Read an Excerpt
An Alan Graham Mystery
By Malcolm K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
I told the Corps of Engineers I didn't do UFOs.
"Neither do we," Bertha Bomberg said. She was the Corps representative who oversaw our archaeological services contract with the New Orleans Engineer District and in general made our lives miserable. "But this woman saw something and she's called everybody in the world, from the sheriff to the Division of Archaeology to her congressman and now she's calling the Corps of Engineers, because the thing fell into a bayou and she figures we ought to have some jurisdiction."
"I agree. Why don't you go up to Lordsport and talk to her?"
"Because, Alan, I would have to sign out a government car and explain to my supervisor in the Planning Division what I was doing and I wouldn't get authorization because it's in Vicksburg District, anyway."
"So you want me to go, instead."
"You're working on that highway project just a few miles outside of town. I thought it would just be—"
"—simpler for me to take time off and charge it to the Department of Transportation and Development," I said. "Hey, that's neat. Why didn't I think of it?"
"Don't be sarcastic, Alan. Next year ..."
"I know. Our contract is being reviewed."
"I'm glad you understand. Besides ..." She sighed. "I hate to see a taxpayer feel like they're not getting any response. We're here to serve the public and this lady can't get anyone to listen to her."
Bertha Bomberg, public servant, was a face I hadn't seen up to now.
What else could I do but go?
I left the next morning, enduring Marilyn's tsking because I'd promised to try to hold down costs, and the highway department had already threatened an audit. I headed north up 61, to St. Francisville, recalling, as I passed familiar landmarks, the Tunica Treasure business that had brought Pepper and me together two years ago. Yesterday she'd laughed when I'd told her about Bertha's strange request.
"Just consider it a civic duty," she said from the other side of the shower curtain as small droplets of spray found their way around the barrier to settle onto my face and arms.
"I'm not feeling very civic-minded," I told her over the sound of the shower. "Especially when I have to leave you alone here for two days and nights."
We'd grown appreciably closer since our initial less-than-promising meeting. I was, in fact, on the verge of getting her to give up her apartment for good and move in. Now I had to go do La Bombast's work for her.
"I'll be okay," she said with a laugh, stepping out of the shower. Before I could lick my lips she'd whipped a towel around her, and I sighed. "I have my courses to teach," she reminded me.
"And that's another thing," I complained. "You come back from a summer in Mexico, on a dig, and not three weeks later that so-called anthropology department at the university snaps you up to take the place of that historical archaeologist who took off in a huff."
"But I thought you'd be glad: Marilyn never felt comfortable having me around. I was threatening to her sense of power. And poor David never knew what to make of me. This way, I don't compete with anybody."
"But that whole department is a nest of leches."
Her hand reached out to touch my face: "Poor Alan. Still insecure. What can I do ...?"
I told her and she did.
Now I was thirty miles away, resenting the fact that tonight, and probably tomorrow night as well, I would be sleeping on a bunk in a houseful of raucous archaeological crew people instead of in my own bed with the woman who I was still worried might burst like a bubble if touched once too often.
The season didn't help: It was a dismal January day, three weeks after New Year's, when everything from the sky to the very air is gray, and the excitement of the Christmas season has evaporated, leaving only a stack of greeting cards, a few pine needles on the floor, and the knowledge that ahead, at the end of the gray tunnel of winter, lies the furnace of summer. I hated summer almost as much as the dreary days after Christmas.
And I hated all the nights I was away from Pepper.
It was ten o'clock when I reached Natchez, and a fine rain was falling. Outside it was just above freezing and the weather forecast said the front extended west all the way to Texas. The crew would be inside today, processing artifacts, because it was too nasty to accomplish anything in the field.
I passed the sign pointing to the Grand Village of the Natchez, now a state park, and a few minutes later, at the hospital, arced left, toward the river. Ahead, high on the bluff sat a Ramada motel, and at the base of the hill, at water's edge, was a re-creation of Natchez Under the Hill, which, in the days before the Civil War, had been a sinkhole of depravity for river men, gamblers, and loose women. Nowadays, there were tourist joints and a gambling boat. These days losing your money didn't require having your throat cut.
Once over the bridge I was in Louisiana again, and into the flat floodplain of the Mississippi River, rich farmland that produced cotton and soy beans.
By the time I reached Ferriday, twenty miles west of Natchez, the rain had become a drizzle and I had the heater turned up full.
I hadn't told David I was coming because I wasn't sure how to explain what I was doing: UFOs weren't exactly the kind of things we were in business to investigate. Better just to come, talk to the woman, and explain afterward.
What had Pepper called it? A civic duty.
