Bonnie And Clyde’s Last Ride

01.24.05 | 7 Comments

By Graham Powell

     I was rolling down the road towards Pleasant Hill on a mild spring day when I saw the car heading the other way, towards Arcadia. I waited until it dropped out of sight behind a little rise, then I turned around and followed.

     I wasn’t looking for trouble. I had the windows down, enjoying the smell of cut grass and pine trees, but it was still a couple of hours until lunch, and dicking with the citizenry is about the only fun I get on the job. So I trailed along for a mile or two, just to heighten the drama, before I flipped on the lights and buzzed the siren.

     Most places, a canary yellow 1934 Buick sedan would cause a stir, but with the Bonnie and Clyde festival on up at Gibsland, I didn’t think twice about it, didn’t even call in the plate. I just got out and strolled up with that cop swagger they taught us at the Academy, and motioned for the man inside to roll down the window. “Please step out of the car, sir,” I said.

     The gentleman in question was short and slim, with a pointy chin, small but well-defined cheekbones, and a broad forehead topped by a wedge of tangled gray hair. He wore two-tone Oxfords, cream colored pants, and a light brown vest over a white shirt. French cuffs. Little Lennon glasses completed the ensemble. He looked like nothing so much as a mad scientist who’d built a time machine into his car and made the leap from the Great Depression.

     But, as I said, we get a lot of that.

     I glanced over his license, which gave his name as Samuel Witherspoon, and his residence as DeRidder. “Do you know why I stopped you, sir?”

     “No, uh, I’m really not sure, officer,” he said in a reedy voice.

     “Your trunk,” I said. “I’m afraid I can’t allow you to continue with it tied down like that.”

     We walked around to the back of the car. The trunks on those old sedans weren’t very deep, and the lid to this one had been pulled down and tied with twine over something that didn’t quite fit. “All trunks must be securely latched while in motion,” I said. “State law.” I had no idea if that was true, but then neither did he.

     “Well, um, I’m sure we can come to some kind of-”

     “Oh, this won’t take but a second.” I knelt down and started pulling at the knot. “In town for the festival?”

     A bony fist thudded into my shoulder, almost knocking me to the ground. “Hey,” I said. He swung again, driving a punch into my ribs. “Cut it out!” I said. “All right, buddy, now I have to arrest you.”

     That’s when he kicked me in the balls.

     I literally went blind for a few minutes, as my brain shut down all other channels while it tried to deal with the frantic signals from my cojones. When my vision cleared I was on my knees, clutching at my wounded jewels, and the Buick was fast disappearing around a curve. I managed to stagger to my feet and unclip my radio handset.

     “This is car number nine,” I wheezed. “I’ve just been assaulted. Suspect is heading north in – urp!” I bent double and heaved my breakfast of Fruit Loops all over the side of the road.

     “You okay, Sarge?” said the dispatcher.

     “I’ll live,” I replied, though right then I wasn’t too sure. “The suspect is heading north towards Arcadia in a yellow 1934 Buick. Round up all the deputies and put ‘em on the case.”

     I spent the next hour and a half crisscrossing all over northern Bienville Parish, with a few breaks here and there to motivate the rest of the crew. I told them they were lazy sacks of shit in English, French, and Latin, which I had learned in high school and, despite my best efforts, never forgotten.

     Just before noon Dispatch radioed and said, “Hey Sarge, you might want to check this out. Old Earl Claggett over by Ringgold says someone’s using his barn for a garage.”

     You could just see the top of the barn from the road. It wasn’t much of a building, just a few sheets of corrugated tin nailed over some telephone poles that Claggett had probably liberated from the Highway Department, but it kept the weather off his hay.

     I turned off the highway and jounced along a dirt road for a minute or two until I saw the mouth of the barn. An old tractor with a hay wagon hitched up and a couple of police cruisers blocked the way, so I had to get out and walk.

     The dumbass deputies Bryon and Dave were standing around gabbing like they were at the mall. “All right, boys,” I said. “What have you got for me?”

     They straightened up and shot shamefaced glances at each other.

     “Nothing? What the hell have you been doing, selling Girl Scout cookies?”

     “Uh, no sir,” said Bryon. “We thought we’d wait for you to get here.”

     “I don’t have a magic wand, fellas, I have eyes the same as you. Why didn’t you use them?”

