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A woman's body has been found-murdered, mutilated, tagged and addressed to Lt. Justin Savile V and Police Chief Cuddy R. Mangum. Dubbed the "Guess Who Killer" ...
A woman's body has been found-murdered, mutilated, tagged and addressed to Lt. Justin Savile V and Police Chief Cuddy R. Mangum. Dubbed the "Guess Who Killer" by a voracious press, Hillston, North Carolina, has a serial killer on its hands. The media and the mayor demand answers while the city lives in fear. Savile and Mangum are being taunted and stalked. Worse, they have no leads.
Plot driven in the classic sense of a bestseller, yet written with literary style and substance, First Lady is a novel you will want to read and savor yourself and share with a friend. Continuing the series begun with lauded novels Time's Witness and Uncivil Seasons, Michael Malone's return proves a thrilling success.
The morning mist burned to haze. Even a thunderstorm tossingtree branches onto sidewalks could do nothing to cool the sun,and by noon drizzle steamed from the steps of the building thathoused police headquarters. Climbing them, I was thinkingabout the woman I'd watched diving from the dock at the lake,how unlikely it was that I would ever know her name.
Here in Hillston, we still call ourselves Southerners but itdoesn't mean as much. The South has not only forgotten the past,it has forgotten the whole idea of the past. Our old passports haveall expired because in the New South they're useless—notbecause we already know each other so well, but because we haveno expectations of ever being more than strangers to one another.In the past, a Hillston homicide came out of the Piedmont particularitiesof our town, its tobacco and textiles, its red clay farmsand magnolia shaded university, its local people tied to town orcollege or family, it came out of something distinctive and thereforetraceable. But that world is as distant as my grandparents'straw hats and pony carts, and in the Hillston we live in today,there are no landmarks to guide me to the murderous.
"Watch where you're going," someone snarled, and I was jostledby the crowd pushing out into the soft rain, hurrying forlunch before the Norris murder trial resumed in Hillston's SuperiorCourt. It was the county sheriff Homer Louge who'dknocked into me while reading a magazine with a rock star onthe cover. I turned to watch him shoving his way down to thestreet. At the intersection hispath was blocked by two small foreignwomen, but he shouldered between them, kicked at agarbage bag piled on the sidewalk, and turned the corner.
They were middle-aged women in cheap black clothes, withthick black straight hair and skin the red color of clay earth. Ihad no idea whether they were Mexican or Peruvian or NativeAmerican—or what odd circumstances might have broughtthem to Hillston. Each carried a large shopping bag from SouthernDepot, an upscale market in the old train station not far fromthe courthouse. These women did not look like typical shoppersfor the good Brie or nice Merlots or chrome cappuccino makerssold there. Silent, they stood by the curb in the rain, just waiting.It was the third day I'd seen them on the corner. Theynoticed that I was staring at them and hurried away.
In the South it's not polite to stare at strangers, yet staring atstrangers has turned out to be my life's work. Since I'm the headof a homicide division, usually the strangers are dead when I firstsee them, and usually they don't stay strangers for long. Certainlynot as long as the murder victim we were still calling G.I. Jane.In mid-March we had found this young woman in the woodsnear a Hillston subdivision. It was now the twentieth of June andwe still didn't know who she was. No identification had been lefton her body, no file matched her prints, no one claimed her, noone seemed to miss her. According to the local newspapers, thefact that after three months Hillston's police department stilldidn't even know the victim's name meant that I wasn't doingmy job very well—which meant that our police chief CuddyMangum wasn't doing his.
* * *
Cuddy had his old suede loafers up on the cluttered desk ofhis corner office on the top floor of the Hillston municipal complexknown now as the Cadmean Building. His was the biggestoffice in the place, bigger than the mayor's office downstairs, andthe air conditioning was on so high that frost dripped down thetwo walls of windows. He was eating Kentucky Fried Chickenfrom a cardboard bucket when I dropped my damp hat on thecoffee table. I said, "We lost the South when we lost the past,and what we got in its place was junk food."
Hillston's youngest police chief winked a bright blue eye atme. "Justin B. Savile the Five, it's a small price to pay. Want aPepsi?"
"I want a blanket."
"How about some Extra-Crispy?"
I showed him my sushi take-out. "No thanks," I grumbled."Hail the new millennium. The whole country can watch andeat the same trash at the same time."
