The priest was droning on inexorably toward "till death do us part," and Anna began to get nervous. At some point over the years, the well-worn phrase had come to feel more like a sinister threat than a romantic promise.
Death had parted Anna from her husband years before, sudden and pointless death delivered by a cab driver on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. Judging from the internal damage to Zach's body, the NYPD accident investigator estimated the cab was traveling at fifty to sixty miles per hour on a city street. The impact had knocked Zach out of his shoes. They were found, still laced, sixty feet from his body, a detail Anna hadn't needed to know then and didn't like remembering now.
Nearly a hundred people had witnessed the accident; a baker's dozen stayed to tell their story to the police. No one had gotten the cab's license plate number. No one heard the squeal of brakes. There were no marks on the asphalt to indicate the cabbie had tried to stop or even swerve.
"Drunk or high," the accident investigator had offered. "Or maybe just didn't know where the brake pedal was. Some of these guys get their driver's licenses off Froot Loops boxes on the boat over from Iran."
Six hours after Zach died Anna identified his body at the morgue. Despite the violence of the collision, his body was almost completely unmarked. Still, he'd not looked as if he were sleeping. That was a story invented for comforting children. Without life inside, the human body looked like the awkward and asymmetrical compilation of parts it was. At the time she'd known seeing the face in death would eclipse a thousand memory pictures of him in life. And so it had.
Alarmed by the return of morbid visions she'd not suffered-or, as her sister Molly might have said, indulged in-for a long while, Anna shook herself, the tremor of an animal ridding its hide of biting flies.
A plump brown hand bearing a squirrel's weight in gold and semi-precious stones patted her knee reassuringly. The stately black matron beside her on the pew was a stranger, but this was Mississippi. In the South there were still people who believed "what you do to the least of these, you do also to me." Solace was not strictly reserved for friends and family.
Startled, Anna smiled at her benefactress and received a nod in return, a minute dipping of a fabulous crimson hat with a prow like a pirate ship, sequins glittering like plunder. On a white woman it would have looked absurd. Atop this substantial black woman it was grand and subtly defiant.
Made uncomfortable by random kindness, Anna looked away. Alarm at harboring funereal thoughts at a wedding crept up on her in the form of superstition, a race memory of evil fairies come to christenings with curses for the princeling child. She crossed herself, then felt guiltier still. She wasn't Catholic. She wasn't even Christian. It was merely a habit picked up from the nuns during her years at Mercy High.
Contemplating her megrims, Anna realized she'd not been in a church of any stripe in more years than she cared to remember. The Restin-Wells nuptials were oddly timed-a morning wedding with a brunch following. For the uninitiated, being at a holy edifice at 9 A.M. before one was properly fortified with sin and coffee was taxing.
St. James Episcopal Church in Port Gibson had been built in the 1800s. Dark wood and vaulted ceiling, glass stained with saints, most of whom died grisly deaths, invited belief, if not in the divine, then at least in a human history steeped in blood.
A laugh boiled hot in Anna's lungs. She only just caught it before it blew past her lips and she made a spectacle of herself. Who was she kidding? Gods, demons, death in its myriad forms, none of it scared her. Marriage was what gave her the willies. A marriage performed by Paul Davidson, the man it was possible she was vaguely, carefully falling in love with, was even creepier.
She was used to seeing Paul in his comforting gun-toting persona as the sheriff of Claiborne County. Knowing he was also an ordained Episcopal priest was one thing. Seeing him in the collar, a Bible in the blunt, capable hands, as sunlight filtered through glassine lambs and shepherds, dying his blond hair three shades of Paschal green, gave the whole experience the unsettling feel of a drug-soaked dream.
Naming her demons freed Anna of them, and she returned her attention to the ceremony. Lonnie Restin, one of Paul's deputies, was the groom. Anna had worked with him on the Posey murder the previous spring. She'd seen him face the corpse of a child and a crazy lady racist, but she'd never seen him as nervous as he was sliding a band of gold onto the finger of his young bride.
As Lonnie murmured "with this ring," Paul looked up for an instant. His eyes locked with Anna's, and she felt a jolt stronger than touch and heard the quick hissing intake of her breath. Then Paul was back with the bride and groom, eye contact broken. It was as if he had vanished from right before her to reappear forty feet away.