     Dave spoke this time. “We were, well, we were afraid we’d mess up the scene or something.”

     Hmmm. “You have a point,” I said. “Let’s take a look at the unspoiled perfection of the crime scene.”

     It was Witherspoon’s Buick, all right. A suit coat that matched his pants lay across the passenger seat. But the man himself was nowhere to be found. He must have taken whatever was in the trunk, because it was firmly shut.

     “You found this, Earl?” I asked.

     “I surely did, Sergeant,” said Claggett in a weary voice.

     He sat hunched on a hay bale to one side of the entrance. He was at least seventy and looked a hundred, but he still insisted on working his place. It didn’t hurt that he had half a dozen grandsons.

     “I let the boys go for lunch and was gonna drop this load at the barn when I saw the car,” he said. “I knew that weren’t right, so I called up the sheriff straightaway.”

     “You didn’t see anybody prowling around?”

     He slowly shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sergeant. I do wish I could help.”

     “You’ve done enough, Mr. Claggett.” Quoting the Citizen’s Citation from memory, I said, “Through your prompt action, you may have helped us capture a vicious criminal. You can head on home, now, if you want.”

     He nodded and moseyed out.

     I had another walk around the car. No new clues jumped out at me. I ended up back by the trunk, where all the trouble had started.

     “Hell,” I said. “Nothing in there now.” And I gave the latch an idle kick.

     The lid sprang open, and lo and behold, I was wrong. There was something in the trunk after all.

     Samuel Witherspoon was a small man, but even so, I never would have guessed that he would have fit.

     So I had to wait around with Deputy Howdy and Deputy Doody until the medical examiner arrived. By that time my stomach had gobbled up my pancreas and was eyeing my liver for dessert. On the way back to the office I picked up hamburger from Griff’s. It didn’t survive the journey.

     No sooner had I gotten my feet up on my desk than the officer on duty poked his head in my door and said, “Sarge, there’s someone here to see you.”

     “Dammit, can’t you see that I’m busy!”

     “But she says she’s Sam Witherspoon’s daughter.”

     Amelia Witherspoon was a trim little specimen like her father, but where he was straight as a stick, she had curves in all the right places. Brown hair, brown eyes, bushy Brooke Shields eyebrows. I made a fuss over her as she got settled in the perp chair next to my desk. After all, she’d just lost her father – and she was really kind of cute.

     She sniffed and blotted her eyes with a tissue. “You’re sure it’s really him?” she said.

     I nodded. “I’m afraid so, ma’am. I found his body myself. Folded up in the trunk like an old suit of clothes.”

     I stopped because Amelia seemed to have swallowed her tongue. After a moment’s thought I realized I’d passed on too much information, so I shut my trap until she had control of herself. As I regarded her heaving bosom I briefly considered getting her all torqued up again, but quickly discarded the idea as counterproductive.

     “I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you a few questions,” I said. “You’re from DeRidder, is that right?”

     She nodded. “Down by Lake Charles.”

     “You’re in town for the festival?”

     “Yes, we came up for the swap meet tomorrow. My father is an antiques dealer.”

     “A dealer? Do you have any idea what he had with him in the car?”

     “No, none. He left before I woke up this morning. Maybe he slipped out to meet someone. But why wouldn’t he tell me?”

     Why indeed. “Has he been acting strangely?”

     “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I just don’t understand why he would do that, attack you that way. That’s just not like him. He was kind, and sweet, and…” Her hand flew to her mouth.

     I stood and patted her gently on the shoulder. “Listen, that’s enough for now. Why don’t I drop by the hotel this evening? I’ll bring you up to date on the case, and you can tell me anything else you can think of.”

     She just nodded and hurried from my office.

     Not one minute later the duty officer was back. “Got another call for you, Sarge,” he said.

     I sighed. “Of course you do.”

     Golden Years Antiques was just off Main Street from the courthouse, so I walked over. Just inside the door, a bald man with droopy hound-dog eyes leaned against the cash register as he worked his daily crossword. “Bella Muncie?” I asked.

     He thumbed me through a doorway to the storeroom.

     The rear of the store backed up to an alley that eventually led around to the square. There were a couple of overhead garage doors back there, open now to let in some air and light. In the patch of sun a very large woman sat on a camp stool, beating an iron headboard with a ballpeen hammer.

     “Goddamn piece of shit!” she shouted as she landed another blow. “Cheating son of a bitch!”

