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A veteran of forensic recoveries of human remains as far as Cambodia and Iraq draws on his prodigious experience to create an exciting new fiction series featuring a scientist-hero who could be his alter ego. Unabridged. 11 CDs.
Split Tree, Arkansas
FRIDAY, AUGUST 12, 2005
Split Tree was a simple town of great complexity.
In the big, wide scheme of things, it had never seemed to rise to the occasion. Even in the boom days before imported cotton had bottomed out the local market, Split Tree hadn't really amounted to much; just a flat, even-tempered, east Arkansas collection of ramshackle that even its most ardent bred-in-the-bone supporters sometimes had to admit was a waste of good dirt.
And nowadays it seemed to have even less working in its favor.
Dirt was actually the word most appropriately used when you needed something to finish a sentence that started with Split Tree. The whole town was like fine grit in the teeth. Grit and silt and dry, wind-blown floodplain clay. Dirt. In fact, the community gave the impression of having collected about the county courthouse in much the same manner that dirt and cotton lint seem to drift up around a tree stump in the middle of a field -- not organization as much as lazy convenience.
Like many southern river towns devoid of troublesome topography, Split Tree was organized like a checkerboard with a baseline that ran straight east to west, from sunup to sundown. The eastern anchor was the three-story red-brick and limestone courthouse, the seat of county political affairs for over 150 years; to the west, on Tupelo Road, was the Bell Brothers Cotton Gin, the seat of gossip and economic business for even longer. Long-fiber cotton was on the wane, and the Dew family -- who'd purchased the Bell gin during the Depression but kept the name out of deference to tradition -- had been forced to expand the business to one of general agricultural supply. It had even started selling Japanese-made tractors with long, funny names, but increasingly it was having a hard time competing against the co-op, and there was a persistent rumor of imminent closure.
Split Tree was not a bad town, but somehow it woke up one morning on the wrong side of the century. It was a place where most folks still found it rude to be rude; where the women retained a quiet sense of grace and composure, and men still visited their mothers every Sunday afternoon. The kind of place where people still knew the name of every dog in town.
A place where very little seemed to happen, and very little had ever happened.
In the late summer of 1965 Split Tree, Arkansas, hit its high-water mark of excitement when two bodies were found; one black, one white; one identified, one unknown. And as they say in Split Tree, that sort of thing don't happen just any old day.
The identified body created the most stir -- at least at the time -- as it proved to be the physical remains of one Leon Jackson, late of Natchez, Mississippi. The unidentified remains certainly caused their fair share of head-scratching, but as Split Tree was a small community and since none of her native sons were known to be missing, conjecturing as to the identity of the unknown body soon subsided into little more than a stray barbershop topic.
But Leon Jackson wasn't so easily forgotten, no matter how much some wished that he were.
Leonidas Stephen Jackson was either a civil rights martyr or a goddamn Negro that had no business west of the Mississippi River; your particular view depended largely on whether you lived in lowland east Arkansas in the 1960s or wrote for big-city newspapers along the Atlantic seaboard. Regional perspectives aside, the reality was that Mr. Jackson was a would-be civil rights organizer who lacked the physical presence or visceral charisma of a Medgar Evers or Martin Luther King, and even by the most generous historical reckonings, was decidedly second shelf. Which is precisely why he ended up in the floodplain of eastern Arkansas in 1965 rather than Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia or one of the more racially charged crucibles of that era. Arkansas was on the periphery of the civil rights movement -- Governor Orval Faubus and the forced integration of Little Rock's Central High School notwithstanding -- and an obscure Negro championing the cause of backwater Arkansas cotton farmers and black sharecroppers who wanted little more than to be left alone did not fire the imagination of eastern publishers the way German shepherds and fire hoses and lunch-counter sit-ins did. In fact, when Leon Jackson disappeared after last being seen at an African Episcopal Methodist church on the outskirts of West Helena, no one, not even his family over in Natchez, realized he was missing for several weeks.
If the truth were told, Leonidas Jackson became a historical footnote not because he was murdered, but because his body had the singular good timing to wash out of a flooded, earthen levee less than a year after the bodies of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner were found in an earthen dam in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Across the river. Even then he would have faded into complete anonymity had the eastern press not opportunistically connected the two incidents, despite the obvious differences -- not the least of which being that they occurred a good two hundred miles apart.
