Saturday nights at the Skyway Drive Inn Theater are for the young, the young at heart, the lovers and those who think they’re in love. Also, once a month on a Saturday night, it’s where blackmail victims go to make their monthly payoff.
A gray Ford parked on a row near the back with both rear windows down, regardless of the weather, is where payoffs were delivered. A silhouetted driver could be seen sitting behind the steering wheel, watching the movie, enjoying popcorn from the concession and beer brought along to comfort the evening. The still night and the movie sounds only interrupted by envelopes being dropped through the open windows into the rear seat – each envelope containing $1000 in small bills. No notes attached and no names on the envelopes, but delivery was always the same and always on the first Saturday of every month.
This particular Saturday night was just like all the others; however, on this evening one of the deliveries would be quite different.
The night was beautiful – clear skies, no moon and a temperature that made being outdoors perfect. A warm, but pleasant breeze added just the right touch; Lawrence Helgerson was enjoying the fresh air as it circulated through the open windows of his car. Sounds of someone approaching the rear of his Ford weren’t unusual, and he continued to watch the movie – a Western with a lot of shooting and noise.
Both shots were timed to coincide with what patrons were hearing from the movie. The sounds from two bullets, sent into the back of Lawrence Helgerson’s head, were never heard by anyone – especially Lawrence Helgerson!
The crime went undiscovered until the Skyway Drive Inn Theater cleared of all cars, and lights were turned on for nightly cleanup. An attendant went to check on the gray Ford, suspecting some partying teenagers had left it, which happened sometimes. Instead, he found Lawrence Helgerson’s brains spread over the dashboard and windshield, and his body lying in the front seat.
He also found $1000 in the back seat – one envelope, containing one thousand dollars in small bills!
Something woke her, an unfamiliar noise. It sounded like the slamming of a door, and it sounded very close. But, that couldn’t be right, her bedroom had sliding doors, and this wasn’t a noise she’d ever heard in her home. Struggling to open her eyes at the alarm of the noise, she quickly closed them again – they hurt! The light, the bright light, sent daggers into her head, and she took a deep breath with the relief that returned with darkness. Where was this light coming from? It was sunlight, bright sunlight; almost like she was sitting on a beach without sunglasses.
Lying still, and searching her mind, she tried to recall the most recent events in her life – it wasn’t working. Her head hurt, her body hurt, she was dying of thirst, her mouth tasted like an old dirty sock and she needed to pee. All of these, along with the glaring light were making thinking impossible.
Rolling over, she slowly brought her head up and managed to open sore, bloodshot eyes. She was staring at a rumpled pillow covered by a flowered pillowcase, and flanked by a matching bedspread. This wasn’t something she remembered and not something she’d ever seen before – at least she didn’t think so.
Somehow managing to get eyes fully open, she turned back over and surveyed her surroundings; nothing looked familiar. She was on a bed, a large bed, and evidently in a motel/hotel room – based upon the furniture her eyes could focus on. Sitting on the edge of the bed and putting her feet on the floor, she glanced around the room searching for a door – there were two. One was in the corner of the room and partially open, it must be a bathroom. Using the bed and furniture for support, she stumbled into the small bathroom and leaned against the sink. That’s when she realized she was fully dressed, except for shoes – which was odd. Sitting on the commode, things slowly began to come back to her cloudy mind.
She had been at the Country Club drinking with her husband, Roger. They argued and she left, taking the car and leaving him to find his own way home. Mad at Roger, and not ready to end the evening, she stopped at the VFW to have another drink and visit with friends. The place was crowded, and she recalled sitting at the bar – visiting with John, C.P., Travis and some other people. But then what? What happened then? She didn’t recall driving home and she didn’t remember seeing Roger again. She couldn’t remember anything past sitting at the VFW and visiting with friends. And, where was she now? This definitely wasn’t home!
Finished, she cupped her hands and used the sink faucet to get a drink – it was refreshing, but didn’t do much for the terrible taste in her mouth. She wasn’t sure why she was so thirsty, but it could be the whiskey. She’d definitely had her share last night, that part she did remember! Too much whiskey she told herself, shaking her head trying to remove the hangover cobwebs.
