Read an Excerpt
Can't Never Tell
A Southern Fried Mystery
By Cathy Pickens
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Cathy Pickens
All rights reserved.
"I thought this was supposed to be scary."
My niece Emma made her pronouncement with the derision only a seven-year-old can muster.
I looked down at the top of her dark red hair, plaited in a thick ponytail down her back, unruly curls escaping around her face. Nothing much scares her, so the tableaux of faked horror in the carnival fright house didn't stand a chance.
Four teenagers caught up with us in the dark, one couple in a clutch so tight they could have entered the three-legged race. The other couple trailed behind, self-consciously holding hands. The girl in the impossible clutch used every dilapidated fake prop as an excuse to shriek and grab tight to her scrawny boyfriend.
In a few years, would a prepubescent Emma visit a fake fright house looking for thrills of that sort? I shuddered, but knew I had little reason to fear. The look on Emma's face and the disgusted flip of her ponytail as she made a faint gagging sound told me the real worry was that she'd leap from seven to eighty-seven and join her great-great-aunt Aletha without any stops in between. My own little Attila the Hen.
The carnival had rolled into Dacus, bolted together its rides, slid up the doors on the concessions, and opened for business today at noon.
Emma and I had waited until early evening before we ventured out to the Fourth Festival and its carnival midway. By that time, the sun had sunk low enough to cool the late June heat down some, and the darkness and the dancing lights turned the tawdry traveling show to magic. Still, the inside of the trailer was humid and smelled like a dirt-floored basement tinged with mildew.
The first fright house tableau displayed electric arcs popping, strobing lights, and automated mannequins in an operating room scene. One mannequin wore a blood-spattered smock and held a roaring toothless chain saw aloft. The other mannequin, lying on the operating table, jerked and screamed, accompanied by an awkward mechanical clank. It all looked a bit halfhearted.
The teenagers, wanting a thrill a second, scooted past us in the dim room, almost as though we were a not-very-scary part of the display. Not that anything in the place was scary.
As the teenagers reached the narrow room's exit, a loud pop from one of the arcs gave the teenaged girl leading the foursome yet another reason to jump. She was half a head taller and fifty pounds heavier than her slim-hipped date. She grabbed him with such energy that he stumbled against a third mannequin levitating beside the exit door. This mannequin held a chain saw over the doorway, the small engine producing a constant putter and whine.
The boy's bravado slipped, and he jumped out of the mannequin's reach. From a safer distance, he glanced up at the figure clad in a butcher's apron and overalls.
The other guy in the foursome, who was also smaller than his amazon of a girlfriend, kept one arm around her waist and nestled up under her ample endowments. Judging from his expression, he wasn't thinking whatever fifteen-year-old boys usually think when they have their arm around a garden of earthly delights in a too-tight Wrestlemania T-shirt.
I followed his frozen gaze to the floor.
"Man!" His shocked whisper was followed by a glance at me and a shifting dance on his feet. The two girls were the last to notice and, by then, their dates had pushed them underneath the puttering chain saw and through the doorway.
The mannequin's leg lay on the floor. It had slid from the now-limp pants leg.
"They broke it," Emma said, condemnation in her tone. "And now they're running away." The foursome couldn't help but hear her, even in the next room.
"I'm sure it's fallen off before," I said.
Emma stepped closer. I reached for Miss Fix-It's shoulder, intending to steer her out of the stifling trailer and toward a fried elephant ear coated with powdered sugar.
She stooped and, before I could issue a motherly "Don't touch that," she said, "It's real." Very matter-of-fact.
I'm obviously not as quick as my brilliant but quirky niece. It took me a minute to see what had attracted her notice.
The lace-up work boot had walked many a mile before it retired to the sideshow. What stuck out the top wasn't a pale pink, smooth plastic mannequin leg. It was weathered brown, like old cracked leather, and covered with thick, curly hairs. At the top, protruding from the leathery stump, was a gleaming white knob, roughly the size of the silver-tipped cane Mr. Brown carried to church on Sunday.
The top of a leg bone. For the first time, the fright house gave me a genuine jolt of adrenaline. The mannequin was real — and very dead.CHAPTER 2
I grabbed Emma's arm and jerked her to her feet. A silly reflex, I know, since it couldn't hurt us. But I wanted to get her away from what had become the most realistic fright house I'd ever encountered.
As we ducked under the chain saw and through the curtained doorway into the next room, I couldn't help but glance up at the face. I hadn't paid any attention to it before, but now the shrunken cheeks and shriveled lips made me shiver. The eyes were half-closed, the lips slightly parted, the wiry ginger hair sparse.
As a chain-saw-wielding maniac, he was completely unconvincing. As a real blood-chilling fright, he worked.
I bent protectively over Emma and tried to hustle her past the next exhibit, a fake graveyard. She didn't budge.
