We are happy to have Texas genre writer extraordinaire Bill Crider joining us for an evening of Lone Star Crime with Reavis Wortham and Ben Rehder. They’ll be here at the store on Monday, September 28th, at 7 PM. Bill will be reading from his latest Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery, Between The Living & The Dead. If you are not familiar with his Clearwater, Texas lawman here’s a taste from the Anthony Award winning short story he wrote with his wife. It even has a chicken fried steak recipe. Can you get more Texas?
“Chocolate Moose” by Bill and Judy Crider
“Sheriff Dan Rhodes didn’t go to the Round-Up Restaurant often, but not because the food wasn’t good. He didn’t go because the food was too good.
The portable sign out front told the story with black letters on a white background: ABSOLUTELY NO CHICKEN FISH OR VEGETARIAN DISHES CAN BE FOUND ON OUR MENU!
What could be found were huge chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes smothered in cream gravy; big, soft rolls served with real butter; cooked-to-order T-bones marbled with fat on a plate beside a gigantic baked potato slathered with real butter, sour cream, and bacon bits; hamburger steaks with grilled onions piled high, along with a mound of french-fries or, if you preferred, hand-cut and battered onion rings. And, for dessert, there was a choice of peach or cherry cobbler with vanilla ice cream on top. If you didn’t like cobbler, there was chocolate pie, with the best, the richest, the sweetest filling that Rhodes had ever tasted under its inch-thick meringue.
In other words, the Round-Up served good, solid food that stuck to your ribs, put a smile on your face, and, according to many leading physicians, filled your coronary arteries with substances whose effect on your health it was better not to think about. Which was why Rhodes rarely ate there. His wife, Ivy, had him on a low-fat regimen that was taking inches off his waistline and, she claimed, adding years to his life. As Rhodes pulled the county car into the Round-Up’s black-topped parking lot, he wished, in spite of the risk to his longevity, that he were going there to have a big slice of chocolate pie, or, failing that, maybe one of those baked potatoes. But he wasn’t. He was going to see about a man who’d been killed by a moose.
The Round-Up’s parking lot was full of people milling around and talking in the eerie light of the sodium vapor lamps. The crowd moved reluctantly out of the way as Rhodes drove the county car as close to the front door as he could get. Rhodes stopped the car and got out.
Sam Blevins was standing there waiting for him. Sam, the owner of the Round-Up, was six feet tall and thin as a ten-penny nail. Either he didn’t eat at his own restaurant or he had a better metabolism than Rhodes did. He wore a white western shirt, starched and ironed jeans and low-heeled boots.
“There wasn’t any need for you to come, Sheriff,” he said. “It was just a terrible accident.” “That’s what Hack told me,” Rhodes said. Hack was the county dispatcher, and he’d taken the call. “But since it involved Mack McAnally, I thought I’d better have a look for myself.”
Blevins nodded. “I can see why. Nobody liked Mack much.”
That was an understatement, Rhodes thought. Not only did nobody like Mack McAnally, most people in Blacklin County despised him if they knew him at all. Even people who didn’t know him despised him.
McAnally was, or had been until only a short while earlier, a bully. He had a small income from some gas wells, and he didn’t have a regular job. He spent his time working in his yard and harassing any animal that happened to stray onto his property. He had a pellet gun that he used to shoot at dogs and cats and, rumor had it, even the occasional human. When he was driving, he would sometimes swerve out of his lane in an attempt to run over a squirrel or family pet. In the local stores, he would deliberately bump into anyone he thought was in his way, including old folks on walkers. When he backed out of a parking spot, he never looked to see who might be in his way, and he’d been involved in a number of minor accidents, some of which had had legal repercussions. He attended every meeting of the Clearview city council, often arguing loudly with council members and calling them idiots or worse. But he wouldn’t be doing any of those things any longer.
Rhodes went inside the Round-Up, with Blevins at his heels.
“Where is he?” Rhodes asked.
“Right in his usual spot,” Blevins said. “He comes . . . came in three nights a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, and he always sat at the same table. One night there was somebody already there, some farm equipment salesman from out of town who didn’t know about Mack. He asked if he could sit there when Tom was seating him, and Tom just didn’t think. Mack came in and grabbed a handful of that salesman’s jacket and yanked him right out of the chair. Nearly threw him across the room and into a waitress. She dropped a tea pitcher, and I had to give the salesman a free steak to calm him down.”
You’re supposed to call them servers these days, not waitresses, Rhodes thought, but he didn’t say anything.
The Round-Up was a big building, spread-out over a large area and divided into several rooms. Rhodes didn’t know where Mack’s usual spot was. He asked Blevins to show him.
