Hap Collins is a straight, white, liberal, blue-collar tough guy. Leonard Pine is a gay, black, Republican combat veteran. Together, they’re the truest Lone Stars living in America’s most independently minded state. Best friends who’ve shared a succession of low-wage odd jobs that have gotten them into even odder situations dealing with lowlifes, now the duo delivers their own brand of ass-kicking justice as private investigators.
In this brand-new story, a day’s fishing lands Hap and Leonard their biggest catch ever: the Rolling Literature bookmobile. A pillar of rural African American communities in East Texas, the renovated school bus vanished fifteen years ago—along with its driver, Harriet Hoodalay, aka Hoodoo Harry—reappearing just in time to crash Leonard’s pickup into a creek. Behind the wheel was a twelve-year-old boy who didn’t survive the accident.
The kid was clearly running scared, but who was he running from and how did he end up in the driver’s seat of the missing bookmobile? The first solid lead in a case that started more than a decade earlier with Hoodoo Harry, this mystery of a small town’s dark and disturbing past will take all of Hap and Leonard’s wits—and fists—to solve.
Known for his “zest for storytelling and a gimlet eye for detail,” multiple award–winning author Joe R. Lansdale brings his rapid-fire dialogue, no-holds-barred action, and gut-busting humor to this original Hap and Leonard novella (Entertainment Weekly).
The Bibliomysteries are a series of short tales about deadly books, by top mystery authors.
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By Joe R. Lansdale
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2016 Joe R. Lansdale
All rights reserved.
The sun was falling behind the trees as we came over the hill in Leonard's pickup, pulling a boat trailer loaded down with our small boat. We had been fishing and had caught a few. Our usual method was we terrorized the poor fish and threw them back at the end of the day, which for the fish, if you considered the alternative, wasn't so bad.
On this day however we caught about a half dozen good-sized perch and a couple of bass, and we thought we'd clean them and dip them in a thick batter and fry them in a deep Dutch oven full of popping grease.
I've cut back on my fried foods for years now, but once in a while a bit of fried fish or fried chicken sets me right for quite a few months and I thought this would be one of those times. But our intended fish fry was cut short before the fish so much as got cleaned for frying.
As we came over the hill, the trees crowding in on us from both sides, we saw there was a blue bus coming down the road, straddling the middle line. Leonard made with an evasive maneuver, but by this point the trees on the right side were gone, and there was a shallow creek visible, one that fed into the private lake where we had been fishing. There was no other place to go.
The bus seemed to come for us as we veered, and I saw right before impact that there was a black kid at the wheel, his eyes wild, working the steering wheel with everything he had, but it wasn't enough. He was out of control. The bus hit us with a loud smack and I remember suddenly feeling the odd sensation of the tires leaving the ground and the truck turning over in mid-air. I heard the trailer snap loose and saw the boat sailing along in front of us, and then it was out of sight and we were in the creek, the roof of the truck on the bottom of the creekbed, water coming in through the damaged windows.
I heard a slow groaning of metal and realized the bus was on top of the truck and the roof of the truck was slowly crunching down into the river bed and the floor of the truck was coming down to meet us. Another few seconds and me and Leonard would be pressed like sandwich meat.
I tried to get out of my seat belt, but nothing doing. I might as well have been fastened to that seat with duct tape. I held my breath as the water rushed in through the shattered windows, but the belt still wouldn't come loose. A little, cardboard, pine-tree-shaped air freshener floated in front of my face, a shadowed shape against the dying sunlight leaking in at the edges of the side truck windows. A moment later the belt struggle was too much and I passed out, feeling as if I were drowning. Last thing I remember before going out was Leonard had hold of my arm —
That was it.
When I came to, I was lying on the ground on my side by the edge of the creek. I was dizzy and felt like I'd been swallowed by a snake and shit down a hole. My throat was raw, and I knew I had most likely puked a batch of creek water.
