It’s been thirty years since John Marshall Tanner, private eye, returned to Chaldea, and he hasn’t missed the farm—three hundred acres of thin topsoil and ratty growth—any more than he’s missed his family. There’s his sister, Gail, worn down by decades of trying to do the right thing; his brother Curt, wallowing in depression ever since his son, Billy, came back broken from Vietnam; and his other brother, Matt, in debt up to his eyeballs and trying desperately to hang on to his new wife. As the family convenes to discuss selling the farm, tensions run high—and tragedy looms on the horizon.
When Billy is found hanging in a public park, the family dismisses it as suicide. But our protagonist knows murder when he sees it, and he is determined to learn what happened to the dead boy, no matter the cost to his family.
Fatal Obsession is the 4th book in the John Marshall Tanner Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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A John Marshall Tanner Mystery
By Stephen Greenleaf
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1983 Stephen Greenleaf
All rights reserved.
The plane descended over the heroic quilt of soil, bounced twice on the black and shiny tarmac, and taxied to the terminal unimpeded by other traffic. Except for a woman herding three children and two shopping bags down the aisle behind me, I was the last passenger to leave the plane.
The steep steel stairs creaked beneath my feet. The handrail was slick and damp from the thunderstorm that had crossed the airfield ahead of the plane and still sparked and rumbled in the eastern sky. I danced around the puddles that glowed in the ghostly twilight like the frozen eyes of madmen and pushed my way into the terminal behind a man wearing a houndstooth shirt and glen plaid slacks, glad to escape the heavy air, glad to be meeting someone I liked, glad, I decided finally, to be almost home.
She was waiting at the gate, my sister, on time as always, slim and sensibly attired as always, smiling as almost always. I hadn't been home for close to three decades and I hadn't seen Gail for three years, since she and her family had visited San Francisco for a week and me for a day three summers before. She looked the same now as she had then: tired. Gail had been weary since birth, the consequence of being too eager to please and to do right, too worried that something untoward might happen that she should have magically prevented, too good.
I liked Gail more than I liked my brothers. She was the next youngest to me, and was the only one I had really known growing up. She was the only Tanner I still communicated with outside the month of December and the only one I felt any debt to beyond the clinging debt that common blood begets, so when she had asked me to come back home to help resolve a family dispute I switched some appointments and begged off a new case from the biggest law firm in town and caught a United flight out of San Francisco with a stop in Omaha along the way.
"Marsh." The word bubbled, boiled by the heat of her eyes and her heart.
We hugged. When I tried to pull away she held me fast for several seconds longer. Through her cotton jacket her body felt small and frail, still a child's. When I finally saw her eyes again they had cooled beneath a spray of tears. "Hey," I said, and she found a smile, and I did, too, but mine was a shade uneasy and hers a shade afraid. The air was charged with more than the lightning that had recently ripped the sky. Gail had always believed I was more than I was, and I had disappointed her more than once as a result. I hoped it wasn't going to happen again.
"How are you, Marsh?" she asked finally, releasing her grip on my arm, swiping at her eyes with thin brown fingers capped by nibbled nails.
"Fine, Gail," I said. "You?"
"Bruce joined the navy, did I tell you?"
"Oh, he didn't know what he wanted to do, I guess. He's at the Great Lakes Training Center. Likes it fine so far."
"Good," I said, then said it once again.
"As long as there's not a war."
And then there seemed nothing left to say that could begin to span the years. As we walked to the baggage claim I wondered why Gail's answers to my questions had been so brief and standard, and then wondered why I was regarding her like a suspect or a reluctant witness. I took a deep breath, shook my profession out of my brain, slipped an arm around Gail's waist and a hand through the grips of my suitcase, and led Gail out of the terminal. By the time we were in her little Chevette heading south and east down Highway 5, I was relaxed and Gail was, too, and she was telling me some news about the town we were driving toward, about some people who lived in it now and about others who, like me, had lived there once but left, carrying a high school diploma and a one-way ticket to someplace else.
The thunderheads before us were thinning, scrambling the rays of the sun in abstract-watercolor smears. Now the air was cooler and less humid than the swelter at the airport. Beneath the sky the fields — straight squat rows of bean bushes and tassel-topped sprigs of corn — stretched over the rolling hills like a tufted shawl. I rolled down the car window and thought I could hear, even over the clicking engine and the slap of tires, the sound of growth, of magnificent hybridized fertility. Of course, the car was much too loud. And it was October, not July. You can hear corn growing in July, although the people where I live now don't believe it.
