Cover Image
David B. Barnes
The Owl Head Solution

Dr. Rankin Williamson Shepherd was in his mid-forties with black hair, a professionally trimmed beard, and was athletically built. His clothes were the best money could buy. He owned his own pharmacy, which was successful. He was raised deep in the Blue Ridge by a strict but loving father and grandfather. His mother had died shortly after Shepherd's birth. His paternal grandmother filled that void perfectly. His maternal grandparents had shunned his mother and, therefore, their grandson as well.

     Shepherd's family made money by being outlaws. Well, outlaws in the governments' eyes. All of his grandfather's adult life and then his father's were spent making white liquor…moonshine in Little Canada, a remote section of Jackson County, North Carolina. They lived by the premise of hard work, keeping their word, and not letting someone get the better of them. It was a matter of family pride. Shepherd couldn't recall a single time his family ever involved outsiders, especially law enforcement, in any issue. They did what mountain people have done for centuries: problems or issues were dealt with by the family.

     But his father and grandfather had nudged Shepherd to attend college and then UNC pharmacy school. After getting his degree, Shepherd moved to Asheville, North Carolina, just a couple of hours from home. It was 1976, and there were great-looking girls everywhere, and his business was better than he'd ever dreamed. He visited home when he could. But those visits came less and less as time passed. But the family ties remained firmly attached.

     On an early October Saturday afternoon, he fired up his black '73 Chevelle Super Sport. As he started down the street toward Kimberly Avenue, he turned up the radio. La Grange was pulsing out of his customized Pioneer stereo. Shepherd was on his way to a golf outing with his good friend and fellow pharmacist, Buzz McDonald. It was a good day.

     Buzz was built like Shepherd and resembled him, except he had no beard and used a hair dye to hide graying temples. He also drove a nice car, a BMW. His drugstore was also successful.

     Shepherd loved these Saturday golf outings. On the course, they did the normal goading one would expect between friends who were also intense competitors. They drank beer, talked smack, and bet against each other. The two drugstores were making good money. Neither of these men was missing meals; neither of them had any real debt. They weren't married or engaged. They were living the good life. Party when they felt like it: bars, girls, nice cars. What else could they want?

<  2  >

     McDonald held an idea. He wanted in on a business venture that was just beginning to flourish in the Asheville area: cocaine. In the illicit trade, like any other, the difference between the cost of buying and the price of selling was crucial to success. He had a plan, though. He knew a guy who could supply coke, and he knew someone else who ran a string of small-time pot dealers. Transitioning from marijuana to coke would be a no-brainer. The potential money to be made would attract enough dealers to make a business flourish.

     One cloudy Saturday afternoon, the friends were through with their round and were sipping some white liquor Shepherd had brought back after his last trip home. They were sitting on a wooden bench just at the edge of the gravel lot of the golf course. As they drank, laughed, and looked out at Beaver Lake, each knew they had it made.

     McDonald lit a cigarette and tilted his head back. He dramatically blew the smoke out. McDonald looked at Shepherd and asked one question.

     "Do you have enough money?" He inhaled heavily again and again, dramatically blowing the smoke into the air.

     Neither said a word for a few minutes. McDonald offered Shepherd a cigarette; he took it and lit up. They looked at each other, Shepherd stood up, stretched, and asked, "What in the hell are you talking about? We make great money. Are you drunk?"

     "Shit, you never, ever have enough money. Never." McDonald was now standing, too, but he'd dropped his cigarette and looked behind Shepherd at a now nearly empty parking lot. He fumbled around in his golf bag, found some coke shake in a baggie at the bottom of one of the pockets. He lined what was there on the back of a scorecard and snorted it. He grabbed his nose and closed his nostrils so he wouldn't sneeze any out.

     "I have a plan." McKenzie was looking away from Shepherd across Beaver Lake.

<  3  >

     "What exactly are you getting at Buzz?" Shepherd asked.

     "Look," McDonald began, "We could pool our money and invest it with a guy I know. He deals coke. We'd make a fortune and a tax-free fortune at that! You go to clubs nearly every weekend. Rankin, you know what I'm saying. Right now, that's where this shit's sold. The street ain't the game. It's clubs, and if I'm reading this right, it's only going to get bigger."