Split Tree's second body was found almost a month later, in September, when the rain stopped and the Mississippi River flood clay dried up enough that the FBI was able to dig up more of the levee. The fact that the second body was that of a young, white male -- like Goodman and Schwerner -- seemed to confirm to all the northern fire-eaters, whose limited knowledge of Arkansas had been gleaned from Lum and Abner radio shows, that something fell shadowed the whole South. But try as the authorities might, the second body was never identified, and the case was never closed.
Which is precisely why Special Agent Michael Levine found himself in Split Tree, Arkansas, on a blister-hot August afternoon forty years later, specifically in the office of Locust County Sheriff Waymond Ray Elmore.
"Holy shit. Can it get any frigging hotter?" Levine said as he walked into the office. The comment was directed at his own discomfort more than at anyone in the room. A mumble as he plucked at the front of his light-blue cotton shirt, tugging it away from his moistening chest. Little rivulets of sweat were snaking down his skin and pooling at his belt line in the small of his back, making it hard to keep still. It was early in the day, but already the thermometer at the Farmer's Bank showed 102 degrees, and the humidity was well over 80 percent for the fifth straight day. The air had the sullen feel of an impending storm, but the skies were clear and the sun shone down unmolested. Levine had endured long, painful summers growing up in a two-story brick walk-up in Brooklyn; he'd humped the jungle in Southeast Asia with a forty-pound rucksack on his back as an eighteen-year-old ground-pounding infantry grunt, but this heat was different. It had a personality and a closed agenda. It had been bad enough in Memphis, where he had been transferred four long months ago, but the heat in this little east Arkansas toaster oven was physically assaulting. Its presence closed in around you and hugged you tight, sitting on your chest and catching your breath like some unforgettable shame.
"Excuse the language, Sheriff. Probably not the most appropriate introduction. Special Agent Michael Levine, Federal Bureau of Investigation," Levine said, flashing his tin as he settled into a modern plastic-and-fabric spring-backed office chair that looked as totally out of place in the old building as did the sheriff's modern wood-laminate desk. An understrength, asthmatic box air-conditioner rattled and clicked in a nearby window and was managing to take some edge off the heat -- but only the edge.
"Understandable. Yeah, it's some kind of hot all right," said Sheriff Elmore as he watched his visitor take a seat. The whole room had been renovated recently with a dropped acoustic-tile ceiling and the contemporary palette of the neooffice that seemed designed to erase the character from historic buildings. Waymond Elmore hated it. Even more, he hated the fact that his office had been one of the first to undergo the facelift. "Would of thought y'all be used to this, though. From Memphis, ain't that right?"
"Not by a long shot, Sheriff, just temporarily detailed to the field office there." Levine reflexively distanced himself from anything Dixie -- not that he could be mistaken for a local. He still hoped that his time in the South was a temporary unpleasantness, kind of like a summer cold that could be cleared up in a short time if only you took proper care of yourself. That was the problem, however; Levine had made a career of not taking care of himself.
The agent surveyed the sheriff's office. The desk was relatively clean and indicated either a lack of work or a surplus of efficiency. Levine's natural inclination when dealing with what he viewed as red-faced molasses suckers like this one was to assume utter incompetence, and therefore, the former. In his short sojourn in southern culture, he had come to take this as axiomatic. The walls were painted a thin chocolate-milk brown -- a color that he still called beige despite its current reclassification as taupe -- and were as bare as the desk except for a framed picture of grizzly wading into frothy white water to snag a leaping salmon. Above the picture was the word Determination; there was something written under it as well, in dark blue script, but he lacked both the eyesight and the interest to try to discern it. He had seen the same picture in an advertisement in an airline magazine recently. There was a single, framed photograph of two small, tow-headed boys on the sheriff's desk -- too young to be current unless they were grandchildren -- next to a plastic twenty-ounce Dr Pepper bottle that contained a half-inch of something resembling diluted coffee grounds. From the lump visible under the sheriff's gum Levine surmised that it was what he grew up hearing his grandfather call snuff, but was now marketed as "smokeless tobacco."