Her senses were slowly returning, and she rubbed sore eyes using the remaining dampness on her hands – trying not to smear make-up, assuming any remained. But, the odor of perfume caught her nose, and she casually glanced around the small bathroom for its source – there was none. A pleasant fragrance, but definitely not one she used or had smelled before. A woman, a woman other than her, had recently used this bathroom and left the lingering aroma of her perfume behind. Wonder who?
Standing in front of the mirror, she checked her clothes and body – everything seemed to be in order except for the large red mark under her right eye. It was just a bruise, the skin wasn’t broken and, like everything else that had occurred over the past few hours, she had no idea where it came from.
With that thought, she glanced at her watch, it was still on her wrist where it should be. Through blurry, but clearing eyes she read 10:45, and based upon the bright sunlight coming in the room, it must be AM. But then her mind asked again, where was she?
Stumbling out of the bathroom, she carefully walked to the other door, the one that appeared to be an exit, and opened it. Slowly stepping out, and not allowing the door to close behind her, she surveyed her surroundings – nothing looked familiar. She was standing in a carpeted hallway, flanked by numerous doors on all sides, each with gold numbers painted in the center. Turning to look at the door she was holding open – she saw the number 14. She was in Room 14, but why?
Still holding the door, and staring at the number, the door of the room next to Room 14 opened and a short man with gray/balding hair stepped into the small hall. He smiled as he walked past, then stopped.
“Are you okay?” he asked slowly, while offering an odd stare.
“Yes…yes, I’m alright,” she answered in a weak voice.
Breaking off the stare, he smiled and didn’t respond, before continuing his walk down the hall, where he quickly disappeared around a corner.
Confused, she walked back into Room 14, letting the door close behind her. She needed to find her shoes and purse, and then get the hell out of here – wherever ‘here’ was! Maybe things would be clearer when she got out of this room – out into the daylight that was already washing through open curtains and across the bed where she’d slept. Maybe she would remember how she ended up in Room 14, in some unknown hotel after a night of heavy drinking.
Bending over and searching the hardwood floor, she didn’t see her shoes or purse, but did see something she wished she hadn’t!
Lying between the bed and the wall was a man – a large man. He was face down, and his body partially underneath the bed she had just crawled out of — he didn’t look healthy! In particular, he didn’t look healthy because there was a large knife sticking out of his back, and the floor around his body was covered with dried blood!
Shocked and stunned, she stared motionless at her discovery while rubbing sore eyes. Other than at her father’s funeral, she’d never seen a dead man, so she continued to look at him with curiosity, while a thousand thoughts raced through her cluttered and foggy mind.
It was obvious that this man had met his end in a violent and brutal way, but she couldn’t look away – her eyes fixed on the lifeless body under the bed with a large knife sticking out of his back. He didn’t look familiar, but the way the body was positioned, and with her fuzzy vision, she couldn’t be sure. Trying to gather her senses, she knew she had to get out of Room 14 and had to do it in a hurry. Scared, she franticly searched around the small room for her purse and shoes before looking at the dresser. What she saw stopped her search. Her beige shoes and matching purse were sitting on the dresser; beside them was a key attached to a plastic tag showing the number 14. It appeared that everything had been neatly and purposely placed there. Lying next to them was a revolver!
Reacting in what seemed like ‘slow motion’, she picked up the gun and examined it – it looked familiar, but she couldn’t recall why. Replacing the gun, she picked up her shoes, and noticed small stains that had not been there before – the stains looked like blood! Putting on the shoes and grabbing her purse, she ran from the room and into the hall – stopping when the door slammed hard behind her, making a noise that echoed through the empty hallway. Frozen with the fear that someone might have heard the noise, she looked in both directions – the hallway was empty. Hurriedly, she checked her purse for car keys and any disturbance to the contents. There was none, and keys were in her purse where they should be.
Following the path of the gentleman she had met in the hall earlier, she went around a sharp corner, down short steep stairs and immediately stepped into a large hotel lobby. In the center of the giant room was a rounded seating area; flanked by a reception desk with a young man standing behind it – he looked up and stared. Frightened, she paused and returned his stare while frantically searching for an exit. Hastily walking past a crowded coffee shop and in the direction she believed to be the front door, several patrons looked up – including the gentleman she had met in the hallway. Realizing her mistake, she slowed, smiled, and casually finished her walk through the lobby – exiting through a large glass door, which thankfully led outside and to a sidewalk.
Reaching daylight she stopped, rubbed her eyes again, and finally realized where she was. She had just walked through the lobby of the Humboldt Hotel, and was now on Main Street. She had, apparently, spent the night in Room 14, where she’d left a dead man lying on the floor with a knife sticking out of his back!
But, she still had the same question. Why was she here?
Last weeks phone call from Judge Arthur Singleton’s secretary, Helen Goodhead, was only a reminder of the engraved invitation each had received weeks before. A campaign fundraiser, including dinner and cocktails, was scheduled for Saturday night in the Humboldt Hotel dining room – their attendance requested, and confirmed with the call.
However, five people attending the fundraiser had other items on their agenda. Each was being blackmailed, and all by the same person or persons. They’d discussed it among themselves for weeks, but now it was time to collectively standup and stop the ‘bloodsucker’ once and for all. Reasons for blackmail were known by each of them, it wasn’t denied or disputed – but it had to be stopped. Numerous problems had been successfully handled in the past, and resolving this issue seemed no different. It was more dangerous, perhaps, but not different. Individually they were vulnerable, but as a group, things could be taken care of.
Drinks were plentiful, and liquor flowed freely. So freely that when an elegant dinner arrived at their table, most attendees were already drunk. Drunk enough to vote for anything Judge Arthur Singleton proposed – that was his plan. A boring after dinner speech was supported by more drinks from an open bar, and interrupted many times by applause from an excited and inebriated crowd. He ended his rant by requesting everyone to open their wallets, open their checkbooks and join him in his campaign efforts. His reelection was important for the community, the county and for the families of Gibson County, Tennessee. After the speech, handshakes and backslaps were repeated over and over through a crowd that was proud of themselves and their importance to the campaign. At least that’s what they thought. They were more than happy to support Judge Arthur Singleton. It was all very boring, but all very necessary.
Eventually five attendees, interested in matters other than fundraising, grew tired of the fellowship and moved away from the laughing, drinking and jovial crowd. A small alcove with a private door was located just behind the hotel’s front desk and adjacent to the dining area – this is where they assembled.
With fresh drinks from the open bar, each one entered the dimly lit room and casually took a seat around a small table that occupied most of the floor space. Sipping drinks, they sat in silence for a moment staring at each other, wondering what had happened to put them in this dangerous and embarrassing situation. However, they knew that those matters wouldn’t be discussed – what would be discussed was a solution to their collective problem.
“I’ve contacted a man in Memphis to assist us with our situation,” Judge Singleton said after lighting a Camel cigarette, and tossing the open pack onto the middle of the table for anyone that might need a smoke. “I haven’t given him any details, I’ll be doing that later this evening, but I’m confident that he can accomplish whatever’s necessary. ”
“But Judge,” Rudy Watkins blurted. “Isn’t that dangerous? I mean…I mean if they tie this man back to you…us.”
“I didn’t do it directly, I’m not that stupid!” Judge Singleton blurted and shook his head. “My driver, Dallas Price, made the contact – our names will not be mentioned.”
“I don’t trust him – Dallas Price,” Roger Kelley said while helping himself to one of the cigarettes. “He’s a bigger crook than that bastard who’s blackmailing us. Hell…he’s probably a bigger crook than most of us!” Roger laughed looking around the room.
“Well, I do,” Rudy Watkins responded frankly. “Whatever Judge Singleton thinks is best, I agree with him.”
