Red's Place was the starting point for what would arguably become the most (in)famous story in the history of Semmes County. As much as with major national historical events, every long-term resident of the county could tell you where he was when first hearing this legendary local news. Red's Place was a garage/filling station on the outskirts of Due South run by Red Dillard, which had long been frequented by the Rainwaters, McMayers, and loads of other locals. Red was in his late forties and, for decades, had enjoyed the largest clientele of any car repair shop or gas station in the county. He and his staff were top mechanics sharing a love of cars and trucks, a cheerful disposition, and a knack for jokes treasured by most folks. Likely more tall tales and laughs were shared at Red's Place than anywhere else in Due South or the entire county.
Red never seemed to take anything or anyone too seriously, especially himself, and customers envied what struck most as his genuine joy of life. When a client came to pick up a repaired vehicle, a ritual Red never tired of was driving the car to the customer himself and bragging about how good it sounded.
"Listen to her now," he'd wink and grin. "Oh, she's just a-purring for you. Fellow, you got yourself a hot date. Now you better not take the wheel unless you think you're man enough to handle this babe 'cause she's got the hots for you and is ready to roll."
Even if a customer was upset by the bill, it was suddenly much harder to complain once Red got him laughing. More than a few reckoned this was intentional.
Complementing the steady stream of customers, a number of older and elderly men (mostly retirees) loved to sit in lawn chairs in front of the garage. There they scrutinized, pontificated about, and ultimately solved a fair number of the world's political, economic, religious, cultural, athletic, sexual, plumbing, and other intractable problems. Someone once suggested their ongoing open-air seminar was Due South's version of Socrates' dialogues with students in the streets of ancient Athens, Greece. Most would call that a generous assessment.
Red and the other mechanics, including his two sons, Red, Jr., and Ray, also participated in the discussions, often from under a car. Everyone was free to add whatever he chose to the debates, and no topic was taboo.
Though the participants were all male, Red's mind appeared to be wallpapered mostly by females, apparently in their birthday suits. Though a married family man who attended church weekly, he led what his more delicate brother and sister parishioners at First Baptist Church referred to as "a wide and varied extracurricular life."
Laid back, witty, happy, and handsome enough, Red had been in heavy rotation among female Due Southians since becoming a star James Longstreet High School football player who played both tight end and linebacker. Though he had known a considerable number of female classmates, at least biblically, two days after graduation, he married the one he got pregnant, Loreena McLanahan.
Never one of the popular girls, she was stunned and thrilled when one of the "big men on campus" asked her out. They got on well, and Loreena quickly fell for Red. He was her first love and the only man with whom she had ever slept. She bore his boys, built a flawless-looking home life, and over the years worked ever harder to ignore the growing hints of Red's infidelities.
For the first several years of marriage, Red diligently kept his dalliances disguised. Once he got his own garage, he and his feminine flavor of the month would rendezvous at his office after hours. Red convinced Loreena he needed a bed there to occasionally "rest my back" due to an old football injury. He also told his wife he often had to work late, and she conceded how excited and long-winded the boys at the garage could get once they began analyzing "some highfalutin' issue," as she termed it.
But then reports filtered back to her that Red was repeatedly seen driving various younger women around the county, including girls from Joe Wheeler University. Red's defense to his wife was that "to make certain" these young ladies' freshly repaired vehicles were running smoothly, he would gallantly offer to personally take them "for a spin" in their cars. He did not share the fact that often they would not return to the garage for hours.
He was also seen getting lunch with a variety of co-eds downtown, with Red always paying the bill. Once, after seeing Mr. Dillard squiring another pretty young lady at a popular local restaurant, a brother mechanic at his garage, Cowan Dillashaw, asked him privately why he needed so many women when he already had such a kind, attractive, and devoted wife at home.
"I've just got too much to offer to limit myself to one woman," Red declared matter-of-factly. Cowan started to laugh but stopped when he saw his boss was utterly serious. Afterward, Mr. Dillashaw didn't know whether to laugh at or feel pity for his old friend. He just knew he felt sorry for Loreena and the boys.
After a decade of living in ever more dedicated denial, the train of other women in Red's life, at last, got way too long and entirely too public for Loreena. So she divorced him, easily winning custody of the children, but with Red getting them on weekends. Loreena and Red remained friendly, and she secretly looked forward to seeing him when he picked up or returned their sons. He always had a smile and a joke for her and could still make her feel like she was the only girl in Due South.
As the decent-looking and roguishly charming 28-year-old owner of the county's most successful garage, it was not Mr. Dillard's destiny to stay single long. Though he juggled many girlfriends, Red remained a traditionalist, so, true to form, the next gal he married was the one he got pregnant, Bonnie Jean West. They had secretly dated in high school while Red was going with Loreena, and Bonnie Jean had remained sweet on Red ever since. Now divorced herself, she was determined not to lose the love of her life twice. So Gentleman Red again did the church-going thing and married her just before she got a belly bump. Though she soon miscarried, Red remained, and her pregnancy stayed a plausibly deniable rumor.
Alas, the wallpaper of Red's mind seemed to have grown ever more crowded with voluptuous women, and his wandering ways continued. Ever the traditionalist, for the first several years of the marriage, the bulk of his after-hours workouts were held in the garage office where his old bed remained, albeit with several springs now loose.
But, after ten years of ever more strenuous efforts to edit out of her mind the growing evidence of Red's adulteries, Bonnie Jean learned he had been spotted checking out of a room at Luther's Truck Stop Inn on Wade Hampton Highway just outside of town with one Trixie Sue Sanders. "Trick," as Red affectionally called her, was a 22-year-old local unemployed high school drop-out with no visible means of support who nevertheless maintained an expensive apartment and purple sports car. In ideal circumstances, it was widely agreed the marriage could still have survived this indiscretion. But what the second Mrs. Dillard could not forgive was confirmation from the local gossip express that Red and Trixie Sue had stayed in Luther's most expensive room with the king-size, pay-by-the-hour, deluxe vibrating bed. The public knowledge of this was something with which the second Mrs. Dillard concluded her reputation simply could not coexist. So she promptly filed for divorce.