"Just what is it I can do for y'all now, Agent . . . I'm sorry . . ."
"That's right, Levine . . . now, what can I do for y'all, Mr. Levine?" Despite his upbringing, Sheriff Elmore was in no mood to be cordial and was hardly even inclined to be polite to a man that smelled of big-city smug. He was ready to get this meeting over with, although, truth be told, he had virtually nothing to do for the remainder of the afternoon, but he had taken a visceral dislike to this federal yahoo at first glance -- this tall man with his necktie and his sport coat and his lined face that was starting to flush a dull, mottled red. Elmore was anxious to set him on his way on principle alone, not to mention the unpleasant fact that the FBI agent had mentioned the Jackson/John Doe murder earlier on the telephone, and he certainly didn't welcome walking that dog no matter how long the leash.
Levine had to swallow hard to avoid a wave of nausea brought on by the heat and the smell of stale cigarette smoke and Elmore's old hair tonic. Since moving to Memphis he had spent more time eating and less time exercising, and now as he leaned forward in his seat the slight movement made him realize that his shirt collar was fitting too tightly. He felt like his eyes were bulging with each pulse. "Well, Sheriff, as I mentioned to you over the phone, the Bureau has decided to take a fresh look at the Leon Jackson/John Doe case . . . you're familiar with it, I'm sure."
"Yes, sir." The sir part was clearly said out of local custom and not deference. Elmore almost defied his upbringing and left it off. "Course I would be, just like anyone else around here my age. Don't say I remember much, though. Believe it happened the summer I graduated high school. It was news . . . at the time. But then you boys solved that one, as I recall. Klan related, so y'all said." He smiled as he spoke, but it was a look that conveyed no amusement.
Waymond Elmore's voice was high-pitched and sounded something like a car skidding on hot asphalt. It crackled and skipped with a nervous energy that belied his slow demeanor. He was a tall man, not a giant, but good-sized, with shoulders as wide as a yellow broom handle, and the muscles stood out on his body like knots on a branch of weathered driftwood. His once silty-brown crew-cut hair had long ago salted into a pale cement gray that matched his eyes, and deep furrows plowed by over fifty years of river basin sun etched his face. He'd been a handsome man at one time, but that time was over and now there was a profound weariness shadowing his looks, like a man who'd reached the end of his options and saw no content in his future.
"Well, that's not quite accurate," Levine corrected for the record, though he suspected that the sheriff was well aware that the case had never been closed. One of the worst aspects of his posting to Memphis was that he had to spend an inordinate amount of time with tin stars like this one. He absolutely hated having to dick-dance around with these backwater good ole boys, and in five minutes he had made this one out to be a colossal putz. "You're right that the Bureau established a circumstantial link between Jackson's murder -- and that of the John Doe found with him -- and the Klu Klux Klan, but no one was ever brought to trial." Levine tended to avoid using the pronoun we when he referred to the Bureau. He figured there was some degree of symmetry in the matter since he was absolutely positive that the Bureau avoided using we when they referred to him.
He continued, "In fact, as I mentioned earlier when we spoke on the phone, that's precisely why I'm here. As I'm sure you're aware, there's been a string of convictions recently in some of the unsolved cases from the sixties. Cherry and Blanton in the '63 Alabama church bombing, de la Beckwith for the Medgar Evers murder, and most recently the arrest and conviction in the Goodman, Cheney, Schwerner murders over in Mississippi. The Emmett Till killing has been reopened, and the Bureau believes that with some of the new forensic technology that's available, it may prove worthwhile to reopen the investigation into the Jackson case as well." Levine knew this was utter bullshit. Certainly new forensic techniques -- notably DNA testing -- were sometimes applicable in older cases like this, but that wasn't why he was here. The reality was that Levine had jammed up an influential senator from Pennsylvania on some insider trading and hadn't backed off when the Bureau told him to permanently file the evidence. Instead, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer got an anonymous package filled with classified FBI case memoranda. The result was predictable: The senator announced that he had decided to spend more time with his family and would not stand for reelection, and Levine was detailed to Memphis to work on what he suspected was the Bureau's equivalent of a snipe hunt. He was a white-collar crime specialist -- bank fraud, money laundering -- with no training in murder investigations except for a few courses at the Academy, years ago. Given the right case, it was a matter of when he stepped on his dick, not if. In a forty-year-old unsolvable crime, the Bureau was baking up a payback pie. He'd even figured out the recipe: Send one asshole Levine to jerkwater Crackerland, run him around in useless circles until thoroughly mixed, bake his nuts at 110 degrees for six months, and serve with voluntary retirement papers.