This sudden warping of the space-time continuum left her tingling. It took several seconds to realize at least part of the sensation was promulgated by the pager in the side pocket of her dress vibrating against her thigh. Though it made no sound, Anna was conscious that, in carrying it at all, she had become one of them, a member of the army battering down the last feeble remnants of graciousness, taking the final step in the cant of the "me" generation by dragging pagers and cell phones into theaters, churches, AA meetings, dinner parties and wakes. Ringing and buzzing declared priorities: My convenience takes precedence over your paltry event.
Now at Lonnie's sacred moment, Anna's thigh was vibrating with other peoples' priorities. She excused herself from the ranks of Miss Manners's nemeses by telling herself she needed to carry the beeper. The Trace from Natchez to Jackson was uncovered till she came on duty at noon. Randy Thigpen, one of her GS-9 field rangers, had demanded the four to midnight shift. The other, Barth Dinkins, on 8 A.M. to 3:30 P.M., had taken four hours of sick leave to visit the dentist.
As if beeping her in church could stop a crime wave or a spurting artery.
What the activity in her pocket might augur flashed through her mind as she steadfastly refused to fish the beeper out and look at it, at least not before the bride and groom had gotten their share of rice thrown. Highway death. Hunting accident. Domestic dispute. Visitors center out of toilet paper.
Lonnie and Showanda Restin were presented. Applause carried them down the aisle. Not rice but rose petals, handed out in paper cones before the ceremony, showered the newlyweds. Ushers began emptying the church pew by pew, starting at the front. Paul disappeared; after the service the priest was superfluous. He'd scuttled into a priestly sort of bolthole to slip into something less godly before going to brunch.
Paul was understanding of Anna's discomfiture with anything that smacked of The Cloth. He'd given her explicit instructions as if she were a small child in danger of becoming lost in the woods: "After the ceremony stay put. Don't move. I will come find you."
The kindly Christian in the crimson cap weighed anchor and was sailing out with the tide of people leaving the church. Anna slipped the beeper from her pocket. On the digital read-out was the number of Mt. Locust Visitors Center followed by 911. Not toilet paper.
She sat back down and rummaged through her purse. The South and dating again had had a feminizing effect. Several dresses now hung in her closet, along with an accumulation of National Park Service uniforms, and she was growing accustomed to female accoutrements. Her watch was in an inside zipper pocket. It read 9:22 A.M. Without even thinking about it, she registered the time she first got the call for the inevitable report that would follow.
The church emptied quickly and she was left along with saints, shepherds and chrysanthemums. Even in a church peace came with solitude. Anna let her mind float with the dust motes on the dyed sunbeams. Minutes passed and Paul emerged from some inner sanctum to the left of the altar. As he walked, he rolled up the sleeves of a green woolen shirt, exposing his forearms. When Anna's sexual triggers were set, during those confusing years between birth and senior prom, along with strong hands, the smell of Scotch whiskey and sun-warmed cotton, rolled sleeves on brown arms had been factored in.
For a moment she stayed still in the shadows, merely enjoying the sensation of enjoying watching a man.
"That's a pretty dress, is it new?" Paul said as he walked down the side of the pews to where she waited, jewel tones from the stained glass washing across his face and hair.
The dress was pretty. And it was new. This wasn't the first compliment Anna had received from Paul Davidson. All the same she felt an upwelling of self-consciousness that only bald-faced truth could quell.
"Bought it new to impress you," she said, and he smiled in a slow southern way that reached deep into his eyes. "I can't make Lonnie's brunch," she said abruptly, not liking to feel in a church the sensations that smile engendered. "Duty calls." She showed him the beeper by way of explanation.
A shimmer ran through the denim blue of his eyes. The smile widened fractionally, then relaxed. The light was uncertain but Anna had seen relief enough times to know it. Intellectually, she couldn't blame him. There was a Mrs. Davidson who had crawled out of the woodwork. Paul and his wife had been separated for nearly four years: each with their own homes, jobs, finances, friends, and if you believed Paul and Anna did, no conjugal visits to talk over old times on either side of the sheets. But no divorce. Mrs. Davidson had not wanted one and Paul let it be. Till he'd met Anna and filed. Mrs. Davidson was contesting. Along with football and hunting, Mississippi still revered the institution of marriage and had hammered that reverence into law. There were three grounds for divorce in the state: commission of a felony, cruel and unusual treatment, and adultery. There had been adultery, but too damn little of it, as far as Anna was concerned. Sheriff Davidson had succumbed once or twice but in the end Father Davidson prevailed. A man who was true to his principles wasn't much comfort on hot summer nights.