But Red's business continued to boom, enough to accommodate two monthly alimony checks. In fact, he had to expand his garage to meet growing demand, and more lawn chairs were bought to accommodate the growing number of folks contributing to Due South's Socratic debates. Many locals prided themselves on how sophisticated they were to separate Red's mechanical skills from his "riotous living" or "complicated private affairs."
He also remained in demand on the dating circuit. Before long, a 42-year-old Red walked down the aisle a third time. His new bride was the most recent garage secretary, Dilly Theodosia Joplin.
Despite the third Mrs. Dillard being close to 20 years younger than Red, and frankly having been hired based far more on Red seeing her in a bikini at the Rafael Semmes Country Club pool than for any administrative skills, Red's mental wallpaper remained crowded with women. Because Dilly Dillard knew well why Red stayed late working at the office (when single, she had assisted him on many such evenings), Mr. Dillard had to become more inventive when meeting his dates. Having been burned at the Truck Stop Inn, he now concluded the safest place to meet was in a dilapidated old pink van he kept in the back of the garage. On a date night, he would drive a lady friend to some secluded spot off a rural roadway out in the country. Dilly didn't know the van was his, and he didn't even have papers for it. Someone had dumped it behind Red's Place after she stopped working there when the cost of all its desperately needed repairs far exceeded the vehicle's value. So Red determined it would be the perfect love nest on wheels.
One of Red's veteran van buddies was Zada McMayer. In the spring of her second year at Joe Wheeler, a 20-year-old Zada took her car to Red's Place to get an oil change after her old garage went out of business. Red was entranced by her shameless flirting in front of Due South's Socratic debaters -- as well as flattered by the attention of a pretty gal less than half his age -- and she was instantly intrigued by his rugged football build, cheerful humor, and laid-back inability to be embarrassed. She gave him her number, and he met her at the garage the next night for what Red promised would be "a riveting ride to deeply explore Semmes County's most secluded sites" in "the love van."
They had a fun fling for a few weeks, but even Zada soon tired of a relationship that was purely sexual. She already had a few sex buddies on call. She also didn't like it that he wouldn't just come over to her place for fear of being seen since Red and Dilly lived in the same neighborhood. Furthermore, Miss McMayer felt it beneath her dignity as a proper Southern belle to have to hide in some pitiful-looking love mobile out in the sticks for forbidden trysts. She deemed the affair a suitably "Zilarious Zadaventure" at first, but Red's ride proved to be a short one, and she especially didn't like what she complained was the van's "puke green"-colored shag carpet.
It had been a hoot manipulating a well-known middle-aged local more than double her age, but that t-shirt faded fast. She had no regrets about Red and rather enjoyed making Fitzhugh and Philmont laugh uproariously at her tales about the old pink van, but she sent Red's boat sailing out of her harbor almost as quickly as she had welcomed it.
Red's failure to bother fixing the barely drivable excuse for a vehicle would prove fateful. Now several years into his third marriage, and three years after his brief "riveting" adventure with Zada, Red and his second wife, the now twice-divorced and thrice-married Bonnie Jean West Taylor Dillard McNabb, became intimately reacquainted. Bonnie Jean would drive after dark over to Red's Place, where he would dutifully close a big garage door behind her. Then she would sneak into the back of the old van as Red would drive them to one of his rotating rural hideaways out in the countryside where they could get thoroughly reacquainted.
Late one cold winter evening in January, a call came into the Sheriff's Department about a mysterious van at Huey Toole's farm a few miles out of town on Wade Hampton Highway. It was parked on Mr. Toole's private dirt road just off the highway, sandwiched between two cow pastures. Though its lights were off, the van's engine had apparently been running for some time, yet no one appeared to be in the front seat. Jack and Myrtle May Persimmon, the elderly couple across the two-lane state highway facing the van, became ever more concerned as they peered through their upstairs window. Fretting cattle-rustlers, burglars, drug dealers, terrorists, and/or a growing assortment of ever more mischievous characters might be in the back of the strange vehicle, they called the police. The cows were also curious, with several bolder ones walking up to the fence to inspect the strange contraption. So sheriff's deputies and the local ambulance next to the Sheriff's Department made a run to the field.
When the two squad cars and ambulance arrived with lights blazing and sirens blaring, the darkened van's engine remained running. Though past midnight, all the police lights and sounds soon brought a slew of neighbors of all ages up Mr. Toole's dirt entranceway to stand just a stone's throw from the van.
The man who called the sheriff's office, 87-year-old Mr. Persimmon, brought not just 86-year-old Mrs. Persimmon but their two German Shepherds and his favorite shotgun, "Miss Bessie." Deputy Truman Pilcher assured him the police did not need any additional firepower. But several of the assembled neighbors were also armed and ready to help should the police need any backup.
With all three emergency vehicles' lights set on bright and aimed at the back of the van, the four deputies tip-toed slowly towards the vehicle, each with his gun drawn. Senior Deputy Jeremiah Jenkins motioned to Deputy Jonah Skinner, who then slowly opened the driver's side front door to turn off the engine and take the keys. Then all four crouched behind the van. Suddenly, Deputy Jenkins shouted.
"Sheriff's Department! Open up!" The silence that followed was all the more pronounced now that the van's engine was off.
"This is the Semmes County Sheriff's Department. You are trespassing on private property and commanded to open your doors NOW." More silence followed.
"Are you in need of any assistance?" rookie Deputy Hank Hollister asked impulsively.
At this point, Deputy Jenkins took the keys and motioned he was about to open the back doors. Pistols were cocked, and the neighbors were warned again to remain behind the emergency vehicles. They did so, and the mothers among them held their children.
