Fredericksburg, Mississippi lies on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. At 250 feet high, the banks protect the town from the dreadful Southern heat, and from the views of pesky onlookers.
It has been years since the town has thrived with life, it is quite literally a ghost town today. Once upon a time, the town was a hub of shipping, lumber, and various other types of industry. Those days are gone.
Now, in the modern age of technological advances, of a time when the boundaries of space are being explored in hopes of colonizing a new ‘planet earth’ for humanity, and incurable diseases are eradicated with new and exciting medical breakthroughs, Fredericksburg is a vivid reminder that time forgets us all.
Tall pines and cedar trees line the banks of rivers and swamps here in Mississippi. Swamp moss hangs from the branches of the cedar trees like a wet blanket of humidity, or as heavy as the sins of our past.
A past that is fraught with images of public hangings on Sunday mornings after Sunday School. Hanging was the ultimate punishment for crimes concerning mixing of races. For instance, if a black man raped a white woman, or if a black man was even accused of raping a white woman, the Ku Klux Klan (Kluckers my daddy called them) would drag the man outside to face ‘justice.’
I’ll never know what justice was found at the end of a rope. It sounded kind of stupid to me.
Old Man Johnstone always sat outside of the old apothecary. A blade of grass stuck out from his mouth. He sucked and gnawed on the blade of grass and kept a wary eye on his surroundings. Every now and again, he waved in the general direction of ‘tourists.’
These tourists are those who travel to Fredericksburg for seasonal events, such as, hunting, fishing, fishing rodeos, bull riding, and more. Once the harvest season is over, the tourist season helps us make it to the next planting season.
Aldrich Whitman drove past the shanties of this run-down town. Ancient grain elevators stand a lonely vigil, each one declaring the undying love of “Stevie and LuLu.” He returned the haunting wave of Old Man Johnstone. Like ghosts on a Civil War battlefield, people wandered out of the few remaining shops and walked to their vehicles. A few of them had bags draped over their shoulders and forearms.
While he drove past the eerie reminders of being lost to time, Aldrich considered the facts of his latest case. “Sue Anne Mobley, 23, disappeared from a local juke-joint, The Mosquito Holler. Recently divorced, she seemed to be making up for lost time. Rather, she partied like she had to make up for the time she’d lost being married. Sheriff Ronald Lancaster took one look at the evidence, or lack thereof, and called for Aldrich. No one had seen anything. It’s just another bad thing that happened in a bad town. Lancaster wanted nothing to do with it.”
Aldrich pulled into the parking lot of the only open convenience store in the semi-deserted ghost town. It’s not fair to call the town a ghost town per se. People still lived there, they just weren’t happy to live there. Thick fog clung to the low-lying areas. At times it’s impenetrable to the strongest of lights.
A window unit air conditioner churned out cold air in an attempt to beat back the humidity. Perspiration beaded on the glass door. Whitman walked into the smoky building. An old woman sat behind the counter, her grey hair hung down like a wet coat on a Corgi. She glanced up at Whitman and then looked away.
“Hello ma’am. Do you have any Moon Pies?”
“Look back there.”
She pointed at a crumbly white rack that is half-on, half-off the wall. Aldrich picked up one chocolate moon pie and a vanilla moon pie. The door to the cooler was pried open, but he took out an ice cold RC Cola. “Now, I’m set for whatever life has in store for me.”
After paying for his breakfast and lunch, he returned to the big, black Dodge sedan that had belonged to his pawpaw and dad. They had transported corn liquor throughout the Southern region, until they were arrested for hauling moonshine. Back in the day, moonshine was a lucrative way to make ends meet. Big sled cars, with big engines and lots of horsepower were used to run moonshine into the uttermost quadrants of the states. Aldrich kept his car in pristine conditioning.
His clothes, finances and love life didn’t receive the same amount of care as his vehicle. Still, Aldrich was pretty squared away. Especially considering he had returned from doing battle with the Japanese in the Pacific Theater.
Unlike many of his fellow Marines, he didn’t hate the Japanese. He understood them. They lived by a code. They cared about honor, both in life and death.
While serving in the Marines, he served with honor. His life now had none. He did whatever he needed to, to survive from one day to the next. Honor is a high ideal when you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for your next meal.
War had reduced him to a pile of ashes. Nothing in Aldrich’s own life made any sense. His friends from the war had returned to life like nothing had ever happened. Aldrich didn’t. His dreams haunted him. He tried to contain his anger, but he could only keep it under control for so long.
There’s no honor in being broken.
He envied the Japanese and their code. He yearned to switch places with the dead. “Their struggle is over. They’re surrounded by peace.”
The police station sat on the corner of Main Street, next to the post office, and sandwiched in by a seafood restaurant. Whitman walked into the office and was greeted by a sleepy secretary. Her blond hair was tied into a ponytail.
“Hello. Who are you here to see?”
“Hi. I’m Aldrich Whitman. I’m here to speak to the Sheriff.”
“Down the hall, first door on the right. You’ll know it by the lack of paint on the door.”
“Thanks…I didn’t get your name.”
“Patty. I’m Patty Watkins.”
“Well, Patty. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thanks for the directions.”
Aldrich pulled his fedora low, straightened his single knot tie, and walked down the hall. His tweed coat hung loosely over his frame, his penny loafers dusty from the short trek into the office.
Satisfied that nothing could improve his appearance, he stopped in front of the unpainted door.
On the unpainted door were the words: Sheff’s Offic. “I have arrived. Time to meet the man.” Whitman knocked on the door.
“Sheriff Lancaster? I’m Aldrich Whitman, you wanted my help with this missing person case?”
Whitman walked into the office. He looked around, a wooden desk sat in the center of the room. Various pictures and headlines hung on the wall. Behind the desk sat a large man. His skin had a colorless hue of white, his eyes were wide and dusky blue, his hair was salt-and- pepper gray. The man’s appearance was unkempt. The gold shield on his chest was small in comparison to the man’s girth.
“Have a seat, Whitman. Let me pull up these notes from the crime scene.”
“We have a missing 23-year-old woman, Sue Anne Mobley, from Fredericksburg. She is divorced from Riley Hogan. Their divorce was amicable, or as friendly as it could be. She was last seen partying at The Mosquito Holler.”
“Why am I here?”
“As a private investigator, you can take your time and investigate every lead. Allow me to allay your fears. You will receive a 100.00 stipend per day. Plus, a 50.00 meal voucher. Keep your gas receipts, you will be reimbursed for all purchases.”
Sheriff Lancaster handed the notebook to Whitman and shoved his money and voucher into a manila envelope. He pushed them across the desk.
“This should be enough to get you started. You’re expected to keep me informed of all developments. My deputies will be informed of your presence, no one will hinder you from investigating.”
“Fine. May I ask a question?”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Why don’t you want to investigate it? The crime, if it is a crime, happened in your backyard. Don’t you want to know what happened to the girl?”
Lancaster leaned forward, his stomach rested on the center of the desk. His eyes were cold, his smile a hard line across his chubby face.
“More than likely she found a boyfriend and ran off with him. Sue Ann, um, had a reputation.”
“Oh? What kind?”
“She was one of those gals that spent too much time on her back.”
“So, she’s a lady of the night.”
“No. As far as we know nobody paid for her company.”
“Alright. I’ll let you know what I find, or don’t find. Either way, I’ll drop by at the end of each day to brief you.”
“Sounds good. Now, get out.”