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About the Author
Date of Birth:1961
Place of Birth:Stuttgart, Germany
Education:B.A., University of Mississippi, 1983
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I NEVER MEANT to kill my brother. I never set out to hate my father. I never dreamed I would bury my own son. Nor could I have imagined that I would betray the childhood friend who saved my life, or win a Pulitzer Prize for telling a lie.
All these things I have done, yet most people I know would call me an honorable man. I wouldn't go that far. But I try to be a good man, and most of the time, I believe I succeed. How is this possible? These are complicated times.
And it's not easy to be good.CHAPTER 2
HUNCHED ON HIS knees, Buck Ferris pulled a ball of fired clay from the sandy soil beside the Mississippi River, then got to his feet with a groan and climbed out of the hole beside the foundation pier. It was difficult to be certain about the era by moonlight, and he couldn't risk a light — not here. And yet ... he was certain. The sphere sitting in his palm had been fired a few centuries before Moses started wandering through the desert with the children of Israel. Ferris had been an archaeologist for forty-six years, but he'd never discovered anything like this. He felt as though the little ball were vibrating in his hand. The last human to touch this clay had lived nearly four thousand years ago — two millennia before Jesus of Nazareth walked the sands of Palestine. Buck had waited all his life to find this artifact; it dwarfed everything he'd ever done. If he was right, then the ground upon which he stood was the most important undiscovered archaeological site in North America.
"What you got there, Buck?" asked a male voice.
Blue-white light stabbed Ferris's eyes. He nearly pissed himself, he was so stunned. He'd thought he was alone on the vast, low-lying ground of the industrial park. A quarter mile to the west, the eternal river flowed past, oblivious.
"Who are you?" Ferris asked, throwing up his left hand to shield his eyes. "Who is that?"
"You were warned not to disturb this ground," said the man behind the light. "It's private property."
The speaker had a refined Southern accent that tickled Buck's memory. He couldn't quite place it, though. Nor could Buck say much in his own defense. He'd applied for permission to dig in this earth seven times over the past forty years, and he'd been turned down every time. But five days ago, the county had cleared the debris of the electroplating factory that had stood here since World War II. And two days from now, a Chinese company would begin building a new paper mill in its place. If anyone was going to find out what lay beneath this ground, it was now — the consequences be damned.
"Where did you come from?" Buck asked. "I didn't see anybody when I came down here."
"Oh, Buck ... You always were a good ol' boy. Why couldn't you have left well enough alone?"
"Do I know you?" Ferris asked, certain that he'd heard that voice before.
"You don't seem to."
"I don't think you understand the value of what I have here," Ferris said, his voice edged with excitement.
"You don't have anything there," said the voice. "You're not here."
Buck got the gist of it then, and something started thrumming in his belly, like stretched-taut wire plucked hard. "Wait, listen," he tried, "this ground you're standing on ... it's an Indian settlement that's four thousand years old. Maybe five or six thousand, depending on what I find if we dig deeper."
"You hoping for a PBS series?"
"God, no. Don't you understand what I'm telling you?"
"Sure. You found some Injun bones. Thing is, that's bad news for everybody."
"No, listen. There's a site just like this only fifty miles from here, in Louisiana. It's called Poverty Point. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thousands of tourists visit it every year."
"I've been there. A couple of mounds of dirt, and the grass needs cutting."
Buck realized then that this was like trying to tell a hillbilly about Bach. "That's ridiculous. You —"
"A billion dollars," the man cut in.
"Beg your pardon?"
"A billion dollars. That's what you could cost this town."
Buck tried to focus on the conversation, but the ball in his hand still felt like it was vibrating. Known as a "Poverty Point object," it had been used by Indians to cook meat under dirt. God only knew what else lay in the loess soil beneath their feet. Pottery, spear points, jewelry, religious artifacts, bones. How could someone not understand what it meant to stand on this ground and know what he knew? How could someone not care?
"This doesn't have to ruin your deal," he said. "Situations like this get handled all the time, to the satisfaction of all parties. The Department of Archives and History comes in, assesses the site, and then they move things, if that's even necessary. To protect them. That's all."
"Would they have moved all of Poverty Point to build a paper mill, Buck?"
No, he thought. They wouldn't.
"A billion dollars," the man said again. "In Mississippi. That's like ten billion in the real world. And that doesn't begin to address what it could cost me personally to lose the mill."
"Could you take that light out of my eyes?" Buck asked. "Can't we talk like civilized men?"
"Do it," said the voice.
"What?" Buck said. "Do what?"
"I always liked your guitar pickin'," said the man. "You should've stuck to that."
