Cruel as the Grave (A Grover Bramlet Mystery)by John Armistead
The killing of Naresse Clouse, mother of four, was the stuff of nightmares. The pretty restaurant hostess was shot, stabbed, and left hanging in a rural barn, where some said she was meeting a lover. Three years later her killer has not been found, but no one in Sheffield, Mississippi, has forgotten her, including Sheriff Grover Bramlett....
Bramlett loves his wife of thirty-seven years, down-home cooking, painting watercolors, and his job. He keeps tabs on the country roads of Chakchiuma County, rich folks as well as poor, and the hot emotions that have sirens screaming in the night. But when a middle-aged salesman is gunned down, Bramlett is surprised to find the man had been asking about Naresse. That link sends Bramlett back over ground he'd covered before, unearthing a dirty little secret, digging deeper into witnesses' memories, and heading for the dangerous territory where race, passion, and hatred meet and a ruthless killer waits.
An appealing, locally grounded mystery marred only by a repetitive attention to irrelevant detail. Sheriff Bramlett's light is hidden under the bushel of Armistead's unsophisticated style.
Read an Excerpt
Naresse Clouse rushed along the path. She hunched her shoulders and pulled her coat tighter together at the neck. The coat was too thin, but then, all she'd ever had was thin coats. Cheap. In fact, her whole life had been too thin, too cheap.
She bowed her head into a slashing gust of wind and couldn't imagine how cold it was. The ground was hard, the mud ruts of the road frozen, and she hurried, stumbled on. Would it snow today? Maybe it was too cold to snow.
Without looking up, Naresse turned off the road onto a trail leading toward a barn. She had walked to the barn so many times along so many years that she no doubt could have walked it blindfolded.
In fact, she might as well have been blindfolded those many nights with hardly a sliver of moon to guide her as she made her way to the barn. Going back how many years? Over thirty now, was it? Going back to when they were both children almost, only just beginning to feel the heat of love, just understanding the barn was not just a barn and would be for them the secret place of passion and love forever.
Love is strong as death he always said. And it was. Strong enough to hold them together on and on even though all reason said it was hopeless. There were others to think of. His wife, her husband. And the children.
She had five children, now all grown up, except for Hugh, but he was already twelve. That's almost grown. She was only a couple years older than that when they came together for the first time.
Five grown children. She smiled. It pleased her to think that out at the Log Cabin young men the age of her daughter Lizzie sometimes hit on her, wanted her. Just lastweek one young blood said to her, "Naresse, you're the prettiest woman of color in all of Mississippi. No, better'n that. You're the prettiest woman period in all of Mississippi."
She walked inside the barn and moved quickly away from the gaping front doorway, moved to the right side near the steep, narrow stairway that led to the loft. The wind whistled overhead through rafters. "Too thin and too cheap," she mumbled, now moving into a stall. She still held her coat at the neck.
There was a faint musty smell of manure and rotted, damp hay and sweat from years before. How long had it been since an animal had been here? Years. Twenty maybe? How long had it been since old John Farris had died?
No matter. It had been years--twenty or more--and now over thirty since she'd climbed into the loft a girl and an hour later climbed down a woman, and the smell lingered--like the promises, promises which she still clung to but knew would never be kept.
She smiled. She really didn't mind the smell. She never had. The smell floated through her brain mingling sweetly with the smell of sweat and love and a thousand dreams of sunny days to come.
Only those days never did come. It seemed like winter never ended, nor the fear nor the pain; nor could she stop being a mother to their child.
Was that a car? Was he coming? She leaned her face close to a crack between two boards and looked out.
The earth outside was washed with a pale wintry light. A red-tailed hawk soared beyond the gnarled and massive oak that stood near where the house had been. But she heard nothing.
The wind whined as it twisted and swirled through the cavernous room, and she folded her arms across her chest and stamped her feet. She could smell the dust rising from the dry earthen floor.
On that earthen floor they had slow-danced to silent tunes. And, she thought with bitterness, it was the only place we ever danced. Dancing, like just being together, was forbidden.
She looked at her watch. Four forty-two. She'd told him to meet her at four-thirty. "I don't care what you've got scheduled," she'd told him. "You damn well better be there."
No one in this world could make her angrier than he could. And, at the same time, no one brought her more joy. Not even their child.
Yes, she still loved him, had loved him all these years. He was her Abraham, and she his Sarah. Their love child was always there to remind her of what could have been had things been different. I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem . . .
She smiled and moved out of the stall. He used to say that. Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
* * *
She drew a deep breath and slowly released it, clamping her jaw as she did. But the winter wasn't past. Not this one and not any other. She was suffering through this one like all the rest with cheap, thin coats.
She had always wanted a leather coat. A black leather coat. Long. And maybe she'd get one soon. Maybe with the new raise she'd just gotten at the restaurant she could do that.
Why should she suffer? Why should her child suffer? He needed to take better care of her now more than ever before. She smiled. Her birthday was a week away. She could tell him to get her a leather coat. What would he say to that?
Would she really make good her threats? She wasn't sure. Maybe.
Dammit. Why should another woman enjoy all the warmth and comfort that should have been hers all these years?
Maybe they should have just run off somewheres and said to hell with everyone else. Would he have done that? Would he have left his parents, left everything else he dreamed of? For her?
She glanced toward the loft, toward the back corner. Up there they had played hide and seek when they were children--and up there their child was conceived thirty-two years ago. She knew exactly when that night was. She knew. There was never any doubt in her mind.
It was somehow different that time . . . Always there was the wildness, the passion, the desperate hunger for each other . . . But something was different that time, and--
She jerked her head around, looking toward the rear of the barn, toward the tool room. What was that? A cat? A possum?
She shivered, not from the cold but from a sudden chill that seized her soul. She should have brought a flashlight. But, then, she'd never brought a flashlight, neither of them had. Since childhood, they--
A thud. Something had fallen. The noise definitely came from the direction of the tool room. Or from the loft above it.
She stepped slowly in the direction of the tool room. "Who's there?" she called, pausing for a moment.
She moved closer. Could he have already come? But why would he be back there? Her heart was racing, swelling, like it was going to rip out of her chest.
She moved toward the tool-room door. It was a homemade door of rough pine planks, unpainted. And halfway opened.
She stood before the door, staring into the darkness. "You there?" she whispered, knowing as she did that no one else could have heard even if she'd yelled.
She started. She thought she saw a movement in the darkness, or maybe it was a breath of a sound.
"Who's . . ." Then her eyes widened. "N-no . . ." she gasped. "Please . . . no . . ."
Meet the Author
John Armistead is religion editor for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. He is a native of Mobile, Alabama, and a graduate of Mississippi College and the University of Mississippi. He currently lives with his wife in Tupelo, Mississippi, where his hobbies include riding his Electra Glide Harley-Davidson, fly-fishing, and painting. He is also the author of A Legacy of Vengeance and A Homecoming for Murder.
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