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By Jack Warner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Jack Warner
All rights reserved.
Only three houses overlook Georgia Road 113 on the 30-mile stretch between Sandville and Fairview and each of them is abandoned and nearly collapsed, gray, rain-fissured wood with no paint like the bones of a shattered skeleton.
The farmhouses still occupied sit hundreds of yards back from the two-lane road, only a break in the tree line and a mailbox to announce the dirt lanes leading to them. At night a driver could easily overlook most of them, dimly outlined by the floodlight set in every yard and a few lights in the windows if someone's still up.
No one was up at two a.m. on the ninth of September along the highway where it crosses the Sallisaw River 10 miles north of Richey. No one saw the line of nondescript trucks of various sizes and colors trundling over the bridge.
No one, except the driver behind it, saw the seventh truck in the procession, a panel truck with small round ports lining both sides of the cargo box, edge slowly toward the shoulder of the pavement. Its front tire caught the gravel and it plunged down the embankment, spinning until the cab was pointed back at the river. Then it hit the other side of the ditch with the panels, making a mushy kind of "whump," and fell over about 45 degrees. Its headlights pointed upwards, skimming the outermost edge of the trees. The only sound came from the right front wheel, still spinning.
The next driver pulled over quickly, picked up his CB microphone as he did, spoke briefly and then leaped out of the truck. The whole line pulled over, and men came running back, some with flashlights.
The driver of the truck in the ditch was cursing in a steady monotone as he punched off the lights, turned off the engine and clambered awkwardly out the passenger door.
"You okay?" asked another driver, softly.
"Yeah, I'm fine," grunted the driver, a small man with a stubble of beard. He was rubbing his shoulder.
A rail-thin man in a fedora instead of the prevailing baseball cap trotted up to the knot of drivers.
"What happened?" he snapped.
"Well," the driver said, "I went to sleep."
"Went to sleep? You drunk?"
"What about Andy?"
"He oughta be all right," said the little driver. "We hit soft."
"Well, for God's sake make sure," the thin man said.
The little man inched back down into the ditch and walked along the side of the truck, looking into the dark ports in the side white panel. He grunted, then turned to the men on the road. "Throw me a light," he said. One of the men tossed him a flashlight.
He shined it in one of the ports, angling around, and then moved quickly to the back of the truck.
"Oh, shit," he said.
"For Chrissake, what is it?" the thin man asked. "Is he hurt?"
"No," the little man said. "He's gone."
"Gone? Whaddya mean, gone?"
"Door's open. Must've gotten knocked open when we hit the ditch. No sign of him."
There was silence. The wheel had quit spinning, and the little man turned slowly to look back up at the road.
"What'll we do?" one of the other drivers asked.
The thin man turned, walked to the other side of the road and stared up at the sky as if he was counting the stars hanging over the ridges to the north. The others waited, some looking nervously up and down the road.
After a few minutes, the thin man turned around, adjusted his hat and began issuing orders.
"Carl, get Jimmy up here with the winch, get that thing outta the ditch. It looks like it'll drive. If it will, flash your lights and we'll get going."
"You gonna call, let somebody know?" Carl asked. The boss had a phone in his truck.
"I do that, we're finished, done for," he said, looking at Carl. "That what you want?"
"No," said Carl, after a while. "I guess not."
The men drifted back to their trucks and a big Ford pickup, the last in line, moved up near the truck in the ditch. A winch motor moaned briefly and the truck was righted. The cable was reconnected, the winch started again and the truck heaved up out of the ditch like a mammoth escaping a tar pit. Its engine started, its lights blinked and the entire procession returned to Highway 113, headed toward Alabama.CHAPTER 2
On Sunday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution truck gets to the Easy Way truck stop on the interstate five miles from Richey about 4 a.m. There are always three people waiting for it. The driver never turns off the engine; he waves at the three people standing outside the truck stop, and the man in the back of the truck kicks out six bales of newspapers, each secured with two bands of thin, tough white plastic.
As soon as the last bale hits the ground the man in the back rolls down the cargo door and the driver puts the truck in gear and heads back to the interstate.
Lanelle Jackson picked up her three bales—one at a time—and dumped them in the back of her Jeep. It wasn't a slick new Jeep like the one Paul Hudgins used, or the red Blazer that Len Granger delivered his papers in.
Her Jeep was a dirty red and the seats were covered with canvas that had, at some point, been more or less green. The red paint did not quite obscure the stenciled "U.S. Army" legend. The Jeep was old, ancient perhaps, but it still ran—better on muddy dirt roads than the newer ones did.
When Lanelle finished her 40-mile route, which took her two hours on a dry day, she would go home, get her two boys out of bed, feed them and send them off to school. Then, after a cup of coffee by herself, she would drive her Jeep downtown and open up Jefferson Drugs and start the big coffee urn. There hadn't been a man at Lanelle's breakfast table since her husband died on the interstate four years ago. On Sunday, she'd just go back to bed for a while.
