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The Broken Past: A James Buckner Mystery

The Broken Past: A James Buckner Mystery

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The Broken Past: A James Buckner Mystery

331 pagine
4 ore
Oct 30, 2008


A murder mystery quietly unfolds during a seemingly peaceful morning in Corinth, Missouri in 1923. Police Chief James Buckner is called away from his office to investigate the death of a prominent local businessman whose lifeless body has just been found. Several miles away, a black man is discovered lynched and in his pocket is a warning from the Ku Klux Klan.

The Roaring 20s is a time when racial turmoil abounds in America. In Corinth, the black community, led by gambler and saloon keeper Elroy Dutton, are arming themselves for protection. Meanwhile, federal agent Joel Casterline is hot on the trail of local moonshiners, word leaks out that a gang of bank robbers is headed for Corinth, and someone is sending nasty Christmas cards to local widows. Chief Buckner becomes overwhelmed as the town government demands he stifle local crime, but simultaneously questions his decision to hire black police officers. To top it off, a group of local businessmen believes Buckner should enforce moral conduct and the county sheriff has his eye on a seat in the state legislature instead of on helping Buckner.

Chief Buckner and his inexperienced police force must somehow find their way out of a dangerous crossfire that could leave Corinth's future in jeopardy.

Oct 30, 2008

Informazioni sull'autore

Christopher C. Gibbs was born in California, raised in Missouri, and served with the military police in Vietnam. He is the author of books and articles on American history and the Highland County mystery series. He lives with his wife and family in Fanwood, New Jersey.

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The Broken Past - Christopher C. Gibbs



















The author would like to thank David Bell for the use of the apartment, David Gibbs for the title, and Jean Buckner Gibbs for the photograph on the back. Certain historical events, institutions, and individuals are mentioned in the story that follows. All other events, institutions, and individuals are the product of the author’s imagination.

This book is dedicated to the memory of my father-in-law, Fred Nagel, and my father, Harry C. Gibbs.

Over fifty men, black and white, have been lynched in Missouri, the most recent (a white man) in 1981. And in 1923, a black man … was lynched in Columbia [Missouri] when the sheriff and the local unit of the National Guard failed to carry out the governor’s orders to protect him. (A History of Missouri, Volume V, by Richard S. Kirkendall, p. 15.)


A few miles south of Corinth, Missouri. May, 1923

Joel C. Casterline, Special Agent of the United States Department of the Treasury, vomited enthusiastically into the thick tangle of blackberry brambles at the edge of the clearing. He gasped, caught his breath, then vomited again. He stopped and wiped his mouth with one of the monogrammed linen handkerchiefs his mother had given him before he left home, then stood up. Light-headed and wobbly, he thought for a moment he was going to faint. He leaned heavily against the tree, embracing it almost, pressing his face into the rough bark, taking deep, shuddering breaths. The feeling passed. He spat, trying to clear the taste of bitter metal from his mouth.

The insistent screeching of the birds grated like a knife on bone. Huge and black, they perched expectantly along the branches of all the smaller trees around the towering oak that dominated the little clearing. They seemed to be hurrying him along, angry at his disruption of their work; they had simply ignored him when he fired his pistol at them.

Agent Casterline pushed away from the tree and turned. The feet were still there—bare, brown, thickly calloused, dangling just inches from his face. He looked up, from the legs shrouded in loose, faded denim, to the thin, pale blue work shirt, then up to the ragged face, the rope imbedded in the neck, the hanging shreds of skin. And the eyes. Casterline stared at the eyes, at the hollows where the eyes had been before the birds got to them. The raucous shrieking rose frantically and the smell struck him again.

He turned, bent over, and vomited into the blackberry brambles.

In the bedroom of a small bungalow in Corinth, Missouri, James Bolivar Buckner heard soft footsteps, smelled fresh tea, and cautiously opened one eye.

You’re going to catch a chill, walking around like that, he muttered into the pillow.

It’s springtime, Judith replied. The sun is up, birds are singing, flowers are blooming. Besides, I like walking around like this.

It’s barely above freezing out there; my mother calls it ‘blackberry winter.’ Anyway, somebody’ll see you and complain to the police.

It’s warm in here and the curtains are closed. And don’t worry, I can handle the police.

Judith put the mug of tea on the table by Buckner’s side of the bed, climbed over him, and slid back under the covers.

Your hands are cold, he protested.