"Very interestin', Agent . . . ?"
"It's Levine, same as it was two minutes ago, Sheriff. Special Agent Levine." He was really starting to work up a case of the ass for this guy. There was something about him that made Levine want to punch his lights out, though he couldn't articulate precisely what.
"That's right, that's right . . . seems to be a hard name for me to remember, Agent Levine. But tell me . . . Agent . . . Levine . . . that case over in Mississippi . . ."
"Goodman, Cheney, Schwerner."
"That's right. That one. In case you don't read the newspapers, that one was tried in state court. You Feds had your shot at that fella way back in the sixties and couldn't make it stick."
Levine took a deep breath. "You're correct, Sheriff. The point is, these old cases, like the Jackson case, are still prosecutable -- no matter what jurisdiction officially takes it. But it seems that sometimes the . . . the local authorities need a push."
"And y'all here to push?"
Levine returned a humorless smile. "If need be."
Elmore nodded slowly, as if he were considering what Levine had said. "So what has any of this got to do with the Locust County sheriff's office? Course, we certainly would like to hep y'all in any way we can, but we have a pretty busy caseload of our own to tend to."
Yeah, Levine thought, I'm sure you do, Sheriff, got to catch all those Colombian drug lords who are putting cherry bombs in Farmer Pudd's mailbox.
So much for the get-to-know-you courtesy call. After only a few minutes Levine figured he knew this guy's type well enough, and Elmore's attitude was making him feel anything but courteous. That and the heat. Even with air-conditioning, the sheriff's office, which was on the southwest corner of the second floor of the old county courthouse building, was probably pushing eighty-five degrees -- though Sheriff Waymond Elmore didn't seem to notice. As he'd been driving to the courthouse that morning, Levine had already decided that today might be a good day to get drunk, or strangle somebody, or both. In fact, he could have envisioned any number of things, but sitting in this sweatbox talking to this little uniformed redneck jerk had not made it onto the short list. Levine decided to start pulling this meeting to a close before he did something that the Bureau would try to make him apologize for later.
"Glad for the offer of . . . hep. Look, Sheriff, the Bureau has some jurisdictional involvement in certain aspects of the case, namely the civil rights angle, but the victims' bodies were found in Locust County, and I believe that makes this case yours, technically. Always has been. The reason I'm here is basically to take a fresh look at it. You know, review any new information your office has; talk to some residents in the area to see if there are any new leads; shake the tree and collect the nuts. I will tell you, however, that we have initiated DNA testing on some of the evidence found in 1965 and that avenue looks very promising." Levine hated forced civility, absolutely hated it, and this was as forced as it got.
Sheriff Elmore looked at the special agent with a silent derision he normally reserved for avowed evolutionists and female sports anchors. After a moment, he rocked his chair back and unscrewed the cap of the Dr Pepper bottle. Without breaking eye contact with Levine he put his lips to the bottle, dribbled a long rope of muddy brown saliva into it, and recapped it before speaking. "And just what sort of promisin' evidence might'n that be? This here evidence from 1965 that y'all are testin'."
Levine stared hard at Elmore's face, trying to read the concentric lines around his eyes as if they were tree rings. He'd mentioned that the murder had occurred the summer that he graduated from high school. That would make him about my age, a year older probably, Levine thought to himself -- midfifties, give or take a couple. Of course that was assuming that the sheriff graduated in twelve years, which Levine was beginning to seriously doubt. Levine had finished high school a year after the murder occurred, Erasmus High class of 1966. The year Sandy Koufax won twenty-seven games and hung up his spikes. The year the Supreme Court made Miranda a household name. The year before the U.S. Army awarded Levine a full-ride scholarship to the University of Reality in Phuc Me Long Province, South Vietnam.