     "Dope dealing? Man, I don't want to go down that rabbit hole!" Shepherd shook his head as he spoke. "I didn't come as far as I have to become a dope dealer."

     He paused and looked at his friend but couldn't find any other words to say. McDonald started rummaging in his golf bag for more coke. When he couldn't find any more, McDonald sat back down on the bench. He turned and looked to see if anyone was listening. No one was in the lot now except them. He leaned back on the bench and paused just a bit. As he looked out over the lake, he laughed a sarcastic laugh and then said,

     "Rankin, that's exactly what we are. There are housewives all over Asheville strung out on Valium Librium and Seconal. I've got the same ones doing amphetamines to counter all that downer stuff."

     He pointed at Shepherd and said, "So do you.

     "I want to think about this for a bit. It may be a way to make a bunch of money, but this kind of thing is exactly what my family wanted me to stay shy of. I need to think on this a bit." Shepherd wasn't convinced.

     Several weeks passed, and the subject never arose. But one night, while the friends were having some scotch at their favorite night spot, McDonald asked Shepherd what he'd decided about making more money.

     "I've been spinning the idea around and around. I'm going home tomorrow, and I'll give you an answer when I get back. How's that?" Shepherd said before downing the rest of his Balvenie.

<  4  >

     "Perfect," was McDonald's reply.

     After the round, Shepherd didn't even go to his condo. He drove straight back to Little Canada and his family. Shepherd's grandfather was who he wanted to speak to. Grandpa was the sharpest stick in the family when it came to avoiding the law while making money. The state and feds had been after him for nearly his whole life and had only managed one charge against him. That one had been plead down to possession of non-tax paid liquor. A fine and court costs was all the authorities managed to get.

     Shepherd found his grandfather out at the edge of the woods just past a large barn that had been built in the 1800s, but other than the graying wood, there was no sign of age. It didn't sag anywhere. It stood backbone straight and proud.

     He watched his grandfather walking a fence line. He grabbed a post here and there and shook it. They all seemed firmly doing their duty to Shepherd. His grandfather turned and saw him. He waved at Shepherd and began walking toward him.

     Shepherd hadn't seen his grandfather in several months, but he looked the same as always. A steady stride and a straight back. He wasn't overweight like many city men of his age. Shepherd thought his grandfather was in his mid to late seventies. No one had ever said his grandfather's exact age that Shepherd could recall. But if one were to guess the old guy's age, they'd most likely miss the mark. He seemed ageless.

     As Shepherd watched his grandfather walk toward him, he thought of how much his grandfather meant to him and to the family. The old man was the pillar of Shepherd's life. Without him, Shepherd would have stayed home. He would never have left for college and then pharmacy school.

     "Grandpa, you're looking pretty darn good."

     "For an old man, you mean?" His grandfather asked with a grin.

     "If you'd of called your Dad wouldn't have gone off. He's down around Gainesville, Georgia, dealing with Bobby Prentiss."

<  5  >

     Shepherd looked at his grandfather and said, "I thought the Dixie Mafia were all dead or in prison."

     "Not hardly," his grandfather replied. "Prentiss came close, but he slipped the noose the FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation had spread for him. Those boys are going strong as ever."

     Shepherd just smiled and gave the old man a big hug. They turned without further conversation and walked toward the farmhouse.

     It was a two-story cabin that pre-dated the barn. Made of square logs it had withstood heat, rain, and a couple of blizzards. There was one fireplace at one end of the large room, which some would call a living room. The rocks for it had been taken from the mountain above the cabin. The fire felt good as they walked inside the kitchen. His grandmother always laid a fire if the weather called for it. Today, it certainly did: overcast and cold, with just a hint that it might rain later. Shepherd's grandmother was in front of the stove, tending a large pot of what smelled like chicken soup.

     When she heard the door open, she turned and froze for just a thought. Her face brightened, and she ran to Shepherd and hugged him so hard he thought his ribs might just crack. Then she held him at arm's length and gave him a good looking over.

     "You taking care of yourself down in the city? Getting enough good food? Staying away from conniving women?" She smiled as she asked.

     "Yes, mam, I eat at Hardee's twice a day and am well known in those honky- tonks on Lexington Avenue." His smile was nearly as big as hers.

