For some, death is only the beginning
Fort Worth, Texas
Eighties rock music seemed odd for a dive called the Chuck Wagon Diner, but that was nothing compared to its photo-packed walls. As Maxx Watts and partner Blaine Spartan took their seats, Watts noted every picture was of military personnel either in the field or their official portraits. Studying the Vietnam War shots, Watts overheard someone say murder. Being a homicide detective, he craned his neck to find the person who made the comment. The bearded, pony-tailed hulk of a man was easy to spot because he was still arguing with a fair-skinned redheaded man sitting across from him.
“Why do keep saying that?” Red fired back.
“Because it’s the truth, goddammit!” said the sixty-something bully with driftwood-toned skin. When Watts reached into his pocket to start his Sony recorder, Hulk fired a gaze that made the detective retreat into his menu. A follow-up peek confirmed Watts’ dad had an Army jacket identical to this one, clear down to his two stripes and black-horse shoulder patch. Hulk’s black Tee, bunched-up denim jeans and scuffed black ropers suggested he drove a motorcycle, but Watts hadn’t seen one outside. If the stranger’s cologne was supposed to mask the cleaning solution smell on his soiled clothes, it wasn’t working.
Not to be outdone, Red countered Hulk’s attack with equally ferocity. Sporting neatly trimmed hair, a similar oversized black Tee, and gray Nike’s hiding under pressed denim jeans, Red’s only similarity to Hulk seemed to be his wardrobe.
A woman’s voice took Watts by surprise. As he looked up, the gum-smacking waitress said, “Are you gentlemen ready to order?”
Watts looked up and then back at his menu. Annoyed by her noisy gum and more interested in eavesdropping than ordering, the handsome detective shook his head hoping she would leave. Red’s next rebuttal came when the dark-rooted blonde waitress turned away.
“Travis,” said Red, “After forty plus years, why do you keep insisting it was murder?”
“Because the goddam police ignored the evidence and ruled it a suicide,” said Hulk, AKA Travis. Travis then settled into his seat and sipped his coffee. He downed half a cup before continuing. “Marv, I knew Jeremy Delouse, and I assure you he was too much of a wimp to take his own life. Of course, his sensitive tendencies probably made him a good actor.”
Unable to jot notes, Watts burned the names and physical descriptions of these men into his brain. Travis and Marv were obvious, but he had no idea who Jeremy Delouse was.
“Sensitive tendencies?” Marv heatedly said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Travis tucked in his chin and drew in a breath. Frowning, he stared at Watts until he looked away and then leaned over the table to speak more softly. “Don’t get all pissy, Marv. I’m just saying Jeremy was more in touch with his inner feelings than most men, and the stage allowed him to express them – and before you interrupt, he wasn’t gay. He definitely loved the ladies.”
Marv nodded, folding his straw into three equal segments. When he released it, it squirmed like an earthworm on a dry sidewalk. Grinning, he picked it up, re-bent it, but didn’t let go. “That makes sense because according to Dad, Jeremy was always having girl trouble.”
“Girl trouble? How so?”
“They’d lead him on and then stomp on his heart,” he mumbled at his straw. “Dad also said lots of people kill themselves over their lovers.”
Hulk’s frown deepened. “Listen, Marv, Jeremy loved those drama queen actresses, and any of them could have planned his final exit, if ya know what I mean.” When Marv failed to respond, Travis rubbed his eyes, heaved a sigh, and pushed himself from the table. “I gotta hit the head. Be right back.”
Marv nodded and resumed his straw playing.
About then the detectives’ waitress returned. Hoping some idle chat might make up for his earlier rudeness, Watts smiled at her. “I’m curious – what’s the story behind all these wall photos?”
“Hon,” said the woman, smiling back, “Anyone that’s been in the military is welcome to bring in their photos. Did you serve?”
Having spent his entire adult life in public service, her question made him pause. Realizing she meant the armed forces, he slowly shook his head. “Did you?”
Beaming now, she pointed to a much younger version of herself. “That’s me right there,” she said, admiring her portrait. “I wasn’t in long, though. In fact, my Army time was like a bad pregnancy – nine months, two weeks, one day, and three hours.”
Dressed in a gray suit and striped blue tie, Spartan snorted. “If you don’t mind my asking, why so short?”
“Well, Hon, I guess I didn’t care much for takin’ orders.”
Grinning at the irony, Watts pointed to his menu selection. “I’ll try your Wagon Burger, medium, with sweet potato fries.”
She nodded, then looked at Spartan without writing anything down. “And you?”
“I’ll do the same, please.”
