Welcome to Bannville, MS, home of the Banned Library and set right in the middle of the dark piney woods where drugs, violence and dark forces are as abundant as the humidity. Our narrator on this journey is Evan Banned, one time director and current owner of the library now trying to bring it back after it burned to the ground and then, right after it reopened, was closed due to funding. Currently, Evan is hosting the anniversary party for this friend Ocean Penn and his old love Ashley Weather's grandparents while Ashley is covering the event with her other ex, Bradley Francis, who kicked the shit outta Evan days ago. Will the party go off smoothly? Will Evan get the library back on its feet? What kinda cake are they having?
I sat on the steps of the library and waited for the group of party goers to arrive. Moments like this, waiting on a cold, grey day outside make me wish I could have a cigarette. I have not had one in over a year, but sometimes, just sometimes, the habit rises and reminds me that it still exists. And I miss it like an old lover, good and bad.
With my mind elsewhere in grey clouds of cigarette smoke, I did not notice Detective Gerald Parker come around the building until he was standing to my right. I stood up but did not offer my hand.
“Detective,” I said.
“Banned,” he said, “hear you’re having a party today.”
“Yep. Crazy shit will go down. You here for security?”
“Should be,” he said, looking at me, “Nothing normal happens in this damn library. Birthday?”
“Anniversary. Kelly Penn and Ashley Weather's grandparents,” I said.
“Ashley Weathers, huh?” he said, “One from the news?”
I looked at the detective and realized why he was here. I smiled, “Yeah. The Wallaces are old friends of the family. Let them use the library for the party,” telling him things I am sure he knew.
“So she’ll be here, then, huh?” he said, “To report?”
“And probably have some cake. You’re welcome to stick around, detective. You know Ms. Weathers?”
The gruff detective shifted from one foot to the other like a grade schooler, “She interviewed me for that thing with the vet’s place.”
“I heard,” I said, “Irma Belford. Good lady. She going to be okay?”
Parker shook his head, “Passed away last night. Turned the thing into a murder.”
“Drugs. What monsters usually go for,” Parker said.
The news had been all over town. Somebody had broken into Irma Belford’s veterinary office Saturday night. If town word can be trusted, she was nursing a litter of kittens overnight because their mother had kicked them out. Her assistant found Irma with the back of her head cracked open, laying on the floor.
“Any leads?” I said.
“Why would I tell you, Banned?” he said, turning from me. Something had gone wrong, as it usually did. The detective walked into the library.
Ocean drove up in her red Pontiac. Two shapes sat in the back seat, hunched lumps of wool and cotton. I opened the back door of the car when it came to a stop at the curve.
“Dear gawd, Kelly, you drive like a damn maniac,” Pop Wallace said as he stuck his shaking bird legs from the car.
“Leave her alone, you old crow,” Maw Maw Wallace said as Ocean helped her out, “Just cause you can’t see ten feet in front of you don’t mean she can’t drive.”
“You bat, when are you going to die?” Pop said, walking past me to the stairs of the library. I closed the door and followed him.
“I’ll die after I get a few years of peace and quiet over your corpse,” she said, trailing after him up the stairs, her wooden cane tapping on the concrete. Her scarf waved in the wind and slapped at her face.
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Wallace,” I said, “Happy anniversary.”
Neither of them turned to me. They continued up the stairs like two stick men covered in cotton balls. Ocean walked around to me, “Young love. What did Parker want?”
“He wants to meet your sister. Talked a little bit about the Belford thing.”
“Wasn’t that horrible? And I bet he’s mad, what with them losing that lighter and all.”
“What lighter?” I asked.
“There was a cigarette lighter at the vets. Ashley told me, it went missing sometime yesterday. Parker’s probably ten kinds of pissed.”
We followed the old couple up the stairs, “Where’s Daryl?” I asked.
“Off shore. Some how decided hang out in the middle of the Gulf rather than be here to witness the miracle of a lifetime together,” Ocean said.
