oldest boy had always had a grudge against him for marrying his mother and not being his real father. Add to that, the times he had to arrest some white, over-privileged dudes with the N-word astride their lips like a night rider, and you had a perfect case of the Memphis Itch: itching to go back to Memphis and give up trying to be a small town Southern cop.
On the way out to Howland’s Mill Road, Moss felt a weird chill as the woods grew thick with mist. In the watery world the vine-covered trees appeared to be monstrous shapes, choking out the feeble light of a winter sunset.
He tried to shake it off with a little Bob Marley on the CD player, but the eerie feeling even put an evil twist on the Caribbean beat as he drove deeper into the swamp the locals called The Thicket.
Give me the dirty cement of Memphis any day, he thought. At least I know who my enemy is and where they’re most likely to hide. Out here, everything is hiding.
Something about the watery world brought back the dream just when he thought reason and daylight had destroyed it. The dream always had an atmosphere of its own, a greenish hue like the light coming from the swamp on either side of him.
Moss felt a choking sensation and a kind of paralysis as something advanced on him. measuring his life in thick bubbles. Suddenly it was there in front of him, rising up out of the primordial slime.
Moss was gripping the steering wheel so hard, he almost missed the sign for Howland’s Mill Road, an unbelievably sharp left turn off on a dirt road through the very swamp he had been trying to avoid. The police department’s only SUV bounced along the rutted road with mud puddles so deep, they would have swallowed a smaller car. Turkey buzzards bounced away from the road kill they were shredding, only to hop back again as soon as his vehicle had passed. Buzzards were inevitable signs of death in the South and Moss shivered as the chill spread to his gut.
He slowed down and turned on his bright headlights to pick up any more hazards in his path. The only sign of life was the rusted, beat-up old truck down along the creek which trickled through the swamp. There was a new tackle box and cooler in the back that gave him the impression that owner might be gigging frogs, a nightly past-time in these parts.
Still, Moss made a mental note to check and see if the frog-gigger was still there when he left the mill. That was if he ever got to the mill without breaking an axle, he thought as the SUV shuddered through another crater.
He almost passed the mill buildings buried in a grove of trees, but he saw the mill pond with its old spillway forming a rocky bridge across the trickling creek he had passed earlier. The stagnant water was choked with water plants and enough water lilies to satisfy any French impressionist painter.
But underneath the pretty flowers was a breeding ground for mosquitoes and water snakes, copperheads and moccasins. He made a mental note to get Mosquito Control out here when he got back.
As he parked the SUV beside Stu Prescott’s patrol car, Moss couldn’t suppress a shiver. There was something that looked haunted about it like the scary movies he had seen as a child. Prescott put the feeling into words.
Stu Prescott greeted him with, “Creepy old place, right, Chief? Like a zombie movie or something.”
“Got your flashlight and pistol, don’t you? You can take on a whole swarm of zombies, Pres. Besides you don’t have much brains to eat,” Moss added in a lower voice.
Prescott didn’t make a move. “Steverino said he’s on his way. Better wait for him to back us up, don’t you think?”
“I believe you’re scared, Pres. Come on, I’ll hold your hand. Meanwhile, you can start telling me how it was you found a body way out here in zombie land.”
“It wasn’t me that found it, Chief. It was some teenagers come running out of the place just as I drove by.” They were picking their way through the tangle of woods surrounding the old building, sometimes hacking their way through vines of kudzu wrapped around other thorny vines.
Moss knew better than to ask Prescott what he was doing way out here in the woods when he should be parked somewhere strategic so he could some speeder a ticket. “You mean you haven’t seen the body yourself?” In spite of the threat of copperheads and other snakes that hung around water, Moss stopped and looked back at Prescott, the only full-time cop in the Julia Springs Police Department beside himself. “Did you even get their names, Sergeant?”
“No, but I’d know them if I saw them around, Chief. I think one of ‘em is old man Bradley’s youngest.”
“You think.” Moss moved gingerly on through the knee-high brush. Give him a city sidewalk littered with cigarettes and condoms any day. “Did these boys say what they were doing messing around out here in the first place?”
“That’s it,” Prescott said. “Just messing around, I guess. Like they were bored. Not a lot to do around The Springs for kids.”
Finally, the two officers emerged on what looked like a stone patio.
“I guess this was their loading platform.” Moss looked up at the two-story building, its roof partially collapsed. “If this is a prank call, I’m going to put you and Marv in a cell for a night.” Shining his flashlight on the floor, he said, “Look, there’re footprints in the dust. Sneakers. So the kids were in here.”
“Maybe a meth dealer wanting to throw us off the trail.” Prescott always sounded like a marshal in the western re-runs which Pres watched religiously. “The kids were pretty scared.”
“Don’t suppose they said where this body was at, did they?” Although the faint five o’clock sun was at their backs, Moss stepped through the gaping doorway, shining the flashlight around to make sure he wouldn’t go crashing through the rotten floor. The old mill wheel was still attached to the building, although covered with vines which snaked up from the water.