The rain stopped just after eleven, in time for me to see the brooding, rugged hills that loomed over the Cane River plain and shadowed the tiny community of Lordsport. Ahead of me was the old truss drawbridge that marked the entrance to town. The bridge was the reason we were here to begin with: The state was going to build a new one to the south, bypassing the town, and there was a major archaeological site in the way. We were excavating the site, but I had to wonder what the bypass would do for the town itself: Once a thriving steamboat port, it had been left moribund by the development of roads in this century. Though it was still a parish seat, once a bypass was in place there would be little reason to go there at all.
I slowed for the narrow bridge, with its bare two lanes, and glanced down at the water: gray as slate and as cold as Bertha Bomberg's heart—except that I'd just experienced a kernel of heretofore unobserved humanity in said heart, which was why I was here.
Then I caught myself: It wasn't warmth—La Bombast just didn't want to be bothered.
Ahead, after a scatter of houses and shops, was the old brick, four-story courthouse that dated from 1930. I found a parking place next to a white sheriff's cruiser and pulled in.
I went up the brick steps and into the old building, passing the four cases of archaeological artifacts that had been salvaged from the various mounds and sites in the area. One of the cases was empty, and I supposed another display was being prepared. This was probably the only parish in the state that had a sheriff interested in prehistory. I knew this because he'd once worked for me. I took the elevator down to the basement floor, and went through a doorway with a painted sign that said SHERIFF'S OFFICE. A sixty-ish deputy was leaning over the counter, talking about deer hunting to a man in camouflage fatigues. When I asked for Sheriff Scully, the deputy straightened up from the counter and ambled into one of the offices at the side. A minute later Scully himself came out, a six-foot, two-inch, straw-haired man in his early thirties whose face broke into a grin when he saw me.
"Alan. So she finally got you." He laughed, sticking out a hand as the other two men watched idly.
"She?" I asked.
"Ethel Crawford," he said. "That's why you're here, isn't it?"
I glanced at the two onlookers, who seemed interested in my answer. "I got a call from the Corps of Engineers."
"Course you did. She wouldn't leave me alone so I told her to call the Corps, that maybe one of the archaeologists digging on the bypass would be able to help."
"That was thoughtful, Jeff."
Jeff Scully shrugged. "How the hell else was I gonna get to see you again? David said you've gone into hibernation, don't hardly go to the field anymore at all." He winked at the other men. "Something about some research you're doing with a female archaeologist."
I cleared my throat. "David's got a big mouth."
"Hey, I don't blame you. If I could find a woman that would have me I'd stay at home, too." He eyed my middle. "And she must be a pretty good cook."
"About this Mrs. Crawford," I said, sucking in my stomach. "Why is this something the local sheriff can't handle?"
The two onlookers started to chuckle and it was Scully's turn to sigh.
"You don't know Miss Ethel," he said, lowering his voice. "She wants a scientist, not a cop. I couldn't talk any sense to her."
He came around the end of the counter and grabbed his windbreaker from the coat stand.
"I'll be back in a while," he said to the deputy and guided me into the hallway.
"I saw one of your display cases was empty," I said. "Getting ready for a new exhibit?"
Jeff Scully shook his head. "Somebody ripped it off," he growled. "From the damn courthouse, can you believe that? It was the only display we had about the history of the town. I put it together after you helped me assemble the cases with Indian artifacts."
"What was in it?" I asked.
"Some old coins, a plat map of the town made by Judge McGraw, a replica of a Bowie knife ..."
"A Bowie knife?"
"Yeah, some of the Bowie family lived in Cane River Parish a hundred and fifty years ago and Jim Bowie and his brother Rezin came through every once in a while, so we figured a Bowie knife was a good thing for the display."
"Was any of it worth anything?"
"Not much," the sheriff said, disgusted. "And what burns me is they broke in at night, when the only way in was the basement door. Whoever did it had to go right past the office with a deputy on duty. Naturally, nobody saw a damn thing. I fired the night deputy and said the next one I caught sleeping would go to jail for malfeasance. But that didn't get the stuff back. Sometimes I don't know why I even let 'em talk me into running for this office. I was happier before, as a horse doctor."
"Normally I'd be looking at Jacko Reilly. He used to account for ninety percent of the crimes in this town. But he did us a favor a couple of months ago and took off for greener pastures."
We went out through the back door, past a trusty in an orange jumpsuit, huddling inside for warmth. Scully pointed to a white, unmarked car.
"Where to?" I asked.
"Library," he said. "That's where we'll find Miss Ethel. This'll make her year."
I closed the door of the cruiser. "Is this lady reliable?" I asked. There was something about his tone of voice.
"Miss Ethel? Solid as a rock. Oh, there was the peeping Tom last year, and the ghost she saw at the old Parker place the year before, but ..."