Lanelle made sure the folds of the paper were pointed toward the front of the Jeep and then, with wire cutters, broke the bands holding the paper together. It was a fairly cool morning, but she still had the sheet-metal top off the jeep. If the papers were stacked with the fold at the back of the Jeep they'd blow all over hell when she got to going.
All three left at the same time, waving to each other. Lanelle pulled out of the truck stop onto Georgia 58 and headed east. Every couple of miles or so there was a mailbox, and at the ones where there was a round metal tube emblazoned with "Atlanta Constitution" she stopped, rolled up the Sunday paper and shoved it into the tube.
She turned north at Georgia 82 and the breeze from the west lifted her hair up a little. She pulled her jacket closer around her neck.
Almost two-thirds of her route was on good paved roads. Just the last of it was on dirt roads, washboarded and rutted and miserable to drive on. The ruts, baked hard by the sun, could throw a vehicle out of control.
But the paved portion of her route was okay, almost a pleasure on a morning like this. Things were beginning to stir; occasionally a dog barked when she stopped to stuff a paper, but it was still pitch dark when she turned back west on Georgia 113. She had gone about a mile when a car with Alabama plates pulled out and passed her. She never saw many cars this time of morning.
The Sallisaw smelled like fresh mud and dead fish when she crossed the bridge. It always did when things got dry. She began humming "Strawberry Fields Forever." She could never get the song out of her mind for long.
At Suddarth's place, three stops before she had to turn back south on the dirt road, she shoved a paper into the tube and, to her astonishment, the paper flew right out the back of it. She looked into the rear of the Jeep and saw that one of the big inserts had slipped out when she picked the paper up. That happened once in a while.
"Shit," she said, swinging out of the Jeep. She walked around the front, outlined briefly in the headlights, a slim woman in a white T-shirt and jeans, and stepped down into the drainage ditch to retrieve the fallen newspaper.
The sun was just clear of the horizon when Sally Suddarth waddled down the lane to get her Sunday paper. Ray would be back from milking their three cows in about 15 minutes, ready for his breakfast. Things ran on rails at the Suddarth place.
She came out of the tree line and saw Lanelle's old Jeep.
"Lanelle," she said, "you sure runnin' behind this morning."
No answer, and she could see Lanelle wasn't in the Jeep. She walked up to it and heard the engine, idling kind of rough.
She looked in the paper tube. It was empty. She walked over to the passenger side of the Jeep and saw the newspaper in the ditch. A small clump of weeds lay on the front page.
There was, however, no sign of Lanelle. Sally went back and got Ray, who climbed on his tractor and drove down to the highway, but he couldn't see anything, either. He turned off the Jeep's ignition—the key was still in it—and went back to the house to call Sheriff Barnes in Richey.
Sheriff Barnes, a tall, heavy man of 50 years, all but 20 of them in the Sheriff's department, came out himself. Lanelle was a popular woman.
The Sheriff walked carefully around the Jeep, watching where he stepped, although he could see nothing on the pavement. He pulled a pen out of the pocket of his brown shirt and hooked Lanelle's little purse out from between the front seats. It was open, and he could see her wallet. The wallet obviously had some bills in it, so he assumed no one had tampered with it. He pulled out the wallet and found her driver's license and a single MasterCard inside.
"What time she usually come by here?" he asked the Suddarths, who were watching from the foot of their lane.
"Around five, five-thirty, I guess," said Sally. "We get up at six and the paper's nearly always there when we get up."
"You hear anything around then?"
"No, sir. We was asleep," said Ray.
"What about the dogs? They usually bark at her?"
"Well, we just had the one," Ray said, "and I don't think he ever barked at her. Anyways, I ain't seen him for a few days now."
The Sheriff radioed back to the office for a deputy with a fingerprint kit and a camera, and told his dispatcher to call the state prison at Alto and the GBI at Gainesville. Sheriff Barnes hung around the Suddarth place, drinking coffee and watching his deputy dust the Jeep, until an agent from the GBI, a crime scene specialist, arrived about 11 a.m. in a white panel truck.
He was mostly interested in the ditch. He picked up the newspaper with a clear plastic glove on his hand, hefted it and then pulled another paper out of the heap in the back of the jeep and hefted that.
"This isn't the whole paper," he said, looking around until he saw the loose insert lying in front of the pile of Sunday editions. "Here's the rest of it."
Then he got back into the ditch, which was about four feet deep at the very bottom, but not hard to climb in and out of. The last rain was two weeks ago.
"This clump of weeds here was on the paper," he said finally, "and there's a couple more little clumps over here look like they're fresh-pulled. Like maybe there was something like a scuffle down here. But the ground's hard. I don't see anything coming in or going out."
