First published in the anthology, Lost and Found: Tales of Things Gone Missing, May 2019.
Corky Corcoran tried to reconcile the image of the middle-aged waitress who’d charmed him, with the bloodless teenaged killer he’d come to interview.
Corky Corcoran read the café’s reviews on Trip Advisor: 4½ stars, 125 comments, impressive for a country café in a town of 2800. “Can’t beat the salad bar.” “Don’t miss the bourbon pecan pie.” “Thursday night’s special is spaghetti and meatball. The meatball is enormous!” “Ask for Sue.” Sue was the person he’d come to find.
Corky stepped out of the Lamb’s Inn Bed and Breakfast and walked the half-mile up Highway 14 to the Hilltop Café. He paused before entering. A large room air conditioner dripped from the window space over the front door. A poster to the right advertised the Rock Valley Fair, continuing through Sunday. The sign on the left said Linda Rollinger, Proprietor. Linda was the stepsister of Andrea Moline, Caroline Sue Hardy’s one-time cellmate.
A waitress in her late-thirties greeted him. Her dark, curly hair was cropped severely short. She wore a knee-length khaki skirt and white cotton blouse with a crew neck t-shirt underneath. Corky knew from old news photos of Carolyn Sue Harding that the blouse hid tattoos on her shoulders and arms. (Against the advice of her public defender, the accused had worn black tank tops revealing the elaborate sleeve tattoos.) Her trial produced lurid headlines: Soulless Teen Strangles Rival, Murderous School Girl Shows No Remorse. But that was two decades ago.
Now she walked with a slight limp. Her legs were muscular, and she’d put weight on her 5’6” frame since her release. Her face was pleasant, natural, with no makeup. Her smile surprised him. Psychopaths have difficulty expressing emotion. “Someone joining you?”
“Just one today.”
The waitress scanned the teeming cafe. She handed Corky a menu from the stack on the counter. “There is a table in the back near the salad bar and away from the rear air conditioner.” She pointed. “Grab it.”
Corky made his way to the pathetic looking table in the corner. He took the seat looking out onto the crowded dining room. Each cafe table, gleaned from local garage sales, was clean and well-scrubbed. When she came to take his order, he expressed his amazement. “You’re covering nine tables.”
“Ten. Someone just came in.” She motioned to the waif-like mother in the Branson tee shirt herding three children under the age of six. “I like to keep busy.” The Psychopaths Test lists twenty characteristics used to diagnose the condition: Number 18: Prone to boredom. The waitress set down a water glass with a sliver of lemon. “I’m Sue. What can I get you?”
“A good cup of black coffee.”
“We serve locally roasted fair trade Guatemalan beans.”
“Great,” Corky told her. “And I’ll take the Tuesday night Swiss steak special.”
“Good thing you arrived early. We always run out.”
“Call me Mr. Lucky.”
“That comes with mashed potatoes, green beans, and homemade rolls. Help yourself to the salad bar.”
“I will.” He hesitated, “Thank you, Sue.” She smiled again.
Corky embraced the salad bar nestled in a dark green farm wagon. The potato salad was seasoned with chopped sweet onions, homemade relish, Duke’s Mayonnaise and a hint of mustard, paprika, pepper, celery seed, and salt. The pickled beets floated with cloves and slivers of cinnamon in a tangy purple liquid.
As Corky ate he watched Sue in constant motion, pausing to talk with each diner. When she returned with his dinner entrée, he looked up from the potato salad and smiled. “That was mighty tasty.”
“I’ll tell Linda.”
“Is she the cook?”
“Cook and owner. Like a sister to me.”
“Did she pickle the beets, too?”
“I get the credit for them. The garden’s out back.”
“Absolutely delicious.” He watched her eyes as he spoke. “My name is Corky.”
Before she could respond, Linda called, “Order up!” Sue shrugged apologetically and hurried back to the kitchen.
By the time Corky finished his Swiss steak and mashed potatoes, he was obscenely full. More than once Sue had caught him watching her. When he went to the counter to pay, Linda came out of the kitchen.
“The potato salad was great.”
“Thanks. I appreciate a satisfied man.” Linda smirked. As she handed Corky his change, she glanced at his left hand, looking for a ring. “You’re new here.”
