When Cletus J. Diggs' buddy Jasper drops by to tell him how Foreman James, the crazy but (until now) harmless man walking the streets of Old Mill was accosting pedestrians on the street, nearly got picked up by the sheriff, and drew the attention of one of the most powerful, and potentially evil men in ten country miles, Jarrod Pope, Cletus is interested. You see, Cletus found a book that day - a very old book - and it has bits and pieces of a very personal, very dark mystery tucked into its weathered pages.
Can Cletus, investigator, common-law lawyer, journalist, ordained minister and self-taught jack of all trades unravel that mystery despite the years that separate him from it before something very bad happens? Will Jasper ever get to go fishing? Will Foreman get his book back - and just what happened, decades in the past, when the old peanut oil factory burned down - the Day Jarrod Pope was a hero? Find out in the pages of The Crazy Case of Foreman James - the second Cletus J. Diggs supernatural mystery. Welcome to Old Mill.
"Old Mill, NC, is the sort of place where nothing seems untoward - but dig a little and you'll find all manner of hidden secrets, dark occurrences in the past and no end of quietly simmering feuds... A great read, with a few clever twists, and the help of a certain Swamp witch along the way, ensure you won't tire of turning these pages."– Darren Pulsford - Fox Spirit Publishing
Foreman James was a special child. That's what his momma told him, and he heard it sometimes in church, or outside the market. Foreman didn't feel special, but he knew he wasn't the sharpest arrow in the quiver—which was something his aunt Ida told him when no one was around. She also said that a well-aimed arrow could do fine, sharp or dull. That being the case, he supposed if all those smart people said he was special, it must be so.
When Josiah White offered him a job sweeping up around the peanut oil factory, he was happy to have it. If at no other time, he felt special in his work shirt and boots, pushing shells off the work floor or carrying out boxes and bags to be hauled to the dump and burned.
He took his money home to his mother, who worked long hours at the cotton mill for too little pay. He didn't make much, but every little bit helped. His mother had told him that his daddy went north to find work, but that he'd come home one day. Still, things had been tight. That was what his mother said. Foreman didn't know what she meant, exactly, though he had some jeans that were too tight, and that hurt when he wore them, so he understood that tight wasn't good. No matter what happened, there was always food on the table, and he had a warm place to sleep. There were others Foreman knew who were not so lucky.
The men who worked at the peanut oil factory were a rough bunch. Foreman kept his distance whenever possible…they usually didn't hurt him, but they could be mean. The factory provided very little in the way of entertainment, and they took their laughs where they could get them.
"You just keep to yourself and do your work," his momma said. "Don't pay them no mind. Lord knows they wouldn't know what to do with it."
It helped that he genuinely liked to do things with his hands and to be busy. He liked to eat his apple and bread down beside the huge old oak down by the river…and he liked the way he felt important when he stood in line to pick up his pay each Friday. He always carried it very carefully straight home, and when he handed that money to his momma, he felt like he mattered.
Foreman was a quiet boy, and he tried, whenever possible, to melt into the background. Sometimes he saw and heard things. People didn't notice him, and as often as not, even if they did see him, they dismissed him without a thought.
"He's as simple as a Billy Goat," they'd say. "He wouldn't remember his name if it wasn't sewn on his shirt."
And a lot of times it was true. He had a hard time concentrating on things outside his Ettal routine. If he went to the market he had to have a written list. If they gave him a new job at the factory, it often took him several days to commit the new steps of his schedule to memory. Still, he was steady and hard-working. Once he had a thing set in his mind, he didn't forget.
It didn't bother him that things came hard. His momma had once told him it was a blessing. Most folks went through life fretting over things that he never gave a second thought to. He reckoned it must be true, because not fretting over things he couldn't remember came natural to him. He liked to keep to himself, and he liked others to keep to themselves.
It was a day like that, a day when he was working quietly behind the large peanut oil vats that he overheard Jarrod Pope talking to Billy White. Jarrod was a big man, with a very red face. Foreman didn't like him because every time the man came near he got a big grin on his face that had no humor behind it. Jarrod was foreman at the plant—his father, Josiah, owned it, along with half the county.
Jarrod liked to smack Foreman on the back hard enough to hurt while pretending the two were friends. He would take Foreman's hat, throw trash where Foreman had just cleaned up, and ask questions about Foreman's mother that made him feel like he'd turned as red as Jarrod himself.
This day, Jarrod didn't see him, nor did Billy. They were leaned in close to one another and talking excitedly.
