Two investigations start at the same time in Swann County, North Carolina, one by the FBI, the other by the sheriff. The feds want to know who stole three Stinger missiles during a helicopter crash. The sheriff wants to know who hanged a black ex-con in a well.
Seb Creek, a sheriff’s detective, gets involved in both investigations and fights through lies, secrets, and murder to find the killer. The trail involves a long-ago axe murder, the ravages of combat, an outdoor gas chamber, a mystery at the bottom of a well, and finally a last killing and an ancient testament.
A Dredging in Swann is a tale that deals powerfully with themes of war, race, justice, and, in the end, with healing.
Sometimes justice has to wait.
Sometimes it won’t.
About the Author
Tim Garvin grew up in Arizona, then the Alaskan wilderness. Now he lives beside a creek outside Durham, North Carolina, with his wife, Cynthia, and dog, Blue. He built a cabin beside the creek, and in the mornings goes down there to write. In the afternoons, he throws pots, gardens, reads, discusses life with Cynthia, and sometimes coaxes her and Blue to the coast to float around the Outer Banks in a little sailboat. He’s currently at work on a second Seb Creek book.
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MURDER AND MERCY
If Leo Sackler had written to the parole commission to say he was sorry for killing Hugh Britt, they would have likely let him go. After all, he was past seventy, had kept a fleet of prison service trucks in fine repair for many years, and releasing him would have saved money. But they were wary of a man unable to submit to public regret, who, despite the state's appeal-proof case against him, tediously maintained innocence. Parole Commissioner Henrietta Cross, dean of the cosmetology department at Swann County Community College, particularly mistrusted him. She was past seventy herself and had not only been a resident of Swann County when the murder happened, but had known the victim, Hugh Britt. She had also known his father, Marshall Britt, and also the irrefutable facts of the case, how Hugh and Leo had fought publicly on the Britt dock over the concealed magnets on Hugh's fish scales, how Hugh had gaffed Leo through the biceps and thrown him back into his boat, how four hours later Leo and his skiff had been stopped by the marine patrol for speeding in a no wake zone, headed away from the Britt fish house. The patrol had noted bloody footprints in the skiff — fish blood, said Leo — written him up, and let him proceed. But Hugh's body was found axed to death the next morning, and the sheriff found Leo and his boat on Cat Island the next afternoon, covered in cattails. It wasn't fish blood, after all. It was Hugh Britt blood, and they dredged up an axe thirty yards from the dock.
The prosecutor could have gone capital, since Leo was a black man and Hugh was a white man and rich, but also since Leo had returned to the Britt dock after the fight, which meant forethought/ Or they could have gone second degree, an angry murder, since it no doubt was, Hugh's forehead being cleaved twice through to the brain. In the end they split the difference and went first degree with a life sentence, which in 1969, the year of the murder, was forty years to a parole hearing. In North Carolina a parole hearing means they look through your file. They looked through Leo's file in 2010, 2013, and 2016, in each case absent that needful letter of regret, and in each case denied.
Then, early in 2017, Germaine Ford died and made a news and internet sensation by leaving her Sable River farm and fortune to the long-forgotten, unrepentant convict Leo Sackler. She had never married, and cousins descended to protest. But Germaine had been careful, enlisting a psychologist and an eminent Raleigh lawyer in the will's preparation, and the bequest held up in superior court.
A reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer interviewed Leo in prison. Mr. Sackler, how come she left you her land and money? Were you lovers? Was it guilt because she killed Hugh Britt? Which everybody was thinking.
Leo, a celebrity inside and out now, smiled and said he had never met the lady, didn't know a thing, but that God grinds fine.
Then the governor, in one of her last acts before leaving office, let him go through a grant of executive clemency.
