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By Carolyn Haines
MiraCopyright © 2007 Carolyn Haines
All right reserved.
Aseagull swooped low over the white, man-made beach of Biloxi. The midmorning sun was bright, and I squinted against the glare of the sparkling Mississippi Sound. The water held potential. An accidental drowning wouldn't be a bad way to go, and it would be so much easier on my parents than suicide. My BlackBerry buzzed against my waist, disrupting the constant whisper of the water, the promises of numbness and sleep. I turned back to my truck and checked the number. The newspaper. I was late again.
A discarded coin cup clattered across the parking lot. Casinos, the new Mississippi cash crop. The Gulf Coast was second only to Las Vegas for gaming, a point of pride for those who saw growth as the only indication of progress. The garish casinos, complete with parking garages and hotels, were a blight, built by people who'd forgotten a storm called Camille and the damage of two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds. Talk about a gambleputting huge floating barges in the Mississippi Sound. It was 2005, and thirty-six years had passed since Hurricane Camille wiped out the Gulf Coast. But Mother Nature, like a guilty conscience, only feigns sleep.
Of course, mine was the minority opinion in a town that had finally seen the promise of two cars in every garage fulfilled by the economic boost brought bythe lure of the one-armed bandits.
It was only March, but already the hurricane experts were predicting a bad year for 2005. In a different place and time, I might have wanted to see the list of construction materials used on the hotels and new condominiums that crowded the coastline. If the construction was not up to standards, a Category Five hurricane, like Camille, could be death and destruction. In the past, that would have caught my professional interest, but not anymore. I was done with all of that.
I drove to the newsroom of the Morning Sun, ignoring the hostile glances of my coworkers as I went into my office and closed the door. They'd converted a conference room to make my office and indentations from the heavy table were still in the carpet. My desk and computer were at the end of the room beside the long narrow window that reminded me of a fortress. If the Injuns, or the liberals, surrounded us, I'd have a place for my shotgun. The paper's policy would be to shoot on sight.
My telephone rang. "Where the hell have you been? It's almost ten o'clock. We're running a daily newspaper here, Carson, not a magazine."
In my three weeks of employment, nothing had happened that warranted my presence at the paper at eight. "Sorry, Brandon," I said. "I was busy contemplating suicide, but I'm too much of a coward to carry through with it. So, what's going on?" I fumbled through a desk drawer for an aspirin bottle. Perhaps I should have apologized to Brandon Prescott, the publisher, but I didn't care for him or my job. "Drop the pity party, Carson. We don't have time for it. They're bulldozing the Gold Rush. When they started scraping up the parking lot they found a grave with five bodies in it. It's the biggest story of the decade. Joey's already there. I want you over there right now. And what the hell good is that pager unless you turn it on!"
Brandon was steamed, but there was always something that had his blood pressure at the boiling point. Lately, it was me, his prize. He'd dragged me out of the gutter and put me in a suit and an office with an official press badge. If I were a better person, I'd be grateful.
"I'm on the way," I said, surprised at the tingle at the base of my skull. My reptilian brain felt a surge. Five bodies buried at one of the most glamorousand notoriousnightclubs along the Gulf Coast. It could be a big story. In the '70s and '80s, the Gold Rush had been the precasino gathering place of the Dixie Mafia and the late-night party place where the young and beautiful of all social strata came to be seen. It was even possible someone had pushed up the tarmac and uncovered Jimmy Hoffa. After all, it was the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Anything was not only possible, but it was also probable.
I walked out of my office and was met with the baleful glares of six reporters. They already knew about the bodies, and they'd been hoping it would be their story. By rights, it should have belonged to one of them. But I had the big name and I got the choicest scraps Brandon tossed. I walked out into the March sunshine, hoping the bodies were either very old or very fresh.