Friction will warm them up, she assured him. Like rubbing sticks together.

Uh. Buckner fumbled for his watch. He peered at it, both eyes open now, and sat up. I’ve got to get moving. The tea was not hot enough, or black enough, but he sipped it and smiled.

Michael will be there, making coffee, taking care of things. You’ve been gone for a week. A few more minutes won’t hurt.

I know. That’s what bothers me. I go away for a week and absolutely nothing happens and nobody notices I’m gone.

I noticed.

Thank you.

Are you disappointed that nothing happened while you were gone?

No. Not really. At least I don’t think so. It’s just that when I’m late in the morning, Mullen gives me this look. He doesn’t say anything, but I know I’ve let him down.

As I recall, he was an excellent student, never missed a day. And he was never late. Judith sat up, tucked the blanket under her chin, and sipped some of her own tea. I’m sure it’s just your imagination.

Maybe. Buckner slid back down under the covers. And when I’m late because I’ve slept here instead of at home …

My fault, I suppose.

Sure. Anyway, when I do, I always get the feeling Mullen knows exactly why I’m late.

Judith put down her tea. Well, then, are you going to be late this morning?

I think so, yes.

Am I?

Can the vice principal be late for school?

I don’t think so.

Then, Vice Principal Lee, you have nothing to worry about.

In a basement office across town, Michael Mullen, child of the new century, nursed a deep, abiding faith in machinery. Airplanes and automobiles fascinated him. He had never flown, and the only auto he had driven was one of the department’s Fords, but his lack of experience seemed to deepen the fascination. He knew for certain that these machines, and others like them still only dreamed of, would be the defining artifacts of the century, shrinking the globe, bringing people together, conveying humanity to a bright, new future.

Just at the moment, though, one particular machine was testing Mullen’s faith. It had failed. It was not a big, powerful machine. Not in the same class as the Spad S.XIII Eddie Rickenbacker had flown in the war, or a new Duesenberg, like the one Jimmy Murphy had driven when he won the French Grand Prix back in ’21. But it was a machine of vital importance to Michael Mullen right now, since its failure meant that Mullen was forced to make coffee the old-fashioned way, in the enormous, blackened pot on top of the old, pot-bellied stove in the corner opposite his desk.

Mullen hurried, tossing lumps of coal onto the wad of burning newspaper, blowing frantically to get a fire going. Any moment, his boss, the chief of police of Corinth, Missouri, would come walking through the department’s swinging doors and expect to find a cup of scalding hot, black coffee waiting for him.

The shouting and the cursing and the loud banging coming from back in the cells were not enough to cover the sound of his approach. Mullen could hear the cheerful whistling and the slightly uneven footsteps on the stairs that announced his boss’s arrival. Mullen shut the stove door and stood up. He recognized the tune: Gary Owen, the marching tune of Custer’s Seventh.

Mullen had been too young for the war to make the world safe for democracy, but Chief Buckner had been in it all right. According to Willis Johnson, who cleaned up around the town hall, had one wandering pale eye, and knew all the details of Corinth history stretching back fifty years and more, Buckner had joined up with the Canadians in 1914, got a bunch of medals and got blown up by a mine or something, and nearly killed in 1916.

Mullen had been in high school when Buckner, limping ever so slightly, came to Corinth in 1917 and started working as a deputy sheriff. Mullen, who’d known Buckner only a little over a year, had never heard him speak a word about the war; Mullen hadn’t dared to ask because Buckner looked so angry all the time and Mullen was still half-scared of him. But Willis Johnson said that even before the war, Buckner’d been in the U.S. cavalry down on the Border, chasing renegade Apaches and Mexican banditos. Willis Johnson said Buckner had learned how to read sign from the Indians, that he could follow a fish through water or a bird through the air.

Mullen laughed at that. Of course, he didn’t believe it. But it did confirm his suspicion that his boss was profoundly old, a relic of the long-gone nineteenth century, with its archaic technology and outmoded ideas. Why, it wasn’t but a couple of years ago that Buckner had stopped riding a horse whenever he had to go out of town. And the only reason he’d stopped at all was the horse was now dead, killed in that two-day running gun-fight between Buckner and the gang of criminals that used to be the Corinth police department.