“Right through here,” Blevins said, leading the way.
Rhodes looked around as they went through the main dining room. The walls were festooned with deer antlers of all shapes and sizes. In the spaces between the antlers there were old metal advertising signs covered with images that were no longer commonly seen: Mobil’s flying red horse, an RC Cola bottle, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, Reddy Kilowatt.
There were only a few diners still seated in the room, and none of them was eating. Rhodes didn’t blame them. He doubted that they even heard the song playing on the jukebox that Blevins had stocked with decades-old country music. Hank Snow was telling the world that the gold rush was over and the bum’s rush was on.
“I’ll unplug that thing in a minute,” Blevins said. “Mack’s just around the corner.”
Rhodes and Blevins went into another room, smaller than the one they’d left, but still large. There were no diners in it, unless you counted McAnally, who was seated at a table by the wall.
Well, Rhodes thought, seated wasn’t exactly the right word. McAnally was in the chair, true, but he was also face down in a large piece of chocolate pie, held there by the moose head that had fallen from the wall.
“Got that moose up in Alaska three years ago,” Blevins said sadly, shaking his head. “He was a big ‘un.”
He certainly was, Rhodes thought. Must have weighed fifteen hundred pounds, to judge by the head and antlers, which had a spread of more than four feet. If it had fallen much farther, and if the solid wood tables in the Round-Up had been any less sturdy, the table would have collapsed to the floor.
As it was, when the head had fallen off the wall, the tremendous weight of the antlers had tilted them downward, and they had struck McAnally before the head reached him, with one of the points going right through his neck and cracking the table top slightly. The head now rested atop McAnally’s body, with most of its weight leaned against the wall.
The antlers had hooked themselves on the cord of an old Dr Pepper clock on the way down and pulled the cord out of the wall outlet. The clock was stopped at exactly eight-thirty, and McAnally had been just about finished with his dinner.
There was blood on the table, seeping into the crack, and chocolate pie filling had splashed up on the moose head. Rhodes didn’t think he wanted any pie now.
“How much do those antlers weigh?” Rhodes asked.
“About 90 pounds,” Blevins said. “It’s all my fault.”
Rhodes thought that Blevins was showing a reckless disregard of possible lawsuits, but the restaurant owner was probably on safe ground. As far as Rhodes knew, McAnally didn’t have any relatives. Nobody would claim to be his kin.
“I should have anchored that thing to the wall better,” Blevins went on. “I thought I’d done a good job, but I guess I was wrong.”
Rhodes looked around. There were other trophy heads, mostly mountain goats, affixed to the wall in this room, mixed in with more metal advertising signs that advertised things like Hadacol, Burpee’s seeds, and Red Chain feed. Everything seemed firmly in place. Rhodes was looking up at the spot where the head had pulled out of the wall when he heard the wailing of the ambulance from the Clearview Hospital.
“Go out there and ask them not to come in yet,” Rhodes told Blevins. The restaurant owner turned and left the room, his bootheels thudding on the floor. He had forgotten to unplug the jukebox, and now Don Gibson was drifting away on the sea of heartbreak.
Rhodes looked to his right. The jukebox was sitting up against the wall only about ten feet from McAnally’s table. It appeared to be a reproduction of a classic Wurlitzer, with air bubbles floating through the tubes of liquid colored by the bright lights behind the plastic panels. The bass notes thudded with an authority that Rhodes could feel through the soles of his feet, and he wondered if the sub-woofer’s vibrations could have dislodged the moose head.
Probably not. Rhodes had a look around the room. There were tables scattered here and there, but none too close to McAnally’s regular spot. Rhodes figured that Blevins had arranged things that way.
The door to the restroom was about twelve feet from McAnally’s table in the direction opposite the jukebox. There were no tables between McAnally’s regular spot and the door. It seemed like a waste of space to Rhodes but, again, he figured that Blevins had deliberately moved a table in order to give McAnally plenty of room and to keep other customers away from him.
Blevins came back in about that time, to the accompaniment of Merle Haggard, who was reminiscing about having turned twenty-one in prison.
“There’s a justice of the peace out there with the ambulance,” Blevins said. “He wants to declare Mack dead.”
“Mack can wait,” Rhodes said. “So can the j.p. I want to have a look at that wall.”
“The screws just pulled out,” Blevins said. “You can see that from here. I thought everything was fine. Heck, I grabbed hold of those horns and swung from them when I mounted that thing up there. I was sure the screws would hold.”
“Where’s your stepladder?”
“Out back,” Blevins said. “I’ll go get it.”