“Staying at the Lambs Inn for a couple days.”
“Most of their guests eat at the Heritage House in Farley or Driver’s Supper Club on Route 130.”
“I appreciate the home cooking.”
Walking back to the Lambs Inn, Corky tried to reconcile his research on Carolyn Sue Hardy with the waitress he’d just met. Psychopaths have a history of juvenile delinquency. Her juvenile records had been sealed, but neighbors and family members confirmed multiple run-ins with the law as early as second grade.
Psychopaths are promiscuous. Interviews with classmates confirmed she had dozens of sexual partners beginning when she was twelve.
Wednesday night’s special was liver and onions, with bacon fifty cents extra. Corky sprang for the bacon. He observed Sue as she worked, charming mothers and small children, and flirting with the old men. Corky came to Shepherd’s Crossing to study a murderer close up. Now he wanted to ask about her favorite books and smell her hair. Stupid, he told himself. That’s just stupid.
After the meal Sue placed a peppermint stick beside the check. “The candy is on the house.” She pulled up a chair. “You’ve got me curious.”
“Most folks in Shepherd’s Crossing can’t afford custom-made Lucchesse boots or a Rolex Submariner.”
“I’m working on a project.”
She picked up the peppermint stick, broke it in half, and unwrapped the shorter piece for herself. “Corky is an unusual name.”
“My given name is Arthur.”
“Shouldn’t people call you Art?”
He picked up his piece. “My last name is Cocoran.”
“Arthur Cocoran?” She blinked. “The writer?”
“So, you’ve read Romance on the Wapsipinicon?”
“Absolutely not!” Sue caught herself. “I mean, I started it….” She lowered her voice. “People pay you to write that garbage?”
“At last, a discriminating reader.” Corky raised the peppermint stick in salute. “I write romantic hokum. My fans won’t say that, but I know. I don’t have to read it in the New York Times Review of Books.
Sue stopped sucking on the peppermint stick. “A lot of people adore your books,” she said, motioning in the direction of Linda who was refreshing the salad bar. “What does your wife think?”
“When Wapsipinicon hit the best seller list Barbara told me it was ‘an embarrassment to thinking women everywhere.’ But she really hated my second book, The Heart of Prairie Fire. After reading the galleys she told my agent I would be pauperized because everyone who bought it would demand a refund. After it, too, reached the top of the best seller list, she filed for divorce, negotiated a share of my royalties, and moved to Bermuda.”
“Were you sorry to see her go?”
Corky shrugged. “I accept what I cannot change.” He stood up and handed her bills to cover his tab along with a generous tip. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Thursday night’s special was spaghetti and meatball. The meatball was the size of Mars and the mound of spaghetti filled the plate. Sue came by frequently to refill his coffee until he finally stopped her. “No more. I’ll never get to sleep tonight.”
“Order out,” came the shout from behind the counter.
Sue ignored the order and the two customers waving to get her attention. She took a deep breath. “Your new project…?”
“Nonfiction this time.” She folded her arms and waited. “It’s about a promiscuous fourteen-year-old juvenile delinquent who strangled an honor student out of misplaced adolescent jealousy.”
Sue’s face went blank. “She sounds like someone who should be locked up.”
“Yes. Except that two years ago the long-time District Attorney was disbarred for prosecutorial misconduct. Apparently for years he’s coerced sexual favors from young women caught up in the system. The prosecutor, for example, failed to disclose his prior relationship with this particular defendant prior to the trial. Technically she could be retried. I came to Shepherd’s Crossing hoping to find her.”
“Why would she be here?”
“Because the sister of her prison cellmate runs a small café in this area.”
“Quite a story.” Sue’s face remained impassive. “Lots to write about….”
“What’s for supper on Friday?”
She turned to leave. “All-you-can-eat catfish fry. Get here early.”
When Corky arrived at the Hilltop at 4:30, he took a seat in Sue’s section. “I’ll have the fish fry.”
“That doesn’t start until five.”
“Then how about two pieces of banana cream pie?”
“You could join me. There’s nobody else around.”
“I prefer bourbon pecan.”
“Pecan pie it is. Maybe some coffee.”