I turned my head and could see the bus, which I realized now was a bookmobile. ROLLING LITERATURE was painted in large white letters on the side. It was sitting with its tires on top of Leonard's truck, the windshield blown out. I could still hear the groaning sound as the weight of it slowly squashed the truck and shoved it deeper into the creek bed. Leonard was holding an open pocket knife in his hand, the one he had used to cut my belt loose. He looked exhausted.
"Good thing you come around," Leonard said. "Mouth to mouth wasn't going to happen, pal. Come to that, I was going to be walking home alone."
Leonard shook his head. "What's left of him oozed out through the bus's windshield. Glass worked on him like a cheese grater."
"Shit," I said, sitting up.
"I was you, wouldn't go look. You don't need that in your head. Bet he ain't more than twelve years old."
Books were floating out of the shattered windows of the bookmobile and were pushed along gradually by the current like dead fish. The water was either red with sunlight or with blood. Night settled in and the red in the creek turned black as ink and the bus looked like a small island out there in the shallow water.CHAPTER 2
Few days later, Leonard and I attended the funeral of the dead kid. We were fine after the accident, but a little stiff, and Leonard had a bit of a hitch in his git-along. That leg had been giving him trouble for years.
The funeral was attended by a half a dozen people we didn't know. The kid was named James Clifton. He didn't have any real family and had been brought up, or more accurately jerked up, in a variety of foster homes. He lived in a small community called Nesbit. Nesbit was named after the black man who founded the place back in the early nineteen hundreds. At one time Nesbit had been home to over a thousand black people, surviving after the Civil War in their own communities, selling pulp wood to the white folks out and beyond.
Over time the bulk of the community faded, mostly due to an attack on it in the late eighteen-hundreds by ex-Civil War vets and those that wished they had been Confederates. The mob decided to kill everyone in the place over the death of a little white girl. She had been savaged and cut up in a manner that didn't designate any known tool or weapon, but it was immediately assumed that "a nigger done it."
After the raid, only a couple hundred residents survived, and most of them hid out in the nearby deep woods and bottom lands for months. When they returned, the community was a shadow of its former self, with all the houses burned down, the businesses destroyed. Over time it built back up to some degree, but it was never the same. A thousand people may not sound like a lot to begin with, but in those days, it had been a sizable population for an independent black community. After the massacre, its independence was over. The surviving residents went to work for white folks. These days people still lived there, but they didn't even have internet access. A cell phone, forget it. Nesbit was like the ash from a once bright fire.
As a side note, it was later determined the little girl had been savaged by a pack of wild dogs. No apology was made. And in fact there was a sign placed outside of the community on a giant sycamore that said: DEAD NIGGERS ARE GOOD NIGGERS, AND IF THIS SIGN COMES DOWN, THERE WILL BE MORE.
Rumor was it didn't come down until nineteen twenty-five when it became so weathered it could no longer be read. When it was removed no one was killed, but within weeks a new sign with the same words on it went up. In 1965, it was finally removed and never replaced.
Nesbit was now only a post office and a general store, not too unlike the one of old that had been set afire. There were a few other little businesses along the street, a garage and tire shop, a small sawmill and lumber yard, a thrift store.
Our buddy, LaBorde Chief of Police, Marvin Hanson, had filled us in on most of this, and had ended it with, "Thing is, except for the county, maybe a Texas Ranger that wants to bother, there's no law in Nesbit, not even a constable. Well, no official law. Gardner Moost at the general store pretty much takes care of what can legally be done, and some that isn't legal. His wife runs the post office, which means she mostly sits there and reads books. As for Gardner, no one bothers him much if no one gets killed around the place."
"But the kid got killed," I said.
"Not in Nesbit. And not in LaBorde. Sheriff's office will poke around a bit, might find something, but they don't have a good record for that part of the county. There's people in that office that are descendents of the Confederates who burned the place down, killed all those people. Some of them are still fighting the Civil War, least in their minds."
"What about the bookmobile" Leonard asked.