“Okay – two Wagons headin’ your way. I’ll be right back to refill your drinks.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Always one to ogle the ladies, Spartan studied the waitress’ photograph while Watts pondered why Travis favored one leg as he walked. The old man’s gait reminded Watts of how he walked in bare feet because his left leg was slightly shorter, but since Travis’ soles looked to be the same height, that couldn’t be it. His partner’s nudge took him by surprise.
“Hey, Maxx. Let’s talk to Marv while he’s alone.”
Watts shook his head, thinking they were better off remaining seated. “Let’s see how this plays out. They’ve been talking about actors, so maybe they’re rehearsing a scene.”
“Well if that’s the case, the big guy’s pretty damned convincing. I wouldn’t want to face him in a dark ally.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he said, figuring Travis had at least twelve inches over him.
Soon, Travis was making his way back to the table. After sitting down, he used his fork to sift through his leftovers. Suddenly he stopped and pointed his fork at Watts until he looked away, then turned to his friend. “Sorry for the lapse, Marv, but with age comes weak bladders.”
Shaking his head, Marv released his straw. “Don’t kid yourself, Travis. It’s the coffee that’s making you pee, not age. What’s with you, anyway? You look like a zombie.”
While nodding his agreement, Travis waived his waitress over. Like a well-trained monkey, the woman refilled his mug and left. He then ripped open a sweetener, dumped in the contents and stirred noisily. “So, where were we? Something about Jeremy’s women?”
“Yeah. You were implying that any of them were capable of killing him, and since this is my dead uncle we’re talking about, how about explaining yourself?”
Blinking hard, Travis cupped his mug with both hands. After a long sip, he dragged his sleeve across his mouth. “Marv, forgive me for not making sense, but I can’t remember the last time I slept.” He paused to drink but then set it aside. “Let me ask you something,” he said, slurring his words. “You ever been drunk on sleep?”
Scratching his head, Marv allowed his hand to slide down to his neck. A moment later he fingered his ear like he was attacking an invisible foe. When he stopped, he said, “What the hell are you talking about, drunk on sleep?”
The old man shrugged, downed more caffeine and slowly looked up. “Drunk is how I feel most of the time, Marv. When I lie down, my numb body vibrates like I’m ridin’ the rails. At times it feels like someone’s sittin’ on my chest, driving nails into my eyes. Other times I hear voices when no one’s around. My stomach burns like I’ve downed a fifth of Crown Royal, but I haven’t tipped a bottle since I passed out ten years ago. Honestly, falling asleep scares the hell out of me, but I keep going ’cause there’s no other option.”
“Dude, I had no idea. That’s an awful existence, and I’m sorry. But can you forget about this drunk-on-sleep thing for a minute and get back to your point about Uncle Jeremy? Why do you keep insisting he was murdered?”
Travis gulped his beverage until it was gone. Following a nasty belch, he set his mug aside and started digging into his pants pocket. “Treasure your youth, Marv, and pray you’ll never end up like me.” With that he tossed three singles on the table, then stared at the money. A moment later he took one back and replaced it with two quarters.
“What are you doing, Travis? She was an excellent waitress.”
“Yeah, she filled my mug four times, but three bucks is too much for coffee.” Using the table, he steadied himself as he stood. When he reached vertical, he drove his finger into Marv’s chest. “Think about what I said, kid. The answer’s in there somewhere.” He then cordially patted Marv’s shoulder. “Catch ya later.”
“Yeah, see ya.”
Knowing they would lose Travis if they didn’t confront him, Watts and Spartan stepped into the old man’s path. Seemingly unimpressed with their badges, he smugly rested his arm on their table. “Get outta my way.”
“Sir, we just want to talk,” Watts quickly said. “We’re homicide detectives and couldn’t help overhearing you mention murder. Could we speak somewhere in private?”
The bearded man looked down on Watts like Goliath sized up David. For a moment it seemed that Travis would speak, but then he straightened himself and quietly lumbered toward the door.
“Sir?” said Watts, trying to lure him back. “We’d really like to speak to you.”
Ignoring them, Travis exited the restaurant without ever looking back.
Feeling his anger rise, Watts turned his attention to Marv. “How about you? Mind if we ask a few questions?”
The redhead surprised him by stretching out his legs and inviting them to join him. Watts sat in Travis’ seat while Spartan pulled up another chair. Seeing that Marv was busy fiddling with his straw again, Watts broke the ice.
“Thanks for your time,” he said, then made their introductions. “I’m sure you can see why homicide detectives would be curious about your conversation. I heard of you mentioned the stage. Are you actors?”
