When the cheering dies, murder begins...
In the town of Sheffield, Mississippi, football is next to godliness, and homecoming is the shrine. But this year, as the homecoming queensone white, one blackare crowned and families take their usual places in the stands, shocking news is broadcast over the stadium loudspeakers: a popular high school teacher has been found murdered in a cemetery on the edge of town.
Sheriff Grover Bramlett is a devoted husband, a good cop, and an amateur painter. Bramlett knows the people, the histories, and the rhythms of Chakchiuma County. But the murder of a teachera man who may have been too friendly with his studentsis suddenly making Bramlett a stranger to his familiar world, leading him to the doors of neighbors he once thought he knew. And when another murder follows the first, Bramlett is suddenly forced to turn his small town inside out. Because someone is killing in Sheffield to protect a secretthe kind of secret that tears families, lovers, and friends apart, and makes murder right at home.
About the Author
John Armistead is a Baptist minister, journalist, and author of two other Sheriff Bramlett mysteries, A Legacy of Vengeance and Cruel as the Grave. A graduate of Mississippi College and the University of Mississippi, he lives in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Read an Excerpt
Jesse Bondreaux eased his automobile to a stop only a few feet from the edge of the cliff. Below the cliff a kudzu-choked hillside slid down to the railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks rose a smaller hill, likewise kudzu-choked, and beyond the hill sprawled cotton fields across a wide bottom. A pale-gray mist clung to the earth.
Jesse smiled and reached to his shirt pocket for the pack of Marlboros. Arranging to meet here in the cemetery was wonderful. This place helped to keep them off balance, unsettled them, so he could push harder.
Jesse liked to push hard enough to keep them rocking back on their heels. They were easier to control like that. The cemetery was perfect.
He glanced at his watch and frowned as he shook a cigarette out of the package. Quarter past five already. Five was the agreed upon time, and he had purposely arrived late. Keeping people waiting also helped.
But this party had not yet come. He didn't like arriving first. Nor did he like to wait. He reached into his trouser pocket for his silver lighter.
He looked up at the rearview mirror. He'd heard a vehicle coming. Yes. It was his party.
The car stopped directly behind his. He weighed the heft of the lighter in his hand. He would wait on lighting the cigarette. Better for effect.
The first raindrops splattered on the windshield. Through the mirror he watched the vehicle's door open, saw his party rise up out of the car, close the door and steptoward his car.
Jesse rolled down the window. He spoke without looking up. "You're late. I don't like to be kept waiting." He placed the cigarette between his lips, flicked the lighter, and leaned his cigarette into the flame.
He took a deep draw, held it for a moment, then let the smoke slowly exhale. The smoke curled through the steering wheel and rolled against the inside of the windshield. He knew he ought to quit smoking.
In a lot of ways it didn't make much sense. He worked out with weights four days a week, tried to keep himself on a low-fat diet, played two hours of racquetball and jogged at least twenty miles each weekand smoked.
But what the hell. Smoking gave him pleasure. But nothing like the pleasure of jerking around a party like this one.
He waited, wanting to hear the quiver in the voice, the sound of a person off-balance, afraid, desperate. He especially enjoyed the desperation.
But his party didn't say a word, just stood there. Jesse scowled and turned his face to look up. He looked up right into the dark barrel of a handgun. There was a bright flash. A roar sounded with the flash. Jesse, however, only saw the flash. He was dead before his brain could register the sound.
Gilly Bitzer did hear the sound. His eyes popped open. At once the air above him exploded with the frightened flight of blackbirds, thousands of them, accelerating from the juniper trees at the top of the opposite embankment, stampeding over the tracks and filling the sky above Gilly's head. Firecracker? Car backfiring? Gunshot?
Gilly was relishing the warmth of his blood rising, moving up from his stomach and soaking through his chest and shoulders, into his neck and flowing across his face. He breathed evenly, slowly, and smelled the thick scent of the coming rain. The coolness of the fall air touched his face, and his body was completely relaxed, floating, drifting on the soft sea of kudzu in which he lay, a browning green tide flowing down the west side of the railroad track's embankment.