“Stop pulling it, you crazy woman,” Pop said as Maw Maw attempted to pull the scarf from around his neck, “You’re gonna choke me to death.”
“If I wanted you dead, I’d put a hose from your ass to your mouth when you sleep, moron. Let me help,” Maw Maw said.
“I don’t need your claws pulling at me,” he said and stripped his hat, scarf and coat walking from her. He dropped each where he stood. “No cake,” he said, “shitty party.”
I heard a screech from outside and turned to see the Channel 3 van pull up outside. A knot formed in my stomach as Ashley and Brad climbed out. She checked her blonde hair and lipstick in the side mirror of the van while he gathered camera equipment. I excused myself and told Ocean to let them in the library.
As I crossed the room, Maw Maw’s cane darted from behind a column, “You. Boy. I know you.”
I looked back for Ocean and saw her opening the door for Ashley and Brad. I turned back to the old woman, her eyes wide and staring at me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, “I was at Christmas about ten years ago. We played Scrabble.”
She swung the cane lightning fast, cracking my elbow, “Cheater. I remember you. You were with my Ashley. One of those Banned men. I knew your people. ‘Kinderly,’ huh, no such word.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said again, “That was the word. Can’t believe you remember that.”
“And you’re a bit of a kiss ass and your face is a mess,” she said, “But I like you. Where’s the cake?”
“Maw Maw,” Ashley said to my right, “Are you being mean to Evan?”
I turned and she hugged me, coming in close to my neck. She smelled of lavender and something sharp I could not place.
“Ashley,” Maw Maw said, “You look gorgeous. Stay away from the Banned men, though. One of them in your belly is a suicide note. Are you gonna be on the news tonight?”
Ashley smiled, “Yes’um, you too. Do you mind if we ask a few questions?”
“Get out of the way, Banned,” Brad said.
I turned to him and he was setting up a camera on a tripod. Maw Maw saw the camera with the large stylized 3 on the side and blushed.
“Oh, Ashley, no, why would you want an old lady on the news?” she said, turning to her husband who was picking through the refreshments, “Stop playing with those nuts, dummy. We’re gonna be on the news.”
The interview was shot near the refreshment table, then Brad moved the camera to get people coming in and other events. Mayor Bilbo and his assistant Donna came, as did Taylor Wick of the high school where Maw Maw and Pop taught. Several people stopped to talk to Ashley, especially over the murder of Irma Belford. I even saw Parker squeeze in and get an autograph from her. I saw Brad leave and followed him out the back door.
“What do you want, Banned?” he said, flicking his brass lighter, “Want me to kick your ass again?”
“Just looking for a cigarette,” I said.
“You got some balls,” he said, handing me a cigarette and a lighter.
I looked over the brass lighter and clicked it open, “Also checking to see if you’re stealing my stuff.”
He made a noise, “Look. That other day. No hard feelings. I was, uh…”
“You were what?” I looked at him and he looked away. I took a drag, deep and burning in my lungs and watched him. His hands were shaking, “Brad, what the fuck do you want?”
“Jesus. I just… I just want to get by, you know,” he said, “We were good. Me and Ash.”
I winced when he used that nickname for her. I had never heard anyone else say it. I vowed to never say it again.
“Okay,” I said, “What does she say?”
“Sometimes she… Man, who the fuck are you to ask this shit? You’re fucked, you know that? Two days ago I kick your ass up and down and now you wanna make up and talk about that bitch? Fuck you.”
I watched him throw down the cigarette and walk inside. Minutes later I heard the van door out front close and Channel News 3 left the party. Inside, Ashley and Ocean looked at me, but I gave them no answers. Ashley looked like she wanted to talk, but I stayed away. When the party ended, she went home with Ocean and the grandparents.
I cleaned up, telling them not to come back or worry. Then I walked down to the corner store and purchased a fifth of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes.