By Charlaine Harris
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Charlaine Harris
All rights reserved.
By the time I opened my eyes and yawned that morning, she had been sitting in the car in the woods for seven hours. Of course, I didn't know that, didn't even know Deedra was missing. No one did.
If no one realizes a person is missing, is she gone?
While I brushed my teeth and drove to the gym, dew must have been glistening on the hood of her car. Since Deedra had been left leaning toward the open window on the driver's side, perhaps there was dew on her cheek, too.
As the people of Shakespeare read morning papers, showered, prepared school lunches for their children, and let their dogs out for a morning's commune with nature, Deedra was becoming part of nature herself — deconstructing, returning to her components. Later, when the sun warmed up the forest, there were flies. Her makeup looked ghastly, since the skin underlying it was changing color. Still she sat, unmoving, unmoved: life changing all around her, evolving constantly, and Deedra lifeless at its center, all her choices gone. The changes she would make from now on were involuntary.
One person in Shakespeare knew where Deedra was. One person knew that she was missing from her normal setting, in fact, missing from her life itself. And that person was waiting, waiting for some unlucky Arkansan — a hunter, a birdwatcher, a surveyor — to find Deedra, to set in motion the business of recording the circumstances of her permanent absence.
That unlucky citizen would be me.
If the dogwoods hadn't been blooming, I wouldn't have been looking at the trees. If I hadn't been looking at the trees, I wouldn't have seen the flash of red down the unmarked road to the right. Those little unmarked roads — more like tracks — are so common in rural Arkansas that they're not worth a second glance. Usually they lead to deer hunters' camps, or oil wells, or back into the property of someone who craves privacy deeply. But the dogwood I glimpsed, perhaps twenty feet into the woods, was beautiful, its flowers glowing like pale butterflies among the dark branchless trunks of the slash pines. So I slowed down to look, and caught a glimpse of red down the track, and in so doing started the tiles falling in a certain pattern.
All the rest of my drive out to Mrs. Rossiter's, and while I cleaned her pleasantly shabby house and bathed her reluctant spaniel, I thought about that flash of bright color. It hadn't been the brilliant carmine of a cardinal, or the soft purplish shade of an azalea, but a glossy metallic red, like the paint on a car.
In fact, it had been the exact shade of Deedra Dean's Taurus. There were lots of red cars in Shakespeare, and some of them were Tauruses. As I dusted Mrs. Rossiter's den, I scorned myself for fretting about Deedra Dean, who was chronologically and biologically a woman. Deedra did not expect or require me to worry about her and I didn't need any more problems than I already had.
That afternoon, Mrs. Rossiter provided a stream-of-consciousness commentary to my work. She, at least, was just as always: plump, sturdy, kind, curious, and centered on the old spaniel, Durwood. I wondered from time to time how Mr. Rossiter had felt about this when he'd been alive. Maybe Mrs. Rossiter had become so fixated on Durwood since her husband had died? I'd never known M. T. Rossiter, who had departed this world over four years ago, around the time I'd landed in Shakespeare. While I knelt in the bathroom, using the special rinse attachment to flush the shampoo out of Durwood's coat, I interrupted Mrs. Rossiter's monologue on next month's Garden Club flower show to ask her what her husband had been like.
Since I'd stopped her midflow, it took Birdie Rossiter a moment to redirect the stream of conversation.
"Well ... my husband ... it's so strange you should ask, I was just thinking of him...."
Birdie Rossiter had always just been thinking of whatever topic you suggested.
"M. T. was a farmer."
I nodded, to show I was listening. I'd spotted a flea in the water swirling down the drain and I was hoping Mrs. Rossiter wouldn't see it. If she did, Durwood and I would have to go through various unpleasant processes.
"He farmed all his life, he came from a farming family. He never knew anything else but country. His mother actually chewed tobacco, Lily! Can you imagine? But she was good woman, Miss Audie, with a good heart. When I married M. T. — I was just eighteen — Miss Audie told us to build a house wherever on their land we pleased. Wasn't that nice? So M. T. picked this site, and we spent a year working on the floor plan. And it turned out to be an ordinary old house, after all that planning!" Birdie laughed. Under the fluorescent light of the bathroom, the threads of gray in the darkness of her hair shone so brightly they looked painted.
By the time Birdie had reached the point in her husband's biography where M. T. was asked to join the Gospellaires, a men's quartet at Mt. Olive Baptist, I had begun my next grocery list, at least in my head.
An hour later, I was saying good-bye, Mrs. Rossiter's check tucked in the pocket of my blue jeans.
"See you next Monday afternoon," she said, trying to sound offhand instead of lonely. "We'll have our work cut out for us then, because it'll be the day before I have the prayer luncheon."
