By the early seventies, Joe Derr’s need for deception had ebbed. If he needed to pass at a reception at the governor’s mansion up in Indianapolis he had a willing cadre of faded debs to take his arm and help him find his keys. Otherwise, if you wanted Joe Derr, you got Donald Baggett, too.
After I took my leave of Cy, I was grateful to discover that after seven hours immersed in the disorienting redness of his club I had not suffered permanent retinal damage and I headed to my hotel, where I received the distressing news that the probate hearing I had driven 735 miles to attend, scheduled for the next morning, had been continued.
I’d been sending little mash notes to Donald Baggett for months, tempting him with the enticing prospect that I might persuade him to confess to murder and thus jeopardize a $600,000 windfall. Was he being coy? Playing hard to get? Why was he keeping me at arm’s length?
I know you’ve been through a lot. No one has taken the time to try to fully understand your position in all this. There’s been a lot of bad publicity, very bad. But every story has two sides and no one has heard yours. Let me help you tell it. I’ll be in Evansville in early September and will call you when I get there. Talk soon.
So far, Donald had resisted my insistently pitched woo, but the next day when I called his home he picked up the phone. He told me he’d meet me in the parking lot of a supermarket just outside of Evansville. “Just park and wait on the sidewalk. I know what you look like.”
And so I drove to the supermarket and took up a station very near to a large bin of cobbed corn and set to waiting. Two hours passed but Don did not appear. I headed back to my hotel, dashed about town interviewing what low characters I could find lurking on the margins of this lurid fin-de-siècle, ordered room service and prepared to catch a few winks before departing.
Then, at 1 a.m., came a rap-rap-rapping on my chamber door. I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. I was so tired I was mixing gothic metaphor with holiday pentameter.
I opened the door to an empty hallway. A minute later, my phone rang and on the other end I heard heavy breathing. Fucking editors.
Then the door again. Then the phone. Again. This time a throaty voice. “Meet me downstairs. You are who you say you are.” I was glad to have someone clear that up, because I’d been wondering for years. And then I realized that earlier in the day I’d been cased. While I stood on the sidewalk fondling a shaft of maize, Don had eyeballed the parking lot to ascertain if the car I drove up in had government plates. A smart cookie … full of curare.
The handset had barely stopped rocking in its cradle as I pulled on my brogans and dashed for the elevator. And when the doors opened with a foreboding whoosh, I beheld the object of my inquisitive desire, standing tall and bursting out of a reasonably fashionable powder blue button-collar twill shirt in all his pale glory. Oh Donald.
Unfortuitously an Evansville patrolman – the house dick? – chose that precise moment to walk across the lobby and Donald spooked and grabbed my elbow and trundled me through the kitchen. We burst through two swinging steel doors, ran a gauntlet of lettuce and found ourselves on a dark loading dock. Donald took the lead. “Walk this way.” My eyebrow went up, but I said nothing, of course.
We weaved through a parking lot and then turned down a dark avenue near a skeletal construction site. I wanted to take the measure of my quarry but unfortunately the tape in my pocket stretched to only six feet and that wasn’t going to cut it.
I hurriedly gave him my I’m-here-to-help-you spiel as we strode quickly towards … well, towards increasing darkness. Donald stared straight ahead. “I’m not going to answer any questions.” Sure, I thought, a man suspected of murder leaves his comfortable home in the middle of the night to meet a reporter who’s dogged him for months just to get in a little cardio-vascular workout on the most desolate street in Evansville.
I decided to prod him. “Don. Tell me. You can tell me. What happened in Acapulco? Did you kill Joe? Did he provoke you? I know he had a temper. Someone said he treated you like a dog. DidyouDonDidyou? Did you do it? Where’s Joe? What happened? You can tell me. Tell me where he is. We can talk about this. I know you want to tell me.”
Can an albino’s face really turn red or I was just having residual symptoms from my hours ensconced in Cy’s club? I started to step six inches sideways with each step forward. I knew that if he got one of his big mitts around my thorax I’d never fake my way through the Great American Songbook again. He was big but likely as nimble as a Volvo and I prepared to turn on the jets in the event my ardent imploring had evinced sour feelings.
Just then, from behind, came a rebel yell, which carried on its contrail a beer bottle that exploded against a brick wall above our heads. Don had led me to Evansville’s gay promenade, where late at night local roustabouts whose family trees resembled vexing elementary school riddles – “My mother’s father is my sister’s son. Who am I?” – liked to broaden their cultural perspectives via encounters with The Other, as an English professor might put it.
The crisis passed and the truck roared into the night, unkind epithets trailing in its wake. Suddenly, Don pulled up short and turned towards me. We volleyed inconclusively and he confirmed a few details I was guessing at but had not been certain of, i.e. I caught him in a few small lies. Useful, but mere garnish.
“Don, take a breath and let it out. Think of what you’ve been carrying around. It can’t be easy. Where’s Joe?”
Don took a breath and let it out – but then of course he had to, we all do.
Next: Hijinks at The Paradise and The Last Man to See Howard Hughes Alive