Mullen remembered it, but of course hadn’t seen it, keeping indoors like everybody else in town, listening to the pop-popping of guns as the fight moved through the town, out into the countryside and back, to end with five dead and Buckner nearly dead on the floor of the Dew Drop Inn. Mullen had kept the newspaper accounts of the whole thing though, and every now and then, he got them out and read them over again, shaking his head in amazement. It had been reported as far away as Jefferson City and Farmington. After it was all over, even before Buckner had recovered from his wounds, the city fathers had offered him the job of chief of police.

If anybody in town was surprised the city fathers hadn’t arrested Buckner instead, they didn’t say anything about it. Certainly not to Buckner, gimping around town in his old cavalry khakis, hard eyes glaring out from under his battered, sweat-stained campaign hat. And after things quieted down, most folks in Corinth pretty much agreed the old gang had it coming, and things were a lot better now, certainly a lot quieter.

Most folks, anyway.

Mullen tried on a smile as Buckner came through the doors.

I did not smell fresh-brewed coffee as I came down the stairs, Michael, he said cheerfully. Does that mean you have bad news for me?

Uh, yeah, it does, Buck. He pointed to the stove. "But I’ll have some pretty quick.

What happened to your new coffee machine? Buckner indicated the shiny aluminum percolator sitting on Mullen’s desk, its electrical cord drooping to the floor.

Don’t know for sure, Mullen confessed. She starts up all right, then after a minute or so just makes a kind of gurgling sound, then quits. Anyway, I unplugged ’er ’cause I was afraid she’d blow a fuse. How was St. Louis?

Fine, Buckner said, looking longingly at the coffee pot on the stove. What’s all that carrying on back there? he asked.

It’s that feller Carter brought in last night—or this morning, really. Mullen took a freshly typed report from his desk and handed it to Buckner.

Judging from this, Buckner said, scanning the report, Carter was pretty busy, even for him. Case of lewd conduct, profanity, assault on an officer, and resisting arrest. And all of it courtesy of this Ed Dunklin—who is, it says here, threatening to take the department to court. Buckner lowered the report and stood listening for a moment. "Is that just him back there making all that racket?"

Uh, yeah. Just him all right. Wants to see you the second you get in. Mullen turned again to his desk and got another piece of paper. As Buckner read it, Mullen straightened the perfectly straight line of pencils and checked to see if the inkwell he had just filled was still full. It was.

Another one of those cards? Buckner asked as he scanned the report.

Yes. Miz Allgoode this time.

The mayor’s wife?

His mother.

Buckner gave a low whistle.

Right, Mullen said. She brought it along with her. He opened a drawer and handed Buckner a Christmas card with a picture of the Three Wise Men riding camels through artfully drifted snow. Inside was a printed greeting: Merry Christmas, 1922.

Buckner read aloud the block words printed underneath the greeting: I see what you do at night. Shame on you.

Fourth one, Mullen said.

That we know of. And they all say the same thing.

Pretty much.

They’re all last year’s cards.


Makes you wonder, though.


How many other old ladies have gotten these, but were too embarrassed to bring them in.

Well, Miz Allgoode says she can’t understand it, on account of all she does at night is feed the cat, drink a cup of chamomile tea, and go to bed. Alone. She made sure to tell me that.

All right, Buckner said. I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to do about it. After all, maybe there’s some widow ladies that are doing something at night and don’t want it to get around.

Seems like it’s already getting around, Mullen pointed out. Besides, what’ve old widow ladies got to do at night that anybody’d want to watch anyway?

Buckner shrugged, thinking of his own widowed mother. She drank sherry instead of chamomile tea, and had no cat to put out, but she was in bed by eight just the same.

Anyway, Miz Allgoode was pretty mad, Mullen said. Wanted to make sure you got on this, and right now. Mullen grinned. And without her son finding out about it.

What’d you tell her?

Just what you told me with the others, that sending Christmas cards in May wasn’t illegal, but that we’d look into it.

All right. Buckner looked again at the first report. Where’s Carter now? He go home?

He’s back in the squad room writing up a report on that old lady driving into that tree.

Squad room? We don’t have a squad room.

Well, yeah, we do. You know that room that used to be full of all those old records from before the Civil War?

War Between the States, Buckner corrected.

Uh, sure.

Yankee, Buckner muttered under his breath as Mullen continued.

Well, while you was up to St. Louis, I put a table and some chairs in there, and an old typewriter I got for a dollar at that shop in DeSoto and fixed up. He shrugged. Everybody was complaining, said they needed some place to go to work on all these reports you keep making everybody write, and they were complaining of having to use one of the cells.

