A woman waits under five feet of dirt-a woman who is by now nothing but bones stained the deep red of Oklahoma clay. A delicate silver necklace, a handful of ancient pearls, and a priceless figurine rest with her. Twenty-nine years is a long time to wait for a proper burial.
Faye Longchamp-Mantooth, who runs a small and shakily financed archaeological consulting firm with her husband, Joe, has come to Sylacauga so she and Joe can join his father, Sly Mantooth, in dispersing his mother's ashes. Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a proper ceremony.
Faye has partially financed the trip by hiring on to consult on the reopening of a site closed down 29 years ago when archaeologist Dr. Sophia Townsend disappeared-for good. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation intends to create a park if nothing sacred lies in the soil. What no one expects is the lonely red bones that emerge as the backhoe completes its work. Inevitably they prove to be those of Sophia Townsend. And examination shows Sophia was first killed by a blow to the head.
Chief Roy Cloud of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's Lighthorse Tribal Police hires Faye, who clearly can't be a suspect, to consult. Which is fine with Faye, who won't rest easy until Sophia's murder is solved. But the investigation comes uncomfortably close to home when she learns that her father-in-law knows more about the dead woman than he is willing to admit. So, it appears, does everyone in tiny Sylacauga.
Dr. Sophia Townsend had possessed a sexual magnetism as forceful as an Oklahoma tornado, and she had never hesitated to use it to manipulate everyone around her, people whose hearts she broke and whose marriages she destroyed. Was she killed by one of her lovers, or by one of their wives? Or by the woman who became enthralled with her? Or maybe Sly Mantooth? Or was something else elemental-greed, buried treasure, fame-at work?
Faye's obsession with this case tests her professional ethics and it tests her marriage. Such was the power of Sophia Townsend that, twenty-nine years after her murder, she wreaks havoc (along with the weather) once again.
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A Faye Longchamp Mystery
By Mary Anna Evans
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2017 Mary Anna Evans
All rights reserved.
Powerful forces are constantly at work on a human body that is buried under five feet of red clay. Every cubic foot of that clay weighs a hundred pounds. For simplicity's sake, presume that the body is six feet long. No, make that five feet long, because this body once belonged to a woman, and a small one, at that.
Perhaps her buried form was two feet across at its widest point. It was probably less, but let's use two feet for convenience. Thus, she'd offered ten square feet of surface area to the five-foot depth of the clay soil that had crushed her. Simple math says that this fifty cubic feet of soil had weighed — and still weighs to this day — five thousand pounds.
It weighed two and a half tons.
Two and a half tons of downward force will break bones. It will press the flesh from those bones. It will force the air out of decomposing lungs.
Over the years, the overbearing clay moved ceaselessly, swelling when wet and shrinking when dry. Every rainstorm shifted the clay. Some of the motion was vertical. Some of it was lateral. This slow shimmy had disarticulated her bones, leaving them in a configuration that was almost the natural shape of a woman who lay on her bed asleep, but not quite.
The clay had dyed her bones red.
Still she waited for someone to find her. Had she been able to wonder, she would have asked whether anyone had ever even noticed she was gone.
Twenty-nine years is a long time to go without a proper burial.CHAPTER 2
Faye Longchamp-Mantooth sat with her knees pressed against the airplane seat in front of her. Her husband Joe's lanky legs were encroaching seriously on the tiny personal space a major airline considered ample for a full-grown adult, but where else could he put them? Faye and Joe had jammed themselves into these seats because some requests can be sidestepped and some cannot.
When a friend asks for help moving, there are ways around saying yes. If you say you have to work, he's not going to press you to give up your overtime pay. If you remind him that your kid plays baseball on Saturdays, he'll understand.
Other requests can be refused outright. When a stranger asks you to donate to a political cause that is not your own, it isn't rude or even unexpected for you respectfully to decline.
But when a man's father calls and says to him, "I'm ready to scatter your mother's ashes," there is no honorable way to say, "Dad, let me check my calendar. I'm not sure I can get on a plane to you any time soon."