     “Miss Muncie?” I asked. “What seems to be the problem?”

     “It’s a fake!” she bellowed. “A reproduction! That bastard traded it for a nice pair of candlesticks. No wonder he was in such a goddamned hurry. Fucking con man!” Another blow clanged down.

     “You hammer that enough, you could sell it for modern art,” I said.

     She paused in mid-swing and let out a guffaw. “I suppose I’m a little wound up,” she said, wiping sweat from her face. “This just ain’t my day.”

     “Sam Witherspoon give you that?”

     “No,” she said. “Sam Witherspoon’s no swindler.” Her face reddened again, and she yelled, “He’s a goddamn thief, that’s what Sam Witherspoon is!”

     “Hold it,” I said. “Tell me what happened, then have your conniption.”

     Bella took a deep breath, held it, and blew it out again. “Okay. Sam comes by every year the day before the swap meet to see what I’ve got. He usually buys a couple of pieces right off the bat, no haggling. So when he got here this morning I didn’t think anything of it. I went up front to get some coffee, and when I got back, that piss-monkey was driving off down the street with my best new find. God damn him!”

     “Come on, hold yourself together for a few more minutes. Can you describe the stolen item?”

     “Yeah,” she said. “God, how could I forget. I found it six months ago rotting behind a barn over in Ruston. I had the whole damn thing redone, top to bottom. All from vintage parts, too. New seat covers, rebuilt engine…” She shook her head sadly. “Hell, the paint job alone cost what I take home in a month.”

     She looked over and saw my jaw hanging open. Her face clenched again and she shouted, “A car, dipshit! It’s a car!”

     “It’s a chamber pot,” I said into my cell phone. “That’s what was in the trunk. She was driving through town yesterday and spotted it on someone’s porch with a fern growing out of it. She bought it on the spot. Says it goes back to the Civil War. Valuable? Hell, I don’t know. Maybe Jefferson Davis crapped in it. Look, Dave, there’s something I need for you to do…”

     The county impound yard was just a fenced-off area in the back lot of a local towing company. I’d snagged the keys to a sharp-looking Lincoln Continental and settled down to keep watch over the Buick.

     Just around dusk I heard a metallic rattle. That would be the chain blocking the exit. A few more minutes and I saw a hunched figure creep up to the Buick.

     I flipped on the headlights and stepped out of the car. “Hold it right there, missy,” I said.

          If Amelia Witherspoon was surprised, she hid it well. She turned to me and squinted against the glare. “Sergeant? I certainly didn’t expect to see you here.”

     “I wish I could say the same.” When she stood silent I said, “Yeah. I knew you’d be here.” Still no reply. “Don’t you want to know how I knew?”

     She shrugged. “Not, really, but you’re going to tell me anyway, so go ahead.”

     “When we talked earlier, I referred to the car as your father’s, and you didn’t correct me. I didn’t know it was stolen at the time, of course.”

     “Brilliant,” she said. “You got me.”

     “So, is there really an Amelia Witherspoon, or did you just make her up?”

     “Oh, there’s a real Amelia. I left her tied to a chair in her hotel room.”

     “Not a very nice thing to do.”

     “I left the TV on to keep her company.” She smiled. “Oprah and Dr. Phil.”

     “That’s just sick. So… What’s she look like?”

     “Tall and gangly,” said the unreal Amelia. “Sort of a nerd girl. Not your type.”

     “Let me be the judge of that. What’s your story?”

     “My real name is Emily Watermouse. I’m an unofficial agent for a collector down in Houston. He got wind of the Buick and asked me to see if I could get it for him. He’s always liked Buicks.

     “I couldn’t get close to it myself, but I’d seen Witherspoon around and I knew he was a friend of Muncie’s. Kidnapping his daughter was just a little gentle persuasion.”

     “Why are you telling me this? You know I’ll use it against you. And what the hell kind of name is Watermouse?”

     “It’s Anglo-Lithuanian,” said Amelia/Emily. “And I’m telling you this because you’ll never prove a word of it. I never use my real name, and when I leave here, I’ll fade back into the gray market and you’ll never find me.”

     “Fade? Hardly.” I pulled out the handcuffs and started over to her. “Hold still, you’re under arrest. And don’t kick me in the nuts, that’s already been tried – hey, come back here!”