I wondered if she would want me to put bows on Durwood's ears again, like I had the last time Birdie had hosted the prayer luncheon. The spaniel and I exchanged glances. Luckily for me, Durwood was the kind of dog who didn't hold a grudge. I nodded, grabbed up my caddy of cleaning products and rags, and retreated before Mrs. Rossiter could think of something else to talk about. It was time to get to my next job, Camille Emerson's. I gave Durwood a farewell pat on the head as I opened the front door. "He's looking good," I offered. Durwood's poor health and bad eyesight were a never-ending worry to his owner. A few months before, he'd tripped Birdie with his leash and she'd broken her arm, but that hadn't lessened her attachment to the dog.
"I think he's good as gold," Birdie told me, her voice firm. She stood on her front porch watching me as I put my supplies in the car and slid into the driver's seat. She laboriously squatted down by Durwood and made the dog raise his paw and wave good-bye to me. I lifted my hand: I knew from experience that she wouldn't stop Durwood's farewell until I responded.
As I thought about what I had to do next, I was almost tempted to turn off the engine and sit longer, listening to the ceaseless stream of Birdie Rossiter's talk. But I started the car, backed out of her driveway, and looked both ways several times before venturing out. There wasn't much traffic on Farm Hill Road, but what there was tended to be fast and careless.
I knew that when I drew opposite the unmarked road, I would stop on the narrow grassy shoulder. My window was open. When I cut my engine, the silence took over. I heard ... nothing.
I got out and closed the door behind me. A breeze lifted my short, curly hair and made my T-shirt feel inadequate. I shivered. The tingling feeling at the back of my neck was warning me to drive off but sometimes, I guess, you just can't dodge the bullet.
My sneakers made small squeaky noises on the worn blacktop as I crossed the road. Deep in the woods to the west, I heard a bobwhite sound its cry. Not a car was in sight.
After a second's hesitation I entered the woods, following the unmarked road. It hardly deserved the name. It was really two bare tracks with grass growing up between them, some old gravel pressed down into the ground marking where the last load had been leveled years before. My progress was quiet, but not silent, and I slowed involuntarily. The path curved slightly to the right, and as I rounded that curve I saw the source of the flash of color.
It was a car — a Taurus — parked facing away from Farm Hill Road.
Someone was sitting in the front seat. I could see a head outlined on the driver's side. I stopped dead in my tracks. My skin rose in goose bumps up and down my arms. If I'd been apprehensive before, now I was truly frightened. Somehow, that unexpected glimpse of another human being was more shocking than the discovery that a car was parked out here in the woods where it had no business parking.
"Hello?" I said quietly.
But the person in the front seat of the red Taurus did not move.
Suddenly I found I was too scared to say anything else. The woods seemed to close in around me. The silence had taken on an oppressive life of its own. "Bob — white!" shrieked the bird, and I nearly leapt out of my skin.
I stood stock-still and fought a fierce internal battle. More than anything, I wanted to walk away from this car with its silent occupant — wanted to forget I'd ever been here.
Despising my indecision, I marched up to the car and bent to look in.
For a moment I was distracted by her nakedness, by the bareness of breasts and thighs, by the alien protrusion between her legs. But when I looked into the face of the woman in the car, I had to bite my lower lip to keep from crying out. Deedra's eyes were halfway open, but they weren't returning my gaze.
I made myself acknowledge what I was seeing and smelling — the deadness of her — and then I let myself snap back up straight and move a step away from the car. I stood gasping until I felt steadier, thinking of what I should do next.
Another alien color, not natural to these greening woods, caught the corner of my eye and I began to look around me, trying not to move. In fact, I was hardly breathing in my effort to make no imprint on the scene around me.
The biggest patch of color was a cream-colored blouse tossed over a thorny vine that had woven itself between two trees. A few feet from that was a black skirt, cut narrow and short. It was on the ground, and it was as crumpled as the blouse. A pair of pantyhose and — what was that? I leaned over to see more clearly, making an effort to satisfy my curiosity without moving my feet. Deedra's pearls. The pantyhose and pearls were festooned over a low branch. I was missing the bra, which I eventually located hanging from a bush, and the shoes, which had been thrown separately some feet farther down the trail. Black leather pumps. That left the purse. I almost leaned over again to see if it was in the car, but instead I replayed the scene in my mind. The purse wasn't in the front seat of Deedra's car; she would've been carrying the little black leather shoulder -strap bag she usually used with the pumps. You don't work for someone as long as I'd worked for Deedra without knowing her clothes and her habits.
So I wouldn't have to decide what to do about this for a few more seconds, I looked hard for the purse, but I didn't spot it. Either it had been tossed farther than her clothes, or the person in the woods with her had taken it with him.
With Deedra it was always a "him."
I took a deep breath and braced myself, knowing what I had to do and admitting it to myself. I had to call the sheriff's department. I took one more look around, feeling the shock of the scene all over again, and patted my cheeks. But there were no tears.
Deedra was not someone you cried over, I realized as I walked swiftly out of the woods to the road. Deedra's was a shake-your-head death — not entirely unanticipated, within the realm of possibility. Since Deedra had been in her twenties, the mere fact that she was dead should have been shocking, but there again ... it wasn't.