     She pushed him further away and let go. "Git out of my kitchen, I got to make sure this soup is fit to eat. You can have some just as soon as the cornbread is done,"

     Shepherd's grandfather led him out to the hearth and put a piece of oak firewood on the low-burning fire. He motioned for Shepherd to sit, and both took up places near the hearth in heavy wooden chairs made comfortable with homemade cushions-seat and back.

<  6  >

     No one said anything for a few minutes. Both watched the fire grow as it welcomed the new fuel. He waited for his grandfather to speak first.

     "Son, you haven't come home in a while. The phone calls and letters keep your grandmother from becoming too worried about you, but I wonder what's made you come home for a visit?"

     Shepherd nodded his head as he looked into his grandfather's face. The hard life of a mountain man who also made white liquor was reflected in the leather hard skin. His eyes were hazel and could look deep into someone. He rarely laughed, but Shepherd knew his grandfather enjoyed the life he and his grandmother had built. Wisdom and advice were the reason for the visit, so Shepherd explained what McDonald had suggested.

     When he was through explaining, Shepherd sat back and watched the fire. He felt the heat and heard the crackling of the oak logs as they burned. He could hear his grandmother softly singing an old mountain song, and he waited for his grandfather to gather his thoughts. After just a few minutes, his grandfather began.

     "Your grandmother, your father, and I sent you away from here to learn how to get through life without having to worry about unexpected visits. We didn't want you listening in the woods for signs some unwelcomed person was stalking around. We didn't want you having "prison" in the back of your mind. What's so important about this new endeavor that you want to step into the world we have kept you out of for all these years?" He was looking directly into Shepherd's eyes as he talked. There was no accusation in his tone. He was just asking for more information. This was how the old guy had always lived his life: not fast, not judgmental. Decisions made after gathering as many facts as possible.

     Shepherd explained, "Maybe it's in my DNA. Maybe I can't get away from running a little on the wild side. I can make a lot more money from this new venture, and it can last a long time. But that doesn't seem to be the reason I'm leaning toward doing it. It's like an itch. Ignoring it doesn't make it less noticeable." Shepherd was staring into the fire as he talked. His voice was barely above a whisper and was like he was talking to himself.

<  7  >

     His grandfather nodded and sat back to look at the fire, too. For several minutes, the only sound in the cabin was the popping of the fire and the faint humming coming from the kitchen.

     The old guy broke the silence. "Cops aren't going to be your first or main concern. When we sell our shine, the only people involved other than cookers are customers. You are going to be dealing with people breaking the law on both sides of the equation. You'll deal with cocaine suppliers and users. Either side, or Lord forbid, both sides, can do you harm. I always felt some of what you learned growing up here in this holler had made an impression. Your grandmother and I thought getting out of here would make life safer and easier for you. But you know what we always say. Family is our backbone." He stood and used a poker to jab at the fire. As sparks flew up the chimney and flames grew just a bit, his grandfather turned and looked into Shepherd's eyes. His stare wasn't cold or accusing. His grandfather was trying to get a read on him. Shepherd looked back into those old hazel eyes.

     Neither talked for a minute. Just as his grandfather was getting ready to say something, there was a call from the kitchen.

     "You men git in here and sit at the table. I ain't draggin' this soup around the house. The cornbread will be out and ready by the time you wash up." Shepherd's grandmother called from the kitchen, just as he'd heard her do all of this life.

     The three ate dinner taking only small talk with his grandmother questioning him every so often about girlfriends and his eating habits. It was a typical meal at his home. His grandmother always separated business from mealtime.

     After dinner, Shepherd's grandmother started to shoo them out of the kitchen. But before they left, she walked up really close to Shepherd, and she put her hands on each side of his face.

<  8  >

     "We sent you away from here to get a better way to go. But your grandfather and I always felt you'd be back here one way or the other. He'll give you solid advice, and I know you'll listen to him. But come with me for a minute. Granddad, you go back to the fire. We'll be out directly."

     She led him into what he had always called her laundry room. It had the requisite washer and dryer. There was an ironing board folded up and leaning against one wall. At the back of the room was an old roll-top desk with an oak desk chair. She sat in the chair and opened a drawer in the right side. She pulled out an old, yellowed cloth that held something. He recognized the shape but didn't say anything.

