Another chapter from an Eddie Hummel detective story

Interview With a Paranoid 80-Year-Old

Nursing Home, Moses Lake, Washington

Toni Filmore’s room was a cross between a hospital and a cheap motel. The neatly-made hospital bed and call button matched the stark-white handicapped-accessible bathroom, but the room’s walls were beige and she had a small balcony with a sagebrush view. There was a cheap dressing table, a worn leather recliner, and a battered old rolltop desk with a telephone and, surprisingly, a new Hewlett Packard desktop computer. Bright tropical fish, almost three-dimensional, lazed across the monitor screen, adding a touch of colorful life to the room.

She grunted her way into the recliner and nodded at the swivel desk chair. “My daddy’s. This is all the furniture I own anymore.”

“Pretty fancy computer,” I said.

“I ain’t too old to learn new things! And I get tired of these old bags around here. Them chat rooms out there on the internet is hot stuff! Them guys on there don’t have to know how old I am. What are you grinning at?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Not a thing.”

“Better not be! “ She lay back and looked me over. “So you ain’t a cop. I can’t believe Mildred would spend the money.”

“Were you expecting the cops?”

“The cops are like the mills of the gods. They grind slow, but they show up sooner or later. I ain’t surprised Jenny’s parents are yapping about her being gone and them not knowing where. But she’s a grown woman now. Growner than I was when I went to Missoula with that card player.” She chuckled hoarsely. “Dad’d of shot him if he caught us. Before he could, that card player got cold feet and caught him a night Pullman to Chicago. Last time I ever saw him. He never even spent a nickel to send me a postcard. Guess he thought the Pinkertons would track him down if he did.”

“Did your nephew ask if his daughter has been to see you this week?”

“I told him to mind his own business. She’s grown, like I said. I can’t believe Mildred went along with hiring you, she’s such a tightwad. If she’s changed her spots so about money, maybe her daughter better worry about her instead of the other way around! It ain’t natural for a tightwad to change. Now what are you grinnin’ at?”

“You remind me of the women in my family,” I said.

“Huh! I never ate grits in my life, and ain’t going to. You think that’s funny, too?”

“Now you remind me of a lady I know in Seattle.”

“How would a man in your line know any ladies?”

“Just lucky, I guess. So you knew Jennifer took off without notifying her parents?”

“Did I say that?”

“Not exactly. Has she been visiting you this week?”

“Now why should I tell you if I won’t even tell family?”

“Look: I’ve got a tentative ID on Jennifer as staying at a local motel this week. Her car was seen here. If it wasn’t her, it was somebody pretending to be her. Do you know Michelle Romney?”

The old woman blinked, then stared off across the sagebrush outside.

“Aunt Toni?” I said finally.

“I ain’t your ant.”

“Sorry. It’s a term of respect where I come from. Was it Michelle who came to see you? Pretending to be Jennifer?”

“Why would anyone pretend that?”

“Because they’re trying to run a scam on a confused old woman to get the lowdown on that family skeleton in the closet?”

She was stung. “Nobody’s scamming me, unless it’s you. Ronnie told me about this.” She refolded her newspaper and placed one broad, arthritic finger on one of the stories. It was a three-paragraph wire-service account of the Nisqually shooting, Dunn identified only as a serviceman from Maryland. “Ronnie just thinks he hired you. What the hell does he know about Eddie Hummel? Only that you were recommended by somebody who owes this family favors. He don’t know shit about who in this family you owe, or what.”

“I’m not following you.”

“You’re a hired gun,” she said flatly.

“It was self-defense.”

“That’s what my granddaddy always said. And he was sure as hell a hired gun. Over in Montana in the last range wars. How he made his grubstake. Always plead ’em self-defense, he told me. He was good though. And he had the right friends greased. None o’ this spaghetti Western lone gunslinger shit.”

“You’ve got a colorful family history,” I said. “Your nephew told me about the English war bride, too.”

Her face tightened up. “We don’t know she was ever a bride. She shoulda been. So you admit you asked Ronnie about Deborah?”

“I didn’t know to ask. But he told me. Two Jeff Juniors, the whole bit.”

“Two Jeff Juniors my ass. I ain’t afraid of no hired gun, don’t think I am. Nor of nothing else, either. I’m too damn old to be afraid.”

“What’s there to be afraid of?”

“The truth, if you’re a lifelong liar.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“You damn well do. My brother Jeff and that bitch he married are liars, and worse. Think I don’t remember when they borrowed them garden tools back in 1946? To plant a garden, so they said! Then left town in the dead of night and never came back. Daddy had to go get them tools himself.” Her eyes began to tear up. “Daddy saw where they’d been digging in the side yard, but he didn’t get it. Nobody did, back then. But I do now.”