I groaned. "Jeff, if this lady's—"
"Just kidding," he said with a wink and backed into the street. "You form your own opinion."CHAPTER 2
The library was a one-story, tan brick building across the street from the courthouse. Water dripped from the oaks in front and we stepped over puddles on the walkway. The four or five people huddled at the reading tables looked up as we entered.
A fat little woman with short, gray hair headed for us while we were still wiping our feet on the mat.
Jeff jerked his head in my direction: "Miss Ethel, this is Dr. Alan Graham. He came up from Baton Rouge. The Corps of Engineers called him. He's an archaeologist."
The little woman's blue eyes lit.
"You've come to find out what fell in the river," she said, sticking out a hand.
"I don't know if I can help you," I said. "But I'll do what I can."
"He's an expert," Scully pronounced, and I restrained an urge to kick him hard.
Abruptly, the librarian turned to the shelves, from whence a younger woman with brown hair and glasses had emerged.
"I'm going out," she told her assistant. "I'm going to show Dr. Graham here where the thing fell into the river. I'll be back later on." She looked up at the sheriff. "Well, let's go."
We went back out to the car and I took the backseat, letting Miss Ethel sit up front.
"Now we have to pick up Jeremiah," she said.
"Miss Ethel—" Scully began but she cut him off:
"He saw it, too. You know where he lives. I know he'll be there. He has nowhere else to go on a day like this."
"Who's Jeremiah?" I asked.
"They call him Hawkeye," Scully said, "because he's got one eye. Local humor. He's a black guy, fishes in the river, and picks up cans and bottles for recycling."
"He was in his boat when it hit," the librarian explained. "He heard it, too. He's a witness."
"Yeah," Scully drawled.
Jeremiah Persons, AKA Hawkeye, lived in a tumbled-down shack just across the river from the town. A wisp of smoke curling up from his chimney was the only sign that anyone might be alive behind the cardboard-covered windows. A shopping cart sat untended in the yard, and a stack of old tires graced one corner of the lot. Beside the house lay the stubble of a garden, its furrows sloppy from the rain, and the yard itself was a quagmire of mud and water.
Scully stopped just off the main road, on the last firm ground, and tapped his horn a couple of times. A few seconds later the front door opened and a face peered out.
Miss Ethel swung open her door and got out, oblivious of the wet.
"Jeremiah, put on your coat and come out here. We need to talk, you hear?"
The door shut and we waited. Three minutes later the door opened again and a form emerged. It wore an army field jacket and a leather cap with ear flaps. The figure slogged through the mud to the car and Miss Ethel rolled down her window.
"Get in," she ordered. "We're going to show Dr. Graham where the thing went into the river."
Jeremiah Persons climbed in beside me, saying nothing, and the sheriff backed gingerly onto the roadway, then started forward again, toward the bridge.
"It was about ten-thirty at night," Miss Ethel said, "the day after Thanksgiving. I was driving back from Ferriday, visiting my niece. It was a clear night, almost no clouds."
The iron trusses loomed in front of us.
"I was right where we are now," she said. "I had my window down, because the air conditioning doesn't work in the Chrysler anymore, and it was about seventy degrees. I was thinking what a shame it's always so hot around Thanksgiving."
We started up the bridge.
"You can stop here, Jefferson," she declared.
"Just put on that flashing light thing and direct traffic around us while I explain to Dr. Graham."
Jeff Scully stopped in the center of the span, put on the emergency brake, started the blue flasher lights on the dash and rear window, and forced himself out of the vehicle.
"Just stand over there and make sure we don't get hit by a car," she ordered, then turned to me.
"I was going about twenty. I never go faster than that when I go over this old bridge. And that's when I heard it."
"Heard what?" I asked.
"Well, it was a loud whoosh, with a little bit of a whistle. Like to scared me to death, I tell you. And then it hit the water." She pointed to a spot just downstream. "Right about there."
"I see," I said, staring out at the gray surface.
A car crept past and Jeff Scully waved it on.
"It made a loud splash and there were big waves."
"Was there a moon?" I asked.
"Not much of one. But I could hear the waves hitting the banks. I was so scared I slowed down and stopped right in the middle, where we are now."
"Did you see a trail of fire or anything?" I asked. "Or hear an explosion, like a sonic boom?"
"No. I heard just what I told you. But whatever it was has to have been big, to have kept the water splashing against the banks for so long afterward."
She rolled down the window and called out to Scully. "All right, Jefferson, get back in and drive us under the bridge so Jeremiah can explain where he was when it happened."
The sheriff nodded wearily. "Yes, ma'am."
We drove back into town and made a U-turn at the base of the bridge and then went back across to the other side. At the base of the bridge ramp was a shell road that turned back toward the water's edge, and we followed it until we were almost under the bridge itself. The librarian sprang out of the car, and I heard Scully groan as he opened his door.
Excerpted from Past Dying by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 2000 Malcolm K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.