Once upon a time, driving along the Mississippi Gulf Coast had been a pleasure. Miles of lazy, four-lane Highway 90 hugged the beaches where there were more migratory birds than fat sunbathers. With the advent of gambling in 1992, all of that changed. Sunbathers were already on the beach, even though the March sun had barely warmed the water above sixty degrees. For at least a mile ahead the traffic was almost at a standstill. If I didn't get to the Gold Rush soon, the bodies would be bagged and moved. In an effort to calm down, I turned my radio to a country oldies station. There was always a chance I'd catch a Rosanne Cash tune.
Instead, I got Garth Brooks and "The Dance." There had been a time when I agreed with the sentiment expressed in the song. I'd changed. There were very few experiences worth the pain. I flipped off the radio and took a deep breath. Traffic started moving, and in another fifteen minutes I was at the club.
Police cars and coroner vans lined the sandy shoulder of the highway, lights no longer flashing. Clusters of men in uniform stood whispering. Biloxi Police Department Deputy Chief Jimmy Riley sat behind the tinted windows of an unmarked car. It would have to be a big case for Riley to put in an appearance.
Mitch Rayburn, the district attorney, was also on the scene, and I'd made it a point to know as much as possible about him. Mitch was smart and ambitious, a man dedicated to protecting his community. There'd been tragedy in his past, but I didn't know the exact details. Yet. What I saw was a man sincere about distributing justice. So far, he seemed to play a straight hand, which would be a definite detriment to his future political ambitions.
Detective Avery Boudreaux did everything but stomp his foot when he saw me pull up. Avery disliked reporters in general and me in particular. We'd already had a run-in over a stabbing at a local high school.
"Hi, Avery," I said, because I knew he'd rather swallow nails than talk to me. "I'll bet the bulldozer operator was shocked." I started toward the edge of the shallow grave and heard Avery bark an order to stop.
"Let her go," Mitch said. "We're going to need the newspaper's cooperation."
I almost turned around in shock; Mitch was being amazingly cooperative. Then I figured the crime scene had already been molested by a bulldozer. I could hardly do more damage. The area was at the far back corner of the lot. Stumps and the damaged stalks of vegetation indicated that it had once been a shady, secluded spot.
I looked down into the grave. It was my lucky day. There was no flesh left, only smooth, white bones. Delicate in the bright sun. Five skeletons, five rib cages, five spinal columns embedded in dirt. All of the skulls were intact, the pelvises riding over femurs and tibias. They'd been laid side by side with some gentleness, it seemed. The connective tissue in the joints had disintegrated, so when the bodies were moved, they would fall to pieces. Whoever had buried the bodies had assumed the asphalt would protect them, and they'd been right, for a good number of years.
I caught Joey's eye. He was standing about twenty feet back with his digital Nikon dangling from his hand. He nodded. I stepped in front of Avery, effectively blocking him. Joey rushed forward and fired off several shots before two cops grabbed him. "Damn it, Mitch." Avery thrust me to the side. "I told you we couldn't trust her!"
"It's better to let the public know," I said. "Speculation is far worse than knowledge."
"Except for the families of the victims." Avery's mouth was a thin line. "I should arrest both of you."
I didn't let his words register. Brandon Prescott ran a newspaper that thirsted for sensationalism. I knew my job, and even when I didn't like it, I knew how to do it. There was very little of my old life that I'd held on to, but I was a damn good journalist. I got the story.
"Any idea who the bodies might be?" I directed my question to Mitch. He waved at the cops to release Joey. The photographer dashed for his car to get back to the office.
"Not yet," Mitch answered.
"Wouldn't you know, they were just so inconsiderate. They didn't carry any identification into the grave with them. Can you believe it?" Avery glared at me.
"That's a great quote,Avery," I said. "Very professional."
"That's enough, both of you." Mitch's mouth was a tight line. "There are five dead people here. Let's focus on what's important. Avery, we need to cooperate with Carson. We're not going to be able to keep the media out of this." He pointed to the highway where a television news truck had stopped. "That's our real problem."
"Do you have any idea who the victims are?" I asked Avery again, this time in a more civil tone.
"As soon as we get the medical examiner to give us a time frame for the deaths, we'll start going through missing-person reports." Avery was watching the television news crew as he talked. "When we know something, we'll call you, Carson," Mitch promised. "I'd personally appreciate it if you didn't run the photo of the remains."
