Read an Excerpt
The Meriwether Murder
An Alan Graham Mystery
By Malcolm K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
The headstone leaned at an awkward angle, a gray slab with a single name chiseled on its face:
Below the name was a legend:
Died July 3, 1863
The crypt was like the others in the cemetery: old bricks, once faced with cement, but most of the cement had long since flaked off, with gaping cavities in the sides of the vault where tree roots had tunneled.
I gazed around at the other stones, crooked teeth biting at the September wind.
"At first I thought it was a slave's grave," the young woman said. "The single name and all. A faithful servant, buried in the family plot."
I nodded. It was what I would have thought, too, looking at the crypts of those who had owned Désirée Plantation over the last two hundred years.
Eleanor Hollings Hardin Fabré
born August 21, 1834
died September 12, 1906
And a few yards away:
Sarah Elizabeth Hardin
born May 22, 1829
died November 19, 1835
Our Love, Now with God
And near the center, the tomb of the patriarch:
Dr. Charles Franklin Hardin
born March 4, 1770
died December 12, 1825
A Loving Father and Dear Husband
It was a small cemetery, confined by a wrought-iron fence to the top of an ancient Indian mound. A live oak threw half the little plot into afternoon shade and its dead leaves danced across our feet.
"This is the one who wrote the journal, Alan." She pointed out a grave to the left of the patriarch's and I looked down:
John Clay Hardin
born June 30, 1803
died March 11, 1865
"The journal mentions Louis," she explained, brushing her blond hair away from designer glasses.
There were three of us there: myself, Alan Graham, contract archaeologist; the middle-aged black man who ran the place; and the woman, whose name was Pepper. Thirty years old and as determined as she was attractive, she'd agreed to serve as historical archaeologist under our contract with the Corps of Engineers to survey a stretch of Mississippi River levee just upstream from Baton Rouge. We'd worked together before, more or less. Which is to say, we'd survived our mutual differences. We'd almost gotten to the point where we liked each other.
"You know Miss Ouida, the owner?" I asked the caretaker.
"I know her," he said and that was it. His name was Brady Flowers and I got the feeling he wished we'd go the hell away. But it wasn't because he was busy working on the plantation house: Désirée was slowly falling to pieces and there were no indications that anybody cared.
"She ever say anything to you about this Louis?" I asked, nodding at the grave.
"She didn't say nothing," Flowers said. "All we heard he was a pirate or something. That's what the old people say. Don't matter to me. Don't know why it matter to anybody. Now I gotta go take care of my bees."
I looked past the oak to a collection of white bee boxes at the foot of the levee. Beyond the earthen embankment stretched the gray expanse of the river. A slight haze hung over the far bank, from the refineries on the east side.
Too bad the river couldn't talk.
I got out my camera and took a roll of pictures while the others watched, photographing each headstone and recording the direction and subject of the shot in my notebook.
"Well, thanks for showing us," I said, zipping up my camera bag. "We may come back and take some rubbings."
Flowers grunted. It was clear he didn't think much of archaeologists.
I let the other two go ahead while I unloaded the film from my camera. Then I picked my way down the mound into the shady field behind the big house, where Pepper waited. I tried to picture the place as it had been in 1850, when John Clay Hardin had been its master and a man with only the single name, "Louis," had lived in one of the wooden outbuildings that was now long gone. A scene from Gone With the Wind hovered in front of my mind, but I knew better: Plantation life wasn't a succession of balls given by Old Massa while happy slaves sang in the fields. It was tough work for everybody, the plantation owners included. We skirted the pond with the cement figure of a black boy fishing and came to the little wooden chapel where the owners had worshiped. We halted, but Flowers had already gone the other way, to his bees.
"Pierre Fabré built the chapel when he bought the plantation right after the war," Pepper said. "The original owners weren't Catholic, but Pierre wanted his own church on the grounds. I guess he didn't want to have to cross the river to go to mass."
Good enough reason, I thought, and followed her across the lawn toward the big house. The grass came to our ankles and the house itself hadn't been painted in a quarter century. Not, I thought, since Pepper was a child. Suddenly I felt old.
We came around to the front of the house, where an avenue of live oaks stretched along a gravel drive to the two-lane blacktop a quarter mile away.
"They're just letting it fall apart," Pepper said with disapproval, indicating the sagging balcony and leaning pillars. "Word is that they want to sell it for a plant site."
"They?" I asked.
"The administrator of the estate. Nick DeLage. He's the nephew of the owner, Ouida Fabré. He sells insurance. Got her declared incompetent and stuck her in a rest home. But he didn't know she took some of the old papers with her."
I stopped at the red Blazer in the driveway and reached for my car keys.
"Well, let's go see Miss Ouida," I said.