Anna never pushed. She, too, had principles, though they hadn't been sanctioned by the bishop. She wouldn't be a part of Paul being defrocked for behavior unbecoming a representative of the church, and she wouldn't play a part in a scandal that would lose him his upcoming re-election for sheriff. Once she'd thought she'd never willingly form any part of a triangle, but it was too late for that. By keeping her clothes on and sleeping alone, she hoped to retain the dignity and self-respect they would both need if they were to be able to meet without shame after the divorce.
Though she was relieved they would not have to share a romantic social event while steadfastly being neither romantic nor social, Paul's obvious relief stung. Heart and ego are not big proponents of logic.
"Let me know what's happened." Paul touched her arm.
"Sure," Anna said, wondering if she would. She'd want to call-that was unfortunately a given-but she'd lost her taste for soap opera sneakings, however justified by the sneakers, somewhere between her sophomore and senior years at Mercy. Cloaking it in the trappings of job interaction didn't count for much in the world of karma.
"You can use the phone in the office," Paul said.
Anna made the necessary calls. John Brown Brown, the Natchez Trace Parkway's chief ranger, doomed to a life of redundancy because his mother's maiden name and her husband's surname were the same, would inform the superintendent, currently out of pocket at a regional meeting in Atlanta. Dispatch was given her ETA at Mt. Locust. The park aide who'd paged, a seasonal interpreter named Sherry or Shelly, was soothed, then instructed to stay away from the inn and keep visitors out. There was nothing more to be done till Anna was on scene.
Needing to keep her mind from speculating on the report the park aide had babbled over the phone lest she arrive with preconceived ideas, Anna concentrated on history and nature as she drove south.
Both were a balm. History because its sins had already been committed, nature because she was supremely indifferent to the petty hysterias of the human race.
Mt. Locust was thirty miles south of Port Gibson on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Once it had been a producing plantation with the attendant kitchen and slave quarters. In the early 1800s it became one of the first of over fifty "stands"-rudimentary inns-serving travelers between Natchez and Nashville. Of these stands, Mt. Locust was the only one remaining and, built about 1780, arguably one of the oldest structures in Mississippi. The outbuildings and detached kitchen had been reduced to rubble and memory. All that remained to tell of the many slaves who labored in them was a recently discovered cemetery out beyond the kitchen garden, bones without names or markers.
In the past year, Ranger Dinkins, with the help of the park archaeologist and historian, had undertaken to find out who was buried there. So far they had eleven names. With the tendency of Mississippians, both black and white, to settle close to home, it was hoped that through deeds of purchase, oral history and DNA testing the descendants could be found. The graves would then be marked and commemorated, a piece of a people's violently fractured history put in place.
Anna drove with the window rolled down, breathing in the essence of autumn: an exhalation of a forest readying itself for sleep, a smell so redolent with nostalgia a pleasant ache warmed her bones and she was nagged with the sense of a loss she could not remember.
Most of the leaves had been stripped from the trees by a recent hard rain. The sweet gum and sassafras were bare, winter branches etching a sky still summer blue. Pin oaks and black oaks clung to their foliage though it was sere and brown and clattered rather than rustled when the wind blew. Along the shoulders of the narrow two-lane road, grass as green as springtime was neatly mowed to tree line. Here and there, in hollows where the mechanical slash of the bush-hog couldn't reach, the soft blue of chicory shimmered. The delicate yellow daisy that an enemy of botany and poetry had named tickweed touched the higher ground with earthen sunlight.
Anna savored the thirty minutes of the drive, the beauty flashing by at a speed the original travelers of the Trace would never have dared even imagine lest they be accused of witchcraft. Soon enough the darker side of being a park ranger would assert itself. She wanted to absorb all the antidote she could before she drank in whatever poison awaited. A poison that she knew from experience and observation was addicting. Actors weren't the only ones who thrived on drama.