There wasn't much left to do on Sunday but issue a south-wide bulletin for Lanelle, putting a picture of her on the wire to police departments all over the region.
The next day, the GBI agent, Phil Edge, came back out to the Suddarth place followed by a Corrections Department truck. With him was a dog handler, Sgt. Walt Sandlin, and in the back of the truck there was a forlorn-looking bloodhound.
Sheriff Barnes met Edge, Sandlin and his dog there at daylight. He had gone back to town on Sunday, picked up Lanelle's kids and taken them out to his house to stay with his wife. He had a deputy start trying to find Lanelle's family, somewhere down near Columbus.
On his way out to the Suddarth house, he stopped at Lanelle's again and found the dirty clothes hamper. He rummaged through the kids' jeans and t-shirts until he came up with a pair of Lanelle's white cotton underpants. He put them in a plastic bag and took them with him.
At Suddarth's, he gave the bag to Sandlin, who pulled out the underwear, nodded with approval and held it out to the bloodhound. "Find 'er, Porky," he muttered in a ritual chant. "Find 'er for me, find 'er now."
Porky sniffed the underwear with interest, and then Sandlin pulled him by his leash toward the Jeep, still chanting. The dog put his front paws on the side of the old vehicle and sniffed the driver's seat. With an eager whimper, he stood down and began twisting about, then trotted, nose to the ground, around the front of the Jeep toward the ditch. Sandlin had trouble keeping up with him.
Porky scrambled into the ditch, casting about anxiously, and then stiffened. Very slowly, he walked east a few paces, sniffing heavily, until he seemed to reach a decision. He cleared the side of the ditch in two bounds, trotted back to Edge's pickup truck and sat down.
"What the hell," said Sandlin. He pulled on the leash. Porky was willing, in a sullen sort of way, to walk up and down the pavement. He would walk reluctantly up the Suddarths' lane, and he could even be coaxed into the ditch on the south side of the road. But the dog would not go near the ditch on the Suddarths' side of the road again.
Deputies scoured the area later that day, and the next day, Tuesday, about a hundred people from Richey and the nearby farms showed up to search, but they found no sign of Lanelle Jackson. There were no fingerprints on the Jeep but hers and her boys'. As far as anyone could tell, Lanelle Jackson had climbed down into that ditch and somehow fallen clear through to China.CHAPTER 3
The disappearance of Lanelle Jackson was on television every night for almost a week in North Georgia, and there had been stories in the Atlanta and Gainesville papers. People who never knew Lanelle became quite familiar with her face in her wedding picture, and with the image of her old Jeep sitting so mysteriously beside the mailbox in front of the Suddarth farm.
It was still a major topic of conversation when Fred Jenkins, a farmer in Hawkins County forty miles north of the Suddarth place, lost a pig.
Fred and his wife Mae, who lived about 10 miles out of Foster, the only real town in the county, were sitting in their living room after dinner, talking about the Jackson disappearance. Actually Mae was talking about it and Fred was thinking about how he'd better bring in some wood for the old iron potbellied stove that crouched in front of them, its galvanized chimney disappearing into the ceiling.
"Well, I was talking to Ruth this morning, and she says maybe those Satanists from up that place in Tennessee is in it, but I don't know," Mae was saying. "I kinda think she must have picked up some hitchhiker."
Fred grunted, trying to recall how many hitchhikers he'd seen at five a.m. on two-lane country roads, when old Buster started to bark out back. Fred always paid attention when Buster spoke. He'd cornered a kid trying to steal chickens once.
Fred was 67 years old, but he was an active man, and when Buster's normally deep, rhythmic bark suddenly changed to a frantic, high-pitched yammer he bounded out of his big reclining chair. A cow bellowed in agony, once, and he grabbed the 12-gauge off the wall. Snatching the flashlight, he threw open the kitchen door to be greeted by a God-awful scream that stopped abruptly, a scream that could have been human but Fred knew was a pig.
"Somethin's after the stock," he yelled at Mae, who rushed into the kitchen. "Stay inside. Shut the door."
Whatever was there was gone by the time Fred got to the bam. Buster was standing by the door, no longer barking but growling now and then and, to Fred's amazement, trembling a little. At the pig lot, Fred tried to count his stock—he had 20 animals in the big pen—but it was so dark and the pigs so agitated he couldn't get the same number twice. He had the feeling one was gone, but there was no damage to the fence. The gate was still locked. There was nothing to do but wait for morning.
Shortly after sunup, he counted 19 pigs in the pen. The barrow he had intended to slaughter for winter eating was gone. There were signs of blood in the trampled mess inside the pen, but Fred couldn't see how the hog had been removed. When he went to his small herd of cattle, which gathered near the barn for the night, he found a cow with a strip of hide hanging off her flank.
Excerpted from Maneater by Jack Warner. Copyright © 2005 Jack Warner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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