Cuddy gave me an ironic snort. "I never knew a man soincensed by junk food." He spun his hands in a tumbling circle."Well, I say roll out the polyester carpet for the new millennium.Let it roll, let it rock'n'roll, right on over the past. TheOld South's got a lot worse to answer for than Colonel Sanders'family-pack."
I opened my chopsticks. "Everybody knows the same trashand that's all they know. One story at a time, one new hot storyevery week."
"What story's that?" Cuddy pulled a KFC wing from thebucket. "I sure hope it's the story of how you just found out whomurdered G.I. Jane and you came in here to tell me. Because Iam under the tree with a noose around my neck, and the presshas an electric prod aimed at my horse's behind."
"I can't find out who killed her 'til I find out who she is."
"Justin, we're talking about a human being. Somebody knowsher."
I shook my head. "Not in Hillston they don't. Not anymore."
Two teenagers had come across the slender fair-hairedwoman lying in a rain-flooded incline under wet dead leaves androtted branches deep in scrub forest on the north edge of town.Her killer had cut her throat open to her spinal cord. He'dapparently used the same serrated knife to saw off her hair closeto her scalp and to slice off the skin attaching a small piercedring to her eyebrow. Then he'd roughly shaved her head. That'swhy we called her G.I. Jane. She was unclothed except for a newgray Guess T-shirt.
It was the hair and this Guess T-shirt that had brought thepress running. For back in November in Neville, North Carolina,a town less than fifty miles from Hillston, the body ofanother young woman had been found with her throat cut, herhead shaved and she was also naked except for a gray Guess T-shirt.There were red roses strewn on this young woman's breast.But her body, lying in a drainage culvert, had been discoveredwithin twenty-four hours of her death. The Neville police hadno trouble identifying her as one Cathy Oakes: her fingerprintswere on file because they'd arrested her often for prostitution.The fact that her head was shaved and she had worn nothing buta Guess T-shirt had been, at the time, of no particular interest.But when four months later the same kind of shirt was found onour victim in Hillston, an affluent Southern college town, thepress jumped. A forensic pathologist thought it was "possible"that the same knife had cut the throats of both women. He wasn'tsure about it, but the press was. Patterns suggest a killer witha habit, a killer who likes to call attention to his habit by repeatingit. A serial killer.
In the case of G.I. Jane, there was no doubt that the killerhad wanted the police to take notice. He had cut off her tongueat its root. There were small burn marks on her arms and torso,inflicted after her death, and there were burnt sulfur kitchenmatches arranged in a circle around her head. The small earringthat had been sliced from her eyebrow, with her skin stillattached, was threaded through a dirty white shoelace and tiedaround her neck. And just to make things clear, there was a labelon a string tied around her toe, and on this label was printed inred marker:
Lt. Justin Savile V,
Please Deliver Your Friend To:
Captain C. R. Magnum, Hillston Police
The fact that the head of homicide was being asked to passalong a dead "friend" to the police chief gave the G.I. Jane caseboth urgency and (after somebody leaked to the press what waswritten on the tag) media pizzazz. Without asking me, the pressannounced that I knew the victim. I didn't, but it would havebeen hard to tell if I had. Our medical examiner calculated thather corpse had lain there in the woods unnoticed for about eightweeks before we'd found her. Her blood had drained deep into theearth; her bones had settled. Finally, some animal dragged outfrom under the leaves enough of a human arm for the teenagecouple to see it. By then it was too late. The killer had left his signaturebehind but no easy way to trace him, or his victim.
Impressions of the girl's beautiful teeth matched none of themissing young women whose dental records were on file innational computer banks. Of as little help were the red paintedtattoos of coiled snakes around her ankles and possibly aroundher wrists as well—but since her hands had been gnawed off bythe wild creatures that had presumably also eaten her tongue, wecould only guess. She might have been pretty.
As I kept telling Cuddy, I didn't know who the dead girl wasbecause nothing about her was particular enough to tell me.Today, in Hillston, a girl from anywhere could paint on snaketattoos with a Magic Marker, could wear a new Guess T-shirt,Nike shoelaces, Kenneth Cole sunglasses. A girl withexpensively cared for teeth could now be murdered withoutbeing missed, even in Hillston. But the media was impatient forG.I.'s Jane's killer to do something else, like kill a third woman,or kill me or Cuddy, or kill himself, or at least get caught trying,and when he didn't do any of these as spring turned to summer,they took it out on the Hillston police.