After she joined Corky, Sue focused on the pie. Eventually she set down her fork. “Tell me again why you’re here.”
“I got tired of writing trash.”
“So, you decided to write about a twenty-year-old crime? Some juvenile delinquent who…?”
“Strangled another girl with her bare hands after savagely beating her. ‘A girl without a soul,’ the press said.”
“And how old was she?”
“So, if she were alive today…?”
“She’d be about your age.”
Customers began filtering in but she ignored them. “Why are you so interested?”
“I was teaching in a neighboring town when the crime happened. Two years ago, when she was suddenly released, I became curious. I found out that parts of the autopsy had been suppressed. For example, the Medical Examiner failed to disclose that the blows to the victim’s face suggested a right-handed assailant. Unlike you, who favor your left.” Sue’s face remained impassive. “The prosecutor argued that the multiple bruises on the victim’s torso were signs of the attacker’s savagery. The expert I hired suggested they were from multiple assailants.” Corky pushed aside the empty pie plate.
“What was the girl’s name?”
“Carolyn Sue Hardy. I thought I’d mentioned that.”
“You hadn’t.” She waited for him to continue, and when he didn’t she prompted him, “Tell me about the prosecutor.”
“His first high profile homicide. A lot to gain from a conviction.” Corky tried to read her expression. “During her 18 years in prison, Ms. Hardy finished both a high school and college degree and tutored other inmates. She got knifed in the thigh defending her cellmate.”
Sue broke eye contact. “Tell me again why you’re here…”
“I wanted a good story, but now I’m focused on the woman herself.”
Sue stood up. She lowered her voice. “Don’t go there.”
He touched her arm. “Let me buy you a drink.”
“Not a good idea.”
“What do you have to lose?”
Sue considered his question. She surveyed the cafe. “I work until 9:00. I’ll need a shower. Meet me at the Barrelhouse at 10:00.” She wrote a number on her order pad and tore out the page. “My cell phone, in case you have second thoughts.”
Back at the Lamb’s Inn, Corky pulled out his old files. Soon after Carolyn Sue Hardy’s conviction, NBC News produced a Dateline report on the case. It was classic pulp fiction. According to the prosecutor, the motive was jealousy. Carolyn was the catalyst, perpetrator, and instigator of the crime.
The murder occurred at the family lake cabin of the victim’s boyfriend, David Schneider. David said he’d invited four members of his wrestling team out to the cabin for a weekend while his parents were away. He testified that the boys swam, drank beer, and played poker until they were surprised by the sudden appearance of Carolyn Sue Hardy. He claimed Hardy was obsessed with him.
The wrestlers’ stories varied slightly, but all admitted fooling around with the 14-year-old. Around sunset a car pulled up to the cabin and Michelle Hopkins, David’s girlfriend, stepped out. She’d wanted to surprise him.
According to the boys, Carolyn flew into a rage and began pummeling Michelle with her fists, tearing at her clothes, and finally beating her to the ground and kicking her. The boys were amused by the catfight until they saw Carolyn’s hands around the girl’s neck. By the time they were able to pull her off, Michelle was dead.
According to Dateline, Carolyn promised the boys she’d do “anything” if they’d help her cover up the crime. They all confessed to having sex with her.
The defense told a different story. The public defender claimed the boys lured Carolyn to the cabin with promises of a party. When Michelle arrived and discovered Carolyn stripped and bound, she threatened to call the police. It was the boys who beat and strangled Michelle, then they forced Carolyn to bury the body, threatening to kill her, too, if she didn’t.
When Michelle’s car was found abandoned several days later, David came under suspicion. After hours of questioning, he cracked. He confessed that Carolyn had killed Michelle and blackmailed him into covering up the crime. His buddies backed up his story. The boys were charged with concealment. Carolyn Sue Hardy was charged with first-degree murder.
During the trial, the boy’s testimony was persuasive. David came across as a decent kid who’d behaved stupidly. He looked good in a suit and charmed the jurors from the witness stand.
Carolyn had tattoos on her arms and neck. She dressed in black with multiple piercings. School counselors testified about her history of promiscuity, petty crime, and drug abuse. Her worst crime, though, according to the press, was that she showed no sympathy for the victim. No remorse. No apologies. No confession. No tears.
