Read what happens when newspaper reporter Glennis Dunning interviews Precinct 2 constable Roth Adelle and his drinking buddy Mona Cheney inside the Esperanza Lounge, a Pettrolius beer joint. In 1960s rural Texas, constables doubled as coroners.
Circling the beer joint circuit mid-morning, Glennis spotted Roth Adelle’s pea-green 1962 Chevy Biscayne parked in front of the Esperanza Lounge on South Street near the San Antonio-Aransas Pass Railroad tracks. Adelle had to use his personal car for work because the county did not supply constables with vehicles.
Glennis whipped her Belvedere into a parking space and headed for the front door of the lounge before she could talk herself out of it. She had been dreading this meeting with Adelle for two days, and that meant it was something she needed to do. She yanked open the heavy door and stepped inside the dark, dank bar into the atmosphere of stale beer and cigarettes.
Glennis stood near the doorway for a few moments to let her eyes adjust to the dim lightwhen suddenly a female voice called out from across the room. “Why, lookie here, Roth, we got the press right here at the Esperanza.” The woman laughed maniacally.
Glennis recognized the voice. It belonged to Mona Cheney, Adelle’s drinking buddy. Glennis steeled herself and inched toward the voice.
Why does it take my eyes so long to adjust to darkness?
She hated feeling so vulnerable.
“Get your butt over here and join us for a morning brew,” Mona added, cackling again.
“Let me get another chair,” Adelle said. By this point, Glennis’s eyes had adjusted well enough to see Adelle pluck a chair from a nearby table and plop it down at theirs.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Glennis replied, trying to sound sociable, but feeling quite hollow inside.
“Guess you got to do a little slummin’ today, huh, Glennis?” Mona smarted off, cackling once again.
Anticipating such a response, Glennis immediately ordered a beer for herself.
“Go easy on the little woman,” Adelle put in soothingly. “She’s got a job to do, Mona, just like I do.”
Mona muttered something under her breath. She was a small wiry woman with short curly hair; beady mischievous eyes; a high-pitched, squeaky voice, and a permanent smart-aleck grin.
“Well, I got a job, too,” Mona said haughtily. “My job is to be the best damn drunk in Pettrolius.” She cackled again.
“Listen here, woman,” Adelle interjected suddenly, serious for once. “I want you to show this little lady here the respect she deserves. If you can’t do that, I’ll dunk your damn head in the toilet out back.”
Mona bristled. “Well, la de da. Since when does the press get this kind of special treatment?”
“Since you got that damn smart mouth on you, that’s when,” Adelle hissed.
Mona sat up erect as a debutante posing for the society page cameraman. “You’ve chosen that woman over me.” She sniffed, glaring at Adelle and then at Glennis. “And after all I’ve done.”
“You’re full of crap, Mona Cheney,” Adelle guffawed.
“Yeah? Well, maybe I’ll just sign that damn recall petition, too.”
The humor drained from Adelle’s face. “What petition?”
“I wanted to spare my drinkin’ buddy; that’s why I ain’t said nothin’ about it.”
“Yeah? Well, I bet a good head-dunkin’ in the toilet will wipe that smirk off your face.”
“Is that a threat?”
Glennis couldn’t take any more. “Hold on, you two,” she put in, crossing her forearms in a peace gesture. “I didn’t come here to referee a verbal prizefight.”
“Give her what she wants so she’ll leave us be,” Mona shot back, swigging down half her beer. “All this arguing is giving me dry mouth.”
Roth took another drink and let out a long sigh. “What can I help you with, little lady,” he asked, peering at Glennis.
Glennis had already decided the best way to elicit information from Adelle was to assuage his ego. “Roth, I know you’re the forensics expert in these parts,” she began, emitting a small smile. “Can you explain how you determined Elias Bryden’s cause of death? I think our readers would be fascinated at your conclusions.”
Roth was short and stocky, with a full head of gray hair and a ruddy complexion from years of working in the South Texas sun and drinking thousands of longnecks. Glennis’s compliment made him plump up like a strutting peacock. “All right. I’ll explain it in layman’s terms, if that’s all right with you.”
“I think our readers would appreciate that.”
“Well, I guess you know my office ain’t got access to fancy equipment or chemical tests like in the big city. That’s why we have to rely on keen observation and a good dose of common sense.”
Glennis knew all that, but she didn’t let on that she knew. “I understand, Roth. Sometimes I think a good eye for detail is as important in investigative work as fancy equipment. Maybe more so.”
“You got that right, little lady,” Roth said with a roguish smile.
Roth’s ‘little lady’ moniker was getting on Glennis’s nerves. She came close to telling him to drop it, but she stopped herself. If she did, Adelle would probably clam up and stomp out the door. She had already put too much into the interview to risk alienating him. “I heard a report that your preliminary ruling was death by blunt trauma to the head. Is that official?”
“Delivered the report to the DA’s office this morning,” he said with a nod.
“I see.” Glennis jotted down some notes. “Tell me, just out of curiosity, how you determine that someone died by that way?” Glennis hoped she posed the question in a tone that did not sound challenging.
“Ain’t no mistake about it,” Adelle said, guffawing again. “Bryden had a gash in the side of his head the size of a tire tool. His face was a bloody mess.”
“Did you find the weapon?”
Glennis immediately thought of several other possible causes of death, but she kept her mouth shut. Her aim was to get Adelle to talk, not to pose alternative causes of death. Not to Adelle, anyhow. She could discuss all that later with Jake, and maybe the DA.
“That was very astute of you to notice the bruises, Roth,” Glennis said finally. “Many people probably wouldn’t have noticed that, or they wouldn’t have been able to put two and two together.”
Adelle beamed, and took another swig of beer.
“Roth is a trained professional,” Mona put in, gulping more beer. “He got a coroner certificate from Corpus Christi.”
“Oh?” Glennis responded with mock interest.
“Yep,” Adelle responded proudly. “Two-day course put on by the Texas Rangers. County paid for it.”
“Why, you should have said something,” Glennis responded. “We could have put something in the paper about it.” She hoped she didn’t sound condescending, although truthfully, she felt that way.
“No use braggin’ about a matter like that,” Adelle said. “Goes with the job.”
“Told you, you should have, Roth,” Mona interjected. “Might have nipped that recall petition in the bud.”
“Tell you what, Roth,” Glennis offered. “I’ll work the fact that you earned a coroner’s certificate into my story on Elias Bryden’s murder. How about that?”
Adelle studied the table for a few moments, hand gripping the longneck. “Couldn’t hurt, I guess, since they’re circulating that damn petition to kick me out.”
Several minutes later, Glennis managed to break away from the two drunks, relieved to get the worst chore of the day over with. All she had to do now was file an update of the murder story with the Mayvale office of the Beacon and meet Ruby at the Highway Café later that afternoon. She relied on Ruby for common-sense advice, and today she needed it more than ever. Ruby would offer ideas on Elias Bryden’s murder, and that would be helpful. But even more importantly she needed input on what, if anything, she should do about Marilyn’s Hispanic boyfriend.