Buck heard something shift on the ground behind him, but he couldn't turn fast enough to see who was there, or to protect himself. A white afterimage on his retinas filled his eyes, and out of that whiteness came a dense black rectangle.
He threw up his hands, but too late. The brick crashed into his skull, scrambling his perception. He felt only pain and the lurching nausea of falling into darkness. His wife's face flickered in his mind, pale with worry when he'd left her earlier tonight. As he collided with the earth, he thought of Hernando de Soto, who died near the Mississippi in 1542, not far from here. He wondered if these men would bury him beside the river he'd loved so long.
"Hit him again," said the voice. "Beat his brains out."
Buck tried to cover his head, but his arms wouldn't move.CHAPTER 3
MY NAME IS Marshall McEwan.
I ran away from home when I was eighteen. It wasn't Mississippi I was running from — it was my father. I swore I would never go back, and for twenty-six years I kept my promise, excepting a few brief visits to see my mother. The road was not an easy one, but I eventually became one of the most successful journalists in Washington, D.C. People say it must be the ink in my blood; my father was a legendary newspaper editor and publisher in the 1960s — the "Conscience of Mississippi," the New York Times called him — but I didn't learn my trade from Duncan McEwan. My dad was a legend who became a drunk and, like most drunks, remained one. Still, he haunted me, like a second shadow at my side. So I suppose it was inevitable that his death would be the thing that brought me home.
Oh, he's not dead yet. His death has been approaching like a lone black ship that makes itself felt by the waves pushed ahead of it, dark waves that disturb a once-keen mind and roll over the protective boundaries of a family. What drives that black ship is what the doctors call comorbid conditions: Parkinson's disease, heart failure, hypertension, an alcoholic's liver. I ignored the situation for as long as I could. I've watched brilliant colleagues — most ten or fifteen years my senior — struggle to care for ailing parents back in the small towns of the republic, and in every case their careers suffered. By chance or by karma, my career entered a meteoric phase after Trump's election in 2016. I had no desire to leap from my meteor, land back in Mississippi, and start babysitting the eighty-four-year-old man who had pretended I didn't exist since I was fourteen years old.
I finally surrendered because my father was so ill that I could no longer help my mother manage him from a thousand miles away. Dad has spent the past three decades sliding ever deeper into anger and depression, making those around him miserable and ruining his health in the process. But since I'm a good Southern boy at heart, the fact that an unbridgeable gulf had existed between him and me for more than thirty years was irrelevant. It's an unwritten law down here: when your father is dying, you go home and sit the deathwatch with your mother. Besides, our family business — the Bienville Watchman (founded 1865) — was disintegrating under his increasingly erratic stewardship, and since he'd stubbornly refused to sell our dinosaur of a newspaper for the past two decades, I had to keep it a going concern until what remained could be sold for salvage upon his death.
That's what I told myself, anyway.
In truth my motive was more complicated. We rarely act from logic when facing the critical choices of our lives. I couldn't recognize my self-deception then. I was still in a state of prolonged shock from a marriage that had endured a tragedy — or more accurately, failed to endure one — then spiraled into divorce as my professional life entered the stratosphere, but I see it now.
I came home because of a woman.
She was only a girl when I left home, and I, a confused boy. But no matter how relentlessly life tried to beat the softness out of me, to encase me in the hard, brittle carapace of cynicism, one pure thing remained alive and true: the half-Jordanian, half-Mississippian girl who unfolded the secret joys of life for me was so deeply imprinted upon my soul that no other woman ever measured up to her. Twenty-eight years of separation had proved insufficient to kill my yearning to be near her again. Sometimes I worry that my mother has known my hidden motive from the start (or maybe only sensed it and prayed that she was wrong). But whether she knows or whether she remains as ignorant as I was on the day I finally gave in, I took a leave of absence from my print and TV gigs, packed up my essentials, and made a white-knuckled drive south to test Thomas Wolfe's most famous dictum.
Of course you can go home again, answered my pride. At least for a little while. You can do your filial duty. For what man who thinks of himself as a gentleman would not? And once that duty is discharged, and Himself is dead, perhaps you can persuade your mother to return with you to Washington. Truth be told, I probably knew this was a forlorn hope, but it gave me something to tell myself, rather than think too deeply about the unsolvable problem. No, not my father's situation. The girl. She's a woman now, of course, a woman with a husband, who is probably my best friend from childhood. She also has a son, who is twelve years old. And while this knot may not seem particularly Gordian in our age of universal divorce, other factors ensure that it is. My father's plight, on the other hand ... will inevitably resolve itself.
I sound cold, I suppose.
