Weekly editor Amos Grant hates his life in the Cracker town of Taterville and dreams of the day when he can escape. But everything changes when his young gay reporter is charged with the mysterious deaths of two teenage boys.
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Everyone in Taterville knew Amos Grant.
But few of the simple townsfolk understood him.
The misunderstanding was mostly his own fault. That’s what he told himself Monday morning in the red glow of his darkroom.
I enjoy playing with their little minds.
Before him, on a taut string, he studied the naked images of young Jimmy Clark, five prints in all. A deep sadness engulfed him. To shake the feeling, his mind wandered to the past—as it often did—to a time two decades earlier when he worked for the Orlando Sentinel, when he was alive, when he still had Helen.
Back then, in the 70s, professional writers regarded him as one of Florida’s most talented young journalists. He was even nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. But that was before he returned home in 1985 to care for his mother and take over his deceased father’s weekly newspaper. Now, after ten years, he felt shackled. He was a modern-day man trapped in an out-of-date community.
Actually, he was one of the few men in town who didn’t wear jeans and cowboy boots to work. The regulars at Hank’s Bar often traded stupid grins and laughed until tobacco juice dribbled down their stubby chins whenever he showed up in his elbow-patched tweed jacket, sporting a bright red bow tie with a leather satchel slung over one shoulder. They’d listen as he placed his order.
“Two shots of vodka with a twist of lemon.”
Then someone would say, “That there’s no drink for a real man.”
He would grin. That was the exactly the reaction he expected, and wanted.
He regarded Taterville as a hot and dusty ignorant cow town, a throwback to the old west, complete with outdated hitching posts that, as a kid, he had twirled around until he got dizzy from boredom. It was a place that languished forever in a coma, seldom changing, barely growing, scarcely existing at all.
Taterville was simply Taterville.
Most stores had the same creaky wooden floors that had been put in place nearly a hundred years earlier. And of the 6,000 residents, many still lived in Florida “Cracker” homes, complete with tin roofs. Fifty miles from the nearest modern city and fifty years behind in technology and creative thought, Darwinism was openly scorned in Taterville by a majority of the Homo sapiens population who had not quite reached the intellectual zenith in the evolutionary pool.
His thoughts returned to the present and he stepped out of the darkroom and looked around at his surroundings. The Bugle newspaper office had changed little since his grandfather first opened its doors. He had added a Formica top to the old wooden counter, and the small desk in the corner as well as the larger one in his office now sported Apple computers in place of Underwood typewriters. In the back room where his grandfather once ran a huge, clanky Heidelberg press for all his needs, Amos brought in a small AB Dick 360 press for his business stationery and other personal short-run jobs. He also took in outside work whenever he could. However it was rare for Taterville merchants or residents to avail themselves of his printing service.
As for the newspaper, he had 2,500 copies of his 24 tabloid-size pages printed on a large web press in a printing plant near Orlando. He didn’t mind the hour and a half drive to pick up the papers each week. He enjoyed being alone. It gave him time to think—mostly he thought about how long he would be able to honor his dying father’s wish. He had once tasted big city life and the prestige of working on a large daily paper. Now, after ten years in limbo, he yearned to prove himself in that large arena once more.
But he had obligations to meet. The time was not right.
Not today. But soon …
He looked out the Bugle’s front window and saw the sheriff heading his way.
He sighed and ducked back into the darkroom, to think some more.
Sheriff Buford Billings entered, glanced around the sparsely furnished office, studied a few of the framed award certificates hanging on a nearby wall, and then loudly banged the bell resting on the counter.
Billings was a sloppy, potbellied, middle-aged man with a bulldog face and a lot of bark in his disposition. He wore his gray uniform shirt half out of his pants and seldom removed his meaty hand from the gun strapped to his ample waist, apparently trying to convey the idea he would not hesitate to draw the weapon at the first provocation.
He was not a patient man. Everyone in Taterville knew better than to get on his bad side. But Amos enjoyed toying with him on occasion.
From the darkroom, Amos heard the sheriff summon. He waited a reasonable time and then opened the door. In keeping with his charade, the tall, 45-year-old proprietor appeared wearing a neat, blue apron around his thin waist. He used his long fingers to comb back his thick graying hair. His bespectacled brown eyes were red and swollen. He felt tired, depressed, he forced a smile.