Before ten on a Saturday morning in November, Mt. Locust's parking lot was blessedly empty. The park aide was outside the small visitors center, a brick building with the one-room bookstore to the left, bathrooms to the right and a breezeway between. The aide was a tiny woman, scarcely bigger than a child. Anna's thoughts flashed on her maternal grandmother as she pulled the Rambler into the shade of an oak tree, one of several left on a center island when the asphalt was laid. What Anna's grandmother had lacked in stature she'd made up for in venom. Anna wished she'd taken more time to know this seasonal interpreter so she'd know which way the little woman might break under pressure.
As she walked toward the visitors center, the aide stopped pacing, her eyes fixed on Anna. They were blank and slightly hostile.
"Hi," Anna said, needing to make a connection.
Shelly Rabine-Anna had come close enough to read the nametag-stood squarely in front of the breezeway and crossed her arms on her chest. "I'm sorry. Mt. Locust is closed. You can't go up to the house," she said.
Her voice was high and strained, a mouse squeaking authority, a kindergartner putting her foot down. Stress showed in the hunch of her shoulders and the way her hands cupped her elbows as if the crossing of arms was not only to keep the world out but also to hold herself together. Regardless of the trauma she'd sustained, Shelly was determined to hold the fort till the cavalry came. Anna admired that.
"It's me, District Ranger Anna Pigeon," Anna said. She waved a hand at the red dress and red-and-black high heels. "I'm disguised as a normal person. It was a wedding."
Shelly Rabine blinked rapidly. Large exothalmic eyes, so light brown as to be nearly yellow, were framed in chin-length parenthesis of stick-straight dark hair. Her face was wide and slightly squashed, the brow and chin narrow bands. Clear pale skin and perfect brows rescued her from plainness.
The fluttering lids stopped. Information was processed. "What took you so long? I called hours ago. I'm not going back."
"Good job calling me right away like you did," Anna said. "That was quick thinking." The shoulders lowered fractionally. "I'm going to go on up now and take a look." Anna put the humdrum of normalcy in her voice. "Why don't you keep on with your work down here. Keep any visitors from heading up to the house. That would really be a big help to me."
Miss Rabine was wound tight. The sight she'd been greeted with coupled with what, to her, seemed an unconscionably long wait, put her in fight mode. Had Anna asked Shelly to come with her up to the old stand, she had little doubt there would have been an altercation centering around "that's not in my job description" or "that's what you get the big bucks for."
Left comfortably where she was with only boring peripheral responsibilities a sudden, and-to Anna who'd seen it countless times before-unsurprising transformation took place. The fight didn't disappear, too much adrenaline in the system for that, but instead did an abrupt about-face. "Don't you want me to show you how I found-it. All that. I mean, it could be important. What I touched and what all." The implication that Anna didn't live up to police procedure as seen on TV was clear.
"Would you like to come up with me?" Anna asked mildly. "Maybe tell me on the way?"
"Visitors might come," Shelly said stubbornly, but she was winding down, anger leaking out of her shoulders and neck. Anna waited patiently, no glances up the hill to the inn, no tightening of the mouth.
"Somebody might come," Shelly said. "They shouldn't...I mean nobody should...like kids," she finished lamely. The last vestiges of warfare dribbled away. The yellow-brown eyes were clear, if bruised by what they had seen. From harridan in the inimitable style of Anna's grandma Sanderman, Shelly had settled back into a tractable, well-intentioned employee of the National Park Service.
"It'll be all right," Anna said. "You can come back down if we see anybody."
Shelly adjusted her summer straw Stetson more squarely on her head and, with tiny fingers, plucked the pleats on her breast pockets straight. The man about to grant them an audience was way beyond caring about a woman's personal appearance, but Anna didn't say anything. Everyone has her own way of girding for battle.
They walked in silence through the short breezeway. To either side were glassed-in bulletin boards with the usual park paraphernalia: maps, camping instructions, rules, warnings. This season on the Natchez Trace, visitors were told to be on the lookout for rabid raccoons and to wear bright colors while hiking. On either side of this federally controlled ribbon of land it was deer hunting season. Who could blame a good old boy for taking aim across park boundaries if he thought he spotted a deer?
Anna's pumps clicked officiously on the concrete, and she felt suddenly, overwhelmingly absurd teetering along in pointy-toed, high-heeled girl's shoes. As they stepped out of the shade and into the crystal sunlight, the noise shifted to a less offensive crunch on the gravel path.