Two days after his release, Leo appeared at the lawyer's office with his daughter to receive the keys to the Ford lodge, where, in days long forgotten, he had spent three years of his youth. The day after that he bought a vintage 1954 pickup, three bicycles for his grandchildren, and, because the lodge was empty except for a single rolltop desk, four truckloads of Sears furniture.CHAPTER 2
Sebastian Creek's shift was going long, involving an interview with a bottle-cut victim at the Spartanville emergency room and now a stop-by at Smitty's Sportsbar where the fight had gone down. The bar had formerly been the TrimTease, a just-out-of-town strip joint on the off-limits sheet at the Marine base. The new owner, Chuck Handley, was worried about getting his own black mark with the provost marshal and also downhearted because it was fairly early on Saturday night, and his bar had cleared when his customers learned the cops were coming.
Handley tossed a credit card onto the bar. He said, "His name is Carl Peener, which I know because here's his credit card, which he left on the bar when he ran off."
Kate Jersey, the crime tech, a middle-aged woman with a sheriff's cap jammed over a pile of silver hair, was dusting Peener's section of the bar. She shook out a zip bag and fingertipped the card into it. She said, "You might have told me you had that, Mr. Handley. I would have said, great, but don't touch it."
Handley said, "I guess I was waiting for Seb."
Seb pressed the plastic over the name, Carl Peener, and shrugged at Kate. He and the bartender had gotten connected a month ago when Handley's testimony to internal affairs backed Seb on a bribery charge.
Seb, who had spoken to the victim in the hospital, said, "They were arguing about politics?"
"Yeah, but it was the other two guys that were arguing. Peener just butted in, told them they were fools for being on any side, everything's rigged, that type of deal. Next thing I know, I'm down at the other end, a bottle breaks, and he stabs the guy and takes off. I ran out and saw his van. It was white and had something about furniture on the side. Now look here — this is extraordinary for us. This is way out of the ordinary."
After Seb got the description — big guy, ponytail, mustache and sideburns, gray sweatshirt, little bit bald, maybe a biker — Kate, who had been on the phone with the card company, said, "He's from Atlanta."
Seb used a booth to write it up on his laptop, then sent it to the incidents section of the sheriff's office. A moment later his phone dinged — the night magistrate had issued a warrant, and it had been forwarded to the state police. Seb called Fernando, the shift lieutenant, to alert him about the warrant and the advisability of a few motel checks, and also that Peener had probably fled for home. The victim had been cut only on the palm of his hand, so the DA would likely not press for extradition, which Peener, who impressed as a felon, would likely know. Kate had packed up and left, dismissing the deputy at the entrance.
Handley had his cleanup guy in early and was arranging chairs with him. Seb, talking fast because he had formed a daring, ardent plan for the rest of the evening, and because a storm was forecast, assured the bartender that the incident would probably not provoke an off-limits black mark since it was not part of an atmosphere of badness, and he, a sheriff's detective and former Marine MP, would testify to that if the provost marshal inquired. He began to leave, then impatiently remembered he should make a courtesy call to the Georgia state police, in case they wanted to notate the scofflaw's sheet, if he had one. He did, they informed him, for minor possession, motorcycle theft, and punching out a female, and they thanked him.
Then he was done. His daring plan was to drop by the Fairchild pottery studio on the way home and ask Mia Fairchild for a get-acquainted coffee date, hopefully the next morning at the Inlet Café, if she could make it by eight. Seb had met her six months before when he picked up his then-girlfriend, Charlene, from a pottery class. The studio was at the end of Willow Road in patrol section two, and two weeks ago, when it was burglarized, the lieutenant had assigned the case to Marty Jerrold, the section two detective. In the hallway after the briefing, Seb had asked Marty for the case, and Marty had said, sure, but look, how about take these motorcycle thefts too, three of them, different houses but definitely-probably connected, so really one case. Which Seb had done, despite Marty's smirk-hiding straight face.
As Seb left the bar and entered the parking lot, he received a double jolt. The first jolt was from a neon-lit pile of trash flickering in a wind eddy beside the bar's dumpster, a perfect IED hide, except this wasn't a street in Iraq where trash piles sometimes exploded. That kind of jitter hadn't happened in a while, a year maybe, and he flashed that it was his coming Mia gamble, his keyed-up wanting, which killed calm and left him exposed. He closed his eyes and stood, took some breaths.