As I punched the number for the sheriff's department (the cell phone had been a Christmas surprise from Jack Leeds) I felt regret about my lack of amazement. The death of anyone young and healthy should be outrageous. But I knew, as I told the dispatcher where I was — right outside the Shakespeare city limit, in fact I could see the sign from where I stood — that very few people would truly be stunned about Deedra Dean being naked, violated, and dead in a car in the woods.
Of all the people in the world, I would be the last one to blame the victim for the crime. But it was simply undeniable that Deedra had thrown herself into the victim pool with vigor, even eagerness. She must have considered her family's money and social position life jacket enough.
After tossing the cell phone back into my car through the open window, I leaned against the hood and wondered what situation had led to Deedra's death. When a woman has many sexual partners, the chance of her falling foul of one of them escalates, and I was assuming that was what had happened. I mulled over that assumption. If Deedra had worked in a factory that employed mostly men, would she be more likely to die than a woman who worked in a factory that employed mostly women? I had no idea. I wondered if a promiscuous man was more likely to be murdered than a chaste man.
I was actually happy to see the sheriff's car rounding the corner. I hadn't met the new sheriff, though I'd seen her around town. As Marta Schuster emerged from her official car, I crossed the road once again.
We shook hands, and she gave me the silent eyes-up-and-down evaluation that was supposed to prove to me that she was tough and impartial.
I took the opportunity to scan her, too.
Marta's father, Marty Schuster, had been elected county sheriff for many terms. When he'd died on the job last year, Marta had been appointed to fill in the remainder of his term of office. Marty had been a genuinely tough little bantamweight of a man, but his wife must have been made of sterner and more majestic stuff. Marta was a Valkyrie of a woman. She was robust, blond, and very fair complexioned, like many people in this area. Shakespeare had been founded by a literature-loving, homesick Englishman, but in the late eighteen hundreds the little town had had an influx of German immigrants.
The sheriff was small-bosomed and somewhat thick-waisted, which the uniform blouse and skirt did nothing but accentuate. Marta Schuster was somewhere in her mid-thirties, about my age.
"You're Lily Bard, who called in the death?"
"The body is ...?"
"In there." I pointed toward the little track.
Another sheriff's department car pulled in behind Marta Schuster's. The man who got out was tall, really tall, maybe six-four or more. I wondered if the sheriff's department had height restrictions, and if so how this man had gotten in. He looked like a brick wall in his uniform, and he was as fair-skinned as Marta, though his hair was dark — what there was of it. He was of the shaved-head school of law enforcement.
"Stay here," Marta Schuster told me brusquely. She pointed to the bumper of her official vehicle. She went to the trunk, unlocked it, and pulled out a pair of sneakers. She slipped off her pumps and put on the sneakers. She wasn't happy about being in a skirt, I could tell; she hadn't known when she got to work that morning that she'd be called on to tromp around in the woods. The sheriff got a few more items out of her car and went to the edge of the trees. Marta Schuster was visibly bracing herself to remember every lesson she'd ever learned about homicide investigation.
I looked at my watch and tried not to sigh. It seemed likely that I would be late for Camille Emerson's.
When she'd finished preparing herself mentally, Marta made a gesture like ones I'd seen on TV in old westerns, where the head of the cavalry troop is ready to move out. You know, he raises his gloved hand and motions forward, without looking back. That was exactly the gesture Marta used, and the deputy obeyed it silently. I expected her to toss him a Milk Bone.
I was grabbing at any mental straw to avoid thinking of the body in the car, but I knew that I'd have to face it sooner or later. No matter what Deedra's life had been, or how I'd felt about her choices in that life, I discovered I was genuinely sorry that she was dead. And her mother! I winced when I thought of Lacey Dean Knopp's reaction to her only child's death. Lacey had always seemed oblivious of her daughter's activities, and I'd never known if that was self-protective or Deedra -protective. Either way, I kind of admired it.
My calm time ended when a third vehicle pulled over to the shoulder, this one a battered Subaru. A young man, blond and blocky, leapt from the driver's seat and looked around wildly. His eyes passed over me as if I were one of the trees. When the young man spotted the opening into the woods, he threw himself along the narrow shoulder like a novice skier hurls himself down a slope, apparently intending to dash down the road to the scene of Deedra's demise.
He was in civilian clothes, and I didn't know him. I was betting he had no business at the crime scene. But I wasn't the law. I let him pass, though I'd stopped leaning against the sheriff's car and uncrossed my arms.
At that moment Marta Schuster came back into sight and yelled, "No, Marlon!" The big deputy dogging her stepped around her neatly, grabbed the smaller man's shoulders, and held him fast. I'd seen the smaller man around the apartments, I recalled, and I realized for the first time that this boy was Marlon Schuster, Marta's brother. My stomach clenched at this bombshell of a complication. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Shakespeare's Trollop by Charlaine Harris. Copyright © 2000 Charlaine Harris. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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