The path curved gracefully along the bottom of a small hill. Ancient live oaks shaded the split rail fence separating the house from a field planted with cotton, a remnant of the twelve hundred acres of the original plantation. Lovingly refurbished by the park service to its 1820s self, the inn stood alone on a low knoll overlooking the field and the Trace, watery window glass watching Fords and Buicks where once had been soldiers of the American Revolution, Indians and traders from the Ohio Valley. Brick steps, built by the NPS for visitor convenience, led up the grassy slope.
The stand was built, as were all well-appointed dwellings in the old south, with an eye to shade and breezes. Stilts supported it several feet above ground level to aid in air circulation, and a deep porch, complete with a rocking chair, ran the length of the house. Three doors opened onto the porch. Two were closed, probably bolted from the inside if the last interpreter off duty the previous night had adhered to protocol. The one furthest to the left stood ajar as if someone had left in a hurry.
"Why don't you tell me exactly what you did," Anna said as they reached the bottom of the brick steps. Probably it wouldn't matter much, but she knew Shelly needed to tell her story and would probably feel more comfortable talking now that they were getting close.
"I got here just before eight," Shelly said. "And I opened the visitors center like I was supposed to. The visitors center door and both the bathroom doors were locked." Shelly was speaking slowly. Her voice wasn't as high-pitched as it had been when Anna arrived, but she would probably sound like a child all of her life. There was thought behind the park aide's words. She was working to remember details. A good witness, if she'd seen anything worth witnessing.
"I opened the cash register. Everything was just like it was supposed to be-you know, nothing missing or anything like that."
They were on the brick stairway now, and Anna's heels were clicking annoyingly again.
"At nine I walked up here, up to the house, to open it up. I opened Grandma Polly's room first. There on the end."
Anna knew which room was Grandma Polly's. One of the reasons Mt. Locust was so well preserved was that it had belonged to one family for many generations. Paulina Chamberlain came to Mt. Locust as a bride in 1801. When she died in 1849 she left it to her descendants. In the 1940s, another Chamberlain gave Mt. Locust to the National Park Service and stayed on to serve as the first ranger there. The last of the line, Eric Chamberlain, still served, working as a GS-4 park aide. There was one open plot in the family cemetery at the end of a tree-shaded lane on the park boundary. When Eric died the cemetery would be complete and Mt. Locust would lose by it.
"You opened Grandma Polly's room," Anna nudged when Shelly failed to go on.
"It was locked like it's supposed to be so I wasn't thinking about anything, then I saw this thing on the bed. I thought it was like a big fish, a landed walrus maybe. That's stupid, isn't it?"
"Not stupid," Anna said. The human brain was an organ designed to make sense of things. When faced with the senseless, it scrambled madly through known images, desperate to make a match.
"What then?" Anna asked. They'd reached the top of the brick steps and stood on a landing. The wooden stairs to the porch were in front of them. Anna wanted Shelly to finish her recital before they went up. It would be easier to clear her mind if her attention wasn't divided.
"I paged you."
"Did you go into Grandma Polly's room?"
"No. Yes. Sort of. I went in maybe a few steps. Till I saw what it was."
"Did you touch anything?"
"Nothing." Shelly was emphatic about that.
"Did you check for a pulse?"
"No. God no. I mean this guy's really dead. Dead dead. I wasn't going to touch him. No way. Gross."
"Okay," Anna said. "Were the other doors locked?"
"I don't know. I went down to the VC to call you. I guess I should have checked."
"No. You did just exactly the right thing." Anna started up the wooden stairs, Shelly trailing after.
"Want me to check them now?" the aide asked. No longer alone, she was warming to the adventure aspect the crime offered and was eager to be a part of it.
"No," Anna said. "Right now it's best if we touch and disturb as little as possible."
"Oh, right. Fingerprints."
The door hardware at Mt. Locust was so old and pitted with rust Anna doubted they would be able to lift any fingerprints, but she said nothing. Shelly had found a reason she could understand for leaving well enough alone. If it kept Anna from being interfered with, she was happy with it.
Anna's patrol car, with everything she'd need in the trunk, was parked in front of her house at Rocky Springs, fifteen miles north of Port Gibson. Before heading south, she'd stopped in the Port Gibson Ranger Station and scraped up a tape recorder, camera, gloves, measuring tape and notebook. The camera, long in storage, was dusty; its functioning suspect. Having set the grime-streaked rucksack she'd liberated from behind the seat of the fire truck to tote this hastily assembled investigation kit on a bench beneath a window, she pulled out two pairs of latex gloves, put one on and handed the other to Shelly.
