A dying town just a few miles from the Mississippi River, Jackson has a psychiatric hospital, a sprawling forest, and a bloody history. In the summer of 1963, a drifter passed through town in search of work. Not finding any, he returned to New Orleans and then moved on to Dallas, where he assassinated a president. His name was Lee Harvey Oswald, and his ghost is said to haunt the woods of Jackson.
Archaeologist Alan Graham has no time for ghost stories, but he can’t deny that there is something evil in this tiny Louisiana town. Digging near the Oswald cabin, he becomes engrossed in the unsolved murder of its original owner, who was killed with the same kind of rifle that killed Kennedy. When a member of Graham’s team is shot during the dig, he must unravel a pair of mysteries—or risk joining Oswald in death.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
An Alan Graham Mystery
By Malcolm K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
Pepper was gone. She had gotten up early one morning in April, and I had driven her to the airport in New Orleans. Two hours later she was on a plane to Mexico.
Working at the Maya site of Lubaanah was too great an opportunity to pass up. Working with Eric Blackburn was just an added plus.
Blackburn was married with children, and despite his calculatedly rakish appearance, it was ridiculous to think of anything developing between them.
She and I had worked together for two years, had almost been killed a few times, and had finally become lovers, despite a ten-year difference in our ages. Nothing would change the way she felt, not even an archaeologist her own age with a half-million dollars from National Geographic to study Maya trade relations in the early historic period.
"It's just that we both need some time," she'd explained. "It's only four months, and you can fly down and visit."
I promised I would. And lied.
I'd had a bad experience in Mexico years before, when I'd met a beautiful Mexican archaeologist on a dig in Yucatán. We'd ended up married, but our careers had brought us into conflict. I'd gone round the bend, lost my university position, and come back to Baton Rouge to do contract archaeology. I was just getting my emotions together when I met Pepper. She'd given me something I'd never expected to have again. But I didn't know if I was ready for Mexico and its memories.
And she may have known. There were still things about her I didn't understand, and when she'd announced her intention to go, I sensed that it was our closeness that frightened her as much as her professed desire to jump into a field in which she had no previous experience.
"You don't even read Maya," I said.
She told me she'd learn.
That was a month ago, and I'd gotten one lousy letter before they'd disappeared into the jungle.
Now I felt an emptiness, even a betrayal. I plunged into work. One day our Corps of Engineers contracting officer, Bertha Bomberg, A.K.A. La Bombast, called and told us she was sending us to inventory the archaeological sites along a stretch of Thompson Creek, thirty miles to the north.
The Corps was thinking of building a dam and flooding a few thousand acres of pine forest. The plan was touted as a way to draw tourists for fishing and recreation, but everyone knew it would really benefit the politicians who had bought up most of the land.
I pulled into the tiny community of Jackson at just after nine. It was a warm May morning, with summer hiding in the shadows of the old buildings. In a few weeks the blackberries would be ripe. Idyllic, if you didn't have to beat your way through the berry patches in hundred-degree heat.
The man I'd come to meet was waiting in a pickup next to the bank. He got out as I approached, a round little fellow of fifty in a short-sleeved shirt and cowboy boots, who looked happy with the world.
"Dr. Alan Graham?" He came forward with his hand outthrust. "Gene McNair. I own the eastern half of the tract. I'm also on the board of the Development District."
We shook and he nodded over his shoulder.
"You been to Jackson before, right?"
"Just for pleasure," I said, and he cracked a grin. The state mental hospital is in Jackson.
"Well, it's a nice little town. Been around since the middle of the last century. Used to be a center for cotton shipping. Railroad took the cotton west to the Mississippi for loading onto boats. This was a hopping place back then: Centenary College was the first institution of higher learning in the state. Asphodel Plantation, down the road, was built in the early 1800s. It's on the National Register, you know."
"We're trying to get things started up again. Get known for something besides a mental hospital and a correctional institution."
"You have a lot of local backing?" I asked.
"Everybody except one or two. But that's always the way it is." He folded his arms. "Look, if you found an Indian grave, would that hold things up?"
"Probably. The state has a strong burial law. Any human remains have to be reported to the authorities within twenty-four hours, and then if they're Native American, interested tribes have to be given a chance to comment. So I imagine it would slow things down. But most of what we find isn't burials. Mostly it's Indian artifacts—projectile points and pottery—and old house remains from the last century. If we find something that seems important, then we have to recommend what to do with it."
"That or avoid it completely."
"Sounds interesting," McNair said dubiously.
I nodded. Most people said what I did was interesting, whether they believed it or not.
I left my red Blazer in the lot and climbed into McNair's pickup, and a few seconds later we were heading north on a winding two-lane. To the left was a terrace, with the creek at the bottom. The creek had etched its way into the landscape during the last Ice Age, which ended ten thousand years ago. The hills were made out of loess, a fine clay that the glaciers had ground into a dust a thousand miles to the north and deposited here on the winds. It was a good place to find fossils, with a better than average chance of turning up leavings of the first Americans, who had come here just before the Ice Age ended.