“Sorry, I didn’t know anyone was here. I was in the darkroom.” He rubbed his hands on his apron. “What can I do for you, Buford?”
Billings hitched up his pants.
“Call me Sheriff Billings today. I’m here to see y’all on official business.”
Amos allowed a grin to crack his face.
“Okay, Sheriff Billings it is. And you can refer to me as Editor Grant.”
The sheriff bristled. “Cut the gall darn crap, Amos. I want to know about the Clark kid. And y’all better talk plain and simple, hear?”
Amos nodded. “Yes, of course, plain and simple—just like the good and decent people of Taterville.”
Billings pointed a fat finger into Amos’s gaunt face.
“Don’t get uppity with me or I’ll throw that skinny ass of yours in jail.”
Then he stepped back and furrowed his brow. “What’s wrong with your eyes? You been cryin’ or somethin’?”
Amos took a clean rag from his apron pocket and wiped his hands.
“No, my eyes are just a little tired from developing photos, I guess.”
“Uh-huh,” Billings said. “And what kinda pictures y’all doin’ back there?”
“Want to see?” Amos hitchhiked a thumb over his shoulder. “Come on. I’ll show you. They just might interest you.”
The small darkroom had a pinkish glow and smelled of developing fluid. Over a porcelain sink on a string with several clothespins hung five photos, still wet and dripping.
The sheriff’s eyes adjusted to the dark, and then he shuddered.
“What the hell?”
He took in the dead images of seventeen-year-old Jimmy Clark, then he fingered the handle of his gun.
“What kinda sick crap is this?”
“Take a good look at this one.” Amos pointed to the third photo. “See how his hands are clutching his stomach?”
Billings backed up and reached for the doorknob behind him.
Amos moved to the fourth photo on the line.
“This is a close-up shot of Jimmy’s neck. Notice anything?”
The sheriff leaned forward and squinted. “I don’t see nothin’ unusual.”
“Exactly.” Amos cleaned his glasses and put them back on. “Why aren’t there any bruises?” When Billings didn’t answer, he continued, “I mean if he were strangled, there should be marks on his neck, right?
“What the hell are you gettin’ at?”
“Plain and simple, I don’t think Jimmy was strangled at all.” He studied the sheriff’s face in the glow of the red light. “I believe he might have been poisoned.”
Billings looked uncomfortable. He pushed the door open and stepped out of the darkness into the light. “Listen,” he said, “I’m the law around here, see? And I say some sick, fairy-pervert had his way with the Clark kid and then strangled him.” He pulled a small pad from his back pocket, scribbled a few lines with a pencil, then raised his head. “So tell me when you last saw him.”
Amos clicked off the light and shut the door to the darkroom.
“Friday night,” he said. “Jimmy attended our young writers meeting here in the office. We broke up, as usual, around eight.”
“Got anybody to verify that?”
“Only the other five members of the group.”
“Figures.” Billings tapped his pencil on the pad. “Give me their names.”
Amos sighed and crossed his arms.
“Well, there’s Amanda Edwards, Randy Hollingsworth, Curtis Johnson—”
“The nig—the black kid?”
“Yes, Curtis is an African-American.”
The sheriff grunted. “An African, you mean. That’s his nationality. His people came from over there.” He waved a thumb past his right ear.
“No, that’s his heritage. His nationality is American. Just like you, Buford.” He paused. “We can all choose our nationality, but we’re stuck with our heritage. That’s why I don’t understand why folks around here get all worked up over it. I mean none of us had anything to do with where our ancestors were born, right? So why should any of us feel proud or ashamed of our heritage?”
Billings shuffled his feet. He sucked in his belly.
“Well, I’m damn proud of where my kin came from.” He pointed a finger at Amos. “And it weren’t no jungle, I can tell ya that.”
Amos shrugged. “Whatever. I'm just an American.”
“The hell you are. You’re a wop. I know for a fact your grandpappy changed his name from Grantino to Grant after he came here.” He cocked his head to one side. “What’s the matter? Y’all ashamed of being Italian, Amos Grantino.”
“I’m just an American,” Amos said flatly.
Billings shook his head and waved him off. “Ah, forget it, ya hear?” He looked at his notepad again. “Now give me the rest of the names.”