Faye's husband was an honorable man who had adored his mother, and who was still surprised to realize how much he loved his old man. Faye loved both of them. When their bank balance didn't cover the plane tickets, the two of them had scrounged up a tiny consulting job that she could do while they were in Oklahoma. Sure, it would cut into her family time, but this trip wasn't about her. It was about Joe and his dad.
Joe would hate it if she said so, but he looked so much like his dad. They had the same bone structure, dark hair, strong jaws, broad shoulders, sturdy legs. Their eye colors were different — Sly's were black, while Joe had his mother's green eyes — but their sharp gazes were the same.
Faye hoped her husband was happy to be making the trip from Florida to Oklahoma to see Sly, but he hadn't said a word since the "Fasten Your Seatbelts" sign came on.
* * *
Joe Wolf Mantooth hadn't been home since he was eighteen. He'd left on foot when his mother's body was hardly cold. His abortive attempt to say good-bye to his father had gone so poorly that Joe was never sure whether the man actually understood that his son was going away.
He'd found Faye in Florida. With her help, he'd gotten an education, had kids, built a business. Together, they'd made the first home he had known since his mother died.
Joe had been past thirty before he boarded his first airplane. Now he sat beside his educated and accomplished wife, munching stale pretzels like a man who belonged in the sky. He knew intellectually that he was successful in all the ways that mattered, but he didn't feel it. All he felt was regret that his mother would never know how far he had come.
Faye knew his body language well enough to know that this was a good moment to rub his shoulder and mumble something that sounded like, "You should try to get some rest." He was grateful for the caring gesture, but he was still more grateful that she didn't press him to talk. Faye always knew when to leave him be.
Joe wished Faye could have known his mother.
Patricia Mantooth, whose education had ended with a GED, would have been intimidated at first by his wife and her big words and her doctorate, but they would have bonded over recipes for blackberry cobbler. They would have squabbled over the best bait for catfish, but they would've gotten over it. Joe took a moment to imagine his tall ivory-skinned mother and his tiny brown wife dangling hooks in the water while his children gathered berries for the cobbler.
His mother's and his wife's looks had contrasted in every way, although their sharp wits and loving personalities were very much the same. Patricia's hair had been long and red, and it had hung in ringlets. Faye's hair was a short, sleek black cap. Patricia's eyes had been green. His wife's were a dark brown, almost black. The image of the two women side by side was a beautiful one, but it hurt, because they were never going to meet in this life.
Joe looked down at the countryside, dun-green agricultural squares crossed with the random dark squiggles of a tree-lined creek. When they got to Oklahoma, the dirt would be red where the creeks cut into it, so red that he'd be able to see it from all the way up here in the sky. In all her days, his mother never set foot on an airplane. She would have been transfixed by the sight of the natural world from this unnatural angle.
Patricia McCullough Mantooth had loved the outdoors as much as Joe had loved her. When he remembered his mother, that's where she was, outdoors, sitting on a creekbank with a cane pole in her hand. Afternoon sunlight was shining on auburn hair and skin that always freckled and never tanned. She lived her whole life in crummy little houses where no amount of scrubbing would ever lift the stains from the floor. In Patricia Mantooth's world, outside was always better than in.
Joe's memories of his mother smelled like biscuits and gravy. She had possessed the poor woman's knack for miracles, so she'd been able to turn flour and grease into a meal that tasted like love. But once the meal was over, she had never lingered inside where the air was old and musty. She'd gone outside and she'd taken her only child with her.
Sometimes, Joe's father had been there as they sat with their feet in the creek, watching minnows flit around their ankles through clear water stained tea-brown by fallen oak leaves and pine needles. More often than not, he'd been on the road, doing what truckers do. When Joe missed his mother, he went outside and found a place to put his feet in cool water, and it usually made him feel better. He could not believe that his father had kept that woman's ashes indoors all this time, cooped up in a cheap urn.
Fifteen years is a long time to go without a proper burial.CHAPTER 3
Archaeology and gunfire would not seem to go together, at least not always. So why was Faye spending the first minutes of her Oklahoma consulting gig crouched in the shadow of a dusty pickup truck with the sharp crack of a gunshot still ringing in her ears?
She heard silence now. No, not total silence. She heard the rapid breathing of the man crouched beside her and she heard the pounding of her own heart. She smelled the funk of both their sweat. She tasted the dust kicked up by their terrified feet and knees as they scrambled out of the truck and hit the ground. They were huddled on the driver's side because the sound of the first gunshot had clearly come from the passenger side where she sat.
So had the second shot that followed it as soon as they opened the truck door, as if saying, You're wondering if these shots are for you? Look what happens when you make a move to protect yourselves.
A moment later, when her client heaved his bulky frame forward and peeked around the front bumper of his truck, the third shot sounded.
The timing of this third shot obliterated any sense of denial that Faye might have harbored. The first shot had come the moment they stopped the truck. The second had come when they opened its door. The third had come when her client, who was reputedly a very smart man, made his foolhardy move. Yes, someone was definitely shooting at them.
Why was she here? She was on vacation, for heaven's sake.
"Hunters?" she asked hopefully.
Her client, Dr. Carson Callahan, shook his big shaggy head and said, "Doubt it. Too close to the road. Nothing's in season, except maybe squirrels."
"I should call 911."
Carson was quicker with his phone. "No, I've got it. You're not from around here, and I know how to tell them where we are. I don't trust their navigation system to find us way out here."
He punched in the numbers and the beeping sounds assaulted her ears. She needed quiet to listen, in case the shooter came closer. She wished Joe and his hunter's ears were with her.
No more gunshots came and Carson's calm voice was soothing. He was saying things that were unintelligible to an outsider, things like, "We're out past the old Simpkins place, upstream from that swimming hole south of the highway. Yeah, that's the place. Go through the second gate and over the cattle gap." It was good to know that help was coming.
She tried to listen past his voice to hear footsteps or heavy breathing or any sound that might be bringing danger. She heard nothing. Any shooter who might be coming their way was doing it on very quiet feet.
And then she did hear something. A voice, not far away, was saying, "Carson? Is that you? Help me."
There was a moment of silence while the person calling to them gathered enough breath to shout again.
"Help! Can someone help me?"
* * *
When the police arrived, Faye already felt like she knew the person trapped at the edge of a wooded area that began about twenty feet from where she crouched.
If she got on all fours and peered under the truck, she could see him lying in the thick underbrush. All she really saw was a dark shadow, but the shadow was a person and that person was scared. His name was Kenny Meadows. He was one of Carson's employees, and he was living a nightmare for no other reason than that he'd gotten to work a little early.
"Kenny? Are you hurt?" Carson had called out.
"No. Well, I'm not shot. I scraped myself up when I hit the ground, but I'm not hurt bad."
"I was standing over here, looking for a mockingbird I heard singing in that tree, and boom. The sound was so loud that I thought a gun went off right next to my ear. I took cover in these bushes and now I'm afraid to come out."
Carson had admitted that they were afraid, too, then the three of them had waited together for help.
Every so often, Kenny had called out, "Are you there?" and they'd assured him that they were. Faye was about to jump out of her skin, but she had Carson right beside her. Kenny was lying on the ground, alone, waiting to see if someone with a gun was coming for him. She knew how scary that was.
After one of Kenny's bids for reassurance, Carson asked him if he still heard the mockingbirds and he said yes. The sound of the birds calmed Faye a little bit and it seemed to calm Kenny, because his lonely questions came further and further apart.
* * *
Carson and Faye were still crouched by the truck when a shiny-clean white SUV pulled up next to them. Faye felt safer, less exposed, crouched with this vehicle on one side of her and Carson's pickup on the other. The driver rolled down his window to speak to them.
"You two all right? And Kenny?"
"They sent you, Roy? What did we do to rate the police chief?" Carson asked.
"I've only got so many people. One of them is working with the fire marshal on a suspicious warehouse fire close to Muscogee. Two more are busy trying to track down the idiots who keep vandalizing cars at the casinos, and you know the tribe wants that one solved. And I've got some working with a federal agent on a meth lab they just busted south of Okfuskee, plus doing regular ordinary police work that's got to be done. I'm all that's left, so you people get me. Lucky you. Get in the back and keep your heads down. We're gonna go get Kenny."
Faye hauled herself up into the back seat of a vehicle that sat a little too high off the ground for her to get in easily. Carson jumped in right behind her. The seat was broad, but they huddled close together. If asked, she would have said that they were leaving room for Kenny, when the truth was that they were both too scared to give up the comfort of human contact.
The chief steered his car into position between Kenny and the wooded area where the shooter had been. "Get in," he said, but Kenny was already squeezing into the back seat with Faye and Carson.
"We're going to go up that gravel road I just came in on," the chief said, "and we're going to sit next to the highway while we wait for the K-9 unit. If there's still somebody out there, Bleck will run them down. That's one fine dog."
"You don't think there might be somebody with a gun out by the highway?" Kenny asked. He sat hunched over in his seat, using the car doors for cover.
The chief turned to look at the people behind him. His black hair was cut short and his brown skin was showing its first creases. There was no hint of a smile on his face, yet he still managed to look kind. "There could be somebody with a gun any place," he said, "but your odds of getting shot in a car sitting by a busy public road with the police chief in it are pretty low. Besides, your shooter is probably already a mile away. More, in a car. Everybody around here knows Bleck. Nobody wants to be around when he's on the job."
He reached out to shake Faye's hand. He shook it, just once, and she was not surprised to find that his palm was calloused.
"Roy Cloud. Pleased to make your acquaintance."
* * *
Bleck had made quick work of searching the wooded area where the shooter had hidden. It was a sizeable patch of trees covering a low hill surrounded by pastures and row crops. The patch of trees was big enough to get lost in, so it was certainly big enough to hide a scary person with a gun. Faye worried for the officers searching it.
Bleck's famous nose had found no trail, and neither he nor his partner had found bullets or casings to prove that anyone had ever shot a gun there. Faye, Kenny, and Carson sat with the chief in his SUV and tossed around ideas about what exactly had just happened.
"There's three of you that heard the shots. I know for a fact that Kenny and Carson have good sense. Doctor Faye, you look sensible, too. If you three tell me somebody was out there, I believe you. From the sound of it, I'd say that someone was shooting at you people. What exactly are you doing out here that might upset somebody that bad?"
Faye watched Carson push his hair back from his face so he could look the lawman in the eye. His hair was too short for a ponytail and too long for a man whose job required him to lean forward for hours on end. The sun had put premature wrinkles around his mouth and burned the ends of his brown hair to the color of ash. Carson was a massive man, heavy with muscle but not fat, yet he didn't have the look of a bodybuilder. He looked like a man who moved dirt and rock, day in and day out, using a body that was built for his work in a way that Faye's was not.
He also looked to Faye like a man who didn't often sit still. She could tell that the time they had spent hiding behind his truck, motionless, had been hard on him.
"We're starting an archaeological excavation today," Carson said, gesturing at Faye, himself, and two technicians who had arrived after the shooting stopped. "That backhoe is costing me a lot of money," he said, nodding his head at a machine so big that it hardly needed pointing out. Carson's workers were standing in its shadow. "Those people are costing me a lot of money, too. How soon can we get started?"
Excerpted from Burials by Mary Anna Evans. Copyright © 2017 Mary Anna Evans. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fantastic as usual. Intriguing plot held my interest with a new twist in protagonist relationships. I wish the next book was already available. Stephanie Clanahan
Nor'easter is plowing through Richmond and put most of us without power; and me with the last twenty pages of Burials on my dwindling batteried phone. Don't you know I'm using the last juice to finish the mind bending conclusion of this latest chapter of Joe and Faye's adventures. Says it all, doesn't it? If you are new to Evans' fab series, do yourself a favor and read all ten; I spent the last few weeks rereading all in anticipation of Burials, and it was a delicious winter project. Any writer who researches the heck out of a subject, place or time puts me in Reader Heaven, and Evans takes us through archaeological digs, found manuscripts, floods and dead body mysteries with a keen eye always for local lore, artifact preservation and power of nature to twist a plot sideways. Burials, just like her previous nine books in the Longchamp series, keeps five or six subplots brewing and steaming toward an ending that throws you back in your chair with a "Well, damn!" LOVE Dr. Faye Longchamp and Joe Wolf Mantooth. May their story never end.