WARNING - adult content, not suitable for children
LOVE IS MURDER IN BROWNFIELD
a short story by Mark Kolke
August 22, 2011
Paul Spiker’s grandfather Virgil Kramer ran this place; he assembled a lot of land when banks were foreclosing. He moved here in the 1930’s, during the depression – from Memphis where his family was prominent in the cotton trading business.They had a company called the Egypt Cotton Company.Old Mr. Kramer had a smooth style about him – he made out like he was doing everyone a favor.
He would buy out foreclosed farms from banks and then lease them back to the farmer who had just been foreclosed upon.That way, famers worked harder to increase production because they saw the possibility they might do well enough to get ownership of their land back one day. Few ever did.And, they all thought the bankers were the villains, never seeing Virgil Kramer for the carpetbagger he really was, instead seeing him as a kind benefactor.
His only child – his daughter Myrna and then later her successor, her son Paul, who succeeded Virgil as heads of West Texas operation for Egypt Cotton Company, weren’t so smooth at hiding their motives or their greed.
They made few friends within the town or farming community.Shortly after Paul was born, Myrna and her husband George Spiker moved the family to Lubbock so, for the locals, it was nice to not see them very often. That didn’t change the reality of their servitude on the farms, but it seemed easier if the perpetrators of the servitude were out of sight over in Lubbock.
Three years ago, Paul and his wife Natalie moved back to Brownfield. They built a sprawling 5,000 square foot ranch-style house on a nicely treed property just north of Brownfield, a half mile off the Lubbock highway, not far from the Egypt Cotton warehouse and office complex.
But this story is not about land values or cotton.
Let me tell you a fascinating tale of small town intrigue.
I remember it like it just happened, not because it seemed like an important call, but because it seemed peculiar, out of the ordinary. And I don’t get that many calls. I answered, “Thank you for calling.Howdy stranger, and welcome. My name is Teague O’Brien. I am the part-time 1-800 line answer man here in town.Think of me as your Wal-mart greeter in a town that doesn’t have a Wal-mart. Wherever you want to go, I’ll be happy to give you some guidance and local-rules advice. Tell me then, when are you coming through?”
“Probably in the next couple of days.I’ll be flying into Lubbock, then renting a car”, came the reply.
I began my standard intro, “You might not have thought much of Lubbock. Beyond being the home of Buddy Holly, it isn’t known for much of worldly note – but it is the 87th largest city in the country – at 229,000 – and the hub of the largest continuous cotton growing region in the world and home to Texas Tech University”.
“Thanks Teague, that’s interesting but tell me more about Brownfield … please”, was the caller’s response.
“Brownfield is known for much less I am afraid – we just have cotton and dust. Lots of both. Yes sir. Yes sirree, we have lots of red dust and lots of cotton. The red dust is from all the iron in the soil – which is great for growing cotton. Are you coming in for the Harvest Festival?”
“No, just coming in on a business trip for a couple of meetings. Can you tell me the lay of the land and recommend a place to stay?”
“OK, then, let me tell you about our little community. You will be coming into town on Lubbock Road, otherwise known as Highway 82.Welcome to the old wild west; not the cowboys and cattle west, not the oil drillers west, but cotton country west, where old sill occasionally meets wild here just 41 miles south-west of Lubbock - after you drive through Wolfforth, Ropesville and Meadow - you’ll be running into us soon. Pay attention, because this country is pretty flat, making it really easy to miss a town of nearly 9,000. OK, it has city status in name only because it is the county seat for Terry County, but it doesn’t feel city at all.As for a place to stay, if you are looking for something adequate but not too fancy and easy to get to I suppose the Red Dust Motel is a good choice.”
“Can you send me the information – do you have a brochure, or a website you can direct me too?”came back the voice – as foreign sounding as you can imagine. Not from another country, but from another world – east coast, a Boston accent – the kind my grandfather had when we first came to Brownfield.
“Surely sir – let me get your email address and I’ll send it along this morning.”
He said his name was John Smith; that didn’t sound right.His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. It hardly sounds legit. I wondered what his game was.It wouldn’t be the first time developers wanting to build this place up as a bedroom community have come to town, hoping to scoop up some cheap land – then annex it to the town, service it, and build new housing developments.
The thing is, each time anyone tries they get buffaloed by Paul Spiker who owns all the farmland immediately surrounding the Brownfield or, by some member of Brownfield’s City Council.It seems they all are beholden to Spiker, one way or the other.
The recession isn’t the cause.In better times Spiker had the opportunity to expand Brownfield by developing some of his cotton lands, but he seemed quite content with the size of things.
A small insurgence of commuters, low-budget tree-hugging city escapers and quite a number of tele-commuters have been changing the complexion of Brownfield but, still, the charm remains. For now. We have all been worried there might come a tipping-point where trendy success overruns and overrules the quaint community we remember, and that it will be lost forever.
