BY: BILL A. BRIER
The Internet? Never heard of it. Smart Phones? Who you kiddin’? We’re talkin’ 1956.
Energetic and eager to make his mark on what Time Magazine called the next great boom town, Bucky Ontario leave his Louisiana home and hops a bus to Defiance, Oklahoma—a town not particularly averse to murders, just to the embarrassment of them.
While helping his friend, Kindra, search for a ring that once belonged to her dead mother, Bucky is told: “Find the baby, find the ring.”
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Killer Who Hated Soup by Bill A. Brier, Bucky Ontario is an eager and enthusiastic young man fresh from Louisiana, who heads for Defiance, Oklahoma, which in 1956 is consider to be the next great boom town. Bucky has big plans, but those go awry when his new friend is murdered and the town seems to want to cover it up, leaving Bucky determined to solve it on his own.
For an historical mystery, the story is remarkably fast-paced and riveting—a page turner from beginning to end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The killer Who Hated Soup by Bill A. Brier is a historical mystery of the first-order. Bucky Ontario has big dreams for his future, and he decides that a new boom town in Oklahoma is the place to make them come true. And once he gets off the bus in Defiance, he doesn’t waste time, going from a menial labor job to selling cars in a short span of time and determined to make a success of it. But when a new friend is murdered, Bucky’s plans change, and now his focus in on solving the murder, which the town leaders don’t seem to care about. In fact, they seem to be covering it up.
Brier has created amusing but realistic characters and interspersed his fast-paced action and tension with flashes of humor, making the story not only gripping but fun to read.
Defiance, Oklahoma, December 1956:
The girl tore through the woods with her baby.
Ignoring her bleeding feet, she raced until she slipped on loose leaves and crashed into a shrub, dropping the newborn. Stunned, she lay still in the biting cold and heard her father yelling and bursting through the brush behind her. She snatched up the wailing baby and held her hand to its mouth. Dashing through undergrowth that tore at her bare legs, she broke through onto the road leading to the highway, hesitated, turned, and threw herself across the open stretch and into the shrubbery. She clawed through thick, thorny blackberry bushes, trying to protect the baby as she moved through the brush. She came out onto a narrow path that she knew would lead back to her hiding place in the burnt-out hollow of an oak tree.
Weakening now, she sucked in air with a loud, rasping noise. Her muscles ached, her legs trembled. She heard her father fighting through the blackberry bushes, and, with her remaining strength, she flung herself forward.
She reached the oak and scrambled inside. Pulled up her nightshirt, pressed her baby’s mouth to her nipple, and tried to quiet her own breathing. Minutes later, her heart still pounding, she heard the crunching sound as footsteps approached then stopped.
“Come on out, Marybeth. I know you’re in there.” His voice softened. “Everything’s okay.”
She peered through tangled branches into the starry sky. “You’ll take my baby.”
Darkness swept across like a curtain. Hands reached in and wrenched the infant from her grasp.
She scrambled from the tree and clawed at her father’s shirt, reaching for her baby held beyond her grasp. “No. You’ll give it away.”
“God will forgive you, my daughter.”
Bucky grabbed his coat and camera, mounted his motorcycle, and headed toward the Chrysler dealership. The cold air stung his face like porcupine pricks, and it felt electrical. He loved the outdoors, and he loved Defiance. It was his kind of town–a town primed for growth. A town where folks were friendly and waved to one another. Where they drove fast in town to show off their cars or pickups and slow on the highway to save gas. Where a cashier would start a detailed conversation about anything from paving sidewalks to building racetracks when someone only wanted to buy gas and enjoy a Nehi pop.
Bucky stopped before his reflection in the showroom window. He pulled a comb from a back pocket, and, with bent knees and an upward turn of his wrist, set his blond hair into a front curl. He blew warm air into his cold and tingling hands, removed the lens cap from the camera hanging around his neck, and padded into the dealership.
He drifted among the cars, pausing to examine a grille, or three, and run his hand across slick leather seats. Would he ever be able to afford cars like these? Right now, he couldn’t pay for a new motorcycle. His gaze fixed on the eggshell-tinted Plymouth Fury. He backed up, lifted his camera, and clicked off a shot, then sauntered into the sales office, aware that the owner, Cal Alsop, had been watching him.
Alsop jumped to his feet with a grin that flashed dollar signs. “Good morning, sir. I see you have an eye for fine cars.”
“That’s why I’m here.” Bucky threw out a hand. “My name’s Bucky, and I want to sell them for you.”
Alsop’s smile dropped like the price of last year’s Chrysler Imperial. “Well, now, I–I–What’d you say your name was?”