When Blevins was gone, Rhodes walked around to the side of the table opposite McAnally and pulled out the empty chair. Rhodes thought about standing in the chair and then getting up on the table instead of waiting for the ladder. He put a hand on the chair and tried to shake it. It seemed steady enough so, avoiding the antlers, he tried the table. When he did, he accidentally knocked over the salt shaker, which spilled a few grains out onto the table.
“Bad luck,” Rhodes said aloud, reaching for the salt shaker to set it upright.
When he moved it, he noticed a couple of shapes like elongated circles near the edge of the table where the salt shaker had been standing. There was a thickly folded paper napkin nearby. He picked up a few grains of salt and threw them over his left shoulder. He hoped that was the correct procedure. Maybe he should have thrown them over his right shoulder, but it was too late now.
He set the salt shaker upright and looked at the screws that had held the moose head to the wall. There were ten of them, heavy duty screws, at least four inches long, and they had been screwed solidly into the thick wooden wall. There was still a bit of wood stuck in the grooves near the tip. The heads of the screws showed signs of fresh silver, indicating that a screwdriver had been applied to them fairly recently.
Blevins came back with the stepladder and opened it out. It was plastic, Rhodes noticed. No chance of getting a shock if you accidentally touched a live wire with it. Rhodes climbed up on the ladder and had a look at the wall. The wood was splintered for about a quarter of an inch at the top of each hole where the sharp ends of the screws had ripped through the wood as they tore loose.
Rhodes climbed down the ladder as Johnny Cash was explaining that he didn’t like it, but he guessed things happened that way.
“Has that farm equipment salesman been around lately?” Rhodes asked.
“Not likely,” Blevins said, looking over at McAnally’s body. “Not even after that free steak I gave him.”
“What about the server?”
Blevins looked at him. “Server?”
“Waitress,” Rhodes said. “The one McAnally threw the salesman into.”
“Oh,” Blevins said. “Her name’s Julie. She was OK after a day or so. The pitcher landed on her foot, and it was pretty heavy. The pitcher, I mean. It sprained her foot pretty bad, and it left a big bruise. She thought for a while that the foot was broken, but it wasn’t. It didn’t cripple her or anything. Not permanently at least. It hurt her like hell, though.”
“What time did she come to work today?”
“She didn’t. She quit right after that. One of the best waitresses I had, but she said she didn’t want to wait on Mack ever again. I can’t say as I blame her.”
“Anybody else on your staff have a grudge against McAnally?” Rhodes asked.
Blevins looked at the man whose face rested in the chocolate pie and nodded.
“Just about all of them,” he said. “Why?”
“Because I think one of them killed him,” Rhodes said.
The Round-Up had been cleared of customers, and the moose head had been lifted away from Mack McAnally’s body and put on the floor near the table.
McAnally himself had been removed to Clyde Ballinger’s funeral home where he would be prepared for his final resting place.
There was still blood on the table, however, and the moose head was still splattered by the chocolate that had spurted up from the pie when McAnally’s face smashed into it.
And the jukebox was still playing. Blevins must have completely forgotten about it.
Tex Ritter was begging his darlin’ not to forsake him, and Rhodes was standing there looking at the restaurant’s employees.
All the servers were young women dressed in short red western-style skirts with white fringe, white shirts, red vests with white fringe, flat-crowned red western hats that they wore at a jaunty angle, and roping boots.
All the kitchen employees, cooks, and busboys were male, ranging in age from around eighteen to sixty-five. They were all dressed casually in jeans, sneakers, and cotton shirts, except for the greeter and cashier, Tom Jenks, who was wearing western garb a lot like the outfit sported by Blevins. Jenks wasn’t as thin as Blevins, who was standing next to him, however, and the western look didn’t seem quite as natural to him.
One of the servers, Frances Abbey, had been assigned to McAnally’s table that evening. She was short, with black eyes and dark hair showing under her hat. Rhodes asked if McAnally ever gave her any trouble.
“All the time,” she said. Her voice was low, almost a whisper. “He says rude things, and you can never do anything to suit him.” Her voice got stronger. “He always complains about the food and the service, and he never leaves a tip.”
Rhodes wasn’t surprised. “Did you notice anything odd about the moose head tonight?” he asked.
“Not really,” she said. She had her hands clasped tightly in front of her.
“What does that mean?” Rhodes wanted to know.
“Well, you know how it is,” she said. “It’s like, I’ve worked here for two years now. I know the moose head’s there, but I never look at it anymore. I don’t remember even looking up at it tonight.”