The Goth redhead smiled, sectioning his straw. “Actors are stupid. I have nothing to do with them.”
Spartan squinted at the man. “Why is that?”
“It’s not important.”
Watts moved his lips around while exchanging glances with his partner. He then covered his mouth and breathed heavily through his nose. A moment later, he crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat, trying not to wrinkle his sport coat. “Forgive me, but I like knowing who I’m addressing. What’s your name?”
“My given name is Marvin Delouse, but I go by Marv. Not Mr. Delouse, not Marvin, just Marv.”
The response triggered grins from both detectives. “Pleased to meet you, Marv,” said Spartan, extending his hand. “And what’s your friend’s name?”
Marv refused the hand-shake, but did raise his head. “Why?”
Watts shifted in his seat, hoping his partner wouldn’t turn Marv off like he did Travis. For now he would let Spartan handle it as he was better at remaining calm.
“Marv, your friend seemed quite disturbed by your uncle’s death ruling. Why is that?”
Marv released his straw and watched until it had slithered back to its original shape. Then he began stirring his coffee as if deciding on whether to talk or not.
The redhead tested their patience with long sips, but Spartan hung in there. When the silence had gone on long enough, he spoke again. “Level with us, Marv. What’s your relationship with the big guy?”
With a shrug, the man hid behind his coffee mug.
“Look, Marv, we’re not here to make any judgments or otherwise harass you. As Detective Watts said, we were eating lunch, and thanks to your loud-mouthed friend, we couldn’t help overhearing him say the police ignored evidence involving your uncle’s death. Now, whether you admit it or not, you seem to have an interest in this matter and with your help we might be able to clear this up.
When the redhead failed to respond, Watts stepped in. “Come on, Marv, humor us. Share what you know. Either that, or we’ll turn our backs like the other cops did.”
Finally the man lowered his mug and stared back with cold eyes. “Frankly, I don’t care what you do. My uncle died before I was born and nothing will ever change that.”
Spartan shook his head, staring at the ceiling. He held his gaze for a moment, and then looked back at the man. “Can you at least tell us how he died?”
Marv mangled his plastic straw and tossed it on his plate. Mimicking Spartan, he looked up and sniffled. It was impossible to tell whether he was experiencing waves of emotion or toying with them like he did the straw, but when he finally met Spartan’s eyes, he wore a look of determination.
“How he died depends on who you talk to. Some believe his soul is trapped inside the Scott Theater where he was found dangling by a rope, and then there are those like me who believe he was a fool who took his own life over a woman. But my friend refuses to believe that. He thinks my uncle was hanged and now he haunts the theater’s dungeon. Of course, nothing he says will ever change my mind. As you could probably tell, it’s not the first time we’ve had this conversation, and it always ends up the same way with him walking out on me.” After saying that, Marv wiped his straw clean and started bending it again. Without looking up, he added, “The media turned Uncle Jeremy into a folk legend, and now so-called paranormal experts claim he is indeed haunting the place. Sadly, that story has lasted over forty years. If you want to know more, you should visit the Scott Theater. I’m sure whoever works there would be thrilled to tell you about it.”
Spartan nudged his partner’s arm. “You know, it didn’t dawn on me until now, but one of my kids just read about this while researching haunted places in Fort Worth. Funny how Halloween always sparks interest in ghoulish subjects.”
Marv grinned at Watts. “Seems your partner’s way ahead of you.”
In his high school days, Watts might have reached across the table and hit the man, but now he just smiled back. “With All Hallows Eve only days away, this is definitely a good time for ghost stories. But so we’re on the same page, can you confirm your Uncle Jeremy is the presumed ghost in the Scott Theater?”
“I’m not gonna confirm anything. It’s that crazy old man who believes it.”
“Oh, right. And what did you say his name was?”
Marv set his straw free and it lunged at Watts. Clearly amused, he spoke while re-bending the straw. “We both know I never mentioned it. However, I did say that anyone at the Scott Theater could recite the fabled story.” He then raised a brow at the detectives. “I watched you take notes. How could you miss something that obvious?”
Grinding his teeth, Watts pretended to review his notebook as adrenaline raced through his veins. “Ah,” he said, tapping his notebook page. “Just like you said, no name mentioned.” His comment left an awkward void as Marv quietly stared back. “I don’t get it, Marv. If Jeremy was your uncle and there are suspicions about his death, why wouldn’t you want us looking into it?”
Marv shrugged again. “As I said, it happened a long time ago, and that ghost story is as stupid as my uncle.” With that, he grabbed his check, rolled out of his chair, and like his cohort, walked out without looking back.