“Bucky, Bucky Ontario.”
Alsop cocked his head and squinted. He had a square jaw, black hair neat and trim. Seemed young, barely over thirty. About a decade older than Bucky and with an inch more height, which put him at six feet. “Now I recognize you. You work at Gustafson’s Grocery.”
“Not anymore. I…um…I was fired.”
“Fired! That’s hardly a recommendation, then, is it?” Alsop sat down. “You might as well have a seat.”
Bucky swiftly did so, in case Alsop changed his mind. He sat straight, his hands on his kneecaps. He really needed this job–the vital next step in his dream of someday becoming the town mayor, a man of influence and value.
“Mr. Gustafson offered to promote me to manager, but when I told him I couldn’t accept the position because now that I was twenty-one–my birthday was last week–I’d be quitting soon. So he fired me. You see, I never intended the grocery business as my life’s work.”
Alsop rubbed one hand on the back of the other. “Is that so?”
“It was a stepping stone to what I really want.”
“Mind closing the door?” Alsop withdrew a cigar from a humidor. “Don’t want the smell to chase away any lady customers.” He struck a match on the side of his desk near a picture of a blonde with a sparkling Doris Day smile. Bucky recognized her from the grocery. “You saw the sign in the window and figured you’d like to sell cars?”
Bucky’s heart fluttered with hope. “Mr. Alsop–” He felt his Louisiana accent kick in. “–it’s more than that. Working at the grocery, I got to know the townspeople and establish myself–I’m pretty sure–in a good light. Now I need to move on. Selling your cars on commission will make me a businessman, not just a salesman.”
A faint smile crossed Alsop’s lips. He sat back and puffed. “Tell me more.”
“There’s money to be made selling cars. Next to houses, cars are people’s most expensive purchase. On average, they’ll buy a new one every three years. Take that Belvedere.” On a roll now, Bucky pointed to the showroom. “Quad headlights, dual four-barrel carb. Your Fury beats the pants off GM’s Corvette and leaves Ford’s T-bird coughing dust. I don’t know about your agency, but nationally, Chrysler sales are down this year–due, of course, to lousy marketing and ineffective sales strategies. Fact is, Chrysler makes cars with style and quality.” Bucky placed both hands on the desk and leaned in. “Cars I can sell.” If only Alsop let him.
Alsop twirled his cigar ash into a piston-shaped aluminum ashtray and smiled but didn’t look too impressed. “What’s your idea of an effective sales strategy?”
“Statistically, eighty percent of new car sales come from repeat customers or referrals. If I consider every customer a friend, he won’t forget me. Volume’s the second thing. The trick is to sell more cars than just one at a time.” With the weak point of his argument coming up, he gazed at his shoeshine. “Haven’t figured exactly how, but I will.” He met the man’s gaze. “How about it, Mr. Alsop, what do you say?”
Alsop leaned back, squinted again, and puffed his cigar. Bucky studied his face, unable to read a reaction. Finally, Alsop stood. “We’ll do a trial basis. You sell three cars next week, and the job’s permanent. But I warn you, it won’t be easy.” He extended his hand. “Be here at ten o’clock Monday morning. You’ll work with Sam, an old timer. Been selling cars since the Depression.” Alsop scribbled something on a pad and handed the note to Bucky. “Here’s my home address. If you’re free, drop by this evening. I’m throwing a little party for my shop foreman, Will Chambers. He’s just returning to work after having surgery.”
“Sure, I know Will. Thanks, Mr. Alsop. I’ll be there.” A new job and an invite to the boss’s house the same day. This was going better than he had even hoped! His chest swelled with pride and happy anticipation.
Bucky had a new job and a new sports coat.
He checked his fingernails to make sure he’d removed all the grease after changing his motorcycle’s spark plug. The bike was actually a piece of crap, especially with its busted muffler, but it got him around. It was small and had a cartoon quality to it, a wacky, poke-’em-in-the-eye sense of mischief. He threw a leg over the seat, and it creaked like an old saddle. Off he drove, his sports coat fluttering. After two years of clerking at Gustafson’s Grocery, he was now a businessman. Step two of his plan to move up the ranks. Sell three cars in one week? He could do that…somehow. He’d always managed to succeed once he put his mind to it, and finding work in Defiance was no exception.
He thought back to that bittersweet goodbye to his daddy and kid sister, Cassidy, and the hot and humid bus journey from Louisiana to Defiance. He’d loved every sweaty minute of it. The miles of open fields of cotton, corn, and wheat; the countless cattle ranches, like those he’d seen only in movies. The temperature had reached ninety-nine in Defiance when he jumped off the Greyhound bus, shirtless, his chest golden as a new penny. The very next day, his new neighbor, Miss Iris, landed him the job at Gustafson’s.