As she guided the little car down the narrow highway, waving to strangers in the cars she met and being waved at in return, Gail began telling me about a girl friend of hers, a girl my brother had dated long ago, just before he went to college, who now weighed three hundred pounds and at various times had had her jaws wired shut and her stomach surgically circumvented. And then about a boy who'd been killed in a car crash near Milwaukee, with a woman in the car who was not exactly a woman, and about another boy who'd gone bankrupt in the contracting business and fled to Mexico, where he'd died in prison of a beating, and about a girl who had gone off to an ashram in India and hadn't uttered a word since 1967. And on and on with tragic or comic histories until I asked her to tell me how things were with her, and why she'd been so insistent that I come home even though, with our parents long dead, there was no longer a home for me to come to.
"I just thought you should be here, Marsh," Gail said quietly. "So you can see how things are before you decide. So you can hear the way the rest feel, see what your decision will mean. Curt and Matt want to get the whole business over with once and for all, and I do, too."
"What whole business is that, exactly?"
"Why, what to do with the farm, of course. Like I said on the phone."
"How big is it, again?"
"Half a section. Three hundred and twenty acres."
"For our part of the state it is."
"What's good farmland going for these days?"
"Good land, land like you're seeing out there right now, brings over three thousand dollars an acre."
"No, I'm not."
"Jesus. You mean the farm is worth close to a million dollars? That would be a quarter of a million apiece."
I was stunned. I hadn't thought about the farm for years, not until Gail had called. I hadn't kept track of it because the farm hadn't belonged to our father but to his childless brother, who had left it to us kids in four undivided shares when he'd died eight or so years before. Since then, the place had been farmed by a tenant, and most of the profits had gone back into fences and silos and similar improvements. The yearly check I got the week before Christmas was usually just enough to finance a weekend in Carmel and a bottle of Glenlivet. And suddenly this trifle had become a six-figure fortune, or so my calculations raced to tell me. But Gail was shaking her head against my dream.
"I said the best land brings that much, Marsh. Our place isn't near that good. A lot of clay in there, and the topsoil runs real thin. Even the best farms down home only bring twelve hundred or so."
"Even so," I said. "That's close to half a million."
"Not that much," Gail replied. "There's a lot of timber on the place. Lots of it's too steep to terrace, too. I doubt we could get more than seven, eight hundred an acre if we sell it as a farm. If we could find a buyer. That kind of money's hard to come by these days."
I put the mathematics to work again, then looked at Gail. "You seem to know a lot about all this," I said. "I didn't know you were such an agrarian."
She smiled quickly. "Oh, I'm not. Not at all. But Karen, well, she and Paul, that's her husband, they're farming eighty acres out north of town on Paul's folks' place now, so I pick all this up when the kids come to Sunday dinner."
"You want to keep our place as a farm, I take it."
Gail nodded vigorously. "For Karen and Paul. Right."
"They're not making a go of it now?" "Not on eighty acres, Marsh. No one could. Paul's the hardest worker you've ever seen," she added, imagining my doubt and opposing it.
"Could they make it if they could farm our place, too?"
"Sure they could."
"Can they buy it?"
"Outright? No. Not on a sixteen-percent mortgage."
"How about the others?" I asked, bringing images of my brothers to mind, faces I hadn't seen in the flesh for years. "What do they want to do?"
"Well, Curt is ... I don't know, Marsh. He's just given up on life, it seems like. Stays out on that old place he bought over in Glory City, him and Laurel, never comes to town, never does anything. Poor Laurel's a prisoner out there, although she won't admit it. Has Curt talked to you at all, Marsh?"
"He hasn't to Matt, either."
"What's Curt's problem?" I asked, seeing him as I had known him once, strong, silent, sure of himself and his place in the world that so confused the rest of us.
"His boy, more than anything," Gail answered. "You remember how Curt loved that boy."
"Sure. Billy. Nice kid."
"He sure was."
"You haven't seen Billy since he was in high school, have you, Marsh?"
"No. Why? What's happened?"
"He went to war, that's what happened. Vietnam." Gail shook her head.
"You wouldn't believe he's one of us, Marsh. Drugs. Liquor. Women. Fights. Half the time he walks right by me on the street like he's never laid eyes on me before. Then there's the stories ..."
"Oh, about his brawls and his wild antics and his hippie girl friend and, well, about him and some women in town who are old enough to know better. I'm sure some of the stories aren't true, but there's so many some of them have to be and that's bad enough. It's about taken everything that's good out of Curt, that's for sure. He just walks around in a gray daze."