     His grandmother held the cloth as she looked into Shepherd's eyes. Then she handed it to Shepherd and said, "Your grandfather is going to give you sound advice about how to do what it is you've decided on. I'm giving you the means to ensure you come back to his holler if trouble ever arises. If you need to use it, do so decisively and without warning."

     He took the cloth and looked questioningly at her. When he started to ask her a question, she put an index finger over his lips.

     "I heard what you men were talking about. I'm not new to what has to happen once in a while to stand up to the bad in life. Hopefully, you'll give that back to me in a year or two, and it'll still be the way it is now. But if not well…there it is." She patted the bundle and then led him back to his grandfather.

     He looked at the bundle and nodded. When Shepherd held it out for his grandfather to see, his grandfather simply said, "If she hadn't given it to you, I'd of been surprised."

     He stood and poked around in the fire with the old poker. After a bit he put the poker on the hearth and turned to Shepherd.

<  9  >

     "You were taught from the earliest time in your life that family is first. If you trust this guy, you're going into business with like he was blood kin then get on with it. But remember, when the money starts coming in, things will change. I can't say when it will change, but it will. The one constant is money causes problems. The trick is not to be surprised and do what has to be done to protect you and your partner. Eyes and ears open."

     Shepherd hugged his grandfather and thanked him. His grandfather held Shepherd by the shoulders for a few seconds. He looked him square in the eye and didn't say a word. Then, just as he released Shepherd, his grandfather simply said, "Remember who you are."

     Shepherd nodded and walked to the kitchen, where his grandmother was wrapping the last of the cornbread in a piece of cotton towel.

     "Here, take this with you. Call next time before you come and there'll be some apple pie or walnut cake waiting on you. I worry about you out there with family so far away. You just remember where you come from." She hugged him and walked Shepherd to the back porch. Shepherd left without looking back. He was already thinking about the new venture.

     When he got home, he called McDonald and let him know to get things rolling. McDonald was excited, to say the least, and said he'd get right on it.

     A couple of hours later, McDonald called to say he was on the way to meet someone. McDonald was friends with a guy, Frankie Rizzo. Buzz explained that Rizzo was originally from New York City and had moved to Miami. He came to Asheville around three years ago and owned The Speakeasy Bar and Dance Club out near the airport.

     Buzz said he'd go in a bit to the Speakeasy and talk with Rizzo. Shortly after Nine o'clock, he went to the Club and met with Rizzo. After returning, he called Shepherd again.

<  10  >

     "Tomorrow night. We'll meet up here."

     Shepherd arrived for the meet on time. He climbed the steps and went inside the condo. McDonald was all smiles.

     At the appointed time, Shepherd and McDonald watched as a light blue Mercedes parked in front of the condo. A man McDonald said was Rizzo got out. He was alone. Rizzo looked to be what Shepherd thought of when he thought Mob guy. He was around 6 feet tall and looked like he weighed about 250. It may have been muscle once but was turning to something else now. He wore what appeared to be an expensive, shiny, dark gray suit. He had on Italian loafers and no socks. His light gray shirt was open at the collar. While he was a bit overweight, he climbed the stairs with no trouble and wasn't a bit out of breath at the top.

     "Come on in, Frankie." McDonald motioned Frankie toward the living room.

     Shepherd shook hands with Rizzo and asked, "Scotch?"

     He was watching Rizzo closely and was already getting a funny feeling about the guy. Shepherd couldn't put an exact reason for the feeling. Maybe it was Rizzo's arrogant walk, or maybe it was the pinky ring.

     "Sure thing," Rizzo replied with no sign of cordiality.

     Shepherd poured the drink, handed it to Rizzo, and motioned for him to sit down in a leather chair facing the two partners.

     "Tell me a story," Rizzo said as he sipped his drink.

     McDonald explained what they wanted and how they wanted it to go. At first, Rizzo showed little interest. He told them he had a nice thing going already. After some haggling over investment amounts and returns on investment, Rizzo changed his tune and agreed to supply the cocaine.

     At that, Shepherd walked to the bar and poured another drink. No ice this time. He sipped in silence, looking out of the picture window. Every so often in the fifteen minutes that passed, Shepherd caught Rizzo staring at McDonald. But all seemed good as Rizzo set down an empty glass and stood to leave.