"Eighties bus. Small school bus refurbished to be a bookmobile. It made the route of a number of black communities for years, then disappeared fifteen years ago."
"Wait a minute?" Leonard said. "Jump back on that disappeared part."
"That's the curious part. There was a black lady named Harriet Hoodalay who drove it. Everyone called her Harry. One day she and the bookmobile disappeared. I don't remember all the details, but I remember the story. Anyway, her disappearing like that, like a haint, she came to be called Hoodoo Harry. Nobody calls her anything now. Subject doesn't come up anymore. Pretty much forgotten. And until you guys got run over by the bookmobile, it was forgotten as well."
"That damn sure does fall into the range of peculiar," Leonard said.
"Where's the bookmobile now?" I said.
"Police Department impound. Accident may not have happened in our jurisdiction, but we're the ones that have the storage. We're also the ones that are going to give it a once over and give the info to the county. Odd thing about the bookmobile is except for the window blown out, tires flattened, a few bangs and scrapes, it's in great condition, like it was the day it disappeared."
"What about my truck, the boat?" Leonard said. "Y'all took them in, too."
"Hope you got insurance," Marvin said. "You can collect what's left of them at the junkyard."
"Question is," I said, "how did that kid get the bus? I mean, hell, he couldn't drive. He was all over the place."
"He drove well enough to take it from where it's been all these years, just not well enough to keep it in his lane," Marvin said. "You boys are lucky you're alive."
"Yeah," I said, "but poor James wasn't that lucky."
"Since it was us he run over," Leonard said, "can we can take a peek at that bus?"
"Not legally," Hanson said.
"How about illegally, but we don't call it illegal?" Leonard said.
Hanson pondered on that. After what seemed long enough for all life on Earth to die off, he said, "Tell you what, if you'll wear gloves and footies, and don't touch anything — and I'm especially talking to you, Hap — we might can do that. Come to the impound around midnight."
"I don't touch things," I said.
Leonard and Marvin stared at me.
"Sometimes," I said.CHAPTER 3
Before it was time to go over to the impound, we did a bit of research, taking advantage of other friendships at the cop shop, the local newspaper, and the paper over in Camp Rapture. In some cases they gave us connections to people who had a bit of information they didn't have. What we got when we put it all together still wasn't much.
We discovered that James had been born in Nesbit. His father ran off when he was born, and his mother died of heart disease. Then his grandparents took him in, but when he was ten the grandfather died, and just six months before he ran over Leonard's truck with the blue bus and got himself killed, James's grandmother died. Since then, he'd been couch surfing with his relatives and friends of his relatives. Child Protective Services had missed a beat. No one knew where he'd been staying the last week. He had been out of sight and out of mind, and was now resting in a pauper's grave in Nesbit cemetery. But before he was sent there, his body was examined and it was discovered he had been tortured with burns and cuts and pokes from sharp instruments. He was also malnourished.
Online we read some old newspaper accounts about the disappearance of the bookmobile. It originated out of LaBorde, but its driver, the aforementioned Hoodoo Harry, kept it where she lived. One morning folks woke up to find she was gone, and so was the bookmobile. And no one knew where either one of them were. Or at least no one admitted it. She was supposed to go off on a vacation to visit her sister that day, catch a bus, but if she left she must have left in the bookmobile, as her car remained at home. She never arrived at her sister's.
I went over to Leonard's apartment around ten p.m. and we had a cup of coffee to stretch our night out more comfortably, and then about ten minutes before midnight, we drove from Leonard's apartment to the city compound, which was more or less just down the street. When we got there, Hanson's car was parked in its place, and out back was the compound fence and there was light poking out of the windows of a large garage tucked at the back of the property. The lot within the fence was filled with cars and trucks and even a couple of boats on blocks.
I pulled out my cell and gave Hanson a call. A few minutes later he came out of the garage and took his time strolling toward the fence.
"It's okay," Leonard called out to Hanson. "Take your time. We're going to set up camp in a bit anyway. We brought supplies."