I finished my sushi roll. "Cuddy, these days it's not just bigcities where homicides can go dead cold. Three, ten, thirty yearsor more. Then all of a sudden, you stumble onto a clue andkazaam, the door opens."
He rubbed his paper napkin between his large bony hands."Tell me that's not a prediction. I want kazaam tomorrow. I'mwith Mavis Mahar. I'm living for tomorrow."
"Oh god, even you. Nobody in town's even talking aboutG.I. Jane anymore. Nobody cares about the Norris murder trialright downstairs either. This week everything's all about this idioticMavis." I held up the Hillston Star where the front page hada huge headline, "Mavis Comes To Town." Mavis Mahar, theIrish rock star, had just arrived in Hillston for two sold-out concertsat the Haver University football stadium. "Livin' forTomorrow" was one of her big hits.
Cuddy stood up, pounded on an invisible piano and startedsinging:
So I'm givin' you your sorrow
Hug it home without delay.
While I'm livin' for tomorrow,
Stay the king of yesterday.
Then he rolled the newspaper and tapped me with it on eachshoulder. "That's you, Justin, the king of yesterday, the GallantLast of the Moronic Byronics. No wonder your wife headed forthe mountains. Years of listening to you yapping on about howthe world's turned to trash finally drove her off. Alice has beengone a damn month. When's she coming back?"
I told him the truth. "I don't know."
He tilted his head, looked at me until I turned away. "Gobring that sweet lady home."
"I'm not sure Alice wants to come home." I picked up two oldmagazines from his coffee table, pretended to flip through them.
He shook his head. "Why don't you ask her?" I ignored him.There was a long silence then he said, "Justin, I know you've beenin a bad way. Do you want me to turn G.I. Jane over to—"
"No. No, I don't." I changed the subject. "So, you going tocheck out this Mavis concert?" There'd been a near riot lastnight before the rock star had finally made her appearance at herfirst concert and Cuddy had already predicted security problemstonight as well.
He gave up and walked back to his desk. "The universityasked the sheriff and the sheriff doesn't want my help. Yougoing?"
"I don't like rock'n'roll."
He shook his head. "Just 'cause Mavis isn't one of those olddead jazz singers of yours doesn't mean she's no good. Ever listento her?"
"It's hard to avoid it." I showed him that both magazines onhis coffee table had Mavis Mahar with a buzz cut on their covers.As I glanced at them, there was an odd familiarity to hersmile. But I suppose that's what stardom means. Everybodythinks they know you. "Look at this. Same cover, same star, samescandal ..." I pointed at Cuddy's greasy bucket of chicken. "KFCin Hong Kong tastes no different from KFC in Hillston. That'smy point. Same Mexican burritos, same Greek gyros sold in thesame plastic wrap coast to coast."
He nodded cheerfully. "You think they were selling sushi inHillston back in your glorious good old days? Hey, Thai take-outis a nice change from growing up on canned sausages and black-eyedpeas. I don't like the way the past treated me." He strokedhis air conditioner. "Now I can freeze in June. I'm not squeezedup naked in a tin wash tub in a red-dirt yard, trying to cool off insix inches of water you could boil eggs in. I like tomorrow. AndI like Mavis Mahar."
I shrugged. "You and everybody else."
All over town there were Mavis posters in store windows andMavis CDs by checkout counters, there were bins of her musicvideos and cases of her trademark bottled stout in stores near theHaver University campus. Even here in Hillston, everyonecalled her Mavis as if they were her friends, and, after all, theyprobably knew more about her than they did about their neighbors.Her latest stunt had been so repeatedly covered by CNNthat even I knew she had seduced a right-wing politician intomeeting her at five A.M. on the steps of Nashville's replica of theParthenon. Handcuffing herself to this intoxicated national figure(who'd clearly thought he'd been invited to a romantictryst), she'd sung him a song about hypocrisy while paparazzi(whom she'd previously called) snapped photos that they thensold for vast sums to the tabloids. After the politician resigned,the new Mavis Mahar album went triple-platinum, her new single"Coming Home to You" (the theme song of a popular newmovie) sold even more records than "Livin' for Tomorrow." Bythe time of her arrival in Hillston, millions of teenage girls couldsing "Coming Home to You"—a pulsing ballad full of defiant sorrowand mournful Celtic moans—and thousands of them hadapparently pierced their left nipples just as their idol had apparentlydone.