She shuddered slightly as if thinking about what might have happened to her if the moose head had come crashing down while she was standing by the table taking McAnally’s order.
“So you don’t know if it was tilted away from the wall?”
“No. I never noticed.”
“Did anyone notice?” Rhodes asked, addressing everyone there.
No one had. Rhodes hadn’t thought anyone would. He was sure the killer had been counting on the same thing.
Rhodes sent the servers home. He didn’t think any of them had been involved in McAnally’s death, though it was possible. On the jukebox, George Jones was explaining why his old lover thought he still cared.
When the servers had left the room, Rhodes looked over the male employees, all of whom were sitting as far as they could from McAnally’s table and looking very uncomfortable, shifting their bodies in the chairs, shuffling their feet on the floor and avoiding Rhodes’ gaze. They all looked guilty to Rhodes, all but Blevins and Tom Jenks, the cashier, who was smiling confidently. So Rhodes decided to start with him.
“What time did you close last night?” he asked Jenks.
“About ten,” Jenks said. “We never have any customers much later than that except on weekends.”
“Who closed up?”
“Well, I guess you could say I did. “Sam always clears the register, and I go around and make sure all the floors are cleaned and the doors are locked.”
“Do you have a burglar alarm?”
Jenks looked at Blevins and then back at Rhodes as if the sheriff might have taken leave of his senses.
“What for? There’s nothing in the register, and who’s gonna steal knives and forks?”
“Just wondering,” Rhodes said. “Anybody stay here late, after closing?”
“No,” Jenks said. “Everybody was gone. Sherman and Larry do the floors, Toby and Hank and Gene take care of the kitchen. When they’re done, they go home. That’s when Sam and I finish up.”
“The two of you left together last night?”
“That’s right. We went through and checked the place, like we do every night. Then we cleared out.”
“All right,” Rhodes said. “I’d like for everyone to go back to the kitchen except for Mr. Blevins.”
The employees seemed more than eager to get out of Rhodes’ sight, and they left while Eddy Arnold told the story of the Tennessee stud on the jukebox. Rhodes waited until the room was cleared and then asked Blevins whether McAnally’s table was where it always sat.
Blevins turned around and looked.
“You know,” he said, “it’s not. It’s usually a couple of feet down toward the restroom door, exactly halfway between the jukebox and the door. Do you think –?”
“That somebody moved it?” Rhodes said. “Yeah. So it would be right under the moose head. Then someone loosened the screws.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because of the way the wood’s been ripped,” Rhodes said. Those screws were just barely into the wood when the head fell. Do you use this room at noon?”
“Sure. We have a good crowd then.”
“What about McAnally’s table?”
“Well, I’ve told Tom not to seat anyone there if he doesn’t have to. Just in case Mack comes in. He does, or he did, now and then.”
“OK. So who back there is the happiest that McAnally’s dead?”
Blevins had to think about it.
“None of them liked him,” he said finally. “Tom, especially.”
“But he left with you last night.”
“That’s right. What difference does that make?”
“Whoever loosened those screws must have done it after you were gone. It wouldn’t be possible during the day. He’d have been seen. But someone could have stayed inside, maybe in the restroom, and then come out and done the job. It would be easy to get out, since there’s no alarm. You’d never know anyone had been here.”
“You’re right,” Blevins said. “Well, there’s also Larry Barnes. Mack ran over his dog a week or so ago, or so Larry claimed. Gene Fairman said that Larry spit in Mack’s mashed potatoes one night after it happened.”
“And Larry’s still working here?”
“I’m not sure he really did spit in the potatoes. In fact, I’m sure he didn’t. He and Gene don’t get along, and Gene’s always coming to me with stories and trying to get him fired.”
“Which one was Larry?” Rhodes asked.
“The short one. He was sitting right over there.”
Blevins pointed to a chair, and Rhodes said, “I don’t think he loosened the screws. Too short. Tell me about Gene.”
“He was dating Julie,” Blevins said. “Maybe he still is. He was really mad about what happened when Mack threw that salesman into her and hurt her foot. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d spit in the potatoes and blamed it on Larry.”
“Is he tall?”
“He sure is. The tallest of the bunch. Why?”
“Whoever loosened those screws stood on the table,” Rhodes said. “I’m not sure I could reach that high, and I’m six feet tall.”
“Well, Larry’s got four inches on you. But if he did it, how did he get the head to fall?”
“Let’s go to the restroom,” Rhodes said.
They walked down to the door, and Rhodes asked Blevins to open it. It opened much too easily.
“I need to check the pneumatic closer,” Blevins said. “Next thing you know, that door will be slamming shut. People don’t like that.”