It’s not a very big room.

We don’t have many officers.

That’s true, Buckner conceded. What’d you do with the boxes of files that used to be in there?

Willis showed me a place up in the attic where they’d be dry, and him and me put ’em all up in there.

Yeah, Willis knows all the little hidey-holes all right.

He said he’s been cleaning up around here since right after they built it, started out as a little boy.

Uh-huh. That might even be true. I’m going to talk to Carter; you go tell that Dunklin to keep the racket down. When Durand comes in, have him start working on those Christmas cards. See if he can find out where they were bought, when, and by who. Buckner handed the report summaries back to Mullen and headed down the hall to the left.

A few miles to the south, Joel C. Casterline of the treasury department scrambled across a bramble-choked ravine. His shirt was soaked. Sweat stung his eyes and burned the scratches on his hands and face. He knew it had only been minutes since he found the hanging man, but he felt as though he had been in these woods for hours. If he could get back to civilization … There was that little town he’d driven through before dawn. Corinth? He’d hardly noticed. But they’d have police, or a constable, or something, wouldn’t they?

Officer Robert Carter sat alone in the tiny room. The smell of old paper was already overlaid with the newer odors of boiled coffee and stale tobacco smoke. Carter looked up as Buckner came in. Sweat glistened on Carter’s forehead and he had a pencil clenched in his teeth.

You know, he said, removing the pencil, I never got past fourth grade, and that was in a little, old Jim Crow school back in Virginia that they had in the Baptist church there. He waved the pencil at the report form in the typewriter before him. I never had to do this kind of writin’ before now, even in the army. Why don’t I just tell Mullen what happened and he can write it down, since he’s the one can do all that shorthand and typewritin’?

You told me when you applied for the job you’d graduated high school.

Oh, yeah, I did. Carter frowned. Well, I was lyin’.

Confession might be good for the soul, Carter, but it won’t save you now. Think of this as practice. Modern-day policemen need to be adept at many things, and writing clear, accurate reports that can be used by prosecutors in court to put criminals in jail is an essential part of that.

Carter whistled. Wow. That’s not bad. They tell you that at the conference up to St. Louis?

Among other things.

All right. Carter shook his head and stuck the pencil back between his teeth.

What are you working on?

Old Miz Longstreth run her motor into a telegraph pole ’round eight this mornin’. The pencil came out and Carter consulted a notebook lying open on the table. 7:43.

Where’d this happen? She all right?

She’s fine, a little shook up is all, and a bump on her head where she hit the steerin’ wheel. She never did get any speed up. Had to swerve to keep from hittin’ some fellow crossin’ the street. So she said.

What’s she doing out at that hour?

Said she was goin’ to market, over to Grimby’s that opens at seven. Anyway, she had her spectacles on, ’cause she recognized me right off. Give me a lecture, too.

Gave you a lecture? What about?

Complainin’ about the town.

What for?

For movin’ the telegraph pole, causin’ her to run her new motor into it. Carter was grinning now. Says she’s goin’ to bill the town for the dented fender.

I see. And I guess this Dunklin is going to sue the town, too. That’s pretty good, Carter. Two lawsuits in the past twenty-four hours.

I don’t think either one of ’em’s all that serious.

I hope not. What’s this Dunklin’s problem?

Well, he come to town here about a month, six weeks ago and rented him a little place off ’n the square, round behind the Chinaman’s laundry.

Yeah. Feller used to sell sewing machines in there. Repaired them, too. Buckner smiled. There’s that bench back around there where you take your breaks.

Uh, well, yeah, once in a while, Carter said. He didn’t bother asking how Buckner knew that. The man could sneak up on anybody without actually doing any obvious sneaking. He walked softly by nature, and the night seemed eager to enfold him in shadows. Anyway, it’s been closed up long as I been patrollin’. So when this feller opened it up, I was kind of interested, you know, see what he had goin’ on in there.

And what did he have going on?

That’s just it. Didn’t look like nothin’. Nothin’ in the windows, no signs, nothin’. But I noticed men comin’ in and out until late into the night. All closed up durin’ the day, but plenty busy after dark. So I figured he was runnin’ a blind pig.

That was my guess, Buckner said. When I first noticed it.

