Steven Womack: Dead Folks' blues

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Steven Womack Dead Folks' blues
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    Dead Folks' blues
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Steven Womack

Dead Folks' Blues


All right, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise not to laugh, okay? I’m a private investigator. In Nashville, Tennessee.

Stop snickering.

No, I do not wear a trench coat, or a double-breasted suit, or a homburg. I don’t smoke cigarettes or drink straight Scotch out of the desk drawer in my office, and I don’t smack women around.

These days, they hit back. Hard.

Neither do I sing country music, nor write country music, nor even listen to country music. My tastes run to jazz, and I did not just fall off the turnip truck. I was born here, but I went to school in Boston, spent my junior year abroad in France, and wear shoes almost every day. I can lay on a country accent as thick as molasses on a frosty morning, if I have to. But I can also throw in enough Newport, Rhode Island, to make Tom Wicker sound like a hick.

I can hear you now: But a private detective, in Nashville, Tennessee? Give me a break.…

Well, let me tell you, friend, we’ve got a million people in this city now. And any city that’ll elect as mayor a guy who plays harmonica on Donahue and explains how it’s okay for him to be engaged to his fourth wife while still married to his third, is a city that’s got character. I’ve been to some interesting and corrupt locales in my time: New Orleans, New York City, all of Texas. And believe me, they’ve got nothing on this place.

After all, how many cities elect a sheriff named Fate, a man who winds up in a federal penitentiary for corruption and gets visits from his buddy Waylon Jennings? Speaking of sheriffs, I think this state holds the national record for the most ex-sheriffs now doing time behind bars.

Freaking Greek tragedy, that’s what it is. I love this city. It cracks me up.

So I’m a detective. I didn’t say I was a competent detective. I didn’t even say I’d been doing it very long. In fact, I just opened my office about two months ago, a couple of weeks after I got fired from the paper.

I was a newspaper reporter, and I like to think I was a good one. In fact, I was too good. The publisher of the newspaper had a brother who was a lobbyist, and he got involved with this group of amusement operators; you know, guys who run video game parlors and stuff like that. These operators-to coin a phrase-had a pretty strong lobby working to pass a law that allowed video poker machines to pay off. I mean, it’s not like pinball machines and video games hadn’t been paying off for years anyway. It’s just that these guys were trying to get it legal so they could stop paying protection money to the small-town cops.

Anyway, the publisher’s brother was handing out hundred dollar bills like business cards on Legislative Plaza. Most people knew that it was standard operating procedure on the Hill. But this guy started getting cocky, because his brother owned the local paper and they were all well-connected. Blatant as hell he was, so I wrote a story about his contributions that were papering the legislative halls in green.

I knew the city editor would never sanction the story, but I decided to throw it in the queue just to get a rise out of the desk. Only problem was, we had this new guy on the night staff. We’d hired him from Oklahoma, and he really didn’t know his way around yet. He released the story.

The expose ran page one, below the fold.

Nobody was more surprised than I was. The early edition hit the newsstand, and the publisher hit the ceiling. Went completely ballistic. He had the story pulled and loose copies collected from the newsstands.

By noon, the story was gone and so was I.

So here I am, thirty-five years old, living from paycheck to paycheck, and with a name that’s, professionally speaking, Mud. But what the hell, I was getting bored anyway. I remembered reading somewhere that in this state the only prerequisite for a detective’s license is a background check. I had a hard time believing it was that slack, so I called a buddy in the D.A.’s office. He said the law was changing in January; after the first of the year, you’d actually have to have credentials to be licensed.

So with six weeks to spare, I rushed downtown, paid my $75.00, had my picture taken, passed a quick computer check, and became a private investigator.

I sunk the last of my meager savings into setting up an office down on Seventh Avenue, near Church Street, in a dumpy building nestled between a tiny restaurant and a three-story parking lot. I was on the top floor, one room only, with a dirty, greasy window that looked out on an alley strewn with broken bottles of Night Train and Wild Irish Rose. But it was only $200.00 a month, utilities included. Factor in a hundred bucks or so to get the phone started up, a couple hundred for stationery and business cards, and another hundred for an old wooden desk and a filing cabinet, and voila: instant office.

I was almost proud that day, when the sign painter finished stenciling HARRY JAMES DENTON-PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS on my door. I just hope to hell my parents don’t find out.

I figured my skills as a reporter would easily transfer to my new field, and I hoped my hanging around the courthouse for the better part of ten years would get me jobs.


I went from instant office to instant poverty. I called every lawyer I knew, every politician, every well-connected crony I could find.

I couldn’t get arrested.

A month after I opened up, I had to give up my expensive apartment in Green Hills and move across the river to East Nashville, to the funky part of town, to the neighbourhood where Archie Bunker would’ve lived if he’d been born in Music City and driven a truck for a living. I found a little old retired lady who’d had her attic converted into an apartment. She knocked ten bucks a month off the rent if I’d cut the grass in the summertime. I took it.

Finally, I called Lonnie Smith, a buddy I’d met back when I was doing a story about repo men. Lonnie came to Nashville to make it big in the Grand Ole Opry and wound up repossessing cars. He’s been doing it about twenty years now. And he hates the movie Repo Man.

“That picture sucked,” he said, in his rapid-fire, high-pitched voice. “Repo’ing ain’t nothing like that. Most of the time the job is downright boring.”

He was trying to talk me into going to work for him, repossessing cars and tracking down deadbeats.

“Business’s been good lately,” he peppered. “And it ain’t anywhere near as dangerous as people think. I’ve repossessed ten, maybe fifteen thousand cars in my life. And I only been beat up about a dozen times.”

Thanks, Lonnie. I’m real reassured.

Times being what they were, though, I took the job. Our first gig together was grabbing some guy’s pickup out by the lake. We drove out I-40, got off at Stewart’s Ferry Pike, and cut left to drive across Percy Priest Dam. It was a cold day, windy, one of the last before the summer’s heat settled in. In this part of the country, you don’t get much spring; one day you’re freezing, the next you’re sweating. The whitecaps on the lake jumped, as sharp and white as teeth. We drove on a mile or so past the lake and pulled into an apartment complex.

“I know the guy lives here, but I don’t know which apartment.”

“So let’s ask at the office,” I offered.

Lonnie turned to me in the cab of his dirty pickup and grinned. “How long you been in the real world?”

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