Floating was wonderful. It was the best way to forget. Sure, lots of guys get divorced. Lots of guys lose their children. But most of those guys probably didn't care for their wives and families anyways. Not Gilly. He loved too much, too hard. That's why now he had to float up above the pain.
He squeezed the fingers of his right hand again on the smooth neck of the labelless, reused whiskey bottle and felt the solid comfort the touch of cool glass gave hima comfort of warmth and strength, a womb of security, insulation from everything threatening. For a second, he remembered that as a child he and his brother used to collect empty whiskey bottles along the side of dirt roads in the country and sell them to Amos's father.
Amos Putt was a saint. Some said his stuff wasn't as good as his daddy used to make, but if ever Amos needed a testimony he could depend on Gilly Bitzer, that was for sure.
A full, heavy drop of rain splattered on his forehead, and Gilly smiled. He didn't mind the rain, not when the blood was warm and flowing.
He arched his neck. The birds were still streaming from the trees like a long black veil. The stragglers. Always in everything there were stragglers. Like Gilly. Always one of the last ones in or out. Always too late in life. And then the birds were gone.
Somewhere a car engine cranked, and Gilly, with effort, slowly propped himself on one elbow. Moments later the front grille of a pale-blue automobile nosed its way between a large dark-green juniper and red-leafed pin oak on the opposite bank and stopped with its front tires almost over the edge. Strange place to park.
Someone got out of the car on the driver's side and moved out of sight. Another car cranked. Then, bump. The pale-blue car jerked forward slightly, then thud-thud-thud, and the front tires of the pale-blue car rolled off the edge and the frame slid on the grass, tearing sod and dirt as it jerked forward.
For a second or two the car teeter-tottered on the edge, the front end slowly sinking. A sharp scrunching sound followed and the car lurched forward, the rear tires jolting over the bank.
Gilly watched the vehicle plunge down the steep embankment, twisting as it fell, ripping through saplings and kudzu vines. It thudded to a stop only a few feet beyond the tracks. Gilly looked back to the top of the embankment. The front of another car, a small dark-blue car, was now between the juniper and the pin oak.
Someone was standing beside the car. Gilly squinted his eyes at this figure who now stepped to the edge of the bluff and was looking down at the pale-blue car. Gilly opened his mouth as if to speak but then froze.
Somehow things weren't right. It was a very familiar face. But something wasn't right. Wrong hat and raincoat. Something not right. But it was definitely someone he knew and knew fairly well.
He looked back at the car on its side, the bottom of the frame facing him, vines stretched taut from one rear wheel to the side of the bank. Then he looked at the face he knew...but the face was gone now. The dark-blue car at the top of the bank was backing away from the edge. He heard the engine whine as the vehicle sped away.
It was raining harder now. Gilly pushed himself to his feet, still holding the bottle by the neck. He swayed slightly and held up the bottle, staring at it. Almost gone. Time to go back to Amos. Bless his heart.
He lifted the bottle to his mouth and drained the last of the clear liquid into his throat, felt the fire slide down his throat into his stomach, then dropped the bottle. It was at once gobbled up by the kudzu.
Gilly stumbled down the bank and stepped over the tracks, the gravel crunching beneath his shoes. He reached out his hand to the upturned front end of the car to steady himself for a moment, then moved around so he could see inside.
He flinched and sucked a sharp breath. A face was staring at him. A face pressed against the windshield, wedged between the windshield and the dashboard. A man. His mouth sagged open and his eyes bulged like a squirrel that's just been headshot. The lips and nose flattened against the glass, and blood smeared the inside of the glass where the man's forehead touched it.
Gilly flinched again at the blast of the train whistle. He looked up just as the Burlington Northern locomotive thundered past him, and momentarily his eyes and the scowling eyes of the engineer leaning against the window-frame met. And then dust swirled about Gilly, and he shut his eyes tightly and held on to the top of the car. Suddenly he felt sick to his stomach and dizzy. The freight cars galloped past sucking at him, and he turned away from the train and plunged headfirst down into the kudzu.
Marcellus Collier, twelve years old, was stalking a squirrel when he heard the crack of the gunshot. He had already wandered over two small hillsides of marble grave markers since walking away from his mother.