I don't say that Dad bears all the blame for his situation. He endured his share of suffering, God knows — enough to cure him of religion for life. Two years before he married my mother, he lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash. As if that weren't enough, when I was in the ninth grade my eighteen-year-old brother also died in an accident, a tragedy that struck our town like a bomb dropped from an invisible height. Perhaps losing two children in succession broke my father. I could understand that. When my brother, Adam, died, it was as though God reached out and switched off the lights of the world, leaving me to stumble through the next two years like a blind man unable to adapt to his new affliction.
But "God" wasn't done with me yet. Twenty years after Adam's death, I lost my two-year-old son — my only child — in the most domestic of accidents. I know what it means to be broken by fate.
I do, however, still function.
I work sources, write stories, go on CNN and MSNBC to comment on the issues of the day. I even make speeches for $35,000 a pop (or I used to, before I moved back to my third-world state and sent my market quote into irreversible decline). The point is I suffered, but I got on with it. That's what I was taught to do — by my mother, of course, not my father. Also by Buck Ferris, the archaeologist and scoutmaster who stepped in after my father opted out of his paternal duty and did what he could to make a man of me. After all my success, Buck figured he'd accomplished that. I've never been sure. If I do prove it to myself one day, he'll never know. Because sometime last night, Buck Ferris was murdered.
Buck's passing seems a natural place to begin this story, because that's the way these things generally start. A death provides a convenient line of demarcation, kicking off the familiar tableau of investigation, the assigning of guilt, the determining of punishment. But beginnings are complex things. It can take decades to determine the exact chain of cause and effect that led to any single outcome. My degree in history taught me that, if little else. But I can't wait twenty years to address these events. For while I'm healthy at this moment — and I've done what I can to protect myself — there are people who would prefer me otherwise. Best to get it on paper now.
But as we dance these familiar steps together, please remember that nothing is what it seems. While Buck's murder provides a natural jumping-off point, this story really began when I was fourteen years old. The people whose lives would intertwine with fatal consequences were alive then, and some were already lovers. To understand this story, you must swim between two times like a person moving from wakefulness to sleep and then back again. Given the nature of the mind, we'll consider the dreams of sleep to be the past, never quite accurate in recollection, always made to serve our desires (except when haunting us for our sins). And the wakeful present ... well, it, too, holds its dangers.
When I was thirteen, I came upon a bobwhite quail perched upon a log in the woods. Another quail lay at its feet. It appeared to be dead, but I knelt very near and watched them both for half a minute, one motionless, the other making inquisitive movements, as though waiting impatiently for its partner to rise. Only after my eyes lost focus, perhaps from strain, did I notice the rattlesnake coiled two feet away, tensing to strike. The heavy eastern diamondback was four feet long, and focused on me, not the bird.
I lived that day, and I learned: Close enough to see is close enough to kill.CHAPTER 4
BY THE TIME I got word that there was a body in the Mississippi River, the sheriff had already deployed the county rescue boat to recover the corpse. Normally, I would dispatch a staff reporter to document this, but because my source sounded pretty sure the dead man was Buck Ferris, I know I have to go myself. Which presents difficulties. For me, water and death are inextricably entwined. I never go down to the river — or even drive across it on the high bridge — unless I have no other choice. That can make living in a river town pretty inconvenient.
Today I have no choice.
Before I leave the Watchman offices, I call Quinn Ferris, Buck's wife. Quinn treated me like a son when I was at her house, which was often and for long periods. Despite my having been absent from Bienville for twenty-eight years (excepting the last five months), we're close enough that I know she would rather get tragic news from me than from the police or the coroner. As I feared, word has already reached her — the curse of a small town. She's running around her house, trying to find her keys so that she can get down to the river. Because she lives fifteen miles out in the county, Quinn desperately wants to start toward town, but I somehow persuade her to wait at home until I call with confirmation of what is still only a rumor.
My SUV is parked in the employee lot behind the newspaper building. We're only four blocks from the bluff, where Front Street slices down the two-hundred-foot drop to the river at a forty-degree angle. Pulling out onto Buchanan Street, I go over what my source told me on the phone. About 8:40 A.M. a retired kayaker discovered a man he believed to be Buck Ferris wedged in the fork of a cottonwood snag in the Mississippi River, four hundred yards south of the Bienville landing. The kayaker didn't know Buck well, but he'd attended a couple of his archaeological presentations at the Indian Village. Anyone who knows the Mississippi River recognizes this story as a miracle. If Buck hadn't floated by chance into the fork of that tree, he might have drifted all the way to Baton Rouge or New Orleans before being discovered, if he was found at all. A lot of people drown in the Mississippi, and while most are eventually recovered, there are times when the river god refuses to give up his dead.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cemetery Road"
Copyright © 2019 Greg Iles.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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