She took a heavy key out of a voluminous pocket of her robe. “Look under the bed and hand me out that strong box.”

I had to kneel to reach it. It was black-painted steel, a little larger than her computer tower but a whole lot heavier. The padlock that secured the welded latch looked bulletproof.

“Put it on the bed,” she said. The springs sagged under the weight. “Now stand back.” She opened the lock and fumbled inside, shielding the contents with her considerable bulk. “This is what you’re really after. You can tell whoever hired you that yes, I’ve got it.” She handed me a yellowed and much-creased sheet of stationery. A letter dated June 20,1946, in a feminine, flowing hand:

My Dear Mother,

If I may presume to call you that. In reference to the photographs of the babe and myself, yes, by all means show them to Geoffrey, if you think he will be interested, but in any case I will let the decision rest with you.

I shall never forget my very first attempt writing to you, while Geoffrey still was here. It took me almost a week of untold agonies trying to make the letter read as if it were sent by a sane person. Supposing you did not write to acknowledge me, what a ghastly position I would be in; dear mother, I am the type of girl that counts her blessings very carefully indeed, right down to the smallest.

I recently received a parcel from my dear Toni, a wonderful cake, and some knitting wool. I look forward to thanking her in person for being so kind. Is there anything here in England you, or Toni, would like to have? If so please do not hesitate one moment about asking me. Any little thing, let me know and I can bring it with, together of course with your grandson, so you can see he is growing up as he should.

Oh, bye-the-bye, in the letter you stated, should I arrive there at a late hour, I was to ask at the travelers aid to obtain a local driver to take us to the Filmore ranch. How grand that sounds, like a Western movie! Love, Deborah and Geoff Jr.

“Now give it back,” Toni Filmore said.

She lifted her right hand out of the strong box. There was a gun in it. A long-barreled antique Smith & Wesson that must be older than she was, if authentic. She rocked the hammer back to full cock like she’d been handling firearms all her life.

“For Christ’s sake!” I said.

“I ain’t kidding. Hand it over. Easy like. This Schofield .45 will put bigger holes in you than you put in Alex.”

Alex? She took the letter with the tender care of an acolyte handling the mysteries. The big gun never wavered. Alex?

“I didn’t know nursing-home inmates went armed,” I said, for something to say.

“Now, don’t get your professional pride all bruised because an old bag like me got the drop on you. I had good training from my granddaddy. You can tell whoever sent you that I got this letter. But I ain’t going to give it up to any hired gun.” She was holding the letter next to the gun.

“If that’s a Schofield, it’s black powder,” I said. “The cylinder side-flash is liable to light off that dry old paper.”

“Nice try. If it does, you won’t be around to worry about it.”

“For Christ’s sake!” I seemed to be repeating myself. My brain was congealed around one word: Alex. Had Ronald Filmore told her Dunn’s name? Why would he?

“That letter is from the woman who should have been my sister-in-law that I never got to meet,” Toni Filmore said. “Poor Deborah. Poor Junior. When Jeff and that Kansas whore did Deborah in, they as good as murdered Junior too.”

“Which Junior?”

“The only one there ever was,” she said grimly. “They say he killed himself last November 11. He was fifty-three years old and never had a night’s peace since he was four. Because of what they did in that garden back then. His shrink said he finally couldn’t take it anymore. I say they had him killed to shut him up after her therapy got him beginning to remember. Murdered by some hired gunsel like you. If I thought it was you I’d drop you right where you stand.”

She seemed to have lost her grip on reality. I couldn’t focus on anything but the yawning muzzle of her Schofield.

“I never knew about this last letter from Deborah,” Toni Filmore said. “I found it in Mama’s things after she died in 1983. If I knew about this letter I could have figured it out long ago. Mama died still bitter because Deborah stopped writing her. Now I know she was expecting Deborah to come over here, no wonder she was so bitter. Deborah would never have just left Mama wondering. She was an English lady!”

“Who exactly am I supposed to tell you’ve got this letter?”

“Whoever hired you to come snooping. The cops will get it eventually. And all the evidence.”

“Your nephew hired me. To find his daughter. That’s all.”

“Fine, stick to your story. But I got the proof when somebody official wants to see it.”

“Who’d want to see it?”

“The cops eventually. I’ve got plenty of proof about both killings, Deborah and Junior’s. I ain’t giving none of it to you. Them that hired you would bury it like my brother and his whore buried poor Deborah. You tell ’em I’ll give the proof to the cops when they finally show up. All the proof. Now just get up and march right on out of here.”

“I’m getting up,” I said. “Take it easy with that antique!”

“You sure lost your polite Southern ways quick, talking about antiques around me.” The long barrel tipped up, following my breastbone as I rose.

“I’m going, okay?”

“Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.”

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.