Foreman tried not to listen. He didn't want to know what they were talking about. If they caught him, they'd accuse him of eavesdropping. If they were talking about a woman, Foreman would blush and likely bang into something and give himself away. He wished they would just go back to work.
"I'm telling you," Jarrod said, "that is one hot little lady. You should have seen her. Hell, I tried to tell her I couldn't do that to Jake, but she wouldn't listen. She was all over me."
"That don't sound like Alice," Billy said. "Hell, Jarrod, I've known her since she was six. She's been with Jake since high school. Besides, I thought you had eyes for Mandy Winslow."
"You calling me a liar, Billy?" Jarrod asked.
"You know I'm not," Billy said. "It's just I know Jake—I like him. And Alice has always been—well—just Alice, you know? You say a thing happened, it happened…"
"Keep that in mind," Jarrod said. Then, after a pause, "But you may be right about that Mandy. Caught her giving me the eye just today."
Foreman noticed how the man's voice changed when he asked this. Foreman knew Alice. She was one of the ladies down at the market. She was always friendly, and Foreman knew from listening to his mama talk that Jake, Alice's husband, farmed a small plot just south of town.
Foreman frowned. He didn't know what it meant to be "all over" someone, but he knew it must be bad. Only things that hurt or upset people made Jarrod laugh like that, and only something very wrong would make Billy talk back to his friend. Again, he wished the two of them would just go back to work.
Foreman remained very still, and eventually the two men walked off in separate directions. Foreman returned to his sweeping, hoping it didn't take him long to forget.
Cletus J. Diggs pulled in to the Quick-Stop and cut the engine. It was going on noon, and he'd already put in a full day. The court over in Hertford had been in session since early morning, and Cletus had pulled double duty, standing for his buddy Jasper as common law attorney on a misdemeanor hunting on private property charge and covering the DUI trial of a local politician for the paper.
A lot of work had gotten done, but Cletus was ready for a twelve-pack of something cheap and cold and WWE Smackdown on the tube. There was only so much a man could be expected to do in one day.
Old Mill was what you'd find in the dictionary if you looked up sleepy little town. The Quick-Stop served as the redneck version of a 7-Eleven. Three stop lights away the road wound on back to Highway 17, past the Hess Station that provided beer and gas to the other end of town.
In between there was a small post office, a pair of antique stores, a hardware store and a garage that was closed as often as it was open. There was nothing earth-shattering going to happen in Old Mill, and that was fine. There were at least five churches, a couple of dozen historical homes, the burned ruin of the old lodge house down by the river, and the park.
The sight of that place always gave Cletus a cold chill. He had been inside while it burned, and only just escaped with mind, body and sanity intact. It reminded him that, no matter how quiet the place might seem, and might actually be—it had a history. America doesn't have many really old places, but Old Mill, North Carolina—tucked up against the depths of The Great Dismal Swamp—was one.
This day Cletus was occupied with other matters, and twelve of them were waiting for him in the cooler at the back of the Quick-Stop.
He climbed out of his truck and stretched. He saw that the sheriff's car was parked in the corner of the lot, and he checked quickly to be sure he didn't have any empties in his truck bed. He knew he should probably glance at his license plate to be sure he'd remembered to pay his registration, but he didn't want to draw attention.
He needn't have worried. Sheriff Bob was inside, leaning on the counter and sipping strong, black coffee—probably stronger and older than was wise. Cletus spotted him through the window and waved. Bob nodded, but made no move away from the counter. Cletus started forward, skirting the edge of the gas pumps and headed for the door.
He didn't make it. Just as he passed the pumps, a loud, sonorous voice rolled around the corner and he stopped. The hesitation was a mistake. He knew that voice, and he knew his only escape lay in making for the door before he was seen.
By the time he got his legs moving, a tall black man in army fatigues and a blue baseball cap rounded the corner and fixed him with a steely glare.
"Yea-yah!" the man cried.
"Hey, Foreman," Cletus said. He kept moving, hoping he might make the door before it was too late. No such luck.
Foreman stepped between Cletus and the door and raised one hand in a peace sign that looked anything but peaceful.
"She wo're MAH WIFE!" the big man said.
"That's cool," Cletus said. He slipped to one side and angled for the door.
"They said ah KILLED her." Foreman insisted, moving closer. His voice was a deep, booming thing that could have put most loudspeaker systems to shame.
Foreman was tall. If he bathed, it wasn't regularly. He always moved too close to whoever he talked to, and it was impossible to know if he understood how uncomfortable it made others. His size, and his unnerving, unwavering stare, had been known to send strangers stumbling and running for cover.