Three miles from town we turned left onto a dirt road, dipping down toward the valley across a pasture. Five minutes later we came to an iron-bar gate, and McNair hopped out with a key and unlocked it.
"I'll give you a key when we finish today," he said. "From here on down to the creek is my land."
We shot through the gate and started winding downward.
We shot through the gate and started winding downward.
"The other half of the tract you need to look at is on the other side of the creek, in West Feliciana. That belongs to the Devlins. To get to my land, you come up Highway 952 on this side of the creek. To get to the Devlin tract, you go up Highway 421, that runs parallel to it on the other side. The creek's the dividing line between the two tracts, and it's the parish line, as well."
A deer leaped out in front of us and then bounded away, its flag high.
"Damn, I wisht it was hunting season," my guide swore.
"Are the Devlins a problem?" I asked.
"Just the one that lives there. Real pain in the ass."
"He's against the project," I said.
"She. Cynthia Jane, but everybody calls her Cyn. She was okay before her husband died. But ever since, well, I think it knocked a screw loose. I don't think she'll shoot at you, though."
"She lives by herself?" I asked.
"Yeah, in a big-ass old house on Highway 421. But her land only goes about halfway back to the north." Gesturing with his head he said, "Across the creek there belongs to her brother-in-law, Buck, but she's against his selling. You'd think it was her own family's land instead of his."
We came to the edge of the terrace. The road ended here, and somebody had thought it was a good vantage point for hunting, because a wooden deer stand had been built onto an oak tree on the right. I looked over the edge of the bluff and down at the creek. It was a shallow, sandy expanse a hundred feet wide, with the water in pools and very little current. A wooden stake with a red ribbon guarded the end of the road, and I pointed.
"Are the perimeters staked?"
"Supposed to be."
"And this Devlin woman let the surveyors onto her land?"
"Raised hell, but what can she do? The state'll expropriate if it has to."
I nodded. I hated these kinds of situations.
"Can we get across here?" I asked.
"If you don't mind getting your feet wet."
I got out of the truck and followed him to the clay bank, then slid down to the sandy beach. We sloshed through the water, came up onto a sandbar, sloshed some more, and emerged on the other side. At least there were no POSTED signs. The pine hills rose up in front of us, but to the left was a narrow jeep track. I made for it, McNair breathing hard behind me.
The aerial photos hadn't shown many clear-cuts, which were hell in the summer because of the thick briars, but I needed to get a feel for the topography and especially the amount of undergrowth so I could put together a cost estimate.
"You're the first archaeologist I heard of who didn't work at a college," McNair said, puffing behind me.
"Actually," I said, reaching the top of the hill, "most archaeologists don't work at universities. Most do just what I do, contract archaeology. It's a new field that developed from the environmental movement of the sixties. When they made laws to protect the wildlife, they decided it would be a good idea to protect historical sites, as well."
The track entered the trees a few yards ahead of me, and I started forward, the pine needles soft under my boots. In the ruts I saw some raccoon prints and then some deer droppings, but there was no sign that humans had been this way in the last few weeks.
"Where does this track go?" I asked.
"To a clearing up ahead with an old camp house. Then it goes south, into the back pasture of the Devlin place."
"Is this camp house very old?" I asked.
McNair gave a little laugh. "Nah. Built in the fifties. But you don't want to go there."
"No?" I was already in the forest, and I saw a patch of sunlight ahead through the trunks. "Why's that?"
"Might stir up the tenant."
"Somebody lives there?" I could see the building now, a wood-frame structure with a tin roof. The windows were broken and the front porch sagged. "They don't keep it up very well, if they do."
"Well, they don't really live there—they just haunt it."
He gave a high-pitched laugh. "That's just the teenagers around here. They call it Lee's Place."
"Lee Harvey Oswald. They say he stayed here just before he killed Kennedy. Some say his ghost is still here and that's why bad things happen to people who come on this land."CHAPTER 2
"Oswald?" I asked.
"It's just the kids making things up. But it's a fact he came here just about three months before JFK got killed. Said he was looking for work at the hospital. Came to Jackson and then went over to Clinton, the parish seat, to talk to a state senator. Must not've found anything, because he left and went back to New Orleans. But lots of people saw him, and he gave his name, because he was trying to register to vote so he could get a job in the parish."
"How's he connected to this cabin?"
McNair shrugged. "Damned if I know. Maybe 'cause the cabin's lonesome and kinda spooky. The kids come across the creek the way we did—they wouldn't dare come through Cyn's property."
I walked up to the cabin and gingerly tried the porch. There was a wasp nest over the door, but it was old and dried up. I pushed the door open slowly and looked inside.