There are others who fear disruption of other things – things that don’t show up in the newspaper but which impact life here and have a huge impact on the underground economy.
A cotton farming community that still has plenty of local mom and pop shops, old timers, old soaks and trailer trash like any small town in west Texas. Chain stores and restaurant concepts – when they swept the nation, swept everywhere but here.A five-year-old taco restaurant called El Palacio isthe newest business in town.
Laundry hangs on the line here, about the same as on other lines in other places, but it dries faster here and takes on a sandy red hue if left out too long.
We’ve had some drama around town lately – lots to talk about.Death and intrigue, sex, drugs and Sunday morning.
It would be big town gossip, if this was Dallas or Houston, but in big cities these things would be lost in the traffic noise and alley-stench of low end restaurants - from inner-city Chinatowns to truck-stop diners on the periphery, between one city and the next borough where dirty laundry hangs, there would be barely a peep.Not so.
This was small town, but no longer small time it seems.Big time crime had come to Brownfield.
Why live here in Brownfield?Because it’s cheap and most people here don’t think there is much of a way up, or out, of here that makes any sense, so they stay. So why do crime here?The answer is pretty simple – who would notice, who would care and crime usually brings cash, so in a town starved of anything remotely resembling prosperity, cash is king.
Housing costs here are low but that’s because there is so little new housing, and the community is mostly working poor. The population is barely 24% white. The rest is like a United Nations – largely Hispanic and native American, with a bit of everything else. It seems whatever next wave of non-English speaking immigrants come, some of them end up here.Not a surprise really, with most housing, household income, education levels and lifestyle being far less than the state-wide averages.
By day, if the red dust is blowing here on the Blackwater Draw formation, you might miss us completely like that dusty town in the movie The Last Picture Show. I won’t say that it’s flat here, but the only variation on the landscape is on the south end, where Lost Draw carves a channel that runs across the entire county.Is it pretty?At sunrise and sunset the red dust in the air produces a pretty sky, but otherwise this is just dusty cotton country. Hot.
By night, if it is after ten on a weeknight, we’ll all be in bed with the lights out and you’ll miss us. Except, of course, if you catch Elsie Sylvester, the Brownfield High School vice-principal and Peter Schmidt, widower insurance agent, slipping over to the Red Dust no-tell Motel twice a week like they’ve been doing for over seven years now. It’s an open secret that everybody knows. Elsie’s husband, an old fart twenty years older than her, is living off her salary and every bit of sympathy he can extract from his bag of tricks – he is a compulsive gambler with ailments – a diabetes, colon cancer and prostate cancer combo that would kill anyone else. I guess he’s too stubborn a prick to die.Everyone in town who knows Elsie says “leave him”, but she won’t. It is hard to say if it is some kind of misguided loyalty, religion or simply that she doesn’t want to give him half. Peter’s story is far more sympathetic. His daughter Kimberley, complete with a toddler and a sexually transmitted disease, came crawling back to daddy after her marriage to a Fort Worth mortgage broker went south seven years ago of abuse and infidelity. That’s when Elsie and Peter starting taking their business to the Red Dust.
Elsie and Peter were the most obvious, always taking room #110, but not the only Brownfield residents who frequented the Red Dust for a day room.As well, local hookers used rooms by the hour.Nobody knew, or cared, whether the use of the rooms as a hook-up place was known to the owner, or simply a side arrangement by the manager.It didn’t seem to bother anyone since it seemed they were running an essential service to the community.
Cotton, heat, dust and ….. lust. That’s what we have.Add in a little crime, drug money and suddenly things get interesting. I had no idea how interesting . . .
Sunday morning isn’t as busy around here as it used to be. There are seven churches in Brownfield, but attendance has been dwindling in recent years, especially in the summertime.There was hardly anyone stirring. I was on my way to the Town & Country Food Store to pick up a newspaper, some eggs and a loaf of bread when I saw the commotion up the street a block at the Red Dust.
There was police tape everywhere.
Not that it mattered much, traffic can find alternates easily in a small community not troubled by too many traffic lights, bridges and just two railway track crossings.
I parked at the Town & Country, and walked over to where the police cruisers were. I recognized two officers I knew, Gill Waite and Scott Maggs.I asked them what had happened. If this had been a larger community I doubt the officers would give anyone information – let alone a disabled former radio announcer who works part-time for the Brownfield Chamber of Commerce.It was a long time since I walked a beat, covered a story or read the news on-air.Still, it was fun to ask these guys I’d gone to high school with for the inside scoop on what had happened.
They said it looked like a mob-style hit gone wrong. A fellow named Stephen Kelly from Boston had rented a car in Lubbock, come to Brownfield to do the deed.When they ran his fingerprints through the FBI system, he was identified. He is wanted on suspicion of contract killings in Boston, New York, Montreal and Italy.