Cletus felt bad for Foreman. As big as the man was, he suffered his share of ridicule from the local kids. Sometimes they followed behind him and threw things, or ran up to try and steal his hat.
No one seemed to know Foreman's whole story. He always wore the fatigues, and as he walked through the town, he stood straight and tall. It gave people the impression he might have been a veteran, but Cletus knew that Foreman had lived near Old Mill all of his life. There was no military service in his past, whatever the explanation for the bearing and the clothing. Walking every day in all forms of weather had worn away any sense of age—Foreman might have been thirty-five, or sixty. He was tall and solid, but difficult to nail down in a description.
In any case, Cletus didn't have the time or inclination to dwell on it.
"See you, Foreman," he said, brushing past the man and pushing through the door of the Quick-Stop with a quick exhaled breath of pure relief. Foreman didn't follow. One glare from Sheriff Bob stopped him in his tracks. As often as not, Foreman got kicked out of any establishment he invaded. He wasn't good for business, and he rarely bought anything more than a cup of coffee.
The door closed behind Cletus, and he leaned against it for a second, getting his mind straight. Bob smiled and raised his coffee.
"Hey, Cletus," he said. "You and your buddy reminiscing out there?"
Cletus frowned. He ignored Bob and headed for the back wall and the beer. The Quick-Stop had an odd assortment. They had cheap, low-end beer, specialty brews with lime and other odd additives, Lite, light, and lighter and some new crap claiming only 64 calories per can.
Cletus grabbed a twelve-pack of Busch. The Quick-Stop was expensive, but the only other option was the Food Lion over in Hertford. Most folks paid the extra money rather than make the drive.
"Planning a party?" Bob asked.
"Party of one," Cletus said. "I got Smackdown on the VCR, and it's been a long day."
Bob nodded, distracted.
"Wonder what that guy's story is?" he said. He nodded out the window to where Foreman still stood, legs in a wide "V," hands folded over his chest. It was like he was standing guard over the town.
Cletus followed Bob's gaze, then shook his head.
"No idea. I could write a book where every chapter was a different story someone told me. Wish he didn't have to stalk me every time I come here."
Bob didn't say anything for a moment.
"Damn shame," he said at last. "Doesn't seem to have a friend in the world. Never sees his family; walks into town every day, alone, and then back home again."
Cletus paid for his beer. He'd never thought much about Foreman's situation. He'd been too caught up in trying to avoid the guy and his booming repetitive story.
"Guess you're right," he said. "Never paid that much attention to him, truth be told. I think he lives out near the edge of town, but now that I think about it, I couldn't tell you exactly where."
"Maple and Old Carolina," Bob said. "I've had to take him there more than once. He lives with an aunt. Skinny woman works down at the nursing home. You don't see her in town much, and if you did, you wouldn't take much notice."
Cletus frowned. It didn't seem like much of a life for a man. He'd already felt bad for not knowing anything about Foreman's past. The last thing he needed was to learn that it was even worse than he'd thought.
"Jesus, Bob," he said. "How do they get by?"
"The way I heard it," Bob said, "she inherited the house and some money. Foreman sweeps sidewalks and does some cleaning. If you ignore his 'show' and insist on it, you can get the man to talk."
"I'll be damned," Cletus said. "Maybe one of these days I'll do that. Could be I could get the whole story out of him. Too tired today."
He took his beer and turned back toward the door. Through the window he saw that Foreman was moving away down the street. He waited until he was sure the man wouldn't turn back, and then said goodbye to Bob and stepped outside.
The sun had started to drop toward the rooftops on River Road. Cletus started across the parking lot toward his truck, and then stopped. Something glinted in the slanting rays of sunlight, and he glanced down to see what it was. On the ground was a black, folded book with a brass clasp. Cletus leaned down and picked it up.
The initials J. P. were etched into the metal. He held it up and frowned. It had looked like any diary when he spotted it—now he saw that it was old. He had the impression it had been carried a lot of miles in someone's pocket.
Cletus glanced around. No one was in sight. He considered going back in and leaving the thing with Bob, or with Louis, the old guy who owned the Quick-Stop. Then he glanced down at it again, and tucked it into his pocket. He could give it a look while he polished off the beer. It was probably just a travel log some trucker used to track his mileage, or a notebook shopping list. Whoever lost it might want it back enough to offer a reward.
Cletus turned out of the parking lot onto the main drag and drove slowly through town. He took a left onto 17. Before long he turned down the narrow, twisting lane that led back to his trailer. As he took the final turn, he slowed to a stop, climbed out, and checked his mail. Beneath the box a long string of wooden placards dangled. Reverend Diggs. Common Law Attorney. Licensed, bonded Auctioneer. There were half a dozen more, reaching almost to the ground.
Cletus had credentials, business cards, IDs and records to back up the claims of every one of those narrow strips of wood. He had more mail order degrees than the swamp had catfish, according to his buddy Jasper.
He just liked playing the odds. He figured the chances of his eating, drinking, and paying the bill for his satellite TV and Internet were better the more business opportunities he was able to tackle. It was also pretty common for him to pick up an investigating job, represent one or the other party legally, preside over the next marriage and/or funeral and write about it for one of the tabloids. Life in Old Mill could be complicated, for all its simplicity.
He sorted through the mail quickly. There were several junk ads, credit card companies spending millions on direct mail programs that Cletus liked to point out as fiscal irresponsibility.
"If they think that's a good outlet for that kind of cash," he'd told his buddy Jasper, "I guess I don't need to ask why they need twenty-seven percent interest."
There were a few bills and a couple of checks from The Weekly Globe. Nothing of particular significance, and that suited him fine. He wasn't looking for a new challenge at that moment.
He climbed back into the truck, drove the few hundred feet to the trailer, parked, and climbed out, the beer dangling from one hand. Without a backward glance at the world, he unlocked the door and disappeared inside.
Cletus' home doubled as an office and research facility. In one corner his old wooden desk sat with the computer on top. Most of the surface of the desk was clear—it was where he worked. The same could not be said for the rest of the place. Every available surface was piled high with folders, books, magazines and clippings.
Cletus didn't entertain much. When he did, they cleared his old couch and gathered in front of the big screen. There was plenty of room to sit, and as Jasper always commented, the way was "clear to the beer."
Cletus put the twelve-pack in his refrigerator. Before he closed the door, he yanked one out and took it, along with the strange old diary, back to his desk. He sat down, popped the top on the beer, took a long swallow and flipped open the shiny metal clasp.
The leather was old and worn, but in surprisingly good condition. It looked as if it might have been rubbed with saddle soap. The pages were yellowed and stiff, but intact. Cletus rubbed a page between his fingers. He thought there was a high linen content in the paper. As old as it was, it must have been fairly expensive when it was new.
The name just inside the front cover stopped Cletus cold.
"Jarrod Pope" was scrawled across the page in bold script. "From your father, on your graduation."
Cletus sat back for a minute. Jarrod Pope was one of the most powerful men in the area. His family had grown cotton since before the Civil War. In more recent years they'd parceled out their land and gotten into the seedier side of real estate. Hardly a week went by that Cletus didn't see one of the Popes down at the courthouse answering charges as slum lords, or seeking an eviction notice and an officer with the balls to serve it down on the poor side of town.
Jarrod was the worst of them. He was in his late fifties, barrel-chested with a too-red face, jowls that dangled near to his collar. He spoke with a booming, arrogant voice that was seldom silent.
It was nearly impossible for Cletus to imagine the man carrying a personal journal. Hell, it was hard believing the rednecked jerk could write.
Cletus turned the page and started to read. At first all he found was a series of dates, times, and figures. He found an entry where Jarrod had met with his buddy, Billy-Bob, back in the days when Billy-Bob hadn't been too old for the nickname to sound ridiculous.
Then things shifted. There was a last entry that looked like an appointment. It turned out to be a date. There was a woman's name penned carefully next to an address and a time. Mandy Winslow was the name. It meant nothing to Jarrod, but he noted that the script was cleaner at this point, less scribbled and more precise.
"Must've been a hot date," Cletus said, chuckling.
He downed the first beer, got up, and retrieved another from the refrigerator. He tried to imagine himself going to visit Jarrod, returning the book, and telling the man he found it in the Quick-Stop parking lot. Cletus didn't know much about Jarrod Pope's social life, but if that man had set foot in the Quick-Stop in the last decade, Cletus would've eaten his hat. It just made no sense. That meant either someone had stolen the book, which could mean a reward, or that someone else entirely had dropped it.
Cletus took another long sip of beer and flipped through the pages. He came to one that was different from those that had come before it. There was a full entry, like an actual diary page. He read the first lines, frowned, and then his eyes opened very wide.
In the same bold script as the remainder of the book, Cletus read.
"She was my wife. They said I killed her…"