“Okay, there’s also Henry Metcalf, Pedro Martinez …” He hesitated. “And Jimmy Clark, of course.”
“Martinez, huh?” Billings grinned. “You teachin’ the little guy to speak English good?”
“He speaks English well … well enough for Taterville. That’s for sure.”
Amos lost interest in any further debate. He glanced over the sheriff’s head at the clock on the far wall. It was almost noon. He studied the front door.
“Is there anything else you need to know?”
Billings smiled a crooked smile.
“That’ll do for now.” He grabbed his hip and headed for the front door, then stopped. “But y’all don’t go anywhere, ya hear?”
“Where am I going to go?” Amos said. “I live here, remember?”
“Yeah, but maybe not for long.”
The sheriff used the back of his hand to wipe away the smirk on his face. Then he pointed to a young man crossing the street.
“Here comes Hollingsworth, your fairy reporter.”
Twenty-year-old Randy Hollingsworth had a gold ring in his left ear. Tall, lean, wearing cutoff jeans and sandals, he moved gracefully. He had long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. A tight T-shirt barely covered his upper body and had lettering on it that read: “Write on, baby!” He nodded and brushed by Sheriff Billings and handed Amos some perforated pages.
The sheriff shook his head and glared at the young man with the ear adornment. “I’ll be back, Grant. You can count on it,” he said.
Amos smiled. “You have a nice day, too, Sheriff.”
Randy looked at Amos and said, “Seems like the sheriff’s got some cactus in his shorts again. What is it this time?”
Amos gave him a not-to-worry hand gesture.
“That’s just Buford being Buford. He’s just doing his job.”
He flipped through the pages. “Is this everything?”
“Hmm, I thought Jimmy would have written a lot more about his private life.” He glanced at the pages again and looked at Randy. “How did you find out he made notes about his illness?”
“Jimmy didn’t keep any secrets from me,” he said. “I was the only one he told about his getting the AIDS virus. Hell, he didn’t even tell his folks. He was too scared.” He lowered his eyes. “Jimmy loved to write, so he thought it might help if he wrote down his feelings.” He paused. “You don’t think someone from our writers group did it, do you?”
Amos turned and looked out the front window. Balls of dust swirled and tumbled down the center of Mulberry Street. The Taterville Young Writers Group was his idea—just a half dozen young aspiring writers meeting once a week in his office for some constructive criticism. They were all good, idealistic kids with high hopes and grandiose dreams. Some were “different” to be sure and didn’t quite fit the Taterville mold, but the idea of one of them killing Jimmy Clark was totally out of character. After all, he reasoned, he was a professional writer and an observant recorder of human behavior. Wouldn’t he have seen the bloodstained writing on the wall? He tried hard to dismiss the guilt that gnawed at him.
Across the street he observed a mangy dog in search of a handout in front of Malcolm Crawley’s General Store. The dog scratched at the door until Malcolm came out with a broom and shooed the pesky canine away. Amos watched the dog move down the middle of the street, stopping now and then to look back at Malcolm as if to say, “You haven’t seen the last of me, Mr. Crawley.”
Amos turned and shook his head. “I really don’t know. I’m still trying to put the pieces together.” He paused. “So what else did you find out?”
“Not much. I tried to talk to Jimmy’s mom, but Noah showed up and told me to get off his land or else he’d shoot me dead.”
“That’s southern hospitality, Taterville-style.” Amos grinned. “I wouldn’t take it personally.”
Randy crossed his legs. “Well this was personal. Noah said he didn’t want any queers like me anywhere near his place.”
“Did he try to physically harm you?”
“No. Just the opposite. He acted as if he didn’t want to get near me, like I were a damn leper or something.”
“Well, Noah Clark is typical of many of the good ol’ boys here. Anything they don’t understand—such as AIDS, or gays, or even blacks for that matter—scares the hell out of them.” He smiled. “I guess that’s why I let them think I’m gay. I like messing with their minds.” He paused. “And that’s not an easy thing to do, considering the size of their pea brains.” Randy laughed and Amos added, “But maybe, in time, I’ll be able to enlighten a few … but I won’t bet my life on it.”