When he opened them, he got his second jolt, Squint Cooper, exiting his SUV and coming toward him with a computer tablet. He was a man in his sixties, broad-shouldered and lanky, with a bald top and crown of silky gray hair hanging to his collar. He wore a white T-shirt and a denim jacket and stood three inches taller than Seb's six-two. Seb exhaled slowly, steeling himself for a session with Squint, a man known for contempt, rough humor, and a bullying brilliance.
Squint stopped in front of him, wearing his customary slant smile which said, everything's a joke and so are you. He said, "I called your dispatch, and she told me you were out here on a call. Somebody got stabbed?"
"Cut with a bottle. Is this important? Because I've got to —" "Well, you got a minute, don't you?" He held the tablet between them and woke the screen.
Seb said, "A fast minute."
Squint, intent on the screen, said, "How's Gretchen? I saw on the web where she's back in Italy leading her tours." A sudden wind gust whipped his long hair into a neon-silvered halo.
Seb made a smile. He said, "C'mon, man. I got to move." The Cooper and Creek families had become oddly intertwined, first because when he was a Marine CID sergeant, Seb had arrested Squint's son, Cody Cooper, for possession with intent. A few years later Squint dated Seb's mother, Gretchen, and together they arranged a romance between Seb and Squint's daughter, Charlene. Cody had been locked up for two years, a circumstance which did not daunt the love affairs, neither of which lasted more than a few months anyway.
Squint said, "All right. But kindly tell Gretchen her pal Squint conveys his regards. I hope she enjoys the Colosseum, where she'll be on Monday. Now look at here." He held the tablet sideways and touched the start arrow. A video began, a drone's view, the camera passing over a T-top fishing boat in gray-green water.
"This is from that eco fucker Peter Prince. He was drone-snooping my hogs this afternoon, and he posted it to the web." The camera swung over an island, then a strip of water, then another island occupied by a solitary tent, an orange octagon bubble.
Squint said, "I had a tent just like that. Or else it's mine, which it might be." He stroked the video forward, then let it play again.
The camera showed treetops now, then the long metal-rippled tops of hog barns. It moved down a road, then showed the farm's dead box, a black metal dumpster overflowing with hog carcasses. Squint stroked again, and the camera showed two miniature figures below, one aiming a rifle. "That's me shooting at it. See how he's zigzagging?" The camera lolled and waved across the sheds below. He stroked the video forward to a blue van driving along a gravel driveway. "That's Jorge. I sent him after it in the van, but he lost it over the pine barrens." Squint tapped the tablet and closed its case. "And yes, I had some misfortune. The fans in my number three shed went down and fifty-three near-finished hogs asphyxiated from ammonia poisoning. No one's fault or else God's. Now there it is for all to see. Fifty carcasses in the dead box. He flew over just around noon. I come to lodge my complaint. I want a deputy on this. Which I have complained before to no avail."
Seb, who had called Prince several weeks before at Squint's behest, said, "He doesn't scare. He knows the law better than we do." As a tweak, he added, "He's a fearless crusader." Then, instead of lecturing Squint once again on the ambiguity of North Carolina's drone surveillance law — or asking the question that naturally occurred to him — what happened to your backup fans? — he asked, an attempt at diversion, if Squint had listened to the Shaun Davey version of "The Parting Glass" yet.
Hell yes, he had, and he was coming as usual to the Sunday evening singing practice, but couldn't the sheriff stake out the farm just temporarily?
Seb said, "Squint, we've been through all that. The sheriff won't spend deputies on violations of a vague-ass law. Did you get a drone?" A month ago, Seb had advised a counter-drone strategy, whereby Squint's drone would follow Prince's back to Prince's sneaky launch site, then submit the video to the district court, thus providing enough evidence for a judge, if he was so inclined, to charge Prince with a drone-snooping misdemeanor and impose a $250 slap on his high-minded wrist.
