Before the death of Tag Kern, six people had died by hanging from the tower of Cypress Knee’s trademark roadside attraction.
The first hadn’t been that long after the grand opening of Nico’s Natural Wonderland, in early 1967, when a recent Heck High School graduate named Brian Willoughby got his draft card. The note he left behind read: “Saving myself the trip out of the country to get to the body bag.”
In 1972, a park employee named Buck Dillard faced termination for filching cash from the register in the Light ‘Em Up Arcade. He didn’t leave a note, but crumpled dollar bills spilled from his pockets as his body slowly turned in the mild winter breeze.
Two years later, Eddie Jones – a short-order cook at The Clock and devout Republican – surrendered to despair in the aftermath of President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation. Eddie gave his quarter to Amarilla Dean – who, at the time, was six months pregnant with Eula – and took the elevator ride to the observation deck. His suicide note read: “MEDEA PIGS.” That misspelling eventually inspired a popular grunge band in Seattle.
The fourth tower suicide – or “dangler,” as they came to be known – was a traveling salesman in 1977 named Roswell Gooch. He left behind a rather extensive letter, detailing a troubled life that had struck absolute bottom with the recent loss of his job (news that had been delivered by collect phone call to the Nighty-Night, where he was staying). His sudden unemployment – they called it a layoff, but it sure felt like firing – came just days after he had sought a sense of belonging with the Church of Us. Gooch claimed in his letter that none other than John Swarthmore, the “I-ist” of the “We-ists,” interviewed him for potential recruitment. Swarthmore’s alleged assessment of the candidate: “Weak. Uninspirational. Sad. Meandering through life without a rudder. Brings nothing to the table to make him one of Us.”
The fifth dangler, in 1995 after the conversion to Naughty Nico’s, was Cornelius Webb, a bouncer in the Dunk N’ Dance club. He didn’t leave a note, but investigators ultimately determined that he had killed himself to avoid prosecution in the murder of a stripper named Anna Belle Dothan – stage name “Charisse.” Webb had stabbed her to death in a jealous rage after discovering her involvement with a Cypress Knee police officer. He had thrown her body into the sinkhole gator pit, where the toothy old reptile called Jumper dwelled.
The sixth, about two years to the day of Dothan’s murder, had been the police officer in that love triangle: Dale North. He wore a white cardboard sign around his neck scribbled in red ink: “SORRY.”
North’s cousin, Ozzie Clendening, now served as deputy chief of the Cypress Knee Police Department.
Ozzie grew up in a home with a single mother and no siblings. His cousin Dale was the closest he had really ever come to having a brother. Ozzie, just a few years younger than Dale, entered the police academy immediately after high school so he could join his cousin at the Cypress Knee Police Department.
The year of the affair with Anna Belle Dothan, Dale was in his third year of marriage to Felicity Quinn. It was just a few months before the birth of their daughter, Delia, that Dale had become restless.
Never married himself, Ozzie could only imagine the pressures that Dale experienced. He felt obligated to advance his career, earn more money and do a better job of providing for his family. He would have to keep doing so for the rest of his life. And Felicity made no secret of the fact that she wanted as many as three children.
One night, sitting downtown at the bar in Plato’s Elephant after a late shift on patrol, Dale had confided after his sixth Coors: “I’m not ready to be a father. I don’t *want* to be a father.”
That got a wince from Ozzie, who had said, “A little late figuring that out, aren’t you?”
“Nothing late about it. I told Fel before we got hitched. My idea of settling down was finding a wife and growing old together, not finding a wife and making babies who will define our existence – our every waking moment – for the rest of our natural lives.”
Ozzie had nodded. “That’s a lot of responsibility.” He had watched his mother struggle throughout his adolescence to juggle work and parenting. He hadn’t always been a great help in that process, he knew. Ozzie didn’t have much faith in marriage in general. He certainly wouldn’t pursue the burden of fatherhood.
In the years since Dale’s death, Ozzie avoided Naughty Nico’s and the doughnut-boob tower as much as possible.
Couldn’t avoid being here tonight, though, he knew.
