[Sometimes I write a story in one hour based on an intriguing image. I call them Postcard Stories.]
If it wasn’t poachers on ol’ Whit Carlton’s property, it was Mormons. Or Klansmen burning a cross. Or a circle of chained apes escaped from the zoo. You’d damn well think that Whit had himself El Dorado on that hundred acres of his, for all the people he suspected of trying to raid it.
Sheriff Beaumont wasn’t having it this time. He folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in his industrial metal chair. It squeaked as he propped one boot atop the other on his desk and said, calmly, “Now, Whit, just what kind of clown you reckon is on your property?”
“What kind of clown? What the hell does it matter?” Whit’s voice had an entertaining way of leaping into the upper registers when he got excited, which was often. Truth be told, folks in town liked to “poke the bear” every so often, telling Whit they’d seen Communists taking an envelope from his mailbox or Mrs. Carlton stepping out with a Methodist.
“It matters in lots of ways, Whit. There are different tactics required for, say, your garden-variety circus clown versus your court jester or your fool. Different gauges of buckshot, too — a harlequin has tougher hide than a rhino and they get ten times as mad.”
“I didn’t vote for you, Beaumont,” said Whit.
“Nobody did. I was appointed by the mayor.” Sheriff Beaumont sighed. “What did you say this clown was doing?”
“He was fishing out in the crick, southeast corner of the property just where the cypress swamp starts up.”
“For the sake of Jesus, yes, fishing.”
The hook passes, the hook passes, the hook passes again. It lingers near the mouth, tantalizingly close.
“What kind of bait was he using?” Beaumont really wanted to know; it was spring, and the shiners weren’t as easy for the bass to see in all the sunlight. If the clown was using worms, maybe, or–
“I didn’t stop to talk to him. I only saw him. He was perched in a tree, like, dropping his line into the water, casual like he owned the place.”
“He catch anything?”
Whit Carlton’s face turned as red as a match head, and Sheriff Beaumont figured he ought not to light it.
“Now, trespassin’s a crime, that’s a fact — whether you’re a clown or not. You see any evidence that he was fixin’ to stay overnight? A hobo’s bag, maybe, or some blankets or whatnot?”
“I saw him and I came straight to you, Sheriff.”
You ran, thought Sheriff Beaumont. Which wasn’t all that odd, given how you don’t much expect to see one in the woods like that.
It dances, the hook, just on the edge. The wide silvered eyes seem mesmerized by its glint and the mouth slowly opens.
“See, the reason I ask is it’s a hot day and the cruiser’s been acting up and we’ve only got one cell with the high school football game coming up. Now, if he’s still there and we catch him, he’s gonna take up room we’d usually use to get a drunk off the roads. You want that on your conscience, Whit, a drunk out running over cheerleaders just to put your clown away?”
“The law’s the law!” cried Whit.
“I don’t deny it, no sir. I’m only asking you to think of the worst thing that can happen with a clown in your back forty. The worst thing, the absolute worst, and compare it to Hap McMahon’s pretty little Opal getting run down. Just as a for instance, mind you.”
Whit thought that over, something he showed by clenching first one side of his mouth and then the other. “He could steal fish,” he finally said.
“They your fish?” asked the sheriff. “I mean, when you think about it, they’re really God’s fish, aren’t they? And if He wants to give a few to that clown in the woods, I don’t know that we ought to stop Him.”
“So I’m to let anybody come on my land all willy-nilly? What’s the point of having it, then? You tell me that.”
“The point of havin’ it, Whit, is that you’re a bigger man for letting folks use it from time to time. When was the last time you was fishing for food on someone’s farm dressed as a clown? Never, that’s when. Cut the man a break. Be a Christian, will you?”
Whit tried to say something and then stopped. He tried to say something else and stopped again. Finally, he stormed from the police station, off to scream at the old men playing checkers or one of the ladies at the bank.
That’s a good day’s police work, though Sheriff Beaumont, tipping his hat over his eyes.
The hook catches, slips, catches for good on her blued lips. She rises from the water on the end of her puppet string, her black hair washing back across her pale and wrinkled scalp, and he clutches her cold body close. He squeezes, even, and brown creek water oozes from the knife wounds. She’s found, found again. Found. She’s his again.