It would be great meeting Alsop’s wife at his party, getting acquainted in a social atmosphere, where people are relaxed. Dale Carnegie said in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, that a successful businessman is friendly to everyone, especially the boss’s wife. It probably didn’t say the wife part, but just the same, it was good advice.
Cars lined the street and clogged the driveway of Alsop’s single-story redbrick home. Above the entrance hung a banner: Welcome back, Will. Bucky parked on the street’s steep downhill slope behind a nicely polished ’52 DeSoto the color of canned peas. A “for sale” sign sat on the back seat.
Bucky jaunted up a walkway lined with flowers. A sign on the door said Come on in. Bucky restyled his front curl and stepped inside the living room crowded with people and chatter. Toasty air carried the scent of sweet pine from the fireplace.
A woman approached him, a friendly smile lighting up her peach-colored cheeks. “Welcome to the party. You must be Bucky.”
“And you’re Mrs. Alsop.” She really did look like Doris Day. He flashed his best smile and handed her one of the two boxes of chocolates he’d bought at Woolworths. “The other box is for Miss Iris. A surprise.”
“Why thank you, Bucky. Call me Jo-Dee. I understand you know Will through his sister, Miss Iris.”
“We live in the same building. Often we sit out in the backyard together, and I teach her birdcalls. She’s really good. On Sundays, she cooks dinner for Will and me.”
Jo-Dee looked at the camera hanging from his neck. “How nice–you’ll take pictures. My ear tells me you grew up farther south. Louisiana, maybe?”
Bucky nodded. “Gulf Coast. My daddy’s a fourth generation shrimper. I would have been the fifth, but the big boys have taken over the industry. That’s why I left.” And with a heavy heart.
Bucky sprouted from a proud family who rode the bayous and coastal waters of Louisiana the way cowpunchers rode the Oklahoma range. His momma wore white fishing boots under her wedding dress.
Jo-Dee smiled again. “I like it when men call their fathers daddy. I’m from Mississippi. How did you happen to settle here, in Defiance?”
“Time magazine had a list of the next six boomtowns. So I closed my eyes and picked.” A gentle hand touched his shoulder.
“Howdy, neighbor,” came a familiar high-pitched rusty voice, followed by a warm and hardy laugh.
Bucky turned to see Miss Iris, round faced and rosy cheeked. “Well, fancy meeting you here,” he said and winked.
If Joe-Dee looked like Doris Day, Miss Iris looked like Ma of Ma and Paw Kettle. Brown hair parted down the middle and curled up in front. She had on a blue flowered dress that fit her five-foot, square body like a colorful gunnysack. As always, she looked full of good spirit. He handed her the box of chocolates.
“Why, thank you, Bucky.” She glanced to be sure they were creams only. She didn’t want her false teeth broken to bits on walnuts or anything. “I’ll share them with Sunday’s Bible class.”
Bucky had read the Bible growing up, and it offered lots of good advice. So did the Dale Carnegie book his daddy had given him as a going away present. The book said the cornerstone of winning friends and influencing people was being honest and sincere. Bucky had made that one of his life’s goals. It was probably in the Bible, too.
“Cal’s serving drinks at the bar, and there’s plenty of food in the kitchen,” Jo-Dee said. She left.
Miss Iris leaned in close to Bucky. “Will told me that Cal was impressed with how you handled yourself in the interview this morning. Also, don’t tell Cal, he’ll find out soon enough, but just today, Will bought a used car,” she whispered. “Private party.”
“How’s he doing? You know, his prostate operation and all.”
She closed her eyes, shaking her head. “He’s doing fine. It’s his drinking I worry about.”
Bucky wandered into the den where Alsop poured drinks for an invigorated group. Maybe his booze had more kick than the backyard brew Bucky’s daddy whipped up at parties.
“Glad you could make it, Bucky,” Alsop said. “What can I do you for?”
“A Hamm’s would be great.” Bucky liked the beer commercial on TV and tapped out a drumbeat on the bar. With his beer, he ambled into the living room where Will had undone his belt buckle and was showing off his scar to a group of wary onlookers. Miss Iris was old, but her brother was really old.
“Lost a hell of a lot of blood,” Will slurred. “Picked me up a bladder problem along the way.” He grabbed his bulging crotch. “That’s why I wear this here diaper. No more beer for me, thanks. Already had ten.” He laughed with his mouth as wide as it would go, and everyone lurched back like he was radioactive. He looked at Bucky but was too drunk to recognize him.