Right. So I took to hangin’ around when his customers come out, but I couldn’t smell nothin’, and you know the kind of hooch they sell in them places can smell pretty strong.


So it wasn’t booze, so then I figured he might be runnin’ a wheel, or a craps game, but the only way to find out was to go in.

Which you did. Buckner realized this was going to be one of Carter’s stories, so he pulled out a chair and sat down.

Yeah, but he sure didn’t want me to. It was here ’bout a week ago. I was all dressed up, wearin’ civvies and everything, but he stopped me at the door. Said it was white only.

I’ve never known that to stop you.

No, but I didn’t want to raise a ruckus. It did make me even more suspicious, though, so last night I decided to go on in, only this time I had on my uniform. He tried that white-only line on me again. Carter tapped the badge on his jacket. I told him this here overruled Jim Crow, and I went on in.

So what was it he was doing in there?

Art studies.


That’s what he told me. I asked him what was goin’ on and he told me art studies. Said all these fellers goin’ in and out was appreciators of art, and he was chargin’ ’em a nickel apiece to appreciate it for five minutes a throw.

What’d he have, kootch dancers?

Not even that. Carter was laughing now. He had these, kind of like scrapbooks, big books of photographs of naked ladies.

That was it?

Yep. He’d charge fellers a nickel to look at the photographs of naked ladies. Five minutes for five cents. He had one right there, and I taken a look at it, and they was naked all right, so I told him that was a violation of town ordinances prohibitin’ lewd conduct and I was goin’ to close down his shop and arrest him. He didn’t care for that.

I’ll bet. What about the profanity, the assault?

Oh, he called me some names, the usual stuff, and I wouldn’t’ve thought anything about it, but then he tried to bust my head open with a sawed-off baseball bat he had down behind the counter there. I took that away from him right quick.

So he was resisting arrest.

Seemed like it to me.

I hope you didn’t hurt him too bad.

Aw, hell no. I don’t know what he’s complaining about, ’cause I only twisted his arm a little, takin’ the baseball bat away from him.

I see. Where’s these scrapbooks of his?

I tried to give ’em to Mullen out front, but he asked me what they was, and when I showed him, he blushed all over, like his face just turned into one big freckle, and he said I could lock ’em up myself.

Buckner grinned. All right, I’ll take a look at them. What’s Dunklin’s big complaint about then, other than getting arrested and his arm twisted?

That’s the part you ain’t gonna believe. You’ll have to ask him yourself.

All right.

Yep. You’d just think I was tellin’ you a story. Carter pointed at the typewriter. I’ll be leavin’ soon’s I’m through with this report, ’less you got something else for me.

No, go on home.

Should I hang around, in case Judge Brinker wants me to testify in this Dunklin thing?

I doubt if he’ll call you. Especially if you do up a real complete report. Carter groaned; Buckner smiled. Speaking of home, where are you bunking at the moment?

Got me a room over Jarvis’s bakery.

This one permanent?

Carter shrugged. Far as I know. That boy that drives for him, Joe Gordon, used to live there.

I heard he was getting married.

Yeah. And him and his wife’re gonna live with her folks till they can get a place of their own, so he doesn’t need the place anymore, and Jarvis was looking for a new tenant. It’s just the one room, but it’s pretty nice. And I can stop off after I get through here, pick me up some bread or some rolls that was baked just the day before, and have me a bite to eat before I turn in.

Sounds convenient. The shouting and banging had resumed. I guess I better go have a talk with Mr. Dunklin.

Buckner went back to the front desk and asked Mullen for one of the scrapbooks. Mullen, eyes averted, retrieved a scrapbook and handed it over. Buckner tucked it under his arm and continued around to the other side, past his office, to the three cells lining the inner side of the hallway. Only the first one was occupied.

You ought to stop beating up your bucket that way, Buckner said. You might need it later, and we don’t have any to spare.

The man looked at the bucket, which he had pounded almost flat against the bars of his cell, and tossed it into a corner of his cell.

Hell, I ain’t gonna be in here that long, he said.

You can’t be sure of that, Buckner replied. And if you make a mess in your cell, you’re the one that’s going to have to live in it. And clean it up, so keep that in mind.

You’re the chief, ain’t you, the man said. He was tall, gaunt, and unshaven, wearing a black suit shiny with dirt and wear, and a soiled, collarless shirt. He had a long, narrow face with hollow cheeks and small, dark eyes like buttons under heavy brows. "You

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