Cuddy went on singing "Livin' for Tomorrow" until DetectiveSergeant John Emory poked his shaved coal-black head inthe door and handed him an opened newspaper. "Too cold inhere," he said, leaving. "Justin's blue."
Cuddy called out after him. "Old blood's always blue,Sergeant, don't you know that? New blood's nothing but fastfood, fast cars, and rock'n'roll."
Throwing my sushi box in his trashcan, I stood up to leavetoo. "I'm not talking against progress, Cuddy."
"No, you're talking against fried chicken."
"I'm talking about how everybody's been swept into one bigflood of momentary homogeneity."
"You don't say?" He quickly scanned today's editorial in theHillston Star. "Well, hey, does momentary homogeneity haveanything to do with this?" He read out, `Chief Mangum to MurderVictim: Who Cares?'" and handed the paper back to me. AsI read the editorial aloud, Cuddy opened his window to sprinklefat crumbs from his KFC biscuit to the dingy pigeons waiting onhis window ledge. When he finished, he grabbed the newspaperfrom me, balled it up, and lobbed it off his poster of Elvis Presleyinto the trash—his one trick shot. The police chief didn't likethe Star's asking why Hillston should have doubled the size of itspolice department and yet still be unable even to identify thebodies of homicide victims. He didn't like being asked why in anational survey the Hillston Police Department should beranked No. 1 in small cities in the Southeast when, instead ofcatching maniacs who sawed open young women's throats, itspent its time arresting innocent leading citizens of the communityfor murder—a reference to the Norris trial now going ondownstairs in Superior Court where a Haver University professorhad been charged with killing his wife. And most of all, Cuddydidn't like the paper's calling for his resignation.
He slammed the window shut against the heat that racedinto the room, scaring the pigeons into jumping half-an-inch."Instead of blaming your troubles on how something fundamental'sbroken down since your great granddaddy's day, Justin—"
"It has broken down," I interrupted.
The police chief held his drug-store watch to my face andtapped it. "What's broken down is you finding out who killedJane. Time, my friend, time is doing a fast dance all over yourhandsome head. I figured while Alice was gone, you'd be on thiscase twenty-four—"
"Really? Looks like you're up alone nights writing the sequelto The Mind of the South and brooding over the collapse ofcivilization."
I looked at Cuddy's wall hung with civic plaques and framedtributes. "A year ago, you said I had the `best instincts for homicideinvestigation of any detective you'd ever met.'"
He said, "That was a year ago. Besides, you're not supposedto see those evaluation reports."
"All the more reason to assume you meant what you said." Ipicked up a painted wooden queen on the folk art chess set fromhis Peace Corps days in Costa Rica. The board was laid out forone of the classic games he was always playing by himself. Imoved the queen.
He shook his head. "Do that and you're checkmated in eightmoves. If it can happen to Boris Spassky, it can happen to you."
I put down the queen and started feeling in my pockets formy car keys. "Cuddy, why do you like to play games you alreadyknow the outcome of?"
He tossed me my hat. "To know how the outcome cameabout."
"That's all I'm saying. There's no more history in America.We used to have fifteen minutes of fame. Now we've got fifteenminutes of memory."
I walked Cuddy downstairs to his meeting with his friendMayor Carl Yarborough. They were dealing with a sanitationworkers' strike that was filling the streets of Hillston with leveesof black garbage bags, as if we expected an imminent flood. Butthe Mayor's secretary told Cuddy that they would have to postpone.Sheriff Homer Louge was in there with Yarborough on anemergency matter and they couldn't be disturbed. Sheriff Lougedespised Cuddy and the feeling was reciprocated. They'd had ablowout over how the sheriff's deputies had contaminated theNorris homicide scene—as a result of which, the defendant'sattorney had already managed to have most of the state's evidencedisallowed during the ongoing trial.
Back in the corridor, Cuddy gestured at the closed door."See? Sheriff Stooge is in there trashing me to Carl again.Homer's wet dream is me packing up my office bijoux in an oldcardboard box, sayonara and hari kari." (Unlike the sheriff, whowas elected, the police chief in Hillston was appointed by theMayor and the City Council and he could be fired by them.Nothing would have pleased Sheriff Louge more.)
I shrugged. "Carl's not going to listen to Homer Louge.""Carl's going to listen to the people, which these days meansthe polls, which these days means the press. Close this G.I. Janething, Justin."
"Close it or solve it?"
"Solve it and close it. That horse I'm sitting on with a noosearound my neck? That horse is dancing."