Miss Iris took Will’s arm. “Let’s get you some hot soup and then we’ll leave.”
Bucky followed them into the kitchen to take pictures. It smelled of clam chowder and fried chicken. Those drinking the most, mugged the most. He snapped a shot of a man with a chrome hook for a hand and still managing to hold his beer with it, then he turned his camera toward Kansas, another fella he knew from Gustafson’s, who was standing near the back door and scratching his ass like a baboon.
“Get that goddamn camera away from me!” Kansas growled, stepping closer, waving his beer and splashing it. “Who the hell are you to get up in my business?”
“Relax, Kansas,” the man with the hook piped up at Bucky’s elbow. “He’s just taking pictures of the party.”
“Well, he better take pictures of someone else, or I’ll put the camera where the sun don’t shine.”
“Hey! It’s not a big deal,” Bucky said, feeling his own temper rise but refusing to let it get the better of him. He couldn’t get involved in a scene here at his new boss’s house.
A fireplug sort of man waddled up. “Don’t worry about him none. He’s always a pain in the ass. You must be Bucky. I’m Sam. Glad to meet you.”
So, this was his new cohort, fleshy and pink-faced. Alsop had said he’d sold cars since the Depression.
Sam threw out a hand that Bucky caught. The smell of whiskey wafted from his mouth on a stream of words. “Welcome aboard, son.”
“Thanks, Sam. Some party.”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Listen, young fella. I’ll tell you a trade secret.” He planted a forearm, heavy as an iron bar, on Bucky’s shoulder. “In the car business, there’s no such thing as browsing.” He downed a gulp of drink. “And another thing, comparison shopping is counterproductive. So are principles. Try to keep those to a minimum.”
Bucky felt embarrassed for Sam being so open about unscrupulous trade secrets, but what the hell–good stuff to know. “I’ll do my best.” He backed up, freeing his shoulder and trying to extricate himself from the room, but Sam kept talking.
“One more piece of advice, Buck. Never talk about the price of a car. Break the numbers into easy-to-digest monthly payments. Stating the price only weakens your position. And if the car is used, your position is already weakened by having to show it to the customer up close–don’t make things worse.”
Jo-Dee walked past, balancing a tray of empty glasses. “I’m sure he’ll figure it all out, Sam.”
Sam staggered toward Bucky with an eye on his shoulder. “Did you hear the one about the guy who goes into a bank and says, give me all your money, this is a–”
Banging erupted from down a hallway. “Let me outta this bathroom, goddamnit!”
“Oh, my gosh!” Jo-Dee exclaimed, darting from the kitchen.
The banging became violent. “Open this damned door,” a thick voice bellowed from inside, “or I’ll kick it open.”
Bucky followed Jo-Dee in case he could help. The door shuddered as if being throttled by a demon inside. She turned the knob and opened the door. “Josh! Are you all right?”
A bug-eyed man with hair like Einstein’s grandmother came stumbling out. A woman appeared from the hallway, her face a mask of worry. She draped a gentle arm around his shoulder, as if comforting a frightened child. “It’s me, honey. You’ve just had too much to drink.” She turned to Jo-Dee. “He’ll be fine,” she said softly before leading him down the hallway.
Jo-Dee leaned against the wall, hand to her forehead. “Cal has got to fix that doorknob.”
The man with the hook spoke up, “Thought I fixed it earlier, but I guess not. Josh served in the marines. Korea. Spent six months in a hole. No wonder he doesn’t take to locked doors.”
Looking stricken, JoDee headed toward the kitchen.
Bucky paced back into the den, shivering at the thought of being locked in a hole. He introduced himself to Kathy, Alsop’s secretary, complimented her on her red dress and caught himself eyeing the top of her bulging breasts.
“We look forward to having you with us.” She glanced at her watch and sighed. “Still early, but I have to leave. Nice to meet you, Bucky.”
For a moment, he wondered if his stare had scared her away, but a woman like Kathy, dressed so invitingly, had to be used to them. Then he swung by the kitchen to fix a plate of fried chicken and potato salad before dropping by the bar for another Hamm’s. Pretty good turnout. He’d see what the backyard was like. He opened the door and stepped out onto the moonlit porch.
Someone whistled. “Bucky, over here.” Alsop was sitting by the garage with a bowl of soup.
“Oh, there you are.” Bucky snagged a lawn chair and dragged it alongside.
Alsop lit up a cigar. “Care for one?”
“No, thanks. Tried one once on my daddy’s shrimp boat before heaving over the side. He said I turned green.”