As Hanson arrived at the gate in the fence, he said, "You're lucky I'm letting you do this. I'm putting my ass on the line."
"Bullshit," Leonard said. "You're the police chief."
"But I'm not Police God."
"In our book you are," I said, "and oh so precious."
Hanson let us in without whacking either of us on the head with a rubber hose, and we all walked over to the garage. Inside it was so brightly lit you could almost see germs crawling on the floor. A man and a woman in evidence protection gear were wandering about.
There was a motorcycle and a few cars inside, but at the back of the place was the bookmobile, mine and Leonard's Moby Dick. The window had been replaced and the side door was open, and water still leaking out of it. There was a small smear of oil visible to the side of it where it had run out of the bottom of the bus. They had either repaired or replaced the tires to make it easier to maneuver and examine.
A short man, who might have been thirty or fifty, wearing a protective gown, gloves and footies, was standing near the bookmobile. He had a gray face shaped like the blade of a well-used axe, and his build like a stack of mud. The mud flowed when he moved, but he moved very little, just enough to reveal his natural shimmy as we introduced ourselves without shaking hands.
When we told him our names, he said, "Stump. Get suited out."
In a back room full of fresh and folded evidence suits, we dressed along with Hanson.
"Stump isn't much for lengthy conversation, is he?" I asked.
"No," Hanson said. "Bricks in his presence have died of boredom."
"Aren't bricks already dead?" Leonard asked.
"I was reaching," Hanson said.
"You got any news on the kid, or the bookmobile's sudden appearance?" I asked.
"Nope," Hanson said. "You know more than I know."
He said that because while we dressed we informed him the bits and pieces we had discovered, not revealing that in some cases they were people in his department speaking out of school.
When we were dressed we went back to the bookmobile.
Stump was standing pretty much where we had left him. I think he had moved a few inches to the right. Maybe he had peed in the old spot.
"What can you tell us?" Hanson said.
"I can tell you don't screw up my evidence, which is the whole damn bus. They got to do this, Captain?"
"No," Hanson said, "but believe it or not, they have solved a few things in their time. They don't have as much to do as we do, and they are dogged."
"Yeah, well, I guess that's some kind of reason," Stump said.
We went up the metal steps of the bookmobile and eased our way inside. I stood by the steering wheel and looked back through the bus. Though water still leaked from the bottom of the bus, the inside had been dried out after evidence was collected. There were lights strung in there. The books were all gone, and the shelves had warped a bit. In the back there was a curved metal hull that had been put in, perhaps to house a larger fuel tank. A small door was off to the right of where I was looking. The toilet.
It was so clean, I said, "Looks like you've already collected evidence."
Stump, who was behind us, standing on the top step into the bookmobile, said, "I have. But I don't want you adding any evidence that isn't evidence. Get me?"
"Yep," Leonard said. "We got you."
"That hull at the back," Leonard said, touching on what I had noticed first off, "what's it for?"
"Usually they put that kind of thing in to have a large gas tank, all the traveling they do out in the country. That was probably put in the minute it became a bookmobile."
"I've never heard of that," Hanson said.
"You an expert on bookmobiles?" Stump said.
"Point taken," Hanson said.
"Actually, I only seen a few buses and such with that," Stump said. "Sometimes it isn't a gas tank, but a crapper tank. That way the toilet doesn't need to be emptied out as often. Toilet works, by the way. Everything worked on this thing before it went off the road and took a swim. It has a bit of an oil leak that could be due to the wreck, but I don't think so. From looking it over I think that's been an ongoing problem, but other than the window and the original tires gone flat, it's in remarkably good shape."
I walked toward the back, looking left and right as I went.
"You two ace detectives find anything, please let me know," Stump said. "I wouldn't want to not learn a thing or two from the experts."
Excerpted from Hoodoo Harry by Joe R. Lansdale. Copyright © 2016 Joe R. Lansdale. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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