     With a little wave she’d started across the lot at a jog. I started after her before my two closest friends reminded me of what they’d been through earlier that day. “Halt!” I shouted. “Stop, dammit!”

     She did stop. “You want me? Come and get me.”

     I shuffled closer to her and she turned and ran another ten yards. “Is that the best you can do? Come on, I’m right here.”

     “Don’t taunt me a second time!” I spluttered. “I’ll have your ass for resisting arrest, and, and anything else I can think of!”

     “Oooh, tough guy,” she said, scampering out of reach. “You run like a girl, Sarge.”

     I pulled my service piece and said, “Now that’s enough! You stop right there or I’ll shoot!”

     “What, you’re gonna admit to all your pals that you couldn’t catch me? You’re not gonna shoot.”

     “I’ll shoot you just to shut your damn mouth! Now hold still!”

     She blew me a kiss and ran for the entrance. As she passed the last row of cars a shadow loomed up from behind an old Charger. He threw a beefy arm across her chest and hip-checked her legs out from under her. She landed on her back and all the air went out of her with a whoosh.

     Dave quickly rolled her on her chest and planted a knee in her back. By the time I made it he had the cuffs on her and was pulling her to her feet.

     By then she’d gotten her wind back. “Police brutality!” she shouted. “I’ll have both your badges for this, then I’ll sue and retire to Key West, you motherfuckers!”

     I laid a finger across her lips. “You have the right to remain silent. Use it.” Dave’s ears were beet red. I guess he wasn’t used to young ladies using such harsh language. “Nice tackle. You play football in school?”

     “No sir,” he said. “But I used to bulldog steers at my dad’s place in Cotton Valley.”

     God bless corn-fed country boys.

     We delivered Watermouse to the jail and went to the hotel to spring the daughter. Watermouse was right – she was no looker. She seemed to take a shine to Dave, though, so I left him there to take her statement and headed on.

     I drove slowly through the night, headlights boring a tunnel lined with pine trees in the darkness. The case was just about wrapped up, and I still had a few hundred words to work with, so there was no need to rush, especially after all the running around I’d done.

     I could see from the road that the overhead light was on in Claggett’s barn. I pulled over to the shoulder and hiked the last quarter mile.

     As soon as I stepped inside I could hear someone futzing around in the hay. I strolled over and waited. A few minutes later Bryon staggered out from behind the pile lugging a bale, his uniform soaked with sweat.

     “Bryon?” I said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

     He froze and stared at me, the gears in his head churning furiously to come up with a story I would accept. “I, uh, I thought I’d come back up and look for clues-”

     “Cut the bullshit,” I said. “It was you, huh? Hell, I expected to find old Claggett.”

     He dropped the bale and fumbled at his holster. I heaved a sigh. “Just tell me what happened, okay?”

     For a moment I thought he would burst into tears. “I pulled over mister Witherspoon just down the road,” he said. “Before I could even get out of my cruiser he came flying over. He offered me a thousand dollars if I helped him hide the car. After he told me what was in the trunk, well, I knew I had to have it.”

     He wasn’t joking. “What, exactly, did he say it was?”

     “An urn,” Bryon said reverently. “An urn containing the ashes of Bonnie and Clyde.”

     I opened my mouth but couldn’t find anything to say.

     “Back when my grandpa was a kid they hid out at his dad’s place for a month or two before they were killed. You should have heard the way he talked about them. He used to take me by the place where they died. You know the police didn’t even try to arrest them? Just gunned them down. He’d always spit when he showed me where it was.”

     I didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d killed a man over an antebellum shitter, so I said, “What happened to Witherspoon?”

     Bryon hung his head. “I didn’t figure mister Claggett would be cutting hay this early in the year, so I led Witherspoon up here to stash his car. When we got here I pulled my gun and told him I was taking the urn. He jumped me, fought like a demon. It was him or me. You know how that turned out. I thought maybe someone heard the shot, so I hid the urn and took off.”

     Witherspoon died fighting for his daughter’s life. Against a younger, stronger man armed with a pistol. I was beginning to like him.

     “Well, come on,” I said. “We still have quite a bit to do tonight.” I started walking and he fell in beside me.

     “Where are we going?” he asked.

     “Jail, Bryon. It’s death for Bonnie and Clyde, but I expect you’ll get life.”

     He didn’t answer, and we walked into the dark in silence.


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