“Try slamming it now,” Rhodes said.
“See what happens when you shut it as hard as you can.”
Blevins opened the door, then shoved it shut from the inside. When it hit the frame, the whole wall shuddered. He opened the door and looked out at Rhodes.
“You think that’s what did it?” he asked.
“I’d bet on it,” Rhodes said.
“Wouldn’t people notice?”
“With that moose head falling off the wall on McAnally at the very same time? Not a chance.”
“I guess you’re right,” Blevins said.
Rhodes nodded. “Probably. Let’s talk to Gene and find out.”
Gene Tobin was probably eighteen, and he was at least six-four. Maybe more. He had unruly hair and long, thin arms, that would easily have reached the highest of the screws. He wouldn’t meet Rhodes’ eye.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said when Rhodes told him what he thought.
“You probably didn’t mean to kill him,” Rhodes said. “You probably just wanted to scare him. Is that right?”
“I didn’t want to scare anybody. Or kill them, either. What are you talking about?”
“I just told you. You fixed the head so it would fall, and then you made it happen.”
“I’d be crazy to do something like that,” Larry said. “How could I know it wouldn’t hit somebody else?”
“You couldn’t,” Rhodes said. “But hardly anyone ever sat there, so you weren’t taking much of a chance. Just like you weren’t taking much of a chance that anyone would notice the moose head was leaning. And like you figured no one would notice the folded napkin you put under the mounting to keep the head as straight as possible.”
“I didn’t do any of that,” Gene said. He still wouldn’t look at Rhodes directly.
“It’s easy enough to prove you didn’t,” Rhodes said.
“Let me see the bottom of your shoe.”
“To prove you didn’t do it,” Rhodes said. “Come over here.”
Gene walked over to where Rhodes was standing, and Rhodes pointed to the top of the table where McAnally had sat.
“See those little flattened circles?” Rhodes said. “Someone put them there when he stood on this table. I think it was you. So have a seat, and we’ll take a look at your shoes.”
Gene looked down at his feet, at the pair of ragged old white Adidas shoes he was wearing. Then he turned and ran.
Rhodes wasn’t nearly as young as Gene, but he was still quick, and he caught the younger man before he got to the front door. When Gene felt Rhodes’ hand on his shirt, he quit running, as if he knew he didn’t have a chance. His thin shoulders slumped.
“I didn’t mean to kill him,” he said. “Even if he was a bastard. I just wanted to scare him, that’s all.”
By that time Blevins had caught up with them.
“The hell you didn’t mean to kill him,” Blevins said. “You moved the table, Gene, for God’s sake.”
“He won’t be wanting you for his defense attorney,” Rhodes said.
As he took Gene out to the county car for the ride to jail, Webb Pierce was wailing on the jukebox in the background, but Rhodes couldn’t quite make out the words.
World’s Best Chicken-Fried Steak
enough round steak (about a half inch thick) to cut into eight pieces
of five or six inches in diameter
3 tablespoons of milk
salt and pepper
Combine the eggs with the milk and beat the mixture with a fork. Combine the flour with the salt and pepper. Pour the oil in a heavy skillet (a big, black, well-seasoned iron skillet if you have one). The oil should be about a half inch deep. Heat the oil at a moderate to hot temperature. Dip the pieces of steak into the egg mixture and then into the seasoned flour. Shake off the excess and then dip the steak into both mixtures again. After each piece is dipped the second time, put it straight into the hot oil. Whatever you do, don’t let the coated steak sit around before you start frying it.Cook each piece of steak until the batter is crisp on the bottom side.Don’t touch it or disturb the coating. When it’s done, turn it very carefully and cook the other side. When that side’s done, take it out of the pan and drain it on a paper towel. Since chicken-fried steak is nothing without thick gravy, here’s the gravy recipe. For eight pieces of steak, you’ll probably need two cups.
2 or 3 tablespoons of cooking oil
2 or 3 tablespoons of flour
1 cup of warm milk
salt and pepper
Drain the extra oil from the skillet after you’ve fried the steak, leaving any of the crispy brown bits of the coating that might have fallen off and approximately three tablespoons of oil (two tablespoons if you want slightly thinner gravy). Add the salt and pepper and the three tablespoons of flour (or two if you want the slightly thinner gravy). Stir the mixture and cook it until the flour starts to turn brown. (Not too brown, whatever you do.) Then add the warm milk and cook and stir the mixture until it thickens. Serve the gravy over the steak and pour it on the side dish of mashed potatoes, which you should also cook. Chicken-fried steak without mashed potatoes is like a day without sunshine.