"Let's take a look," she said. Mt. Locust was painted white, the paneled doors and shutters over the windows done in a bright cheery blue. Heels clacking on porch planks, Anna walked to the half-open door, Grandma Polly's room. Using her fingertips she gently pushed the door until it was completely open. A shaft of early sunlight chased the door's shadow, running across the worn wooden floor to illuminate the old bed, its mattress stuffed with Spanish moss, ropes netted beneath for support.
The sudden light in the gloom threw the object on the patchwork coverlet into glowing relief. Big fish. Landed walrus. The images were apt. "Gross," Anna murmured, unconsciously echoing Shelly Rabine's summation.
Lying on Grandma Polly's bed, drenched in autumn sunlight, was a fat white man. Very white. Fish-belly white. But for a pair of underpants, probably cotton, possibly Fruit of the Loom, he was naked. From her vantage point at the doorsill Anna could see the wide puffed bottoms of two splayed feet, heavy calves and meaty thighs, a great rise of belly as white as lard and folded in on itself near the navel. One arm and hand, so brown from the sun they looked as if they'd been borrowed from a different cadaver, stuck over the side of the bed, elbow locked, palm up. The face was obscured by the mounded belly and one sagging pec.
"You going to wait till somebody else gets here?"
Part of her brain registered both the disappointment and the understanding in Shelly's voice. The young woman thought Anna was afraid to face the dead by herself. In Anna's estimation, dead bodies were about the most trustworthy humans on the planet. It wasn't squeamishness or fear that kept her in the doorway; before she contaminated the crime scene with her presence she wanted to take note of everything she could. Contamination, to her, not limited to the inevitable effluvia of her hair, skin and shoes, but to her mind as well. Once she stepped in the door she became part of the room. She would see it differently.
"Hand me the radio, Shelly. There in the bag." The part of the Natchez Trace Anna served as district ranger ran through four counties: Adams, Jefferson, Claiborne and Hinds. All were held in concurrent jurisdiction with local law enforcement. Investigations were worked by federal, state and county agencies. It was a system that worked well; cooperation was the rule rather than the exception. The other death Anna worked had been at Rocky Springs in Claiborne County, so Paul Davidson had shared that tragedy. Mt. Locust was in Adams County, where Anna had yet to meet the sheriff. That was about to change.
She called dispatch in Tupelo and requested they contact him and the coroner to ask them to come to Mt. Locust.
Handing the radio back to Shelly, who still held the rucksack in front of her like a little kid with a trick-or-treat basket, Anna said, "Camera please." Shelly traded radio for camera, looking serious and professional and happy to have something to do.
Camera to her eye, Anna began framing death; the first step in the compartmentalizing process, boxing off the dead from the living. The last box would be of wood and buried in the ground.
The stand was built in the French style of the early nineteenth century with enclosed rooms or cabinets. Bedrooms didn't open into the central taproom where the travelers ate, but onto the porch. In Polly's room a second door exited out the far side into a storage room with access to the back porch.
Anna clicked four pictures: as wide an angle of the room as she could get in tight quarters, showing the rear door, the bed and the window on the left-hand wall next to a shallow fireplace. The other three were close-ups of those areas. Probably a waste of film but it might be important later when wondering if things were open or closed, locked or unlocked, without having to rely on memory.
Lowering the camera, she looked carefully at the floor. It was of worn planks, with a single tied rag rug to soften it. Visitors were not allowed in this room. The public had to stand behind a waist-high, clear plastic barrier, slid into brackets on the doorframe where Anna stood. The floor was clean, swept, but not recently; a thin film of dust coated the planks. Dust had collected on the dressing table by the door and the rocker in the corner. A couple months' worth at a guess.
The sidelight provided by a low November sun was ideal for her purposes. Anna got down on hands and knees and put her cheek on the doorsill.
"What're you doing?" Shelly asked.
"Looking," Anna returned repressively. Between her nose and the rag rug, the dust was unmarked. Beyond the small rectangle of faded cotton, in the area from the storage room door to the bedside, the dust had been disturbed.
