Date Published: 03-01-2022
Publisher: New Arc Books / Level Best Books
It’s 1954. The place is Prosperity, North Carolina, a small farming community in Bliss County. Three teenagers, the 1953 championship-winning offensive backfield for Prosperity High, are unwilling participants in a horrific event that results in a young man’s death.
One of the friends harbors a tragic secret that could have prevented the crime. Divulging it would ruin his life, so he stays quiet, fully aware he will carry a stain of guilt for the rest of his life.
The three buddies go their separate ways for almost a decade, before another tragedy brings them back to Prosperity in 1968. Now in their thirties, it is a time of civil and racial unrest in America.
They discover the man who committed murder back in ’54 is now the mayor, and rules the town with an autocratic iron fist. He’s backed by his own private force of sheriff’s deputies and forcibly intimidates and silences any malcontents.
Worse, now he’s set his sights on Congress.
A Kind and Savage Place spans half a century from 1942 to 1989 and examines the dramatic racial and societal turmoil of that period through the microcosmic lens of a flyspeck North Carolina agricultural community.
Arlo Pyle imagined himself an enlightened man. He believed he was open to most ideas, as long as they weren’t communist or fascist. He’d left his wife and daughters behind to fight Hitler and his jackbooted thugs all over Europe and had no desire to allow those ideas to infiltrate his country. Otherwise, he perceived himself open to change. In truth, the southern roots of unreconstructed racism dug deep into his skull and wrapped themselves around his brain like tendrils of razor wire.
After returning from Europe, Arlo bought an auto shop in Prosperity. He was good with his hands, understood engine mechanics, and enjoyed jaw sessions with the various friends who’d drop in from time to time when business was slow. Word of his craftmanship spread. By the early 1950s people from as far away as the county seat in Morgan would bring their cars to Prosperity for Arlo’s meticulous attention.
In late winter of 1953, a Negro teenager named Everett Howard walked into the garage and waited patiently against a wall as Arlo adjusted the timing on a Hudson Hornet. It was common for curious kids from the town to drop in and watch. There weren’t five television sets in all of Prosperity. Hanging out in Arlo’s shop was worlds cheaper than taking the bus to Morgan for the picture show.
“Something I can do for you, Ev?” Arlo asked when he finally looked up.
“Yes, sir,” Ev said, almost a whisper, afraid to make direct eye contact. “I’m out of school. I’m not going back.”
Prosperity had an elementary school, a junior high, and a high school for whites. Colored children went to a smaller, rougher, poorly heated school from kindergarten until they dropped out at the earliest legal age. The graduation rate at the colored school hovered around zero. Nobody expected Ev to stay in school. Everyone regarded him as a bit on the slow side. He could read most words, and his writing was legible, but his command of more complex subjects went lacking.
“I…” Ev’s voice trailed off.
“Yes, Ev? What is it?”
Ev took a deep breath and blurted, “Would you give me a job?”
Arlo sighed. He pulled a couple of six-ounce bottles from the ice in the Coca-Cola chest, and handed one to Ev.
“Thank you kindly, Mr. Arlo.”
“Do you know anything about cars?”
“A little, sir. I can change tires good. And I’m good at washin’ them.”
“You ever worked on an engine? How about putting new tires on a rim? You know how to work an Iron Jack?”
“I can learn, sir.”
“C’mere.,” Arlo grabbed a speedwrench from his tool chest and fitted it with a spark plug socket. He pulled a box from the shelf and handed both to Ev. “Change the spark plugs on this Hornet here.”
As it happened, changing spark plugs was one of the things Ev understood. He laid the plugs side-by-side on the workbench, pulled the ignition wire from the front plug on the straight-six engine, unscrewed the old plug, and torqued the new plug in its place. He repeated this with all six plugs.
“Why’d you only unhook one wire at a time?” Arlo asked.
“Didn’t want to get them confused, sir. If I put ‘em back on the wrong plugs, the car won’t run right.”
“No, it won’t. You know that much, I reckon. I’ll be honest with you. Ain’t much mechanical work around here for you. I could do with a fetcher and an all-around chore boy, though. You fetch parts, wash cars, change plugs when I ask, sweep the shop, pump gas, and keep the shelves stocked, and I reckon I can pay you seventy-five cents an hour. That’s the minimum wage. I don’t reckon you’ll do better elsewhere with no high school and no training.”
Ev Howard went to work as a fetcher for Arlo Pyle’s auto shop. He picked up and delivered parts from warehouses all over Bliss County, or from whatever local junkyard would let a youngster of Ev’s complexion rummage through the inventory unmonitored. Ev proved to be a reliable worker, adept at ferreting out obscure parts for older cars that found their way into Arlo’s garage.
During Ev’s second week at the garage, Arlo said, “Hey, Ev. You like to fish?”
“I do, sir,” Ev told him. “I know a few nice places to catch brook trout on Six Mile Creek.”
“You got a tackle box for your gear?”
Arlo handed him a battered stamped steel toolbox he was replacing. When Ev opened it, a hinged shelf attached by rivets swung up to reveal additional storage below. The shelf was divided into compartments, the perfect size for hooks, spinners, weights, and bobs.
“I can have this?”
“Beats tossing it in the trash,” Arlo said.
“It’s a beauty.” Ev admired the dented, shopworn box. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Tell you what. Bring me a couple of brook trout and we’ll be jake.”
Later that night, Ev arranged all his equipment in the compartments on the hinged pop-up shelf. He stowed a scaling knife and a fish line in the bottom, and scratched E. Howard into the enameled face of the tackle box with a nail, so nobody would mistake it for their own and walk away with it.