“You’re an idiot,” Frank Egan snapped, looking at Rudy Watkins. “Have you ever had an original thought in your life? You’re probably the reason we’re in this mess!”
Rudy stared at Frank Egan, but didn’t respond.
“Alright, let’s not fight among ourselves. We’ve enough problems without creating more,” Ralph Squire said to everyone before looking at Judge Singleton. “What does this ‘man’ plan to do?”
“I don’t know, and I didn’t ask,” Judge Singleton nodded, blowing a mouthful of blue smoke across the table. “I also don’t care – just as long as my/our problems go away. Anybody have issues with that?”
They sat quietly for a few moments looking at each other – seemingly waiting for someone to answer Judge Singleton. Ralph Squire spoke, “No…no one has any issues. Just have your ‘man’ resolve the problem and let’s move on. We’re tired of paying blackmail; this needs to end.”
“Good,” Judge Singleton said confidently. “Tonight is payday, the last payday. I want each of you to leave your envelopes with Miss Goodhead. She’ll take care of them, and see that your payments are properly recorded with Mr. Helgerson.”
“Properly recorded?” Frank Egan yelled. “What the hell does that mean? I give my money to your secretary and she’s going to ‘properly record’ it! This isn’t a game, and I don’t think that’s funny!”
“Look,” Judge Singleton said calmly. “Either you’re in or you’re out. I told you weeks ago I would handle this, and I’m handling it. If you want to keep paying this bastard, then that’s your choice. Either Miss Goodhead has your envelope before the end of this evening, or I will assume you are pursuing another solution.”
Frank Egan glared without speaking.
“When will we know? I mean…when will we know that it’s been handled?” Rudy Watkins asked timidly.
“You’ll know – that’s all I can tell you for now,” Judge Singleton answered confidently, just before the door to their small meeting room opened.
Standing in the open door was Judge Singleton’s large and burley driver, Dallas Price. He didn’t speak, and just nodded at the judge before closing the door.
“Okay, this meeting is over,” Judge Singleton said to everyone. “We’ve been away from the party for too long. I suggest we rejoin the group and continue with the fellowship.”
“Bullshit, we need to handle this ourselves,” Roger Kelley blurted, as the small group stood and stepped toward the door. “I told you, I don’t trust that crook, Dallas Price.”
Judge Singleton stopped and turned to face the group. “If Miss Goodhead doesn’t have your envelopes before the end of the evening, I’ll assume you’ll be handling the problem on your own. I don’t intend to say that again.”
The group looked at each other before looking back at Judge Singleton. He opened the door without speaking, and walked out of the small room. Everyone slowly followed, gently blending back into the large crowd still gathered in the Humboldt Hotel dining room.
Dallas Price easily slipped out of the loud, drunken crowd and stood on the sidewalk, enjoying a fresh Cuban cigar. Within moments he was joined by a much smaller man wearing jeans, a dark cotton shirt and black baseball cap – the small man spoke immediately.
“Well…do we have a deal or not?”
Dallas looked down at the small man, while rolling the cigar around his mouth and blowing dirty smoke out into the clear evening air. “Maybe,” Dallas mumbled.
“Maybe? What the hell does ‘maybe’ mean?” the small man blurted.
“First, you bring me the document. After I look at it, and if it’s what you say it is, then we have a deal – not before.”
The small man shuffled his feet and looked up at Dallas. “Okay…okay. I know what I ‘gotta’ do, I know where it is – I’ll get it. But, I bring you the document and you give me $10,000 – that’s the deal. Right?”
“Like I said before – maybe. That’s the deal IF I like what I see. If not, then you get nothing.” Dallas was staring down at the small man.
“It’s all there – everything. I know it is. You’ll like what I bring you – promise.”
“We’ll see,” Dallas said looking away.
“And nobody gets hurt – right? I mean…I bring you the document, you give me the money and nobody gets hurt. Right?” The small man was nervous and very uncomfortable talking to Dallas.
“Just bring me the document and we’ll see what happens next.” Dallas turned and walked back into the Humboldt Hotel.
The small man disappeared into the darkness.