The interior was dim and smelled of dust. I remembered when I was a kid in Baton Rouge and how other kids told stories about a mysterious ball of fire that seemed to appear in the swamps near the town of Gonzales, twenty miles down the road. Nobody had ever seen it, but everybody knew somebody else who had.
I turned around and stepped back onto the ground.
"Okay, Mr. McNair. I guess we can go back."
I returned to Baton Rouge and the big wooden frame house across from the campus in Tigertown, where we had our offices and lab. We called ourselves Moundmasters, because we'd dug into so many of the damned things, and it had more character than the names some of our competitors chose, like Pyramid Research. There were just myself; an ex-rabbinical student named David Goldman, who had dropped Talmudic studies for playing in the dirt; Marilyn Fisk, our tiny bookkeeper and factotum; Frank Hill, who was working on his master's; and some temporaries, who ground out reports on a couple of PCs and sorted artifacts in the big living room we called the lab. My office was a room at the back, with a plywood partition, notices and deadlines dangling from all the walls, and a bookcase at one side. The desk, which I'd picked up at a yard sale, was piled with reports to review and bits and pieces of proposals in progress.
The next couple of weeks I spent on other projects and in writing the cost proposal for the Jackson work. I also had to recruit a crew, which was easy since it was summer and there were university students eager for work. Then I faxed Bombast the cost estimate and waited.
When she called to negotiate the cost, I knew it was going to be one of those days. It took two hours, but finally we agreed on all items.
When he heard me hang up and sigh, David crept into my office.
I nodded. "But she cut us back on time in the field and report prep."
"At least we have the job."
I sighed. "Yeah, but I hate it when the argument ends with her saying, 'I'm the government.'"
"Maybe she was talking about size. When do we hit the field?"
"She said a week. So make it two."
"Good. I could stand getting out from under these reports. And you"—he folded his arms —"could stand to get your mind off Pepper Courtney."
"I know." I got up and turned around to face him. "David, what do you know about Lee Harvey Oswald?"
"Oswald? Forget it, man. He's dead. You'll have to hire somebody else to take care of Bombast."
"Seriously. Ever read anything about the Kennedy assassination?"
He leaned against the wall.
"I saw the movie. I thought it was a lot of bullshit, though. Why?"
I told him about the local lore I'd picked up in Jackson.
"It's funny the way stories get started. But he apparently did go to Jackson once, not long before he left New Orleans for Dallas, and people remembered."
"Yeah, I think I read something about that in the paper once. I bet everybody's got a story about the day he came to town, like Jesse James robbing the bank."
I sat on the edge of my desk, crushing a stack of papers.
"They say everybody in the country who was old enough to think can remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. I know I do. I was ten, in the fourth grade. We were at phys ed, playing flag football, and I saw one of the teachers, Miss Daigle, talking to Coach Mapes. I'd been in a scrape in her class that morning, and I knew she was telling him to call me over. The whistle blew, and I started over to the sidelines. I was already getting my story ready. I walked right up to them and then I saw she was crying and I wondered how I could have made her do that. Then she turned and walked away, and I asked Coach what was the matter. He just looked at me like I wasn't there and said, 'The president's been shot.'"
I got up from the desk. "When I was growing up, I just naturally thought there had to have been other gunmen. But then, while I was in graduate school, there was an archaeology convention in Dallas, and I walked down to Dealey Plaza. I remember looking up at the Book Depository and then at the road and the buildings on the other side, and thinking, 'Everything is so much smaller than it looks in the pictures. One man really could have made that shot.' And that's what I still think. But I've never quite understood why he did it."
"He was screwed up."
I walked out into the lab, where one of our student workers was trying to fit together the fragments of an ancient Indian bowl. She had already glued six or seven big pieces in place, so that the delicate curve of the neck was plain, but most of the rest of the vessel lay in bits on the table. Sometimes you managed to get the whole thing together, but more often you were left with blank spots.
The next morning I drove back to Jackson. I wanted to talk to a man named Clyde Fontenot, whose name had been given me by McNair as the closest thing to a town historian. When the project got under way, our own historian, Esmerelda LaFleur, would have to write a historical background of the area and check land titles, and I wanted to find out whether Fontenot would be a good source for her to interview for the local history.
Clyde Fontenot's house was a bungalow on the outskirts of town, but his wife, a gray-haired woman of fifty, said he was downtown at the barber shop. She said it like everyone in town knew to look for him there. When I found the barber shop, I saw why.
Sandwiched between two wooden buildings with historical markers, the tiny brick structure looked out on Highway 10 through a dusty window with a diagonal crack. A couple of men lounged in chairs along the wall, while the barber sat in his own chair, a cigarette in his hand. When I came in, he got up.
Excerpted from Assassins's Blood by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 1999 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.