Brownfield Police have called in the The Texas Rangers to help investigate.The crime scene appears as if Kelly snuck into Paul Spiker’s house, apparently to kill Spiker. But Spiker wasn’t there.The killer didn’t know that.He just shot the two people he found in bed. It turned out to be Peter Schmidt and Spiker’s wife Natalie.
Kelly realized his error and made his way to the Red Dust in search of Spiker.As it turned out, Spiker was on his way home just minutes after the shootings. He saw Kelly’s rental car heading out the driveway toward Brownfield.Spiker then, unaware his wife and Peter had just been murdered, followed Kelly to the Red Sands where some kind of confrontation occurred in room #110 where the bodies ofPaul Spiker and Elsie Sylvester were found.
Kelly, to not cause suspicion, had checked in at the Red Dust – video footage from the front desk security camera and the rental car plate number on his registration form confirmed it was Kelly.The car was left on the motel parking lot, so the big question of he day was “where is Kelly?”
What then, was the Irish mob of Boston doing with Spiker that deserved that kind of rough justice?
It was Monday evening now.I’d spent the day working at the Chamber of Commerce office organizing events for the Harvest Festival, or at least that had been my plan.The whole day was spent in conversations – in the office and on the phone, about the murders. A number of the calls were from old radio-days contacts hoping I could tell them more than other sources were able to report.It seemed every newswire service and TV station with a phone was calling Brownfield to get the story.I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a CNN truck pull into town.
My doorbell rang. I barely heard it over the noise from the TV and the air-conditioner, but my rescue mongrel Snookie startled whelping away, lots of barking and her tail pounding the floor.
It was Gill Waite and Scott Maggs, flanked by a Texas Ranger in a suit. His name was Terry Walter.Scott asked if they could come in to discuss the murders with me, and to ask me some questions about my job with the Chamber.
Gill started with, “Teague, did you get a call last week from this guy?”. He put a photo in front of me. It was someone I’d never seen before. But, given what I’d been told on Sunday, I assumed it was a picture of their murder suspect – Stephen Kelly, and probably the mystery caller from last week, the guy who said he was John Smith.
I said, “No, never seen him before.”
We talked for a while about the call. It seems they were investigating Kelly’s email accounts and found one from me – from the Chamber office, sending him information on Brownfield.Apparently an FBI task force had been keeping him under surveillance but he’d given them the slip last week in Boston.
Ranger Walter asked if I had any cold beer.
It was hot and it had been a long day for all of us.I pulled a six-pack of cans out of the fridge and offered them Coors light.The story tumbled out of them with very little questioning on my part.I had no idea why at that point.
Gill and Scott took turns walking me through the story; it seems the affair between Elsie and Peter was a sham.They were doing a different kind of business than everyone thought they were.Drug Enforcement Agency undercover cops had been watching the Red Dust for a long time. It seems Elsie was distributing drugs through student dealers at the high school. The drugs were smuggled from Mexico, delivered by Peter Schmidt to the motel room. He would come and go with an overnight bag – as did Elsie, only instead of clothes he was heading away with a bag of cash which he delivered to Paul and Natalie’s house.And given he was murdered in bed with Natalie, he was getting a little something extra for his trouble. It’s ironic I suppose, that Paul died without knowing of Natalie’s little arrangement with Peter.
“Excuse me guys, but this doesn’t make sense to me; why was the mob involved, and why a hit-man from Boston?”
Scott answered; “That confused us too, but after The Rangers started talking to the FBI and the DEA, it became a much bigger picture. The Egypt Cotton Company in Memphis has been a mob front since the early 1900’s.They launder money through the cotton business and invest surplus cash in land to grow more cotton.As a ‘legitimate business’, they do rather well.Myrna Spiker’s husband George was a mob accountant – sent west to keep an eye on Virgil Kramer’s activities.He married Myrna and they carried on the ‘family business’ so to speak.Trouble started a few years back, after George and Myrna passed on, when Paul got a little too creative for the comfort level of the boys back in Memphis. He was returning strong cash flows to Memphis, but he started a drug smuggling and distribution business. He had drugs, smuggled from Mexico, distributed in Brownfield and Lubbock. Elsie Sylvester handled distribution in Brownfield through student dealers. Peter Schmidt was the bagman. For years, everybody thought those two were having an affair. It might have been that way at some point, but their overnight bags for their get-togethers a couple of times were for swapping cash for drugs rather than toting pajamas.The mob got suspicious – they thought Paul and Natalie were living just a little too well and sent some soldiers to investigate. Once Memphis had confirmation, they needed a hit man who could not be traced back to them, so they hired the Irish Mob, who sent Kelly to do the hit. They wanted one guy dead, and got four for the price of one. Hey Teague, maybe it is like Wal-mart, prices are dropping every day!
So, the moral of this story would be, I suppose, that dusty motels in dusty towns are not safe places to have sex because of all the drugs and murder.
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