Crouching and creeping slowly, a now sweating Deputy Jenkins gently sidled up to the van's back doors with one hand holding the keys and the other his gun. Looking back at his partners, he flashed one, two, and then three fingers. At that point, he unlocked the doors and threw them wide open.
Immediately the officers were assaulted with the foulest odor any could recall. They all recoiled, and Hank feared he would vomit.
The sight that greeted them was among the most shocking any had ever seen. There, in a sea of car lights, on a bed of thick, faded green shag carpet, lay a naked dead Red Dillard slumped over the back of a naked dead Bonnie Jean McNabb, both on their knees mooning all the assembled.
It was quickly determined that to keep the heat on, the van's engine had been left running but, due to faulty wiring and the couple being lost in the throes of becoming intimately reacquainted, Red and Bonnie Jean had accidentally died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Once the fumes had dissipated, everyone but mothers and their younger children lined up to study the scene. Most knew both parties. There was open-mouthed shock on the faces of some, many a shaking head, and more than a few stifled chuckles, including among the deputies.
When it was his turn to inspect the victims, Mr. Persimmon stared, shook his head, and spat.
"And, if this wasn't disgusting enough, that woman has shit all over that poor man."
"Oh, Jack!" Mrs. Persimmon exclaimed as she swatted his side amidst a slew of muffled guffaws.
As the Due South gossip express immediately lit up the local phone and computer lines that night, the episode quickly came to be billed as either "the most humiliating deaths in the history of Semmes County" or "the greatest," as some romantics preferred. Several messages – all anonymous -- were left on the local county commission answer machine suggesting the site be added to the routes of local historic walking tours, and three urged that a new historical marker be placed in front of the pasture.
When 18-year-old Longstreet High senior Sally Ann Sneed asked her grandfather, 77-year-old Raif Talmadge, a farmer and witness to the event, whether it was really necessary to spread the full story to the public, the grandfather's reply typified the carefully considered county consensus.
"Now, shug, this is much too good not to share."
Exactly how to share what many were already calling the most stunning, juicy, disgraceful, and/or embarrassing news to hit the county in decades, if not generations, was the subject of a somewhat tense meeting later that morning at the dominant local newspaper, The Semmes Sentinel. Of course, almost everyone across the county already knew the details of "the love van deaths," as well as a rapidly ever-expanding number of exaggerated accounts and completely false rumors. The discussion among the paper's staff and publisher concerned precisely which facts to print to remain a respectable news outlet, how to prevent the town from becoming the butt of dirty jokes across the state, and how to cover the story while remaining a family-friendly publication. With a disproportionate share of the paper's subscribers being church-going older ladies, the last consideration could not be discounted.
Not only did the tall, lean, and balding 70-year-old publisher Ezekiel "Zeke" Billingsworth make a rare appearance at the newspaper offices to speak at the meeting, but his 69-year-old wife Begonia did as well. To try to set just the right tone, the kind, soft-spoken older gentleman stood up to open the meeting himself, whose attendance in the conference room around the long cherry wood table had swelled to over a dozen reporters (including Wheeler University senior Philmont Fagen), editors, printers, and other staff eager to hear any new details of the matter, especially any not for publication. The publisher stressed the importance of covering the scandal in a way that would not in any way harm The Semmes Sentinel or their cherished community. But he also clearly leaned towards erring on the side of reporting as much of the full story as a family paper could be permitted. For the last several years, he had put a lot more money into beefing up the Sentinel's reporting resources in a bid to not merely spike circulation in an era of ever more internet competition but to become seen as a serious news publication with real political pull -- not just your light-hearted neighborhood doorstop, one step removed from a high school paper.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I have convened this special meeting to discuss how The Sentinel is to cover what is clearly going to be one of the most explosive, emotional, widely read, and potentially controversial stories in the history of our paper. Now, folks, this is a sad and sordid affair. Two people most of us know -- knew -- have died in some shocking, bizarre, scandalous, terribly embarrassing, and nevertheless tragic circumstances.
"But, as the newspaper of record dedicated to serving the people of Semmes County, we have an obligation to report all the truly significant news we can, especially of this community, however unpleasant or distasteful. And whether we like it or not, when a well-known pair of life-long local citizens – including the popular long-time owner of the busiest garage in the county – suddenly die together unnaturally, well, I'm sorry, but that's a major story.
"Yet, as befits a good family publication -- and as Christians -- we have a responsibility to report this matter as delicately as we can. There's no need to try to titillate the public to sell more papers. The facts of this story are scandalous enough, and we are not some sleazy tabloid and never will be -- at least not on my watch.
"But nor are we going to be some hick Mayberry publication clutching its pearls and sniffing smelling sauce to avoid fainting from shock."
From the start of his remarks, there had been scattered coughs and muffled chuckles, especially among the younger reporters and editors, male and female. But now, several could no longer contain their laughter. Mr. Billingsworth stopped, looked at the culprits, and frowned.
"We are going to be our normal professional selves: report the facts, embellish nothing, discard all unproven rumors, and phrase all our stories tactfully. We'll cover the matter fully, but we're not going to obsess over it either. Yes, there are humiliating circumstances here. But the parties in question did that to themselves. Now I've said my piece, and I want to know what y'all think."
Begonia Billingsworth was livid. Heavy-set and high strung at the best of times, she knew her blood pressure was spiking but concluded standing tall for righteousness, and the moral health of her life-long beloved community was worth any risk to her own physical health. After failing to persuade her to stay home and fearing she could have another heart attack, her husband Zeke had pleaded with her on the drive to the meeting to try to calm down. But Bonnie Jean was a cousin of hers, and Begonia knew her family well. None of what struck so many others as hilarious was anything but horrifying to her. She had already had it out with her husband about how to cover the story – preferring the briefest, most sanitized version possible to spare the feelings of all families involved and preserve "the dignity of our Christian community." The sight of staffers half-heartedly stifling laughs had enraged her. Only her love and respect for her husband of 51 years restrained her from interrupting him to castigate those giggling. But the instant he finished, she erupted.
"This is not funny!" she shouted, standing and pointing a finger at those who had laughed.
"Y'all should be ashamed of the way y'all've been a carrying on, cutting the fool over such a tragedy. Red and Bonnie Jean got families like every one of us. Just imagine what they're all going through."
In a desperate bid to prevent more laughter, many a tongue was bit around the table, and few dared look at the new speaker. Mr. Billingsworth nervously drank from his bottle of Big Red soda pop before resuming a pained expression staring at the table.
"This whole thing is just one big sin and a shame," his wife continued. "And it's a test of our community as to how we deal with it. We can be decent and delicately report the general facts, pay our respects to both families, realize 'the wages of sin is death,' and quickly move on with our heads held high -- or we can just wallow in one big pig pen of scandal, splashing mud all over our community, and just all get dirty."
Despite herculean efforts, more than a couple of attendees could no longer contain their snickers.
"Y'all ain't got no more business making fun of Bonnie Jean and Red than I do at the pot shop," she shouted to even more giggles. No one dared answer the publisher's wife as she quickly left the room in a rage.
Embarrassed for Mr. Billingsworth, all laughter and smiles vanished as he opened the meeting for discussion. Several staffers who hadn't laughed aimed ugly looks at their offending colleagues.
Forty-two-year-old editor Jacob Faulkner slowly rose to speak. He had steered The Sentinel for just over a decade after having been a reporter there ever since being a student at Joe Wheeler University. He was also the paper's first editor to have not been born in Due South.
Looking at the publisher, he started to speak. "Zeke, I'm right sorry about this, and" -- pointedly turning his gaze to those who had giggled -- "You can rest assured there will be a meeting immediately following this one about showing others proper respect. And you can bet your bottom dollar we'll deal with that matter directly." Suddenly some who had laughed now bore frowns.
"I think we cover this story like any other," Jacob continued. "As a small-town paper, we're used to writing stories about folks we all know. But we're professionals. We report the news. We record all the relevant facts, we stay neutral, and we put our personal feelings aside. Yet, as local reporters sharing the same fishbowl with everybody else, we do exercise more tact and discretion than our big-city peers.
"So I say we cover this story in terms of the basic facts, albeit slightly sanitized as to some of the gory details" – more snickers -- "and then quickly move on. There's no need to wade into the weeds of how long Red and Bonnie Jean had been having an affair or how many other women Red was squiring around in his van." A few more stifled laughs and furtive grins ensued.
Philmont shifted in his seat to shield his smile, recalling the times Zada caused him and Fitzhugh to laugh uproariously at her "Zadaventures in the love van."
"Thank you, Jacob. I think you struck just the right balance," Zeke echoed. Several hands were quickly raised.
"Yes, Miss Scarlett, you have the floor, dear," Zeke smiled at Miss Hurston, the attractive 22-year-old black Wheeler graduate who was not a local but had interned at the paper as a journalism major throughout her college years and was now a very well-respected full-timer. She loved working at The Sentinel where she had thoroughly impressed its publisher and editor with her consistently excellent stories and willingness to work well into the night on many occasions, even when still a part-timer. Eagerly sharing her publisher's desire to ratchet up the paper's hard-news credentials, she had more than once been told by the editor to shave a few of the more revealing details in her articles about local citizens, especially government officials.
"I respect – and agree -- there's no need to try to embarrass anyone. The facts of this story are humiliating enough. But we don't want to be a laughingstock either. The reality is everybody knew what a rake Red was. So if we act like The Mayberry Gazette on The Andy Griffith Show and just say, 'Gee, a couple of locals suddenly somehow ended up dead one night in the back of a van in Huey Toole's pasture by Wade Hampton Highway--"
"Some say they were on the Highway to Hell," printer Cory Crews volunteered.
"I heard it was the Hershey Highway," assistant printer Sam Brautigan spoke up, prompting still more laughs.
"That's enough," Jacob announced. "Go on, Miss Scarlett."
"I'm just suggesting," she smiled and paused ever so slightly, "if we act like nothing strange or unusual happened here--"
"'Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!'" reporter Lyman Baum interjected.
"Exactly," Scarlett resumed. "Everybody's going to dismiss us as nothing but a bunch of small-town yokels covering up for a couple of dead folks who weren't even local big shots. What'll folks then think about how in-depth – how honestly – we actually cover the real big wigs in this town like the politicians? They'll just dismiss us as a joke and read other papers for their news." Many around the table nodded vigorously.
"Besides," Scarlett persisted, "a lot of us had heard stories in town for years about Red squiring women around in that van at night." More nods followed. "And Philmont actually knew about his driving Miss Bonnie Jean around in the van, didn't you?"
Twenty-two-year-old Philmont Fagen was in his last semester at Wheeler and had worked as a Sentinel reporter for two years, impressing everyone with the quality, speed, and professionalism of his work. Tanned, handsome, charming, and witty without being mean, Philmont soon became one of the paper's most popular reporters. Even though he was not just an out-of-towner but a Yankee to boot, folks still felt comfortable sharing information with him, and he was diplomatic and savvy enough with his editor to get not only more controversial story assignments but to squeeze more "delicate" details into print. Thanks to Zada, he figured he knew more about Red's now-notorious pink van than anyone at the paper. Mr. Fagen was also one of the staff who found "the love van death story" especially hilarious or Zilarious.
"Well," he deadpanned, "as good professional reporters, Miss Scarlett, we need to always get our facts straight and, uh, the fact is, it was actually Red and another 'van buddy' I knew about."
In the midst of many Oh's and muffled chuckles, Mr. Billingsworth quickly interjected, "Whose identity is immaterial to this story."
"A local college student," Philmont silently mouthed to his eagerly interested colleagues, prompting several gasps, giggles, and a few guffaws.
"News flash, gang," editor Jacob Faulkner quickly intervened. "The Sentinel has no interest exposing any of Mr. Dillard's alleged additional lovers," prompting Philmont to wonder whether Zada would be disappointed. He could readily imagine his outrageous friend eagerly buying a stack of papers mentioning her with Red. She might even send the paper her favorite pictures of herself with a request they be included in any follow-up stories.