He left her sitting in the grass in front of the grave of her good friend Cillie Thompson, who had died of cancer the month before. Cillie Thompson had been thirty-three, the same age as his mother.
His mother placed a jar of daisies beside the mound of red dirt. Cillie's husband, his mother said, had ordered the marble marker for the head of the grave, but it hadn't arrived yet. There was a small metal-framed temporary marker which gave Cillie's full name and date of death. And that was all.
On the trip down from Memphis his mother had talked a lot about Cillie. They grew up together in Sheffield. They entered kindergarten together, graduated from high school together, roomed together in college, were in each other's weddings, and now she was dead and buried. "My best friend," his mother kept mumbling over and over.
Marcellus wasn't sure he actually had one best friend. He had three best friends. He and Chucky and John and Alex all four went to the same school and lived in the same neighborhood in Memphis.
They played on the same baseball, football, soccer, and basketball teams. Marcellus was a better athlete than any of the others. He was, to be sure, taller and heavier than they were. That was because his mother held him back in the fifth grade.
Holding him back was supposed to enable him to "catch up." She said she'd started him too early, that he wasn't as mature as the others in his class.
Nevertheless, Marcellus still didn't read too well. He wished he was smarter. Smart like Chucky. Chucky could read anything. Alex and John weren't much smarter than Marcellus. They only made B's. Chucky made all A's. Marcellus had made a B in the fourth grade. Other than that, all he ever got were C's. He wished grades were given for PE. He'd get an A in PE.
All the way down from Memphis his mother talked about how she couldn't believe someone as young and full of life as Cillie could be dead. Why did this happen? Marcellus didn't try to answer his mother's questions. He just let her talk while he looked out the window at the thick Mississippi woods speeding past.
His sister April had fallen asleep before they passed Holly Springs. She was still asleep on the backseat when they got out of the car at the cemetery. April would be ten next month.
The rain had just begun to fall. Marcellus held a stick in his hand as he followed the squirrel scooting in the grass between the large trees. Wind gusts spun yellow leaves from some of the trees and red leaves from others.
Tomorrow Marcellus would have a real gun in his hand, not a stick, and he would be in real woods with his grandfather. His grandfather was a sheriff and wore a Smith & Wesson pistol on his belt.
Marcellus had hardly slept the night before thinking about going hunting with his grandfather. His mother picked him up as soon as school was out. April was already in the car. On the ride down as his mother talked about Cillie, Marcellus thought about going hunting.
He jumped when he heard the gunshot. It sounded so close. He heard his mother scream his name. He didn't answer. Instead he walked in the direction of the gunshot. His mother continued to shout his name.
He heard a strange thudding sound like metal crashing into metal and then the blast of the train whistle. He walked on in the middle of the narrow cemetery drive.
The rumble of the train grew louder, and then he saw a car, speeding, bearing down on him. His legs were lockedhe couldn't moveand he heard his mother shriek.
Then the car was by him. It had swerved at the last moment, ripping past him and missing him by inches. If his hand had been raised to his side, the car would have torn it off. He watched the car slide around the curve and disappear over a hill.
His mother was clutching him, grasping at him. "Fool! Fool driver!" she screamed in the direction the car had gone.
Marcellus didn't think he knew the driver, wasn't sure. Maybe he'd seen him before. He wasn't sure. It all happened so fast. Over and done with. But he did see the eyeswide and frightened or fierce eyes, like those of an animalstaring at him from behind the windshield as one quick swipe of the wiper blade cleaned the rainsplashed glass.
The car was gone and his mother crushed him against her chest, but he could still see those eyesand he knew there was a particular look in those eyes, a look which held him, took him in, fixed him.
His mother was now holding him by the shoulders at arm's length, her eyes wide and wild also, lips quivering. "Are you all right?" she said.
He nodded. She snatched him against her chest again and convulsed with loud, agonized sobs. She was shaking, squeezing him and he was aware of the rain now soaking though his shirt and running down his back. He struggled to breathe, and turned his head against her chest. At the same time, he wondered if the rain would affect their hunting tomorrow.