Alsop chuckled. “He gave it to you, did he?”
“I was nine.”
A coyote made a long plaintive cry in the distance. Alsop rolled his cigar between his thumb and finger, staring at the glowing tip. “Sorry about Kansas giving you a hard time in the kitchen. Heard the ruckus even in the den.”
Bucky was used to Kansas. He’d limp into the store with Marybeth, his young teenage daughter, park her in the magazine section, and throw out orders. Fetch five pounds of potatoes, get this, get that. Bucky had always felt like telling him to shove it, but that’s not exactly the way to win friends and influence people.
Alsop puffed his cigar and blew out a thin stream of smoke, then said, “He had his hopes on becoming shop foreman.”
Bucky took a swig of beer. “Don’t tell me he was hoping Will would die from his prostate cancer.”
“Was counting on it. Made a bet with Josh, another mechanic, that he’d be gone by Thanksgiving.” Alsop eyed the camera hanging from Bucky’s neck and nodded. “That’s a quality camera you’ve got there. Don’t see many of those; mostly everyone has Brownies. You any good with it?”
“I’ve had lots of practice. Had a paper route when I was in junior high and saved up. Bought this camera and been taking pictures ever since. Won a photo contest once. Even have my own darkroom.”
Alsop scooted his chair closer. “Listen, it’ll be the state’s fiftieth birthday soon, and the mayor and I are planning a special ceremony. It’s not official, and I haven’t cleared it with the other council members yet, so I can’t divulge details. But if you’d be interested in documenting the event with photographs, I’d front your costs.”
Bucky’s heart pumped like a piston. “Absolutely. What do you mean, clear it with the council?”
“We’re meeting on Monday. The entire plan hinges on selling it to my council cohorts.” He put a finger to his lips. “Not a word. But I’ll tell you this, if my resolution passes, your pictures will be famous one day.”
Bucky leaned back, looked up at the stars, and sipped his beer. Yes, siree, his future was looking real bright.
The rear porch light came on, and a screen door banged open. “Cal!” Kathy shrieked. “Are you out here?”
Alsop jolted from his chair. “What’s wrong?”
Kathy scurried into the yard, her cheeks streaked with mascara. “Miss Iris and Will–an accident! Down the hill!”
“I was right behind them,” Kathy said. “We’ll take my car.”
Bucky jumped to his feet, throwing aside his beer and fried chicken. “I’m coming, too.”
They sprinted around the house toward the front.
“I’ll call an ambulance,” a woman hollered from the porch.
Kathy jabbered hysterically all the way down the hill. “Oh, those poor souls! I think they’re dead! The windshield–God, please, no!”
They rounded a bend. Ahead, a car’s taillights glowed in the dim moonlight. Will must’ve missed a turn and gone straight off the road and into a tree. Bucky’s stomach shriveled. No one could survive such a wreck.
Kathy pulled over. They all scrambled out into the cold, star-filled night and ran to the scene. The engine, its radiator hissing a dying breath, had rammed into the passenger compartment, crushing both Will and Miss Iris’s midsections. Her head had smashed through the windshield, an unrecognizable glob of bloody flesh and shattered bone. A box of Whitman Candies lay scattered at her feet. Bucky yelped, barely dared to glance at Will’s skull bashed against the DeSoto’s cracked steering wheel. His mind fogged up.
Alsop winced. Kathy put a hand to her mouth and groaned through her fingers then wheeled around and threw up on her red party dress.
“Oh, God!” Bucky exclaimed when his brain kicked in again. “How could this happen?”
Acid crept up in his throat. He worried he would barf, too, but it went away. He shuffled to the rear of the car and stared at the tire tracks in the dirt, following them to the street. What the–
He crouched for a closer look. Holy shit!
© 2017 by Bill A. Brier
“Like reluctant amateur sleuth Bucky, the reader’s lured to and quickly charmed by prospering Defiance, Oklahoma, until the glitz flakes off in the face of murder and mayhem. Brier does a fabulous job recreating the ’50s atmosphere as an exciting backdrop for sinister events and shady dealings. He keeps us guessing to the bitter end.” ~ Edith Parzefall, author of the Hangman of Nuremburg historical mystery series
“Brier’s launch of his ’50s, small-town Oklahoma mystery series is both chilling and refreshingly different. Filled with fast-paced action and delightful devil-may-care, good ol’ country rednecks, this intriguing and oftentimes humorous mystery is one you won’t unravel until the end. Get ready to laugh, shake your head, and bite your nails—all at the same time.” ~ Pepper O’Neal author of the award-winning Black Ops Chronicles series