"Get on the radio, Shelly. Have dispatch get in touch with the sheriff. Tell him we got tracks in dust. Special paper, kind of a cross between Saran Wrap and tinfoil, will lift them. Several different brand names. Port Gibson District doesn't have any. Tell him to bring some if he's got it." Anna wasn't optimistic. She'd never worked in a park that kept that kind of stuff on hand. There was no reason a small town sheriff's department would. The technology of criminal investigation had far outstripped most law-enforcement budgets. Taxpayers weren't willing to cough up the funds to equip a town with maybe one homicide every four or five years, and most of those straightforward I-shot-the-son-of-a-bitch-and-here's-why situations, with the high-priced bells and whistles, much less the funding to train an ever-changing cadre of sheriffs' deputies to use them.
Of course, if things got dicey, the public would be up in arms because the combined genius of NASA and the CIA hadn't been brought to bear on whatever backyard slaying the media dictated they take an interest in.
Anna was rather glad that in most places in America crime hadn't reached levels where cutting-edge Buck Rogers goodies were factored into everyday standard operating procedures. In most of the country cops still took pictures, drew sketches and crawled around on their hands and knees with tweezers and envelopes.
Standing up, Anna said, "I'm going in," then nearly laughed out loud. She'd uttered the words with the intensity of Dirty Harry about to clear out a felon-infested warehouse on the New York City docks. Maybe she'd gotten a tad cynical and practiced at looking cool, but the sight of a dead body in suspicious circumstances still triggered an adrenaline rush. It was good to be alive. She reached into the bag Shelly held and took out a tape recorder.
"Uh-oh," Shelly said.
"No danger," Anna reassured her. "I'm just going to step inside."
"No. You got your dress all smeary." The genuine sympathy in the young woman's tone reminded Anna how pretty the dress was, and how expensive.
"It'll wash," she replied, hoping it was true. Stepping through the doorway, she shut Shelly, the spoiled dress and everything else from her mind and took in the sense of the room. Simplicity, the utilitarian nature of pioneer construction and furnishings, lent it a beauty that was rarely evident in late twentieth and early twenty-first century homes: four-poster bed beneath a sash window, a desk, a rocker, a bureau. Beneath the bed was a trunk. Two hooks on the wall above the bed served the needs of a closet for a way of life that required few changes of clothing. Candles in sconces and an oil lamp would provide the room with light. Had the body been an aged family member, laid out in burial garb by loving hands, Grandma Polly's bedroom would have retained its symmetry and peace. It was so steeped in history, death itself did not seem out of place. Nudity, modernity did.
Anna crossed the room and, standing on the bit of carpet so she wouldn't destroy the tracks in the dust nearer the bed, she looked over the body. "Moby Dick," she muttered irreverently as she stared down at the great white whale beached in her park. She clicked on the tape recorder, tested it, then began.
"White male, fifty to sixty years of age, maybe five-foot-ten inches tall, well over two hundred pounds. Hair gray and brown, thinning on top, cut short. Eyes blue." Eyes. Anna was not a big fan of the eyes of the dead. Never was it clearer that they were the windows of the soul than when, looking into them, one saw only emptiness, a place devoid of hope or humanity. Once she'd seen eyes like that on a living person, a boy of eleven in a psych ward she'd visited. He'd been mutilating the family pets. His parents finally brought him in when he'd tried the same thing on his little sister.
These dead eyes were rolled back slightly, as if their owner had been looking out the sash window above his head, trying to catch a last glimpse of the stars before he died. Flesh fell heavily in the bags beneath the eyes and in his jowls, pulling down his cheeks and lips till the tips of straight, white, clearly artificial crowns could be seen.
Her gaze moving methodically down the body, Anna continued her visual exploration. "No jewelry around his neck, no marks of strangulation. No visible wounds on head, shoulders or arms." Standing on tiptoe so she would see over the man's bulk, she checked his other side. "No defensive marks evident on hands or forearms." Her focus shifted down to the torso. Here things began to get interesting. She'd started at the top of the head because thoroughness in police work was worth a great deal more than inspiration. "Torso marked with bruise pattern," she said into the machine. "Bruising evident beneath the arms. Bruising and chafing in a band approximately four inches wide just below the sternum. Abdomen unmarked. Subject wearing white men's briefs. No blood or semen stains visible. On the inner thighs bruising and chafing, contusions having oozed blood."
"Major, major yuck," said a voice in Anna's ear. "Like, this is a sex crime! God. I think it'd be a crime for a guy like this to have sex at all."