“Hello, Julia Springs Police coming in.” Moss’s booming voice dislodged a few birds and two mice nesting in the rafters. “Anybody here? Better show yourself if you are. Check that room over there, Pres. Looks like an old office.”
Prescott was headed for an adjacent room, gun drawn, when the door opened just a crack. The creaking sound froze him in mid-step. He looked like a bird dog on point, pistol outstretched, poised on his front foot.” Show yourself or I’ll shoot!”
“Pres, put the gun down. Probably just—” Moss started to say an uneven floor, but the words froze on his tongue. The door opened a little wider to reveal a ghostly face surrounded with long strands of white hair.
A feeble voice implored, “Don’t shoot me. Ain’t got any money.” The door opened wider, allowing a glimpse of a pale, frightened eye. Prescott backed up a step closer to Moss.
“Didn’t I tell you there were zombies around here?” he muttered.
“Zombies don’t smell like shit, Prescott, because zombies don’t have to shit.” Moss’s voice grew megaphone loud. “We’re police officers, sir. Are you okay? That’s all we want to know.”
The door creaked open wider and in the doorway stood a barefoot wraith, clothed in rags. The only thing alive in his countenance were his eyes, peeking out through a cascade of white hair.
They were opaque, the color of old blue jeans but they fearfully raked over the two officers with the intensity of laser beams.
At last the wraith spoke in a tremulous voice. “You fellas lookin’ for a job?”
Carefully as though in slow motion, Moss put his pistol away in its holster. In a low voice, he told Prescott to do the same. “Squatter, Pres. Put your gun down slowly.” Raising his voice again, he said,” It’s okay, sir. We’re just looking around.” He had seen too many homeless people on the streets of Memphis not to recognize one holed up in the only vacant shelter he could find. This being an old mill, he had probably found some sacks of flour and corn meal to survive on by the pasty looks of him.
“We got a call about a body around here. Nothing to worry about, though. Probably just somebody pulling a joke.” Moss sniffed the air. No smell of decay, nothing except an old derelict needing a bath and clean clothes.
The squatter was full of surprises, “No, it’s true. There is a body here.” The old man looked from one officer to the other. “You got to believe me.”
“We know. But it’s up walking around,” said Prescott, rolling his eye at Moss. “Right, Chief?”
Moss pulled out his phone and the wraith started to close the door again. “Don’t shoot me. I’ll go quietly.”
Seeing his apprehension, Moss slid the phone back in its holder. “Okay, sir, you say there’s a body around here? Could you show me, please?”
The door opened and the old man shuffled out, his bare feet immune to the splintered floor. Moss realized he was nearly blind. “It’s under here.” The old man pointed to a space in the corner covered by an old chest. The chest was covered with cobwebs and dust, but there was a square in the dust where it had been moved recently. A few floor boards had been pried up, probably by the kids Prescott had seen running away.
“Have you actually seen it yourself, sir? I mean recently?” Thinking it was some kind of hallucination, Moss concentrated on getting this old man some help. Maybe social services would find a place to put him. “Pres, go outside and give Doreen a call. Tell her we’ve got a ten-seventy-two. See what she can do, pronto.”
He almost missed the old vagrant saying, “I know because I put him there. Me and Mama.”
Pres stopped and turned around. “So you know who it is? Who is it?”
Moss was about to reprimand his sergeant for jumping in like that when the old man surprised them both. “It’s Daddy,” he said, nodding his shaggy head. “I know because I killed him. Mama said I did.”
“You killed your own daddy and then buried him under the floor?” Prescott looked from the old man to Moss who just winked. “You want me to look, Chief?”
“Hold on, Pres. So, sir, how’d you do it? I mean what’d you use—a knife, or a gun?”
The old man looked puzzled. “I don’t understand. Do what?”
Moss humored the old vagrant. “Well, sir, you said you killed somebody—”
“My daddy, yes, sir. But that was a long time ago. At least a couple of years. No, more like ten.”
Moss sighed, a mental picture of that glistening beer sprouting wings and taking off into the sunset. “Well, sir, you’d have had to use a weapon—like a knife or a gun to kill somebody.”
“Or a rope,” added Prescott. “Maybe you strangled him with your bare hands, even.” His sideways glance told Moss to join in the fun.
“Sergeant, I gave you an order.” Moss hoped the tone in his voice would give Prescott a hint before he had to use a sledgehammer.
“Yeah, Chief, but I’m not leaving you alone with this…man.”
Moss got the sledgehammer ready.
“Oh, no.” The old man seemed to be carrying on a conversation with an invisible companion. “Mama would never allow guns in the house. Or knives. Or anything like that.”
“So you lived here, then? How long ago was that?”
The vacant blue eyes turned to Moss. “Why, all my life. I’ve lived here all my life. I’m John Howland, Junior and this is my home.”
© 2018 by Trisha O’Keefe