In 1954, about a year after Ev Howard came to work for him, five dollars went missing from Arlo Pyle’s petty cash box.
Arlo found Tom Tackett at the brake lathe, shaving thousandths of an inch of steel from the inner surface of a brake drum. Threads of iridescent metal spooled off the cutting head, pooling around Tackett’s feet like fine tinsel.
Tackett was in his middle twenties, recently mustered out of the Army after the end of the Korean War. He’d allowed his hair to grow long, and he tortured it into a pompadour, laden with enough pomade to lubricate a battleship. He swept it in from both sides in the back, to form a ducktail Arlo found contemptible. It was a rebellious style, copied from Yankee street toughs and Hollywood hedonists, and had become a raging fashion over the last year after the release of The Wild One starring Marlon Brando. Arlo swore, if he ever managed to get Adele to squeeze out a son, he’d never allow him to have a ducktail.
“Yeah, boss?” Tackett said, grinning. Both of his top front teeth were chipped, as if someone had broken off the inside corners of his incisors with a BB gun. Sometimes, the gap whistled when he talked.
“Did you take petty cash for anything? Pay a vendor?”
“No, boss. Why? Some money missing?”
“Five bucks. Can’t recall using it myself.”
“I saw Ev come out of your office this morning.”
“I can’t imagine Ev would steal from me.”
“Cain’t never tell with them kind. My daddy used to say all they want is tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.”
“That’s enough,” Arlo warned. “I won’t have that talk in this garage. I’m a Christian man, river-dipped and born again. You keep a decent tongue in your head when you’re under my roof.”
“Sure thing, boss. Don’t mean I didn’t see him.”
Arlo returned to his office and recounted the money in the petty cash box. It still came up five dollars short.
His only suspect was Ev Howard. He had no hard evidence, other than the word of Tom Tackett. Tackett was openly prejudiced, but Arlo didn’t believe he’d falsely accuse another man—of any color—of a crime like theft.
The idea the young man he’d given an opportunity might steal from him grew inside his head like a carbuncle, until he could stand it no longer.
Ev had taken Arlo’s truck to Morgan to pick up a load of alternators from a storehouse. It was early April, but Bliss County was under a heat wave. Sweat ran down his face and chest like rivulets of thawed runoff on a stone mountain cliff. He’d removed his smart gray and white pinstriped shirt while he loaded the truck, to prevent soiling it. He was proud of the shirt. On one breast was an embroidered Pyle Garage emblem. On the other was a patch with his name. Arlo had given him five of them, one for each day of the week. They were a recognition of the trust Arlo placed in him. The shirts hadn’t been cheap. If Arlo paid for them, it meant he trusted Ev and expected him to stay around for a while. Ev was determined to take good care of his work shirts.
As he drove out of Morgan, Ev watched the landscape transform from office buildings, shopping centers, banks, and grocery stores into fertile, rolling farmland. He pulled the truck into a parking space next to the garage. Tom Tackett leaned against the building, smoking a cigarette, his arms stained to the elbow with grime.
“Hoo-boy, you in the shit now,” Tackett said, smirking. He jerked his head in the direction of Arlo’s office.
Arlo walked out of his office and crooked a finger at him.
“Give me a minute, Ev?” His face was dark and hard. Ev couldn’t recall when Arlo had looked as stern.
“Yes, sir.” He followed Arlo into the office. Arlo sat behind his desk. Ev had never asked to sit in one of the office seats, and he wasn’t about to presume the privilege now.
“Got some money missing from the petty cash box,” Arlo said. “You wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”
“Tom told me he saw you in my office this morning, and there’s five dollars missing now. You want to tell me why you were in my office?”
“I was emptying the trash, like I do every day. I don’t want to talk bad about Mr. Tackett, but I don’t think he likes me. I think he’d prefer to see me fired.”
“I know he would,” Arlo said. “Between you and me, Tom’s lied to me once or twice. But lying ain’t stealing. This is a serious thing, this missing money. I want to believe you, but I’m going to ask you to turn out your pockets.”
Ev complied without hesitation. The search yielded seventy-eight cents and a worn bone-handled pocketknife. Arlo examined the pitiable contents of Ev’s pockets again before he spoke.
“I’m gonna give you the benefit of the doubt, Ev, because you’ve done good work, and as far as I know you’ve never lied to me. Hell, I don’t know if you’re smart enough to lie. What do you think?”
“I done told a whopper or two in my time, Mr. Pyle, but never to you. I promise.”
“I’ll take you at your word,” Arlo said. “Get back to work.”
Despite his reassurances to Ev, Arlo remained unconvinced. He truly wished to believe in the boy, but the missing cash had planted the seeds of doubt deeply in his mind.
About the Author
Richard Helms is a retired college professor and forensic psychologist. He has been nominated eight times for the SMFS Derringer Award, winning it twice; seven times for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award, with a win in 2021; twice for the ITW Thriller Award, with one win; four times for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award with one win: and once for the Mystery Readers International Macavity Award. He is a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, along with other periodicals and short story anthologies. His story “See Humble and Die” was included in Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2020. A Kind and Savage Place is his twenty-second novel. Mr. Helms is a former member of the Board of Directors of Mystery Writers of America, and the former president of the Southeast Regional Chapter of MWA. When not writing, Mr. Helms enjoys travel, gourmet cooking, simracing, rooting for his beloved Carolina Tar Heels and Carolina Panthers, and playing with his grandsons. Richard Helms and his wife Elaine live in Charlotte, North Carolina.