Two weeks before Labor Day, Raphael Semmes Cody sat with his cousin Junior in Roxie’s Ice Cream Palace. Both were scooping out almond crunch ice cream covered with butterscotch syrup and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. Outside, heavy air grown humid from passage over the Gulf of Mexico and torrid from radiant heat off the Florida Panhandle had come to rest upon the little town of Clayville. The Alabama sky, mercilessly clear, offered no promise of an afternoon shower. Customers entering the Palace plucked at shirts and blouses stuck with sweat to their bodies.
“My Lord, it is hot out there,” said a linen-clad businessman with a sigh as he pushed through the door.
A farmer sitting on a stool laughed. “Yeah, hotter’n a bucket of red ants.”
Junior didn’t care. He said to Raphael, “I got a great idea. Let’s go see if we can find the Chicobee Serpent.” He meant Alabama’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. Over the past century, hundreds of local people claimed to have seen something very big, snakelike, and definitely mysterious lurking in the deeper water of the nearby Chicobee River.
“Naw, that’s crazy,” Raff—as he was usually called—replied. “That’s just a story people made up. There isn’t any such thing as a Chicobee Serpent.”
Junior had anticipated that response. “Yeah, there is. Lots of people have seen it. You just gotta drift down the river real quiet-like, don’t use no outboard motor or anythin’. Make your boat look like a floatin’ log, or somethin’ like that, you know.”
“Oh, yeah, if a lot of people have seen it,” Raff said, “why haven’t they taken any pictures?”
“Maybe they didn’t have any cameras with them. They were just out fishin’. I tell you what, we’ll take a camera. I got one. If we take a picture, you bet we’ll be famous.”
“What’s it supposed to look like?” Raff asked.
“It’s a lot like a real big snake. It curls around a lot. Nobody’s seen the head, just parts of the body.”
Raff shook his head. “I don’t think so. My parents—”
“Oh, come on, don’t be chicken.” Junior flapped his arms and made clucking noises. “What we got to lose? It’d be a lot of fun. We’ll stop along the way and visit Frogman. Maybe he’ll show us Old Ben. Wouldn’t you like to see the biggest alligator in the world?”
Raff shook his head again, this time harder. “Now I know you’re crazy. Frogman’ll kill us if we go on his property. They say he murdered some people up in Lownes County and got away with it. I hear if you get too close to his landing, even when you’re just fishing around there, he’ll come out and yell and tell you he’s going to kill you.”
“Aw, come on,” Junior replied. “Old Frogman makes a lot of noise, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’d be real interestin’ if we could visit him. Somethin’ to tell people about. Maybe he’ll let us take a picture of Old Ben. It would really be somethin’ to show that around.”
“Oh, yeah? I hear people disappear on the Chicobee and their bodies are never found.”
“You think Frogman did that? No way. If they suspected him even just a smidgen, he’d be down at the Clayville Police Station and they’d be diggin’ up his property to look for dead bodies.”
“All right, then who did do it?”
“How should I know? Maybe the Chicobee Serpent. Maybe they just fell overboard and drowned. Their bodies got carried on down to the Gulf. Or maybe they wasn’t really any people at all they couldn’t account for. Maybe all that’s just a story.”
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