Squint said, "I'm not taking up drone flying, but if one fine day we find his LZ, somebody's going to the emergency room."
Seb said, "So long, Squint. Tell Cody and Charlene I say hello. Now I got to get home before this storm."
He patted Squint's shoulder and walked to his Honda. Behind him, he heard Squint's SUV start and crunch through the lot onto the road. He opened the trunk, removed his jacket, and shrugged out of his shoulder rig, then stowed it and his nine millimeter in the trunk vault. It was eight-thirty now, possibly too late for a drop-by at Mia's, especially on a Saturday night.
He was going to do it though. As Seb got behind the wheel, his felt his heart start and felt the adrenaline flush of female fear. Like high school, he thought, but it was a good true normal fear, way more welcome than an IED flutter. The black plastic was still glinting in the wind beside the dumpster, just a scrap of bag now, an ordinary harmless muteness, but five minutes ago a portal back to Anbar and the day-to-day staying-alive fury. He breathed. He was going to see this woman. It was selfish, because what did she know of wild war on the other side of the world, but let it be selfish. Sometimes it was brave to be selfish.
As he swung around in the parking lot, he glanced down the alley behind the bar and in the security light above the bar's rear door saw a white van and a big guy climbing into the driver's seat. Seb gunned the Honda down the alley, squeezed between the vine-tangled chain link and the van, then angle parked in front, blocking the van. The guy could have backed up, but in the side mirror Seb saw the door open. The guy got out. He had a mustache and ponytail and heavy sloped shoulders. He came forward.
Seb swung out of his car and held up his hands, hesitating the man's forward progress. He said, "Carl, did you hurt that bartender?"CHAPTER 3
THE FLYTRAP PIRATE
Cody Cooper snugged into his sand chair, packed a pipe, and lit up. Across the channel, over the barren outer island, he could see a little piece of ocean and above that a line of black clouds spiking soundless lightning. Maybe the clouds were coming toward him, maybe headed out to sea. Hard to know. The lightning was beautiful and silent, like a painting.
Probably he should put the tent back up before hard dark, since it was complicated, full of tabs and rods and grommets, and had been hard enough to assemble in daylight. And it would be a gamble to sleep in the open, in case the storm was coming toward him. But right now he wanted to cool out after the hard slog of all-day digging, and also after his momentary panic. The panic happened when he returned with the flytraps and saw the bright orange tent. When he put the tent up that morning, it was a figuring-out challenge, a pride thing, and only when he got back with the flytraps did he realize, fuck me, the tent was like waving an orange flag at the Marine patrol. Five minutes ago, he had grabbed it down, madman fast, and stuffed it under a bush. Putting the tent up in the daylight was his malformed mind working in sections again, leading him astray.
He had scouted the Marine canals the day before, looking for patrols, but it was a wilderness training area, and he hadn't seen any. That morning he'd cruised up the waterway, finally found the water tower, then found a bushy bump of island a few hundred yards south and threw up his tent. Then he took the boat to the mainland and, fifty feet from the shore, as remembered from ten years ago, he found the pod of Venus flytraps flourishing in a luscious green carpet all around the water tower base.
And amazingly, and also sort of sad, he found the cracked gray remnant of his homemade bungee cord, still hanging from the tower's walkway a hundred feet up. He had made the cord out of bundled latex tubing in his senior year in high school, and it had worked fine, first for trees and then for bridges, earning him a coveted daredevil reputation. The water tower had been his last jump and drew a cheering, jeering, fifty-kid audience, which provoked him into a too-horizontal swan dive. The spring-back shot him into the descending pipe, ending his daredevil career with a hospital stay and several visits to the dentist. He had been modeling himself after Sam Patch, the famous New Jersey leaper, who, just like Cody, made a last, crowd-goaded jump, except that Sam had not survived.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Dredging In Swann"
Copyright © 2019 TK.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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