"The story at hand concerns the two deceased individuals," Zeke Billingsworth added. "Mr. Dillard and Mrs. West."
"Taylor," someone volunteered.
"Actually McNabb," corrected long-time secretary Charlene Bukowski to more suppressed chuckles.
"Miss Ophelia, you've been waiting patiently with your hand up," declared Jacob loudly in an effort to restore a serious tone.
Mrs. Ophelia Polk was a 41-year-old senior reporter who grew up in Due South and was likely the paper's most revered journalist. She was neither a prude nor one to stir the pot. Her husband, the Rev. Leonidas Polk, pastored the local Episcopal Church. It had long been said by many of his parishioners that the Rev. Polk was so devout he not only believed in a higher power but Jesus Christ Himself.
"Y'all," she began, "I think Scarlett's right that we don't sweep all the dirty details under the
"Cow chips?" a grinning Flannery Fitzgerald suggested to more chuckles. Though she was the society page and special features editor, the 38-year-old Miss Fitzgerald was often consulted by the "hard" news reporters since she had more reliable sources than anyone else at The Sentinel. One of the queen bees of Due South's social scene, Flannery, was treasured as a fabulous flirt not known to take anyone or anything too seriously. Some at the paper suspected she might have been a Red Dillard flavor of the month or even a love van veteran herself.
"And that is enough," declared Jacob. "Miss Ophelia."
"I propose we cover the story like any other accidental death," Mrs. Polk continued. "Just as we don't reveal all the gory details of a fatal car wreck, we don't here either. So we don't say what they were doing in the back of the van, but we do report they were there and appear to have died from carbon monoxide poisoning."
"And that it's not believed to be a murder-suicide or a double suicide?" deadpanned Philmont to more grins and guffaws.
"Do we say they were naked?" Flannery asked with a smile. Suddenly everyone was quiet and looked at the publisher and editor.
After a long pause, with Zeke and Jacob looking at each other, Zeke spoke.
"No. Revealing two married parties not married to each other found in the back of a van together in the middle of the night in a secluded part of the county is gracious plenty. To assume we have to reveal any more information is to insult our readers' intelligence."
"I agree," quickly seconded Jacob. "And I also think any particulars beyond those basic facts is piling on and rubbing salt in the wounds of the families."
Copy editor Pearl Welty asked to speak up. At 63, she had worked at the paper longer than anyone, over 40 years. Deeply religious but never preachy, she was a model of kindness and beloved by all. As soon as she started to speak, all grins vanished.
"Y'all, I know both Mr. Red and Miss Bonnie Jean's families, and, as anybody who knows them can tell you, they're real fine folks. They know better than anyone what's happened, and they're going through a whole heap of hurt now. The last thing they need is The Sentinel making their lives worse by dragging Red and Bonnie Jean's bodies through the mud."
A chorus of "Amen" 's immediately went up around the table.
"Pearl's right," Ophelia Polk carried on. "I think if we get too deep into the details of this mess, it won't just be the little old ladies who turn against us. If we're not careful, a whole lot of folks could say we're trivializing a double tragedy to exploit it for our own fun and profit."
"Well put, Miss Ophelia," Zeke underscored with a raised voice.
The meeting didn't last much longer since there appeared to be a clear consensus for a middle approach. All the essential facts would be revealed -- sans any graphic particulars – in one thoroughly detailed story. It would be on the front page, but not above the fold, and there would be no follow-up stories investigating the extramarital affair since neither party was an elected official or otherwise public figure. The investigation was to be led by Ophelia Polk, with additional reporting by Scarlett Hurston and Philmont Fagen. And Zeke would have to sign off on the final wording of the piece before publication. The only other time anyone could recall that happening was years back when City Councilman Leroy Farnsworth got shot by his wife when she found him in bed with their daughter's sixth-grade teacher, Lori Lynn Lovelace.
Zeke thanked everyone and left. Then, as promised, Jacob warned the staff.
"A final word, folks. Yes, there are clearly humorous aspects to this story, but two people – and two people beloved by a whole slew of folks in this town and personally known and liked by a lot of us – are dead. This is ultimately a real tragedy, and we should never forget that. And I'm serious. I better not get one report of any Sentinel staffer making light of this in public. We have a reputation to protect, and how we comport ourselves about this will show just how professional and worthy of respect we really are. Now I have confidence in all of y'all. But you have been warned."
All three reporters covering the story went right to work. Ophelia canvassed the official sources by getting a copy of the Sheriff's Department accident report, interviewing the four deputies and two paramedics on the scene, and then speaking with the coroner who examined the bodies, Dr. Robert McGahee.
Scarlett and Philmont went to the scene of the fatal tryst where several veterans of Due South's Socratic debates at Red's Place were already discussing the matter. They had plenty of speculation as to what really caused the deaths, including conspiracy theories Red and Bonnie Jean may have been murdered by a jealous husband or wife. There was also much sadness mixed with fond reminiscences about their suddenly departed friend.
The old beat-up van had been towed away during the night by Joshua Robertson's 24-hour tow truck at the direction of 51-year-old Amos Jackson, a 30-year-police veteran and Semmes County's first black sheriff. He had raced to the farm upon being awakened by Senior Deputy Jeremiah Jenkins' call just after the bodies were discovered. Sheriff Jackson thoroughly examined the accident scene at length to confirm there had been no foul play. He wanted the van removed before sunrise to avoid a crowd of gawkers parking along a dangerous bend in the highway notorious for accidents.
The farm's owner, 76-year-old Huey Toole, had at last been awakened by deputies knocking on his door at 1 a.m. to apprise him of why there was a crowd of folks in his front pasture. Completely disgusted with the whole situation, Huey implored the deputies to haul off the intruding vehicle as soon as possible. This bizarre interruption of his otherwise quiet life had left him too rattled to get back to sleep before having to milk his Holstein cows before dawn.