David produced fountains of tears. He helped authorities locate where the body was buried. Carolyn’s prints were the only ones on the shovel. Case closed.
Corky looked at the page with Sue’s number. He looked at the time. The Barrel House was a ten-minute walk. He hoped there was still a table on a Friday night.
When he arrived a six-piece blues band was belting out Big Mamma Thorton’s “Ball and Chain.” He waited in line five-minutes just to get to the door where a bulldog-like woman guarded the entrance. The woman, stuffed into black jeans and a pale lavender bustier, stood behind a battered oak pulpit rescued from the old Methodist church. Her nametag read “Daisy.” She looked more like Cerberus.
Through the open doors Corky could see the massive bar, spacious taproom, and brick archways marking the entrance to dining area. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house. It’s Fair Week, he remembered.
Leaning in toward Daisy, he shouted above the music, “I’ll need two seats at the bar. After drinks, I want a table in back, someplace good to talk.”
“Yah?” Daisy growled. “And I want chrome pipes on my ’72 Norton. But that ain’t gonna happen any time soon either.”
Corky slid a folded stack of bills onto the seating chart. “Sometimes people get lucky.”
She looked at the money. “What’s this?”
“Five fifty-dollar bills.” He watched her do the math. “For chrome.”
Daisy gave a measured response. “You got a date?” she growled softly.
“Sue from the Hilltop.”
“Figures.” Daisy scanned the room. “Give me a sec.” She grabbed two tattered menus and bulldozed her way into the crowd. Five minutes later Corky was seated at the bar drinking a Slingshot Dunkel.
The statuesque bartender shouted above the music. “Your date’s here.” He turned. “She drinks a double shot vodka tonic with a lemon twist.” The bartender leaned in and lowered her voice. “Don’t even try to keep up.”
Sue parted the regulars like the Red Sea. She wore hand-tooled Tony Lamas, a short faded denim skirt, and a tight black tank top that exposed tats on her shoulders, arms, and neck. She looked fierce, until she saw Corky. A smile crossed her lips.
“You are a resourceful man,” she shouted as she eased into the stool beside him. “I expected to find you at the back of a block-long line.”
“I hate lines.”
The bartender brought the vodka tonic. On the makeshift stage the band belted out George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.” Sue sang along: “I broke a thousand hearts/Before I met you/I’ll break a thousand more, baby/Before I am through.”
Corky choked on his beer, laughing. “You’re horrible!”
“Oh, don’t I know it.” She laughed along with him. “But you’re the first male trying to get into my pants who’s been honest enough to tell me.”
Two drinks later, they were seated at a corner table in the back room where they could hear the band, but still have a conversation.
“Go ahead,” she finally said. “Ask me.”
“Are you Carolyn Sue Hardy?”
“No,” she said defiantly. “But I used to be.”
“And people here don’t know?”
“You could join me. There’s nobody else around.”
Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV on Pexels.com
Sue shook her head. “Just Linda and her daughter. Folks see my prison tats and know I did time. They don’t ask why.” She snorted. “At least they don’t ask twice.”
“So, at the café you’re the waitress with the winning smile. And at the Barrel House you’re the sexy ex-con with attitude.”
“It’s not quite that simple….” Sue picked up the menu. “We should order. The kitchen closes at midnight.”
When their waitress arrived, Emily recognized Corky from the photo on the dust jacket of the novel she kept in the break room. Corky ordered the artichoke dip with pita bread wedges and a shrimp cocktail for Sue.
“How are their steaks?” Corky asked after Emily left.
“How would I know? I live on a waitress’s salary.”
“But this is a date. It’s my treat.”
Sue set down her menu. “Is that what this is? A date?”
“What else would it be?”
“A story waiting to be sold to the tabloids; a nonfiction bestseller; an investigative report for the cable channels.”
Corky waved off her suggestions. “It’s a date.”
“The prosecutor called me a psychopath. As evidence he pointed to my impulsivity, my irresponsibility….”
He filled in the gaps. “Your promiscuity, your glibness, your lack of long-term goals….”
Sue raised her hands in surrender. “I was fourteen and angry beyond my years.” Sue opened the menu. “For someone who knows squat about me, you seem to think you know a lot.”