We headed back across the river to Baton Rouge, a city that has long spread beyond its initial Spanish nucleus to encompass a university on the south and a cauldron of chemical refineries on the north. The nursing home was in the southern part of the city, in a commercial area that had been pasture when I was growing up here over thirty years ago. Now it was a clogged asphalt two-lane with restaurants, doctors' offices, and a couple of branch banks. The nursing home itself was set back from the street at the end of a circular drive. The sign said GREENOAKS RETIREMENT SHELTER, like it was advertising a mutual fund. I parked in the lot and checked my watch. Four-ten.
"We'll make it right between nap time and dinner," Pepper said.
"We call it supper down here," I said, smiling, and she heaved an exaggerated sigh.
"Rub it in," she said, coming to the big glass entrance door. I held it open and she hesitated, then laughed and walked through.
"Alan, you'll never change," she said. "What worries me is I'm not sure I want you to."
There was a time when we'd been at daggers' points, after she'd come down from Boston a year ago and announced her intention to run me out of business as a contract archaeologist. But we'd ended up working on a couple of projects since then, almost getting ourselves killed the first time out, and that made for a strange bond, whatever the differences of age and upbringing. Besides, I told myself, watching her slim figure precede me, with curves in all the right places, she was a damned nice-looking young woman.
It was the young part that bothered me. She was young enough to be my, well, protégé.
"We'd like to see Miss Ouida Mae Fabré," she told a thin woman behind a big glass panel. "Is she feeling like having visitors?"
The receptionist's narrow face cracked into a smile.
"I'm sure she is. She doesn't get many. Weren't you here just the other day?"
"Yesterday," Pepper said.
The skinny receptionist nodded. "I'll buzz and see if she's up."
I turned away from the window, shivering. It was cold in the hallway, but it wasn't just from the air conditioning. Pepper's hand touched my arm and I looked up.
"I really appreciate it, Alan."
"How's that?" I knew what she was going to say, but I wanted to hear it all.
"Catering to me. I mean, this is just a sort of tangent. All you hired me to do was research the historical background of the plantation and conduct some artifact analysis. I guess I let myself get carried away by the unanswered questions."
I felt an archaeological lecture coming on but caught myself.
"Tangents can be productive," I said.
"And they can be costly, too. A couple of years ago I'd have said none of this fit into the model."
"I'll leave that to Bombast," I said. Bertha Bomberg, a.k.a. La Bombast, was our contact at New Orleans District, Corps of Engineers. She doled out the projects under our current contract and then did her best to hinder us as we worked on them. At least, that was from a contractor's point of view. I'm sure we were all simply money-grubbing vermin to her.
"I just got caught up in it," Pepper went on, as if an apology for enjoying one's work was necessary. "When I thought of this poor man, Louis, and how no one really knew who he was, not even his last name, even though he lived there all those years on the plantation ... And his last words, calling for the president ... There has to be an explanation. And that's why I thought maybe you could sweet-talk her into lending us the diary long enough to get it copied."
"I'll try," I said.
A young, perky woman in white appeared in the hallway.
"Miss Ouida's in the dayroom," she said. "If you'll come this way ..."
We followed her down a well-lit corridor that smelled vaguely of fried food. We turned a corner and emerged into a large room with a couple of television sets turned low and a handful of card tables. At a couple of the tables there seemed to be games going on, but most of the players stared straight ahead, like mannequins.
"Here we go," our guide said brightly. "Miss Ouida, you have company."
The old woman in the wheelchair looked up, frowning slightly. She had cottony white hair and translucent veins under a palimpsest-thin skin. She wore a housecoat and there was a blanket on her lap.
"I know you," she said to Pepper. "You came here yesterday to talk about the plantation."
The attendant flashed an especially bright smile, as if her charge had done something clever, and patted the old woman on the shoulder.
"I'll leave you all to visit," she said and melted away.
Pepper took Miss Ouida's hand.
"That's right. You showed me your books, the ones you got from your father."
"Yes." Miss Ouida considered me with pale blue eyes. "Is this your young man?"
Pepper blushed and I grinned.
"We work together," I said.
"Oh." The answer seemed to satisfy her.
"I brought you something," Pepper said, reaching into her bag and handing the old lady a box of chocolates. "I hope you can have them."
"Elmer's," Miss Ouida exclaimed, taking the box with both hands as if it were a fragile artifact. "I love them." She sighed. "Not many people come to visit, you know. Just my nephew, and I haven't seen him since ..." She frowned, letting the sentence trail off.
"That's Nick," Pepper said to me.
"Nicholas," Miss Ouida corrected. "Do you know him?"
"No, ma'am," I said.
Pepper leaned over so she wouldn't have to speak loudly.
"This is Dr. Alan Graham. He was interested in what you told me about the plantation and the people who used to own it. I told him about the man called Louis. He thought it was an interesting story, too."