Hours later, he was perched atop his tractor a couple hundred yards from the accident scene. Taking a drag from a Lucky Strike cigarette, he peered suspiciously and with increasing disdain at the growing clot of folks trespassing up his dirt road. Though a quiet man slow to anger, Huey had had the worst night in a long time and was rapidly growing ever more impatient with still more trespassers when he noticed two young ones heading towards him on foot.
After carefully avoiding Black Angus cattle and their many pasture deposits, Philmont Fagen and Scarlett Hurston reached the tractor to introduce themselves as Sentinel reporters and to ask what he could please tell them about the previous night. It did not take long for the reporters to confirm the farmer did not like attention.
"Not a damn thing. I don't know nothing 'bout any of that crap. And y'all better not quote me in that paper a' your'n neither."
Fortunately, across the highway, the retired Jack and Myrtle May Persimmon were far more willing to discuss the matter. Both came to the door when the reporters knocked. After the journalists introduced themselves and asked if they would be willing to talk about the events across the road, the couple immediately invited them inside. Mrs. Persimmon was baking oatmeal cookies and offered a plate to the guests.
"Oh, yes, ma'am, I never turn down homemade cookies," Philmont grinned. "Especially just baked."
"Beer?" Jack asked as he hoisted a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon before sitting down in the biggest chair in the living room.
"Jack, they're on duty," Myrtle May protested.
"Well, we won't tell," winked Jack to Philmont as his wife sat in the chair beside her husband.
"Thank you, sir, but we better not," Scarlett demurred as she and Philmont sat on the sofa across from the couple.
Once seated, Scarlett asked the Persimmons if they could please lay out all the facts of the evening's events as they experienced them. With his beer in one hand and a Camel cigarette in the other, Jack Persimmon proceeded to hold court.
"Well, I guess it's just about the biggest thing to happen out in this part of the county since all that shooting on Huey Toole's farm during the War Between the States -- 'bout a half-mile east of here as the crow flies. And that was one of the skirmishes we won, too."
"These young folks don't care a hoot about that, Jack," his wife interrupted. "That's ancient history to them."
"Well, we all oughta' know 'bout our heritage, Myrtle May," Jack replied. "Anyway, last night close to midnight, we got a bit spooked by the goings-on across the road."
"Well," Mrs. Persimmon cut in, "You didn't get spooked by nothing 'cause you was sound asleep. This one here could sleep right through a freight train roaring by with the horn on."
"What are you talkin' about, woman? That ain't so."
"It is too so. You slept through that tornado when it barreled right by here that afternoon several years back. It roared right through the place -- oh, y'all, it took down 14 of our trees too – but Mr. Snorefest here didn't even know about it until I got back from my sister's house to fix supper."
"What about last night, ma'am?" a smiling Scarlett gently asked since Philmont was working too hard to stifle his laughter.
"Well, I woke up and heard this rumbling noise outside," Myrtle May announced. "And I said to myself, 'What in tarnation keeps making such noise at almost midnight? I knew it wasn't no highway traffic. We can easily recognize that and Huey Toole across the road don't do no farming at night. So who or what could it be? So I get up to look out the window, and I seen this big strange van just a bit up Huey's driveway. I'm thinking, now Huey ain't got no van and, if he did, why in the world would he park it in the middle of his cow pasture and with the motor running but no lights on -- and late at night? See, he goes to bed real early. All that really spooked me. So then I wake up Rip Van Winkle here."
"All right," Mr. Persimmon eagerly took over. "Well, I suspected something strange was up myself. So I figured I better just take Miss Bessie -- my best shotgun -- and the dogs across the street and just see what's what."
"Now, of course, we first did the proper thing and called Mr. Toole," Mrs. Persimmon quickly clarified. "Oh, I so hated to wake that poor man. He's so kind and recently a-widowed and all – very quiet, never makes no trouble for nobody. And he has to go to bed real early on account of having to get up so early to milk his dairy cows and all. But when we called, there was no answer."
"Maybe he slept through it," offered a slightly smiling Philmont. Mr. Persimmon winked as he took a drag off his cigarette.
"Anyway," Jack exhaled, "We headed on across the highway."
"Did you recognize whose van it was, sir?" Scarlett asked.
"No, but I'd sure be ashamed if it was any vehicle of mine," Jack replied. "Dog if that wasn't the sorriest, most rickety-looking thing I ever saw on wheels. And to think it belonged to 'the best mechanic in Semmes County.' What a crock of crap."
"Jack Persimmon, you don't know one thing about that car," Myrtle May declared. "So just hush about that."
"Well, it sure proved to be a death trap, didn't it?" Jack retorted. "And that excuse for a mechanic never fooled me. The first time I took my truck to Red's Place was the last time too. It was outrageous what that fellow wanted to charge me. I'm thinking, how come everybody and his cousin brags about how great this guy is with the ridiculous prices he charges? So I said, screw this. I'll just take my business across the tracks to the colored garage. I bet them people would be glad to get my business. And they are, too. Hosea Hemphill's place. Them fellows do a jam-up fine job too and don't charge an arm and leg like Red, neither. Maybe you know 'em," he said, looking at Scarlett.
"Yes sir," she smiled, before glancing at Philmont, who winked at her.
"Jack, no one cares what you think about anybody's garage," Myrtle May sighed.
"Well, you just wait, woman," Mr. Persimmon pointed with his cigarette. He then took another drag and exhaled.
"'Cause I'm getting to something I think's got a whole lot to do with this here case.' Bout' Red's Place.' Not exactly a high-class, 'family-friendly' environment, if you ask me. First off," he frowned, "There's a whole bunch of ne'er-do-well-looking losers all sitting around outside in front of the garage just a yapping away about whatever – and Red and the mechanics are just a talking and laughing right with 'em while they're supposed to be working. I'm thinking, fella,' you think I'm gone' pay you labor costs when y'all are just standing 'round talking when you're supposed to be working? Well, you sure got another thing coming."