"Shouldn't we hide the leg?" she asked. "Somebody might steal it or mess with it."
I took a deep breath to slow my galloping heart rate. "Um — sure."
That was a good idea, but I needed a second to get my well-calibrated fight-or-flight response under control.
"You stay right here," I said. She didn't argue.
I left Emma standing in the fake graveyard and let the curtain fall closed behind me before I slid the leg — surprisingly lightweight even with its heavy work boot — under the dusty curtain that draped the wall. Thanks to the baggy leg of the man's overalls, visitors likely wouldn't notice the missing boot. If they did notice, it would blend well with the general shabbiness of the rest of the fright house.
I put my arm around Emma and headed out the exit into the dusky blue twilight. The evening air felt cool, catching the perspiration on my arms and face.
I speed-dialed Rudy Mellin, chief deputy of the Camden County Sheriff's Department. No way I wanted to explain to a 911 dispatcher what we'd found, and I certainly didn't want it broadcast to every scanner addict in the county.
"Rudy, can you come over to the carnival? There's a little problem here."
"A–vry Andrews, why the hell don't you find somebody else and ruin his night off?"
Emma glanced up at me, so I knew she could hear both sides of the conversation.
I turned my back on her, hoping that would block Rudy's irate replies. "Emma and I just discovered a dead body in the fright house. He's not fresh. He's been there awhile. Didn't see any reason to cause a stampede by calling 911."
He gave a dramatic and exasperated sigh, but this time he didn't cuss.
"You still at the carnival? Meet me at the front gate. I'm about five minutes from the fairgrounds."
I mentally debated whether to tell the kid taking tickets at the fright house entrance about our discovery, but decided to let Rudy take charge of that. The place had no patrons lined up, clamoring to get in.
Emma and I retraced our steps along the midway, her hand in mine. The strands of lights outlining the rides and booths brightened as night fell. Rock music pulsed from the Tilt-a-Whirl. My chest pounded in time with the music as we passed.
"Who is he?" Emma's tone was matter-of-fact, as if she routinely spent Thursday evenings discovering desiccated human remains. "How'd he get there?"
Something about her straightforward curiosity made me shudder. She raised the puzzle with the same tone she would use to ask my dad how a toilet flushed or what a shotgun football offense was. Her face, upturned and waiting for an answer, showed no sign of false bravado or unacknowledged angst. She seemed to accept the puzzle as it came.
That left me the only one tamping down the willies. I knew too much about what followed a mysterious death. I could tell myself that was the reason, or I could just admit that it creeped me out.
Rudy pulled up outside the gate as we walked up to the chain-link fence. He didn't bother searching for a parking space. He was driving his personal car, not a county issue, though this one too was a sizable sedan in a nondescript color.
He walked around the front of the car and bent over to talk to the woman in the passenger seat. He straightened and tucked his shirt tight as she slid over into the driver's seat. His wife, I supposed, though I couldn't see her clearly.
Wearing a short-sleeved striped shirt and dark slacks, Rudy didn't look quite like himself without his khaki sheriff's uniform. He looked like a guy on a date. Maybe I just missed the authority the uniform implied.
"Thanks for making me miss dinner."
The badge clipped to his belt and his gun in a tidy holster on his hip helped reestablish his authority.
"Yeah, well, I haven't had my elephant ear yet. This wasn't on our schedule either."
For the first time, Rudy registered Emma's presence. He gave her a curt nod. She simply stared, her hand still in mine.
Another deputy pulled up outside the fence as Mrs. Mellin pulled away.
"Where is it?" Rudy asked. "Did you get them to shut it down?"
"No." Nobody'd given me a junior detective badge. "I didn't tell anyone what we found."
Rudy gave an exasperated huff. "This isn't some kind of prank, is it?"
I shrugged. "Who knows? All I know is they've got what's left of a human body dressed up and holding a chain saw in the fright house. Didn't seem like it ought to be there."
Rudy frowned. "How the hel —" He glanced at Emma. "How do you know it's real?"
"The leg fell off. Even Emma knows what the condyle on a lower leg looks like."
Emma nodded gravely. "Some kid bumped into it and the leg fell off. They all ran away so they wouldn't get in trouble." Miss Law-and-Order wanted to make sure all the miscreants were implicated.
Rudy looked concerned. "Did the kids realize what it was?" He asked me rather than Emma, though she might have been paying more attention to their reaction than I had.
"I don't think they noticed," I said. "They just thought he'd broken one of the displays."
"Would you recognize these kids?"
"Don't know. There were four of them — two guys, two girls. One of the girls was wearing a Wrestlemania T-shirt." Kids that age can all look alike, despite the time they spend on dressing to distinguish themselves.
"The one who bumped it had on square-toed orange sneakers," Emma said.
Both Rudy and I stared at her. Rudy couldn't know, but Emma has this thing about shoes.
"So where is it?"