Miss Ouida nodded slowly.
"Very interesting." Her fingers started to work on the candy box, but the cellophane wrapping defeated her, so I picked it up and tore the end off, and then took the top off the box.
"Thank you." She looked down, hesitated a second over which candy to select, and then opted for a chocolate cherry.
"I haven't had one of these in ages," she said, chewing slowly, her eyes closed. "You're so kind."
"Our pleasure," Pepper said. "You said there were stories even in your time about this man?"
Miss Ouida chewed, oblivious, and for a moment I thought she'd forgotten the question. Then she spoke again:
"There was a story he was the Man Without a Country. Somebody said that, anyway, but I don't know. I always thought that story was made up."
"It was," I said. "There was a Philip Nolan, but he wasn't court-martialed at Fort Adams, Mississippi, and, from what I remember, he actually died a good many years before the story was supposed to take place."
"Then I don't know," Miss Ouida said. "I just know the grave was always there and the colored people were scared of it, called him Boogie Louie, something about he was murdered, but, of course, that's not true. They just made all that up."
She found another chocolate and we watched her chew it and swallow.
"I'll tell you one thing, though, I got the scare of my life up there when I was little. I had an uncle who loved to frighten us, make us believe there were spooks, and he dared us to go up there one Halloween. Said Boogie Louie was going to get us. Well, I had to take the dare and, of course, he was waiting, with a sheet over his head." She laughed under her breath. "I can still feel how my heart just stopped."
Pepper bent lower, her mouth near the old woman's ear.
"Miss Ouida, do you think Dr. Graham could have a look at your books?"
Miss Ouida dropped her eyes. "Did Nicholas send you?"
"I don't know him," I said. "We're just interested in history. We're trying to write the history of the people who lived at Désirée: your family. We don't want it to be lost."
"There's a lot of history there," she agreed vaguely.
I took a deep breath. "If I could have your diary for just tonight, I could copy it and get it back to you tomorrow."
"Copy it? Oh, you mean on one of those machines."
"I really don't know."
"I understand," I said, knowing it would do no good to push.
"He was your great-great-grandfather, wasn't he?" Pepper said. "John Clay Hardin, who wrote the diary?"
"Yes, I think that was it. Papa explained it once." Her voice faded and I straightened up to go.
"The plantation was something back then," the old lady said. "Sugar and cotton. And all those Negroes to work the fields. They say it was really something. Not like now."
"No," I agreed.
"Have you been out there?" she asked suddenly, her watery eyes fixing on my own. "Have you seen it?"
I nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
"Nicholas said he was going to take care of it. He promised when he brought me here."
Pepper and I exchanged glances.
"I miss it, you know. The people are nice here, but it isn't the same. Nicholas said I couldn't keep up the old place, that I'd fall, hurt myself, but I told him I always had help, that they could look after me."
I didn't say anything.
"He didn't mean it, though. Nicholas never cared about Désirée. All he sees is money. He'd sell it to the first buyer." She looked past us into a world that didn't exist any longer. "You have to understand: The diary is all I have."
"Sure." I gave her hand a pat. "Take care, Miss Ouida. Thanks."
I glanced over at Pepper and she nodded. It was time to go. Then, unexpectedly, she bent down and gave the old lady's cheek a quick kiss. She looked away when she saw my eyes on her.
"Let's go," she said under her breath.
"Let's go," she said under her breath.
We turned and started out, but we only made it a few steps before Miss Ouida's voice caught us.
We turned around.
"Yes, ma'am?" I asked.
"Call the girl and tell her I need to go to my room for something. You can have the books."CHAPTER 2
I took Pepper to her apartment on Delgado, in University Acres. She sat in my vehicle with the door open for a long time.
"I knew Nicholas was a sleaze," she said. "That old lady isn't any more incompetent than I am."
"No," I said.
"So why are you staring at me?"
"Oh, nothing," I said, smiling.
"What, I'm not supposed to have feelings just because I'm a Yankee?"
"I never said that."
"No." She nodded at the brown paper parcel on the seat between us. "Well, at least we got the diary."
"Call me tomorrow," she said. "Tell me what you think after you've read it."
I watched her walk down the driveway to the garage apartment that once had been a source of embarrassment to her. The defensiveness of last year had all but disappeared. If only I were ten years younger ... Nah, it would never work.
I drove back through the Louisiana State University campus, quiet now on a Thursday evening. I'd gone to school here a long time ago, studied, dated, taken long walks under the moss-dripped oaks. The students looked younger these days and there were more buildings crowded into what had once been tree-shaded space. Sometimes I felt very old, but on days like this one, in the early fall, with the first hint of crispness in the air, my spirit roused itself. I loved this time of year.
Excerpted from The Meriwether Murder by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 1998 Malcolm K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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