Don’t Mess with J.R. Bunting
We weren’t really expecting anything exciting to happen. We were just a bunch of mostly veteran reporters sent to cover a story in south Florida that looked like it was going to be much less than interesting. Of course, our job was to make it interesting for the folks back home. A story about a good murder would have been something to make us want to write it. Four of us had gathered in the Blue Heron Lounge of the Victory Hotel in Miami. Now, the Victory wasn’t known for being the hotel with the most five star ratings, or any star rating we knew about, but it was cheap, and all our editors liked that.
We were all there because Jolene Harding was running for mayor of Miami. This in itself was not remarkable, except Jolene was an openly professed, gay, twenty-two year old transvestite. Her name had been Joel, but she changed it for political purposes–at least that’s what her press releases said. She was supposed to show up at the Victory for a press conference, but none of us were real sure why she chose this venue.
We were all pretty quiet and busy concentrating on our drinks, when somehow Buzz Lucas got on the subject of the guy his daughter was living with. “The guy’s a jerk,” Buzz proclaimed. “He doesn’t even read newspapers.” He took a long slug of his drink. “Hell, for all I know, he can’t even read. The dud will probably be a bum for the rest of his life. Won’t earn a dime!”
“You mean he won’t become rich like all us journalists?” Leo Mantis said.
“Hey, maybe I missed out on something,” Walt Burbis said. “You mean you guys got rich doing this, and I didn’t even know about it?” He laughed and took a pull on his bottle of beer.
“Well, some people have done pretty damned well putting words on paper,” Buzz said.
“Name one,” Walt challenged.
Buzz got a serious look on his face. He stared right in Walt’s eyes. “J. R. Bunting.”
“Looks like he’s got you there,” Leo said. “J.R. found how to work the system, somehow.”
“J.R. was a genius,” I told them. “He was very good at many more things than just writing.”
“You talk like you know him,” Walt said.
“Oh, I know him alright. Have known him since he was twenty-six years old and had just gotten out of the slammer.”
“The slammer? J.R. did time?” Buzz asked.
“What’d he do?” Leo wanted to know.
“Well, he was just a kid, sixteen, if I remember the story right. He was growin’ up in Butte, Montana, and his parents didn’t seem to care about him. Kind of let him grow up like a tumbleweed driftin’ around town. There was a little ole store there that was open late at night. J.R. and a couple of his buddies decided the old lady who worked the store evenings would be a easy target, so they went in to steal some beer. J.R. went back to the cooler to grab a couple of six-packs while the other two stayed up front to divert the attention of the old lady. Well, she caught on real quick and tried to stop them. When she came out from behind the counter, one of the guys pushed her and she fell. She hit her head on the corner of the counter and died.”
“Holly crap!” Leo said.
“Yeah, holly crap,” I continued.
“Everything was caught on a surveillance tape. The kid who pushed her got thirty years. J.R. and the other guy got ten each for just being there. J.R. spent two years in a juvenile facility and was then sent to Montana State Prison. Being a young guy, he had to do a lot of fighting to keep the older men away from him. Cost him time he could have gotten off for good behavior. So, he spent the whole ten years locked up.”
“Boy, never heard that story about him,” Walt said.
“Well, it ain’t somethin’ he advertised, but I never heard him deny it, either.”
“So he gets out, becomes a major journalist and starts racking up the big bucks? Never even finished high school?” Buzz said. “Maybe there’s hope for my girl’s boy friend yet.”
“Oh, he finished high school alright,” I said. “In prison. He also picked up some pointers on a few illegal things along the way. Guess that’s just part of being there. But, he got a degree in journalism by correspondence through University of Missouri.”
“That’s one of the best in the country,” Leo said.
“Damned straight! J.R. never wanted to settle for anything less than the best. Course that also got him in trouble later on,” I said. “So, anyway, I was knocking around the country at the time trying to land some sort of a writing job that would pay me enough money to live. I ran into J.R. at a bar in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Course his name wasn’t J.R. then. It was Randy Osgood.”
“Randy Osgood? Where’d J.R. Bunting come from?” Walt asked.