"Spoken like a young, thin person," Anna said. Drawn by adventure and the macabre, Shelly had drifted in to stand behind Anna's left shoulder. Anna checked to see that she stood on the rug. During the busy season half a hundred visitors a day poked their heads in. Park aides had the run of the place. And soon the room would be populated with the sheriff's people, the coroner and whoever else got sent on the call. A few dark hairs or pale flecks of skin from Shelly Rabine weren't going to obfuscate any clues.
"Don't touch anything," Anna reminded her and left it at that.
"I know not to touch," Shelly said, slightly aggrieved. Everybody knew it and everybody, even seasoned professionals, had to be reminded. Other than on the body itself, maybe the patchwork coverlet and the tracked bit of floor, it didn't really matter. The unbroken veil of dust on planks and furniture made it clear there would be no recent fingerprints to be lifted.
"Maybe it was that auto-erotica thing or whatever you call it," Shelly suggested. "You know, where guys hang themselves while they jerk off."
"No ligature marks," Anna said. "And his underpants are still on."
"Oh. Where are his clothes? You'd think they'd be lying around somewhere."
"I doubt he was here alone. Whoever killed him or found him before we did probably took them."
Anna had no answer for that. It was too early for answers. She said nothing but traded Shelly the tape recorder for the camera and began taking photographs of the body and, as best as ambient light and mediocre equipment would allow, of the tracks in the dust on the floor.
When she finished and looked up, Shelly had moved away from the bed. No longer on the island of rug, she stood in front of Grandma Polly's writing desk. Anna felt a stab of annoyance that the younger woman had not obeyed her to the letter. Shelly's hands were clasped dutifully behind her back, carefully not touching anything, so Anna stifled her waspishness.
"What have you got?" she asked.
"Too weird. Come look."
On the writing table an old book lay open. On the right-hand page was a picture of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. The left side was covered in verse, and half of it had been circled in red felt-tip pen.
Sins against a holy god Sins against His righteous laws Sins against His love and blood Sins against His name and cause
Great, Anna thought sourly.
"What do you figure?" Shelly asked. Either stress or proximity to religion was bringing out the park aide's drawl. Local girl, Anna remembered, from Vicksburg. First summer home from college after graduating from Ole Miss.
"Beats me," Anna said. "Could be a lot of things. Maybe means nothing. An impulse. Murderers are not the sort of folks known for controlling impulses."
"It'd of been night," Shelly said.
"Good point." Anna thought about that for a moment. Mt. Locust, true to its 1802 history, had no electricity. Whatever had transpired in Grandma Polly's room had been done by flashlight. The candles in the sconces had never been lit; the wicks were still white virgin cotton. The globe on the oil lamp was sheathed in a fine, unmarred layer of dust. It was unlikely, though not impossible, that whoever had been there had happened to see the verse. Maybe the picture. Only a religious person would know it was Christ in the Garden. Anna had needed to read the caption.
"Maybe the..." Shelly looked over her shoulder at the bed with its unsavory burden as if concerned its occupant would overhear them gossiping. "...The deceased," she continued self-consciously, "circled it himself. Like a suicide note."
"Nothing's impossible. Whoever did it had to have left a track in the dust. I missed it. Now it's been obliterated." Both women were standing on the bare wood.
"Oh, gosh, I know," Shelly said excitedly. "Baptists."
"Baptists?" Anna echoed stupidly.
"Yeah. It was done by Baptists. They're real serious about sins of the flesh. Not like Catholics or anything."
"Boy. You're sure not from around here. When you profile the killer are you going to make him Baptist?" Shelly asked hopefully.
"If I'm not mistaken, sixty percent of the state of Mississippi is Baptist," Anna said. She didn't want to go into the fact that garden-variety, one-corpse killers weren't profiled. "The sheriff should be getting here soon. Why don't you go down to the VC and wait for him."
Perhaps feeling contrite about stepping off the rug, or having just had her fill of the vicarious thrill of unnatural death, Shelly Rabine handed Anna the rucksack she'd been holding and left without argument.
Anna took two close-ups of the picture of Christ and its accompanying verse.
"Damn," she whispered. Christians made her nervous, and here she had a corpse that appeared to have been bound and bruised by the Bible belt.
from Hunting Season by Nevada Barr, Copyright © February 2002, The Putnam Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.