"Jack," Myrtle May protested, "What in tarnation does any of that have to do with what we saw last night?"
"Just hold onto your horses -- I'm getting to that directly," Jack persisted. "Better fasten your seatbelts 'cause then I notice some things in Red's office that strike me as right interestin.' The 'secretary' behind the front desk is unlike any secretary I've ever seen. This gal's dressed in a halter top – and leaving very little to the imagination -- super tight shorts and flip-flops. And she's got a ring in her belly button and is sportin' a whole slew of tramp stamps, too -- tattoos. I guess that's what Red considered real professional dress. In my day, we had a word for women like that."
"Jaaack...." Myrtle May sighed.
"She sure didn't look or dress nothing like you, Miss," Jack said to a giggling Miss Hurston.
"And on the back wall is a big calendar,' cept this un's unlike any calendar I've ever seen -- at least in any respectable business establishment -- since it's got a picture of some half-naked gal leaning over a car and not leaving much to the imagination if you know what I mean."
"Jack, you are just a wastin' these fine young folks' time. I'm sorry, y'all," Mrs. Persimmon apologized to their guests.
"As a matter of fact," Jack raised his cigarette, "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Little Miss Tramp Stamp was 'Miss May' in that thing. Well, then I notice something else," Mr. Persimmon took a sip of beer. "Behind the front office is a door to another room. When Little Miss Tramp Stamp sashays back there, what do I see? A bed … a double bed." He paused and leaned back as Mrs. Persimmon frowned, looked down, and shook her head.
"Now you tell me," he raised his eyebrows and gestured with the cigarette. "Just what kind of a man keeps a bed in his office at work? Just what do you think ol' Red was doing back there? I got a feelin' he and Little Miss Tramp Stamp were 'working late' balancing some books in bed," he winked.
"Now, Jack, that is enough," his wife insisted.
"Well, and you shoulda' seen how ol' Red was bird-doggin' that babe when he stepped into the office, too."
"Well, for your information, you ol' fool, the fact is Red married that secretary."
"Oh, no, that wasn't the latest, Mrs. Dillard. I seen her, too. No, Little Miss Tramp Stamp was a brunette. His last wife is a blonde.' Course, I' spec' Red was real acquainted with a whole lotta' women if you know what I mean."
"And we don't need to go there neither," Mrs. Persimmon declared.
"What about last night in the pasture?" Philmont asked, hating to cut short a performance he knew he would relish rehashing to his relatives and friends in New Jersey.
"Well, the wife and I and Uncle Fred and Aunt Ethel--"
"Those are our dogs," Myrtle May smiled. "Now they're big German Shepherds 'cause our children wanted us to have good guard dogs on account of our age and living way out in the country. And, oh, Uncle Fred and Aunt Ethel can sure bark something fierce, but they're just as sweet as they can be. They're brother and sister and have always gotten along real well. They look a whole heap a lot scarier than they really are. They both got a real fine disposition."
"She's spoiled them," Jack remarked. "Anyway, we all cross the highway to scope out the situation first-hand," Jack continued, "And then the squad cars and ambulance arrive with the most God-awful racket you ever heard -- sirens just a blarin' and lights a blazin.' One young deputy tells me to put Miss Bessie away. Says they don't need no more firepower. Hell, I been shootin' for dang near 80 years, twice as long as any of them boys been alive. And believe you me, if there'd been any dangerous criminals in that van or if ol' Red had come out shootin,' me and ol' Bess woulda' got busy and put that story to bed right fast. You can be damned sure of that."
"Oh, you just hush, you ol' fool, and watch your mouth," his wife declared.
"Did y'all see inside the van after it was opened?" Scarlett asked.
"Oh, child. I so regret that," Mrs. Persimmon sat up and put her hand over her chest. "Now that was a sorry sight sure enough, and I fear I will never be able to get it out of my mind," the old lady winced.
"Well, it was just a shitty mess," Jack volunteered.
"Jack! I oughta' wash that mouth of yours out with soap," Myrtle May exclaimed as she slapped his arm. "I'm sorry you had to hear that, dear," she apologized to a grinning Scarlett who was trying hard not to look at Philmont.
"You know better than to talk like that in mixed company. What's wrong with you?" Mrs. Persimmon scowled at her husband as he took another drag off his cigarette.
After describing the sordid scene as much as the wife would permit, taking a final swig from his beer, and emphasizing with his cigarette, Jack Persimmon volunteered his views as to what lessons should be drawn from the whole tawdry tale.
"Now here's what y'all's article really oughta' hammer home to the folks in this community 'cause there are some real lessons to this tragedy. The Good Book says, 'The wages of sin is death.' And that's exactly what Red and that woman's foolishness led to."
"She was his second wife," Mrs. Persimmon quickly added.
"Well, that don't make no difference. She wasn't his wife now. And she was married, too. The point is their sinning caught up with 'em sure enough."
"Now, Jack, the Good Book also says to 'Judge not lest ye be judged' and 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone,'" Myrtle May declared.
"Yeah, well, nobody ever saw me gallivanting 'round the county with all kinds of loose women in some kinda' beat-up love shack on wheels. I'll tell you that."
"Well, it's not our place to judge, Mr. Holier-Than-Thou. That's God's doings."
"Yeah, and I'm sure glad I'm not in ol' Red or Miss Bonnie Jean's place now neither."
Scarlet and Philmont thanked the old couple for a far more enlightening interview than they could have ever imagined, and Mrs. Persimmon insisted on packing each a bag of treats.
"Now y'all be sure and come back again anytime," she remarked. "You're always welcome to set a spell. And are y'all a couple now, are you?"
"No ma'am. Just colleagues," Philmont answered.
"And friends," Scarlett smiled.
"Well, whatever you are, y'all sure are nice, clean-cut young folks, and the wife and I are right proud to know you," Mr. Persimmon pronounced.