“Yeah, well, good luck.” Randy clicked on the Mac computer on his desk and flipped open his reporter’s notepad. “I have a short article to type. It’s about the 4-H Club picnic coming up next week. Thought it might fill a hole.”
“Sure. Good idea.” Amos stood and stretched his arms over his head. “Besides, if I can’t come up with more information on Jimmy’s death it might be our lead story this week.”
Randy glanced up at him. “Well,” he said, “I don’t think anybody in this town is going to help you.”
“Perhaps.” Amos was looking out the window and thinking about the young authors who attended his group. He turned. “Seen Henry today?”
“No.” Randy kept typing. “You know, Henry adored Jimmy. I’m sure it must have hit him pretty hard.” He paused. “He’s just a kid. Only thirteen.”
“Yeah, I know.”
The door opened and a woman in a short skirt and blue silk blouse floated into the office. She carried an armful of books. Small in stature and large on looks, an adorable pixie with big blue eyes and short brown hair, she plopped the books on the counter and took a deep breath.
“Well, Mr. Editor, I hope all these medical books will help you."
Amos looked at Randy. “See,” he said, “you were wrong. There is someone in this town willing to help.” He extended his hand. “It’s none other than the beautiful Holly Dombrowski—the knowledgeable librarian of Taterville.” He grinned. “Thanks, Holly. You’re a true treasure.”
She smiled and rested her head against Amos’s arm.
“Does this mean you dig me, Amos Grant?”
He laughed. “Holly, I didn’t say you were a buried treasure, did I?”
She punched him and pushed herself away.
“Are you trying to tell me that I’m old?” She faked a pout. “I’m a decade younger than you, you old fart.”
Randy looked up. “Okay, you two. Not today. We’ve got work to do.”
Holly nudged Amos.
“Get a load of your star reporter over there. Isn’t he the dedicated one.”
Amos sighed loudly. “Yeah, I was like that too at his age.”
Holly stood on her toes and kissed him on the cheek. “Well, I’m going to restore that dedication, Editor Grant. So take off that silly apron and act like a man.” She tugged at the apron until it came off and tossed it aside.
Randy looked amused. “What? And ruin his charade as a gay guy?” He continued typing and added, “Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay.”
The trio were enjoying a good laugh when the front door opened and before them stood Noah Clark, all hot and steamy, in the doorway.
“Grant, we gotta talk.” The hog and chicken farmer didn’t waste words.
Amos turned, his eyebrows raised. “Noah …” He hesitated. “Ah, come in and have a seat.” He motioned to a chair near the door. “I can’t tell you how sorry—”
Noah cut him off. “I didn’t come here for pity.” He took a red handkerchief from the back pocket of his bib overalls and wiped the perspiration from his face. “I come to tell y’all to keep that—.” He stopped and pointed a finger at Randy. “Keep him away from my place.” He shoved the handkerchief back in his pocket and glared at Amos. “He ain’t got no right askin’ my Bertha any questions. He shouldn’t be botherin’ folk at a time like this.”
Amos glanced at Randy and back to the runty perspiring man in the doorway. “I understand, Noah. But don’t blame Randy. I’m the one who told him to speak with Bertha. Thought she might shed some light on Jimmy’s death.” He held the bereaved farther with a stare. “You do want to know how he died, don’t you?”
“Ain’t no business of yours.”
Amos straightened up. “But it is, Noah. As a newspaper man, it is my duty to get to the bottom of this and present the facts to the people of Taterville. That’s what a good newspaper is supposed to do. Don’t you think the people have a right to know?”
The vein on the side of Noah Clark’s neck bulged. His hand shook.
“I ain’t gonna tell y’all again, Grant. You and yer kind stay out of this … if ya know what’s good fer ya.” He had stated his case, it was now time to go. With his red neck glistening in the summer heat, he turned and trudged across the street.
After he entered Crawley’s store, Amos turned around.
“Well, boys and girls,” he said, “looks like we have our work cut out for us.”
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After the breakup of his marriage and plagued by severe depression, Amos Grant loses his job as an award-winning reporter on a large metropolitan newspaper and is forced to return to Taterville, the backward central Florida town of his birth. He consents to his dying father's wish and takes over the family weekly newspaper and care for his ailing mother. When his mother dies ten years later, Amos is at last free. Or is he?