<  11  >

     Before Rizzo left, everything was settled; any money would be in cash, and Rizzo would have it in two days.

     At the door, Rizzo turned back to the two men and pointed at them. He swept his hand back and forth. Rizzo smiled and said, laughing,

     "You guys are the Country Club Mafia, real gangsters."

     Shepherd stepped out on the deck and heard Rizzo laughing and calling them real bad guys, real mobsters, as he walked to his Mercedes. He got in the car, laughing and shaking his head.

     When Rizzo got back to his club, he made a phone call. He told his boss what was getting ready to happen with Shepherd and McDonald but didn't name them or give any other information. Rizzo was greedy and smart. Too many details and he'd eventually have to share proceeds. He didn't even confide in his guys at the Speakeasy.

     After a few months, Shepherd and McDonald were at McDonald's condo after a late golf round. The phone rang, and when McDonald hung up, he said that Rizzo wanted to see him and him alone. Shepherd looked at McDonald and tilted his head, trying to understand.

     "Hey man, I don't know what this is about either. I'll get back to you after the meet." McDonald looked a little worried.

     Two hours later, McDonald knocked on Shepherd's front door. When Shepherd opened up, McDonald charged inside, walked briskly straight to the small bar, and poured about three fingers of scotch. He turned to Shepherd and shook his head.

     "Damn it to Hell. That rat bastard is going to blackmail us!" McDonald was so angry he couldn't be still.

     "Huh? Just how is he going to do that? How?" Shepherd asked.

     "Rizzo says that if we don't pony up $50,000.00 cash money in three days, he's going to turn us in to the cops and the pharmacy board. He said he's got a couple of local cops in his pocket. He told me that the 50K is a special fee for beginner country club mafiosi. I can't believe this. I bet he had this planned out from the git go!" McDonald was livid.

<  12  >

     When McDonald was through ranting, he sat down on the sofa and sipped the scotch. Shepherd sat opposite in an armchair.

     "Is this the entirety of the conversation? Was there any kind of out that he offered…you know, like paying more per kilo or buying more product?"

     McDonald shook his head. "The only thing he talked about was the 50K."

     Shepherd stood and walked to the bar. He poured himself a scotch with one ice cube and returned to the chair. He maintained a steady stare at McDonald. Finally, McDonald noticed and said, "What? What is it?"

     Shepherd took a sip and said, "Well, we have the money. Do you want to pay Rizzo and see if he backs off?"

     McDonald looked at Shepherd with a shocked look. His eyebrows were arched almost to his hairline. "Not no, but Hell no. He's after all of it. I think 50K is just the appetizer. I don't want to pay him a penny."

     Shepherd sipped on his scotch, lost in thought. Finally, he suggested they give it till the next day to see if anything changed or if they could think of a way to pay the money and not have to do it again and again. McDonald agreed and left.

     The next morning Shepherd called his partner and told him nothing had come to mind over night and asked if McDonald had thought of anything. He hadn't.

     Shepherd asked if Rizzo was going to call back and check or if McDonald was supposed to call with any kind of update short of arranging a time and place for the payment. But the only contact expected was the payment. McDonald said he needed another day to try to come up with a solution. He said he felt responsible since he brokered the deal with Rizzo in the first place. Shepherd reminded McDonald they were family, and he didn't blame him. It was all on Rizzo. Shepherd told Buzz he was going to make one attempt to get a better angle on what Rizzo was after.

<  13  >

     After hanging up, Shepherd called The Speakeasy and asked to talk to Rizzo. In just a few minutes, Rizzo came on the phone.

     "Whadya want? I'm dealing with your partner. I'm not at all sure I got anything to say to you." Rizzo said.

     Can we meet someplace, just you and me?" Shepherd asked.

     "Why the crap would I do that?" Rizzo said.

     "Because half of this money is mine."

     There was a long pause. Then Rizzo told Shepherd he'd meet him somewhere away from the Speakeasy. He told him to meet at Fletcher Park, near the restrooms. Shepherd agreed.

     An hour later, the two were parked side by side in the parking lot.

     "OK, I'm here. What do you want?" Rizzo asked.

     "I want to look you in the eye and ask if this is a one-time deal or are you going to keep coming back for more and more money." Shepherd was blunt and to the point.