He stood with Jim Larman and Rutledge Silloway next to the sheet-draped corpse of the man presumed to be actor Tag Kern, waiting on the coroner.
“And that’s all you saw?” Clendening asked the janitor.
“Did you hear anything? Anyone up here with him? Did the elevator run after…” He motioned to the corpse.
“No, sir,” Larman said. “Not ‘till I called it, at least. It was up top when I hit the button. Took me a minute to get there, though. Not much of a runner these days.”
Ozzie looked toward a red door in the side of the breast cone, marked STAIRS – EMERGENCY ONLY.
“Locked,” the janitor said. “Gotta have a key.”
The police officer noticed a furious glance from Silloway to Larman. “Relax, Rutledge. This ain’t a fire code case. But you better see to that problem, pronto. Sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen.”
The elevator machinery thrummed as cables carried the car back to ground level for new passengers. “Excuse me,” Clendening said and then walked to the east side of the doughnut to look down through the gridwork. Two uniform cops, both men, flanked the elevator. A third man, with balding brown hair and a hunch, wore a lavender-hued Nico’s polo shirt. He faced the elevator doors, waiting. Looked like Remy Dixon.
“Someone’s coming up,” the deputy chief said, walking back toward the corpse. “Dixon, I think. Maybe he saw something.”
Rutledge coughed a laugh. “I guaran-damn-tee you Remy saw something. Whatever his drug of choice is these days is bound to show him all kinds of amazing shit.”
But when Remy Dixon emerged from the elevator onto the observation deck, it wasn’t to share valuable evidence that might help solve the mystery of Tag Kern’s death. Instead, he made a nervous beeline to Silloway and said, “Christ, boss, I’m sorry!” He gave wide-eyed looks to Larman and Clendening, clutching his hands together. “Shit, shit, shit.” He stared at the deck, eyes eventually settling on the body draped under a sheet. “Who the…?”
“Never mind that,” Clendening said.
“What’s going on, Remy?” Rutledge Silloway asked.
“I’d opened the gate to the pit to handle the feeding. Got distracted by the commotion, y’know?” Dixon said. “Shiny lights and sirens. I turned my back for just a couple minutes. Jumper’s gone, boss.”
Silloway crossed his arms. “Well, he was an old gator. I’m sure we can get a new one cheap. Just call Dean Gallant. Or, uh, call someone who can go find his hovel in the swamp.”
Dixon shook his head. “No, wrong! Wrong! It ain’t that Jumper’s ‘gone’ gone. He’s just gone. Escaped the pit. I can’t find him nowhere.”
“Did you feed him before that happened?” Larman asked.
“When’s the last time Jumper ate?” Clendening asked.
“Last week,” Dixon said. Then he frowned, head tilting. “Or maybe it was the week before? No, no, had to be last week.” He looked back at Silloway. “Sorry.”
The manager nodded, placing a hand on Dixon’s shoulder. A greasy smile slithered across his face. He couldn’t have been happy about the prospect of a hungry escaped gator wreaking havoc around town, Ozzie thought.
“Bad enough I’m going to get shit rained down on me over a dead movie star,” Silloway growled at Dixon. “Now I’ve got Jumper to worry about? Right before Founder’s Day weekend? Get the hell off my property and never come back, idiot.”
Gaping, Dixon raised his hands plaintively and said, “Wait a minute now, boss. I know you’re mad and I ain’t got no right to say you’re wrong to be. Don’t blame you for wantin’ to fire me, no sir. But let me help put it right.”
“How, exactly, do you plan to do that?” Silloway asked.
“Let me help hunt Jumper down,” Dixon said.
Clendening chuckled and then sighed ruefully at the gatorkeeper. “You got a line on where that gator’s headed? Seems to me, if you really wanted to catch him, you would’ve been hot on his trail already instead of wasting time up here on the observation deck.”
“Ozzie’s right,” Silloway said. “Remy, I couldn’t trust you to find your toes if you were kicking yourself in the back of the head. But I’ll tell you what: you bring Jumper back alive, I won’t sue you for damages. Somebody else brings him back dead, well, that’s coming out of your ass. How’s that sound?”
“Won’t let you down again, sir,” Dixon assured him before lumbering toward the elevator.