* * *
It was odd that my car keys weren't in my jacket pocket, andodder that when I went back to look for them in my office, itsdoor was locked. The desk sergeant who let me in with the masterkey agreed sympathetically that I was not usually so absentminded.But for the past months I had been dealing withpersonal problems and so everyone was treating me tenderly, asif—as Cuddy had just said—I wasn't myself. After a frustratingsearch I decided to walk home for the extra set of keys I kept ina silver bowl on a George IV gaming table in my front hall. I collectwhat Cuddy refers to as "old stuff" and I live in an "oldhouse" not far from the Cadmean Building.
A decade ago everyone thought I was a lunatic to buy a large1887 Queen Anne house in downtown Hillston and convert itfrom the dilapidated dormitory for Frances Bush College forWomen it had been since 1936. But today, when Hillston's abandonedtobacco warehouses are sleek apartments and our derelicttextiles mills are boutique malls, my folly looks like such foresightthat to my wife Alice's amusement, the Hillston Star calledus "visionary pioneers of urban revitalization." The wedding-bandquilt made by Alice's Appalachian grandmother was featuredin their photo spread and Alice was shown cheerfullypruning her blue-ribbon antique roses in our garden. Now thereare dozens of Range Rovers in our neighborhood, but I'm stillone of the few people who actually walks the gentrified streets ofurban Hillston; everybody drives if they can, and those who can'ttake the bus.
My walk home takes me along Jupiter Street toward thecrumbling bowed-out facade of the Piedmont Hotel where theyrecently added a bright yellow awning over the grimy doors, likea cheap blonde wig on an old wino. Because of the strike, thehotel looked even worse, with garbage bags piled beside an overflowingDumpster in its causeway. Flies and bees swarmed at rottedfood. In the heat, the stench made a strong argument forsettling with the local sanitation workers as soon as possible. Inoticed the two small dark foreign women in black whom I'dseen earlier at the street corner looking through the garbage.They ran away when they saw me.
I found myself stopping in front of a scruffy bar called theTucson that had opened back in the Urban Cowboy eighties as awestern lounge, sporting a mural of longhorn cattle stampedingthrough Texas. A decade later, the rawhide fringe on the cowgirlvests worn by the waitresses had frayed to greasy nubs, the garagebands who sped through Garth Brooks tunes on Saturday nightdidn't know a two-step from a tarantella, and the red neon in thecactus had mostly spluttered out. Still, with its gargantuan pitchersof beer and its free spicy buffalo wings and its Reba McIntirelook-a-like contests, the Tucson had kept its dance floor floatingin sawdust for a decade after fashion had passed it by, so we wereall surprised when two years ago the owner had finally given upon the Wild West and turned the lounge into something hecalled The Tin-Whistle Pub.
Excerpted from first lady by Michael Malone. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Malone. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1997 Gerry Adams.All rights reserved.
Michael Malone has been compared to Cervantes, Dickens and Henry Fielding. He is the recipient of the O. Henry Award for "Fast Love," the Edgar for "Red Clay" and an Emmy as head writer of ABC-TV's One Life to Live. He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with his wife, Maureen Quilligan, who is chair of the English department at Duke University.
Posted October 3, 2001
Anyone who loves a big, fat, juicy detective novel is in for a treat with this one. Malone is a master of the well-woven plot, and provides some of the most memorable characters around. This is a rich, funny, terrifying book, and I highly recommend it.
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Posted September 24, 2001
Although murder, policemen and sleuthing are central to its plot, Michael Malone's splendid new novel FIRST LADY is no more a conventional mystery than War & Peace is a book about battle strategies. The true glory of Malone's work lies in how deftly and imaginatively he gives his characters life and depth, and how perfect is his ear for dialogue. While the 'whodunit' aspect of the book certainly is interesting and credible (and provides ample grist for devotees of the genre, including a most satisfying denouement), it is the legions of disparate flesh-and-blood people that make FIRST LADY so absorbing. This is a thoroughly entertaining book for serious readers ¿ and for people who normally eschew detective fiction. Malone is a southerner who has spent much of his life elsewhere. His arms-length fascination with the melding of the Old and New South gives FIRST LADY, which is set in North Carolina, a wry descant. After a long sojourn doing other things, Malone, one of our very best novelists (DINGLEY FALLS, UNCIVIL SEASONS, HANDLING SIN, TIME'S WITNESS, FOOLSCAP), is back and in top form. Rush to embrace this book: you'll love it!
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