After the interview, Scarlet went back to The Sentinel office to start writing. But Philmont announced he was going to chat with someone who had first-hand "intimate" knowledge of Red's infamous pink van, inside and out. So he called the Zadaphone to ask if she'd heard the big news and would be up for an exclusive interview with The Sentinel.
"Shoot, Philly, I'm gone' make my own personalized t-shirt saying, 'I Survived Red's Love Van,'" she boasted.
Her best friend Fitzhugh Rainwater had already raced to the Zadapad right after lunch to get the full Zadacious take on the whole matter. Soon Philmont joined them.
"Since she's the only confirmed 'Love Van' survivor," Mr. Fagen deadpanned amidst much laughter, "The ideal source for this story is none other than the legendary Miss Zada McMayer."
Leisurely splayed on her sofa with a Heineken beer in one hand and a Parliament cigarette in the other, Miss McMayer was in an especially Zadarific mood, laughing loudly and loving the attention.
"I guess Red and I must have really put some major mileage on the old Green Shag Carpet Ride," she laughed, tapping her cigarette. "I know I sure wouldn't want to be Red's flavor of the month after we got through with that love nest. Ugh," she shivered with a smile.
Philmont promised her anonymity in the story, prompting Zada to roll her eyes.
"Since when have I ever had anything to hide? Here's to Red," she grinned and took a swig of beer.
"And to think I risked my life a few times with that clown – wow," Miss McMayer shook her head. "Here's to my charmed life," she declared, hoisting her Heineken.
After many double entendres and much laughter, Zada, at last, acquired a rare serious look. For several long seconds, nothing was said – an almost shocking event in the presence of Miss McMayer.
"But they didn't deserve that, neither of them. It's a real shame, and I'm sure sorry for Mr. Red and Miss Bonnie Jean's families 'cause I'm sure they're in a huge passel of pain now," she said sadly, followed by a few more seconds of silence.
"But crying's not gonna' bring anybody back," she continued. "So we might as well recall the good times and just laugh about it. And, if I know Red, and I certainly did biblically," she winked, "He's laughing his ass off in Heaven. And my God welcomed him and Miss Bonnie Jean. So here's a toast to both of 'em," she declared with a smile as she raised her beer for a final swig.
"To Red and Bonnie Jean," Philmont and Fitzhugh said in unison, each with a thumbs-up sign and a grin. All three were silently relieved they had not completely laughed at others' tragedy.
The ensuing "interview" didn't last too long since Philmont and Fitzhugh had heard all about Zada's sexploits with Red before, and Mr. Fagen knew most of Miss McMayer's information was far too personal to ever appear in The Sentinel. But he did believe some of it might make the story's final cut and thought it especially cool to have scooped such an inside source.
The next day's Semmes Sentinel ran a front-page, below-the-fold story on Red and Bonnie Jean that reported all the basic facts of the case, sans details deemed unfit to be read over a family dinner table. To Philmont's disappointment, very little information from his talk with Miss McMayer made it into newsprint.
But Zada was thrilled to be the "anonymous source who was at one time a close personal acquaintance of Mr. Dillard." For once, she actually bought a newspaper and promptly tacked the only article she cared about on her living room wall with her anonymous reference highlighted. Next to it, she taped her favorite picture of herself wearing a bikini at Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, Georgia.
The next week The Sentinel ran two long, favorable biographical stories about the decedents without reference to either's death. Ophelia Polk, Philmont Fagen, and Scarlett Hurston co-authored all three articles concerning Bonnie Jean and Red. Both bereaved families were grateful for the respectful, tactful coverage, and several relatives even thanked the paper. Each family also provided an obituary for its relative. The community consensus was that The Sentinel had done the town proud by hitting just the right tone of reporting the facts while also respecting the feelings of grieving families and even celebrating the life of each decedent. Publisher Ezekiel Billingsworth was pleased and especially relieved Begonia Billingsworth was satisfied too.
Each funeral was very well attended, with many of the same mourners at both. It was widely agreed Red's widow, Dilly Dillard, held up remarkably well under the circumstances. She appeared more stoic than emotional, and Red's sons seemed relatively okay, too.
Their mother and Red's first wife, the now twice married Loreena Babcock, cried far more at Red's funeral and burial than the widow, somewhat to Mr. Babcock's discomfort. He knew Red had been his wife's first and most enduring love. Though deeply hurt by his wanton adulteries, Loreena had gotten along better with Red than with any other man. After their divorce, he never missed an alimony or child support check, nor did he ever lose his ability to make her laugh.
An unusually large number of ladies attended Red's farewell, ranging in age from their early twenties to late forties. Many came alone and appeared quite bereaved. A number of attendees remarked how several seemed far more torn up about Red than his widow.
All the Socratic daily debaters at Red's Place were at their friend's funeral and burial. Later back at the Dillard home, they carefully compared notes on the funeral and graveside services. It was their unanimous verdict that Red would have been right proud.
Among the big crowd back at the Dillard home after the burial was 62-year-old, balding, heavy-set Lamar Fleetwood, a local bookkeeper. For decades he had dutifully read all the obituaries in The Sentinel and faithfully visited the homes of the bereaved after every funeral – at least on the white side of the tracks. After respectfully offering heartfelt condolences to the family, the little fat man would go to the food table, load up, sit alone to eat, and then repeat the ritual about every hour. Some thought his post-burial home visits were exceptionally thoughtful, while others tried to recall if they had ever seen him at a funeral or burial service.
A new "Ol' Red's Place" sign would soon hang above the garage/gas station now run by "Young Red," Jr. and his younger brother Ray. The circumstances of Red's death failed to turn away a single one of his long-time customers. In fact, all the notoriety surrounding his tragic demise appeared to have helped business as the brothers soon had to expand the garage to meet added demand. The series of Socratic great debates on the headlines of the day continued on the premises unabated. The only things missing from Red, Sr. 's days at the garage were the rickety old bed in the office and the old pink van out back.