We turned down the midway — which wasn't much. The Fourth Festival, held July Fourth week every year, was a modest affair at the county ballpark. A carnival midway, some local craft booths, and a hot-air balloon ride crowded the grassy lot, along with civic clubs and churches selling barbecue, pound cake, assorted home-baked goodies, and raffle tickets for a quilt or some fishing tackle. It couldn't really compete with Hillbilly Day up in Mountain Rest, with its greased pig, greased pole, and clogging contests, but it provided a garish bright spot in the heat of summer.
I studied the fright house with more interest as we approached it. It appeared to be constructed from a couple of trailers joined in the middle, probably easy to dismantle for the trip to the next town.
Lining the side of the trailers were a series of signs urging patrons to come inside and see the CHAMBER OF HORRORS! ZOMBIE GRAVEYARD! CHAIN SAW MASSACRE! NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART! Tinny screams and maniacal laughter played on a recorded loop.
"Step this way! These two lovely ladies will be glad of a big strong man to protect them." The barker at the ticket booth gave us his singsong spiel. The young kid who'd taken our tickets had been replaced by this gray-haired man who acted like he really wanted our business.
It took a second for him to spot the badge and gun.
Rudy leaned over and spoke quietly. "We're going to have to ask you to shut down for a few minutes, sir."
The ticket-taker wasn't inclined to be so quiet. "I can't do that! Whatever for? You can't roust me!" He stood almost as tall as he was wide, his polyester pants belted squarely around the widest part of his bowling ball middle. His head, a smaller bowling ball, perched atop his sloping shoulders.
He glared at me. Maybe he'd seen Emma and me enter earlier and thought we'd complained about something in his show. Come to think of it, we had.
"Sir, I need to check inside. Please don't sell any more tickets for a few minutes, until I get back."
Rudy looked around the booth, emphasizing without saying a word that there wasn't exactly a stampede demanding admission to his fright house.
I quietly told Rudy where I'd hidden the leg. I didn't want to take Emma back inside. A second visit might reinforce the reality and take it from mere puzzle to the stuff of nightmares. My brother-in-law Frank was already concerned that I could be a bad influence on his daughter. I didn't need to add to his list of my questionable actions an experience that might require long-term counseling.
Emma and I stood off to the side, away from the baleful eye of the fright house barker.
Not that he turned away any paying customers during the interminable ten minutes we waited. This was the first night of the weeklong carnival and the crowds were sparse yet. Respecting Rudy's request, he stopped yelling his pitch, studiously avoiding us as he propped on his wooden stool and took sips from a cup underneath his podium.
Rudy came back out the entrance in what was, for him, a rush. Rudy normally moves with a big man's deliberation. While inside the trailer, he'd acquired a sense of urgency.
"Sir, we will have to close this attraction until further notice. Certainly for the rest of this evening."
"You can't —!"
"Yessir, I can. I'll also need to see the manager or owner or whoever is in charge of the entire midway."
"This is my attraction, my meat and potatoes. You can't sashay in here and take away a man's next meal." His protests were drawing more attention than his sideshow spiel had.
"Sir." Rudy kept his tone even and leaned close to the irate bowling ball. "What can you tell me about the dead man in your trailer?"
That shut him up. His eyes bugged out and he froze with his mouth open. Under the blinking bright lights of the midway, he turned a sallow shade of pale.
Rudy replaced his cell phone on his belt. He'd apparently alerted the troops.
"If you cooperate, we can do this the nice way, wait until after closing to bring in crime scene and not alarm the guests. Or we can do it the hard way and shut down the whole midway. Your choice."
He stared up at Rudy, wanting to argue but quickly calculating the cost. He then grabbed either side of the top of his rough podium and scooted it in front of the steps leading into the trailer. He flipped down a CLOSED sign and said, "This way."
"We'll be off," I said to Rudy, cocking my head in Emma's direction.
Emma hadn't let go of my hand, which worried me a bit. She wasn't the clingy type.
"Can you hang around for a little while? Just in case?"
"I'm kind of hungry," Emma said quietly. "And you promised we'd ride the Runaway Bobsled."
She must have sensed my hesitation about staying. I'd wondered about the best way to make the evening's events seem less out of the norm and therefore less scary. Sugar, fat grams, and the threat of throwing up. Couldn't get more normal than that.
"Sure," I said to Rudy. "I've got my cell phone."
Emma dropped my hand and headed toward the lemonade booth first, without waiting for me.CHAPTER 3
I discovered that tough little seven-year-olds and experienced medical malpractice attorneys share something in common. Maybe it was a hereditary toughness. I'd refused to let on that I was queasy after the first medical autopsy I'd witnessed. Emma, in turn, didn't let a leg bone that could have appeared in a museum display case diminish her appetite.
Excerpted from Can't Never Tell by Cathy Pickens. Copyright © 2009 Cathy Pickens. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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