“That’s another part of the story. So he tells me he’s working as a reporter in Omaha and thinks his editor might be willing to take on another reporter, if the guy can write. He tells me to bring in some of my clips the next morning, and he’d introduce me to his editor. Well, he was good to his word as he always was. He made the introduction and left me alone with the editor to sell myself. I got the job. ‘Bout six months later, J.R. asked for a raise. The editor in Omaha laughed at him, and that pissed ole J.R. off. He started lookin’ for a better job the next day.”
“One of the people he contacted was Sid Roanstein. Sid was managing editor and the owner of the Trib in Chicago. After a week or so of haggling, J.R. got a new job and a small raise. He said the raise wasn’t worth moving, but he was mad enough at the guy in Omaha to do it anyway. But, that was J.R.—once he got his mind set on something, he did it.”
“We up to the place where he changed his name, yet?” Leo said.
“Not yet,” I told Leo. “I think we need another round before we go on with the rest of this story.”
Everyone agreed with a fresh drink, so we waited while the waitress brought us more booze. “Okay,” Walt said. “Let’s get to this. I’m learnin’ things I never heard of before.”
I smiled at him. “Of course you never heard most of this before. It was a little before your time. How old are you, Walt?” I asked him.
“Well, much of this happened before you were even born. Where was I now?”
“J.R. had just moved to Chicago,” Buzz said.
“Oh, yeah. As soon as J.R. gets to Chicago, he gets introduced to this show girl, Lily Branovich. Lily was a looker. She had tits big enough she probably couldn’t see her feet if she was standing up straight. Ole J.R. falls head over heels for her. They were seen together in some nightspot every night after she got off work from her show. So life became very good for J.R. and Lily. He was doing well at the Trib, and Lily was photographed more than at any other time in her life. People at the paper started calling J.R. Judge Roy Bean and Lily was his Jersey Lily.”
“Lily had one major flaw in her character though. She not only liked all the attention she was getting, she especially liked the attention from men. It didn’t take too long before she was steppin’ out on J.R.. ‘Course, J.R. didn’t know anything about it, at first. Everyone else in Chicago seemed to, though.”
“While all this was going on, J.R. was developing another idea for a column he thought would be good for him and the paper. He talked to Sid about it, and he was willing to give it a shot.”
“That’s when J.R. got into the letters to the lovelorn business?” Leo asked.
“Yep. J.R. thought it would sell, but Sid wanted him to change his name. He wasn’t sure a man writing such a column would be taken seriously. Sid wanted him to take a name that could be taken as a woman’s name. J.R. always thought the Judge Roy Bean thing was funny, so he came up with the same initials, J. R. The bunting part came from baby’s clothing. He thought women would be drawn to that. Sid also agreed to give J.R. a few extra bucks per column, if it did well. J.R. was so convinced it would do well and he would have extra money, he slipped off and married Lily one night.”
“Well, it sure as hell did well,” Buzz said.
“Thing was, Sid didn’t really bother to tell J.R. how well it was doing. Sid was getting inquiries from other papers wanting to carry the column. He saw the chance to make a great deal of money, so he called J.R. into his office and offered him a good raise to keep writing the column. There was a catch though, but all J.R. saw was the money. The catch was Sid wanted to copyright the J.R. Bunting name. That meant he could control who got the column and what price they paid. J.R. signed the papers.
“J.R. got the first hint of what he’d done when he was traveling around the country covering other stories. Other journalists all over were talking about his column and what a splash it was making. It was also about this time that he began to hear rumors about what Lily was doing. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he heard that Sid was running around with Lily.”
“Wow! A double whammy!” Leo said.
“Yeah, and no one was going to get away with doing that to J.R. Bunting,” I said.
“He knew he’d get back at Sid and Lily, but he just wasn’t sure how. But, J.R. was patient about this situation. He waited until the right time came. He did hire a private investigator to follow Lily. What was found just made him more determined. It seemed Lily was now spending most of her free time with Sid.”
“A few months later, Lily’s mother got real sick, and Lily wanted to visit her. At the same time, Sid concocted a scenario to get J.R. out of his life once and for all. He would have Lily all to himself, and he figured he could find some flunky to continue writing the column. He gave J.R. a story to work on, told him he wanted it the next day, but that he couldn’t work on it at the office because a cleaning crew was coming in to wax the floors that night. J.R. thought the whole thing sounded fishy, but he went along with it. That night, J.R. went out on the town. He posed for pictures with local politicians and anyone else who was half-way notable. He got into a scuffle with bouncers at Club 29 when they wanted him to leave when the club was closing. J.R. insisted they call the police to straighten things out. They did.”
