When The Last leaves Fall (~chapter nine~)

*This is a short companion story to the novel The Reputation of Booya Carthy.
It may contain spoilers apropos to the original story.



As soon as he was within sight of the Oxford Garden Hotel, Hunter could see that the tall English gentleman was waiting outside, standing close to the curb and the cars buzzing by. Bobbing up and down on his heels, he was staring long at each car that passed, assessing those inside, and then on to the next. A few of the locals passing by were wearing something close to apposite attire as the Englishman, but none looked quiet so well fitted and clean. Standing tall and pale, he stood out like the president at a southern rally. Hunter saw that the Englishman had a hand in one pocket, holding something in the other.

With his window already lowered to let the breeze blow out some of the humid air, Hunter pulled up alongside the Englishman, staring in at him. He saw the gold chain of a pocket watch leading into the waistcoat pocket. There were few places in any city in the country where a man could stand in the street the way that the Englishman was, advertising his wealth about him, no matter who he was.

The Englishman handed the cup that he’d been holding through the window. ‘There’s your coffee,’ he said. ‘Follow me.’ He turned and walked to a car a few paces away, a black Buick.

With the coffee gone in a sip, Hunter was happy to keep with the pace that the Englishman was driving at, not the usual way that he drove when heading to a job. If it wasn’t for the car in front, there was no way that he would corner at the speed the Englishman was. More than once the Buick skidded sideways, making use of the entire width of the road before powering onward. Hunter could see the figure jolting around as the car sped over mounds in the road. He noticed the faces of the folks out for a drive as the bulking black monster roared past them.

Within the hour, the car in front had slowed, breezing alongside the river, past ponds and flowering shrubs, past the town sign dotted with Magnolia leaves that welcomed them to Honahee. For a southern town, this was one of the prettiest that Hunter had seen. As they cruised onward, he saw honeysuckle and clematis growing up the front of the wooden buildings. People stopping to talk to each other as they passed; children hoop-trundling down the street, folks steeping out of their way with a smile and a pat on the head. A bunch of people were gathered outside a local store, Huck’s Place. Some were sitting on the steps of the porch, others in the street; some with frowns punctuated with quizzical expressions, others laughing behind their hands or openly smiling. With the sound of fife and drums, whatever band they were watching was sure making a hullabaloo.

Hunter wasn’t certain what expression crossed over his face when he saw a strange-looking little fella marching along, weaving through the crowd in time to the shrill sound he was blowing. There was a little lady standing nearby, barefoot, kicking a floor drum and rapping on a snare, her long dark hair jumping around her. He looked for the rest of the band, but could see no one else accompanying them. The Englishman was heading onward towards some taller, brick buildings. With a last glance at the street musicians and the entertained crowd, Hunter followed.

In the centre of the square of buildings, they skirted around a tree. The bright flora around the base of the tree could not disguise the ominous presence of the dark, twisted trunk. Redemption Square, a little plaque said. In a little southern town, the undertone of such a centrepiece required little explanation.

Beyond the far side of the buildings was like travelling into an entirely different town. The fronts of the buildings, also wooden on this side, were in disrepair. To fit into anything like the same town as they had driven through, it was desperate for gentrification. Fitting with the abundant divide, there were men lying in street outside juke-joints and bars; he saw a couple of men arguing, pushing each other, a girl grabbing at one of them; mangy-looking dogs were scavenging dropped morsels, their litter dotting the road; shifty stares on scowling faces. The sounds of the music on this side of the town beat with dangerous, lowering tones. Hunter wondered how long the Englishman and his pocket watch would be able to stand out here before being approached. The people in this underbelly of humanity were watching as the shiny Buick slipped between two buildings and down a side street.

Away from the main street, the houses were small; but the further that they headed, the streets were once more lined with trees, flowering gardens and painted picket fences. The Buick stopped outside one, a chinaberry tree in the yard with most of its leaves littering the floor by the trunk, and the Englishman stepped out of the vehicle.

‘We must move the motorcars in a moment,’ he said, meeting Hunter in the street. ‘I wanted to show you first where we will be waiting this evening for the arrival of Helland.’

For all of that morning, now into the afternoon, Hunter had not been out of his car. With his hands on the base of his back, he leaned backwards, eyeing the drawn curtains and the dust-covered windows. ‘By the look, ain’t no one home.’

‘You’re right,’ the Englishman replied, watching down the street. ‘There hasn’t been for sometime. There was family here. Because of Jacob Helland, that family had to flee. And because of others. But mostly him. They’re lucky to be alive.’

Hunter watched the Englishman, his head turning in all directions. When he looked along the street, he saw curtains twitching. The Englishman’s hands were restless in the pockets of his smart trousers. The Englishman pulled out his pocket watch, glanced at the screen.

‘We must move soon,’ he said. ‘We’ll leave the cars further up the road, and then return.’

‘You keep saying we,’ Hunter said. For the first time the Englishman looked directly at him. ‘You ain’t gonna stay around here, are you?’

The Englishman’s lips tightened. The lines beside his eyes snaked outwards. Hunter took a half-step back. ‘For the brief time that you have been searching for the man, all I could think of is that he’ll get away. Somehow. That somehow he’ll continue to spread his violence. I did not leave the hotel in the time that you were tracking him, hopeful that you would give word of his demise. Yet I did not think that I would ever believe it. That I could never rest easy without seeing for myself that Helland has reached his demise.’ The Englishman looked away, towards the street that they had driven in upon. He looked at the house, a couple more of the last leaves falling from the tree. ‘I realised that all I wished for was to see Jacob Helland die. And this night I shall.’



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