     "Huh. No small talk? OK, big man…sure thing." Rizzo paused, looked around the lot, and then turned to Shepherd.

     "I can tell you whatever I want. If I say this is a one-time, then maybe it is. Then again, maybe I change my mind down the road. Nothing you can do except pay the piper."

     Shepherd took his time to reply. Unlike Rizzo, he didn't look around the lot. He kept his eyes on Rizzo.

     "Fair enough. One thing, though, how come you're doing this alone? I've been to the Speakeasy before all of this business, and you've got quite a crew there. Why the solo meets?"

     "Good Lord, do you think I need a minder or help with the likes of you two? I've dealt with real bad guys before not pretenders like you." Rizzo was laughing.

<  14  >

     "I just wondered." Shepherd said, still looking at Rizzo.

     "Anything else? I got stuff to do." Rizzo asked.

     "No, we'll call tomorrow." Shepherd said.

     Rizzo didn't say anything or even nod. He rolled his window up and drove away, shaking his head and laughing.

     Shepherd didn't leave for a few minutes. He watched the parking lot and then, satisfied no one was watching him, he also left.

     Shepherd went home and waited for daylight to call McDonald. But McDonald called him first.

     "Well, what happened?" McDonald asked.

     "Nothing more than I thought was going to happen, but I needed to make sure." Shepherd was calm.

     "Well, do we pay or not?"

     "I don't see a choice. We made a deal with the Devil's best buddy. Crooks do what crooks do." Shepherd remained calm.

     "What are you wanting to do?" McDonald asked.

     "I'll take care of it. You got your half of the 50K?"

     McDonald was shocked. "We going to pay him?"

     "Do you see any other choice? We can't go to the cops. We can't appeal to his better side. It's either pay and hope or not pay and wait for the pharmacy board and some narcs to show up. Get me your half, and I'll take care of it."

     Late that afternoon, McDonald showed up at Shepherd's pharmacy and gave him the 25K. Shepherd made the call to Rizzo.

     "I'll meet you at the dam on Beaver Lake tonight about 10:00. Then we'll be done," Shepherd said.

     Rizzo started to argue, but Shepherd stopped him. "Look, I don't like paying the money and you don't like the meet location. Who has the better hand? If you want the money, meet me where I said…at 10:00. Shepherd waited for a response. After about thirty seconds, Rizzo agreed.

<  15  >

     When Rizzo arrived at the gravel lot near the dam, he saw Shepherd getting out of his car. Rizzo pulled up and parked about twenty feet from Shepherd. He got out and puffed himself up like a king. He looked at Shepherd and began walking toward Shepherd with a big, nasty smile.

     Shepherd reached into the car, pulled out a paper Ingles grocery bag, and put it on the ground. Rizzo walked over and pointed to the bag.

     "That the money?" He asked.

     "Yeah, Rizzo, it's the money." Shepherd then stepped back a couple of paces so Rizzo had room to look in the bag if he wanted without being crowded.

     Rizzo took out a cigar, lit it, and turned to looked out at the lake, nodding his head. Shepherd stepped up behind Rizzo and took his Grandma's Owl Head .32 from his back pocket.

     Rizzo never heard the shot that killed him. He just fell. Dead.

     The next day, it was on the news. The body of a nightclub owner was discovered near the dam at Beaver Lake. A fisherman had found it in a gravel lot at the spillway. The police had no suspects.

     McDonald saw the news and called Shepherd. "Did you see the WLOS news this morning?"

     Shepherd said he hadn't seen or heard any news.

     "Rizzo's dead. Somebody found him near the spillway at Beaver Lake. Holy shit! What did you do?" McDonald asked.

     "Buzz, with a guy like that, there's no telling what happened. I took the money to him, and he lit up a cigar, all pleased with himself. I came home and drank a half bottle of scotch. Only thing for certain, his hands aren't anywhere near our pockets now."

     Shepherd hung up the phone, turned his stereo up, sat down with a tumbler of the finest Jackson County moonshine, wrapped up the Owl Head in the same cloth his grandmother used, and smiled to himself. Problem solved.

<  16  >

     The next morning, he drove back to his grandparents' place and gave his grandfather 50K in cash. No questions were asked, and no explanation given. The money would be put to good use. It's how the family operated.

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