“The following morning, Sid was found stabbed to death in J.R.’s apartment. Of course, there was a big stink about it, and several local politicians called for hearings as to what had happened. After all, Sid was a prominent citizen in Chicago. J.R. was immediately ruled out because he had hundreds of witnesses, as well as the police themselves, who could place him somewhere else.”
“How the hell did J.R. get away with that?” Buzz asked.
“Well, like I said, J.R. had a perfect alibi. During the hearings, many things were brought out, including Sid’s relationship with Lily. It was theorized that Sid had come to J.R.’s apartment to kill J.R. so he could have Lily all to himself. A police captain testified his theory about Sid’s death. He figured Sid came into the apartment carrying a knife, which was found with a couple of Sid’s fingerprints on it, to kill J.R., but tripped over the edge of a rug, fell, and stabbed himself. The only unanswered question was why Sid also had a gun in his coat pocket. The captain said he thought it was a backup for Sid. He really wanted to use the knife because it wouldn’t make any noise.”
“So did J.R. have anything to do with it?” Leo asked.
Buzz slapped him on the arm. “Sure he did! Hell, he’s J.R.!”
“So what really happened?” Walt asked.
“First, two weeks later, J.R. marched into the new owner’s office and showed them a paper Sid had signed a few weeks before giving all rights to the column back to him. The new owners were Sid’s sons, Barnaby and Ernest. They really didn’t have a clue as to what was going on, but since it was J.R. wanting to change something, they had it looked into. The signature on the document was taken to a handwriting expert and was guaranteed as being authentic.”
“How did J.R. do that?” Leo asked.
I smiled at him. “One of the skills he learned at Montana State Prison University. He could take anyone’s signature, and after three or four tries, have it down pat.”
“So he got the rights to his column back?” Buzz asked.
“Yep, free and clear.”
“What happened to Lily?” Walt asked.
“She stayed around for a time while the divorce was going on. She was pretty much shunned and left Chicago draggin’ her good-looking little butt behind her,” I said.
All of them were sitting silent, looking at the table that was anything but well taken care of. Buzz sloshed his ice cubes around in his glass. Leo was turning his glass on his coaster.
“So how did J.R. do it?” Walt finally asked.
I cleared my throat. “More training from Montana. I ran into J.R. one time in a bar in the Village in New York. He had quite a few drinks under his belt, and he started talking. He said they used to spend their time in jail thinking of ways to kill people and get away with it. Like I said, he got suspicious when Sid told him he would have to work at home that night. Before he left his apartment, he turned the light on in his home office and just left the door open a crack. All the other lights in the place were out. He left a tape recorder running with sounds of a typewriter coming from it. He then strung a piece of black wire across the hallway, right at the edge of the rug, so if someone came in, they would trip on it. He took a butcher knife and froze the handle in a pan of water. He could then set the block of ice on the floor with the blade pointing up. He figured Sid would come in, trip on the wire, and fall on the knife. He also figured Sid wouldn’t die immediately. He would probably grab for the knife and leave his fingerprints on it somewhere. By the time J.R. got home, the ice was melted. He took down the wire, scuffed up the rug, and called the police.”
There was again silence around the table as the men digested the story.
“So he got away with murder?” Leo said.
“God, what a story this is gonna make,” Walt said.
“What story?” I asked him.
“You mean you’re gonna keep this under your hat, and you want us to do the same?”
I took a drink of my Scotch. “I’ve kept it a secret for over twenty years. You try and turn on a colleague like that, and I have enough connections to see you never work in journalism again.”
“You serious?” Walt asked.
“Wouldn’t test the theory, if I were you,” Buzz said with a smirk across his face.
Another journalist stuck his head in the door of the lounge. “Hey she’s here!”
“Well, gentlemen, looks like it’s time to go to work,” I said.
We all were draining our glasses when we heard two shots fired in the lobby.
“Sounds like we might have a murder story after all,” Leo said.
Gary R. Hoffman has published over three hundred short stories, non-fiction articles, poetry, and essays in various publications. He has placed over one-hundred and fifty items in contests. He taught school for twenty-five years and lived on the road in a motor home for fourteen years. He now resides in Okeechobee, Florida.