He'd effectively ripped my sails. The photo was needlessly graphic, and he knew I knew it. I hadn't been in Biloxi long, but Mitch had grown up here. He knew the score. "Talk to Brandon," I said. "You know I don't have a say in what gets printed and what doesn't. Have something good to offer in exchange."
"We wouldn't have to negotiate with Prescott if you hadn't set it up for the photographer." Avery shook his head in disgust.
"Who owns the Gold Rush now?" I watched the television reporter being held at the edge of the parking lot. My time was running out.
"Alvin Orley sold it to Harrah's about five years ago," Mitch said. "It's been empty for about that long. I think the casino corporation is going to build a parking garage here."
"Lovely. More concrete." I looked around at the oak trees that lined the property. With the bulldozers already at work, they were history. "Never let a two-hundred-yearold oak stand in the way of more parking space."
"Why in the hell did you come back here if Miami was such a paradise?" Avery asked.
I looked him dead in the eye. "I guess when my daughter burned to death and I fell into a haze of alcoholic guilt, wrecked my marriage and got fired, I thought maybe I should leave the scene of my crimes and come home to Mississippi. Biloxi was the only paper that would hire me." Avery didn't flinch, but he had the decency to drop his gaze to the ground. "Alvin's still doing time in Angola prison," Mitch said, breaking the strained silence. "I want to personally ask him some questions. I'm going to talk to him this afternoon. You could ride with me, Carson."
I felt the sting of tears. It had taken me more than two years after Annabelle's death to be able to control my crying. Now I was about to lose it again because a D.A. stepped out of his professional skin and offered me a ride to a Louisiana prison. I was truly pathetic.
"Thanks. I'll let you know." I turned away and walked back to the shallow grave. The five skeletons were lying side by side, heads and feet in a row. I had no idea what had killed them, whether they were male or female, how old they were or why they'd been killed. For all of the things I didn't know, I was relatively certain that they'd been murdered. The skeletons were perfect. Lying under the asphalt, they'd been safe from predators and animals that normally disturb skeletal remains. I knelt down beside the grave for a closer look.
Avery was watching me, alert to my possible theft of a femur or maybe a scapula. I examined the bones, stopping on the left hand of the first victim. I couldn't be certain, but it seemed that a finger was missing. I looked at the next fourth and fifth.
"Hey, Avery," I called. "The ring fingers are missing on all of them."
He came to stand beside me, his black eyes assessing me, and not kindly. "We know," he said. "And that's something we'd like to keep out of the paper."
I couldn't keep a photograph from Brandon, but I could keep this information. At least for a day. "Okay," I agreed, "until tomorrow. After that, I can't promise."
"The M.E. said the fingers were probably severed,"Avery said. "It might be our best clue for catching whoever did this."
I nodded, still glancing at the bones. Something else caught my eye. Beside each skull were the remains of some kind of material, and beneath that, plastic hair combs. anymore. What are the odds that all five bodies would have had combs?"
"These bodies have probably been here at least twenty find out when this parking lot was last paved."
"You figure they're all women?" I asked, feeling yet again the tingle at the base of my skull.
"If you jump to a conclusion, Ms. Lynch, please don't put it in print. There are fools out there who believe what they read in the newspaper."
"Thanks, Avery." I was almost relieved to have him back to his normal snarly self.
"I'll stop by and talk to Brandon," Mitch said. "And you can decide if you want to ride to Angola with me. We could get there by three, back by seven or so."
"Thanks. I'll think about it." When I glanced toward my truck, I saw that Riley had returned to his desk job. The forensics team had done its work and was bagging the bodies. I'd seen hundreds of the black, zippered bags, but they still left me feeling empty. Would the families of the victims find peace or more horror? I got in my truck and eased into the moving traffic jam that was the highway.
Excerpted from Revenant by Carolyn Haines Copyright © 2007 by Carolyn Haines. Excerpted by permission.
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