"As you may recall, the second body -- the John Doe -- was found with some bloody clothing, and not much else. No identification materials, no wallet, no jewelry. The remains were too badly decomposed to identify back then. The Bureau retained samples of the shirt and pants for trace evidence analysis -- there were some hairs found on the shirt at the time that were of interest to the folks in Trace. So far that hasn't panned out, but now the interest has shifted to the blood. All they could really say in 1965 was that it was A positive. Chances are that the blood is his -- the John Doe's, that is -- at least that's always been the assumption, but there's always a chance that it may be some sort of castoff from the perpetrator. The hope is that DNA testing may shed some new light on either the identity of the victim or the identity of the murderer. Either way . . ." He paused to give Sheriff Elmore time to respond or even show a spark of interest.
He did neither, so Levine continued. "And that's the other reason I'm here; since we had the clothing in our custody, we were able to initiate the testing on that. The body, however, or more accurately, what I've been told I can assume is probably a skeleton, is assumed to be here in Locust County -- I presume still at your medical examiner's office." Levine thought he detected the slightest flicker behind Elmore's eyes. Quick, then gone. "I need to obtain some samples from the remains so the lab can compare the DNA from the clothing to them."
"Well now, Mr. . . . Levine," the sheriff said as he leaned forward, placing his elbows on this desk and interlacing his fingers on top of a large, outdated 2001 write-on desk calendar that read "Bing Bros. New and Used Automobiles." His chair creaked under his shifting weight. "In the first place, Locust County doesn't have a medical examiner. This here's a coroner state, and that's just what we have -- a coroner -- and in the second place, I can almost guarantee you that he doesn't have no bones left over from 1965."
Levine sat silently for a moment, until he was sure that Elmore had finished, and then he responded. "Sheriff, I'm sure you can appreciate that that information isn't exactly what the Bureau wants to hear. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and as I reminded you a few minutes ago, this is an open homicide -- a rather high-profile homicide -- and the expectation in an open homicide is that important evidence will be retained. Now, I suspect that you may simply be mistaken about the whereabouts of the remains." Levine knew virtually nothing about homicide investigations, and he was wondering if this small-town sheriff would know enough to call his bluff. "I'm sure your coroner is aware of this case. I guess he's the one I should really be talking to. I'm here as a professional courtesy only. I need to pay him a visit." Levine had no prior experience with small-town America coroners, but he'd been debriefed at the office not to expect too much. Unlike medical examiners, coroners usually were elected positions that did not require a medical degree, simply a voter's card and a felony-free record. In fact, the coroner system originated around the time of the Magna Carta and was more concerned then with tax collection than anything else. In the United States, coroners often were funeral directors who supplemented their income with a county paycheck.
"Knock yourself silly, Mr. Levine, but I'm tellin' you that you're wastin' your time down here in Locust County tryin' to sniff out anythin' on that old case. I truly am sorry that that Mr. Jackson fella came down here and got hisself killed and all, but that was almost forty years ago. Don't serve no purpose to be whackin' that hornet's nest -- don't matter what kind of new scientific stick y'all got to do it with. And it don't matter what exactly the Bureau wants to hear." Sheriff Elmore focused on Levine's eyes and didn't blink. His look took on a sharpness that was almost feral in its hardness. "My advice is to let dead men rest in peace, Mr. FBI Special Agent, just let them sleep."
"And killers? Mr. Locust County Sheriff." Levine hadn't given a real damn about this case ten minutes ago, but that was beginning to change. He rose from his chair faster than he intended. His head swam with the movement and the heat, and he was forced to steady himself by leaning on the edge of the sheriff's desk. The effect was primal. "Do we let killers sleep?"
The sheriff looked down at his fingers momentarily and then brought his eyes up again to meet Levine's. The contempt that had blazed from Waymond Elmore's face throughout the meeting had burned out and been replaced by something else. Something that Levine couldn't get a quick handle on. "What makes you think a killer can ever sleep, Mr. Levine?" Copyright ©2006 by Thomas Holland
Posted December 11, 2008
No text was provided for this review.
Posted July 10, 2010
No text was provided for this review.