The bottle of Coke went flat sometime around eleven. Now it sits on the window ledge behind the mesh screen, a summer fattened bluebottle climbing down the neck to drink. The harsh late afternoon sun sears the glass.
“Mrs Deadman, Mrs Deadman… listen ma’am…. I really cannot be of assistance in this matter.” The burned out cigarette stains Riley’s fingers, the heat of the receding tip, catching his index finger, jolts him to cast the still smouldering Lucky into the ash-tray; as on the other end of the telephone the voice persists to press her case. “I do not have the jurisdiction ma’am.” Riley takes another cigarette from the packet. “Mrs Deadman please, you have to hear me out. I do not have the legal powers to act in this matter.” The match flares sulphurous. “And I agree,” Riley states, emphatically. He pauses, to light the cigarette, before adding, “I have an appointment with your husband at eight. And I will explore the options with him. Mrs Deadman, rest assured you have my sympathy.”
The office is small, dominated by a large desk, and a newspaper picture of Martin Luther King attending a communist training camp. This picture catches Riley’s eye as he prepares to leave.
“Bastard,” he says with venom.
The business of the day had not subsided. A line of negroes snakes out of the courthouse door. Cars with out-of-state plates warily process up and down Main street, the inhabitants viewed with suspicion by the local people. This suspicion is returned in full.
The chair is taken in the barbershop. A thin man with unkempt appearance, whose hair despite the best efforts of George refuses to play ball. At first Riley doesn’t pay attention, but as he turns the pages of the magazine he catches sight of the man’s reflection in the mirror. There is something familiar about him.
“No, I’m just saying,” says the man, in reply to George’s question, “he said if I want to get a job at the hospital I have to be a resident. And then I get here and they say it don’t matter. And I can’t register anyway.”
“But you already said you got a job.”
“Oh I got a job.”
“Then why do you want to work at the hospital. You know they’re crazy right?”
The man laughs. A fulsome laugh; like there is something wrong with the question, “you have no idea how crazy this world is. Why, if I didn’t know better, I’d say they was sending me here for an alibi.”
“Why would you need an alibi?” interrupted Riley, still trying to place where he had seen this man before.
The man in the mirror stares straight at Riley: his eyes bright with mirth, “don’t worry officer, I’ll be gone by sunset, I have friends coming to pick me up.”
“Why would you need an alibi?” Riley asks again.
The man adopts a more serious tone now; his grey blue eyes weighing Riley in a balance that displays an acute understanding. “Excuse my manner of speech,” he says, “I was being friendly.”
The body lay half exposed; one of the legs chewed by rats from the nearby creek. The burial had been rushed. Riley saw at once the marks on the ankle of the good leg; the unmistakable mark of manacles. He knew at once the man would be declared one of the escapees.
As the night closed in they fetched lamps and without much care or ceremony they dug the naked body out. In that glow the shock of the tumours was heightened. Three or four huge growths bulged from the man’s neck, stretching his black skin to a pale redness. The doctor crept forward to examine the body for signs of violence.
A small flask of whiskey was produced and they all took a sip.
“Does he have any paperwork?” asked Riley
“Only if it’s up his ass,” commented Sam, tugging at the leash of his hound, to bid it be still.
“Well I ain’t looking.”
News of the body spread fast. And by morning it was the talk of the town. Journalists who had come in to cover the registrations seemed to have forgotten that story; if only for a moment. Because there was no news, the man had escaped from prison with two others and they had killed him and hidden the body. Riley repeated the story so often that even he believed it. But of course he didn’t believe it. And of course no one mentioned the tumours, since that would have proved the lie.
No, Lincoln Lynch was a violent thief and he had got what was coming.
“Mr Deadman,” declared Riley, clearing his lunch from the desk.
“Carry on eating Riley,” said Mr Deadman, closing the door. “I have a gift for you, from my wife.” Mr Deadman placed the stone jar on the desk and pulled the chair from the corner. He sat down and smoothed his white cotton trousers. “I need to speak to you about these registrations.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t make the meeting.”
“Of course, I understand.” Said Deadman. “But time is of the essence and we need you to help us.”
Riley stood at the window watching Deadman get into his Cadillac. He looked down at the Coke bottle: at the bluebottle floating dead, without the slightest hint of struggle.
And he drank it; insect and all.