“Everyone I’ve interviewed, but especially the jurors, focused on two character traits: your promiscuity and your lack of remorse. Those judgments, more than any evidence, convicted you.”
Sue set down her menu. “People don’t show remorse for a crime they didn’t commit.”
The dip with pita wedges arrived along with the shrimp cocktail. Sue ate with gusto.
Corky ordered them ribeye steaks, Caesar salads, and autographed the waitress’s book. They fell into an uneasy conversation about the case.
“I had nothing against Mickie. David was the only reason I even knew who she was….”
“Mickie. That’s Michelle Hopkins?”
Corky wrinkled his brow. “I read that everyone called her ‘Georgia’ because they loved her southern drawl.”
Sue snorted a half-laugh, half expression of contempt. “No. Georgia is what she wanted people to call her instead of Easy or the Hag or the other disgusting names David used. I never liked her, but at least I called her Mickie.”
“Ted Billings, the prosecutor, said that the murder was about teen angst and a crime of passion.”
“Teddy created a narrative to sell the crime to the jury. He did that stuff all the time….” She stopped.
“To manipulate young girls and scam the system?”
“Yes.” Sue reached for her drink and then thought better of it. “My first trip to Juvie Teddy was working night court for the county attorney’s office. I was thirteen, but he told me I was ‘mature for my age.’ He persuaded the arresting officer to drop the charges, then drove out to West Lake before he taking me home.”
“He should have recused himself.”
“Duh! You think?” Sue picked up her drink and emptied the glass. She shook off the effects of the alcohol. “Tell me again why we’re here.”
“It’s a date.”
“Really? I know what a date is. I’ve dated most of the men in this bar, and none of them talked as much as you do.”
Corky pushed his half-empty pint aside. “I’m not like these men. I’m also not like Ted the prosecutor, or David….”
“Or my stepfather.”
“Who do you think the boys paid for my services that weekend?”
“The boys hired you for that weekend? That never came out in the trial.”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference. People had already made up their minds.”
Emily came with their Caesar salads. “I need a coffee, black,” Corky told her, handing over the remainder of his beer.
“Regular or decaf?”
“Better make it regular. I need to stay alert.”
Sue handed Emily her empty glass. “Make it two cups.”
After the waitress left, Sue stabbed at her salad. “You going to include that little detail in your new project?”
“The book deal is dead. I left a voice mail for my agent before I walked over here. I’m returning the advance money.”
“Why would you do that?”
Before Corky could answer, Emily brought their coffees, cream, and sugar. “How are the salads?”
“Good,” they said in unison, though neither had touched them.
They ate the salads in silence, until Sue finally said, “Remind me again why I should be attracted to you?”
“My rapier wit, my sexual prowess, and my animal magnetism.”
She set her fork down. “I have seen no evidence of any of those things.”
Then maybe it’s because you trust me.”
“The jury’s still out on that. I’m not the trusting type.”
The steaks came. Emily refilled their coffee.
“I’m not going anywhere. We’ve got time to work on trust.”
“After all you’ve heard, you still think I’m date material?” Sue asked.
“So, you don’t think I’m a psychopath?”
“I never said that. Let’s just say I’m just willing to roll the dice and hope for the best.”
Sue cut into her steak. “You write romance novels, and that’s the best line you could come up with?”
“You’re the first ex-felon I’ve courted.”
“You could walk me home.”
“I’ve got the address.”
“Yes, well that’s a little creepy.” Sue took a bite of steak and chewed slowly.
“I could serve you breakfast in bed.”
“That makes a lot of assumptions.”
He pushed away his plate. “Then try this. I walk you home. I’m Corky. I’m not a writer; I’m just some guy you met at the Café. And you’re Sue. You’re not Caroline Sue Harding. You’re an articulate and discriminating reader. Our relationship is a tabula rosa….”
“A blank slate?”
“Yes.” He took her hand in his. “We’re at your door. What do you want to do?”
She shook her head.
“It’s a simple question.”
“No, it isn’t. No one’s ever asked me that before.”
“Take your time,” Corky told her. He reached for his coffee.
On the stage the band belted out Bo Diddley’s “Who Do you Love?’ Sue didn’t sing along. She’d never felt so lost.
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