"Where's Billy now?"
"Oh, he's still around town, at least he was a week ago. He comes and goes, dragging along some girl he says is his wife but probably isn't. I hear he's living in a shack he built out on the farm, down in a draw somewhere that doesn't even have a road to it. Don't know what he lives on, he's got no job. He's just real peculiar, Marsh, and Curt won't talk about it, so all I know is what I hear. Oh, it's so sad, Marsh. Billy won't have anything to do with Curt and it eats at him like a cancer, you can just see it."
"So how does Curt feel about the farm?"
"He wants to sell," Gail said sadly. "Mostly so Billy won't have a place to hide out, I think, as though there aren't a hundred other shacks around for him to hide out in. But Curt thinks if Billy had to leave the farm then he'd move home again and everything would be like it was, but he's wrong. Billy'll never be like he was."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "I guess the war's still not over for some."
"Not for Curt, it's not."
We paused while we passed through a town that was little more than a wide spot in the road. I remembered playing basketball there once. The court had been on the stage in the school auditorium. One of our players had fallen off going after a loose ball. We'd changed into our uniforms in the school woodshop and after the game we found all our street clothes squeezed into the vises on the workbenches, mashed almost beyond utility. I smiled to myself at the memory. By the time the smile had vanished so had the little town.
"What about brother Matt?" I asked Gail as she accelerated back up to speed. "What does he think about the farm?"
Gail laughed. "Matt's really something these days, Marsh. Big car, fancy clothes, big talk about this deal and that deal. Wears a gold chain around his neck, if you can believe it. He rolled through town last summer on his way from Chicago to Denver for some convention, driving a car as long as the town; people talked about it for weeks. He's on wife number three, you know. Going to bring her with him when he comes down to vote on the farm. Says she's the most beautiful woman in Chicago."
"Matt was always lucky with women."
"Matt's luck never lasted too long, though," Gail said as she slowed to let a combine cross from field to field in front of us. "So Matt wants to sell?"
"Yes," Gail said, the word as stiff as a curse. "Probably so he can pay the keep on his new wife."
"Now, Gail." I reached over and patted her shoulder.
"I know," she said wearily. "I'm sorry. It's just that I've got some problems of my own, Marsh; one of them thanks to little Billy, as a matter of fact. And if we sell the farm one of those problems won't go away."
"You mean Karen and her husband?"
Gail nodded. "It kills me to see them work so hard for so little, Marsh. Times are so tough, I feel if I could help them out just a little they could make it, but if I can't, well, I don't know what will happen. You won't believe how bad things have gotten back here, Marsh."
"So what's the bottom line?" I asked. "We're going to vote, is that it?"
"Yes. At least that's what the rest of us want. According to Uncle Raymond's will it takes three votes to change things. Matt and Curt want to sell. If you decide their way, then that's it. If you decide mine, then the farm stays in the family, the way it is now. So I'm hoping you won't give them the third vote, Marsh. I'm hoping real hard."
Gail took her eyes off the road and found mine. I had no doubt of the seriousness of her purpose and her plan. She had always been a girl of few but fervent passions which she pursued with all her energy and ability, which was as much energy and ability as there was in town. One Christmas she had single-handedly collected a garageful of toys for the needy kids in the county, and another time she had organized a boycott of the movie house until the management let her friend, a black girl, sit on the main floor instead of only in the balcony.
The farm was Gail's current project, and I was the means to its fulfillment. I squirmed in my seat and looked away from Gail and toward the vista that rolled to the dim horizon, a vista in which man was insignificant and thus more real. At times I had felt lost and helpless beneath that unedged sky, but now I felt comforted by its reach, by the absence of demand or threat in its aspect. "I'll do my best," I said to Gail.
"I don't expect you to decide right now, Marsh," Gail answered quietly. "Just keep an open mind while you listen to the others. I know in the end you'll do what's best. You always have," she added, uttering the expectant hell of families.
On the windshield of an approaching truck a plastic hand oscillated cheerily on its wire support, in indiscriminate hospitality. I looked at the driver to see if the sentiment was real but he was hidden behind mirrored glasses and a straw hat with a broken brim. I waved and was ignored by everything but the happy hand. "We're halfway there," Gail said. "Getting nervous?"
"About something," I said. "I'm not sure quite what."CHAPTER 2
Even in the new-moon dusk the land became progressively more familiar, its contours, swells, and vales arranging themselves into patterns that confirmed I was home. The highway was newer, straighter, flatter than it had been in my youth, thanks to a local businessman who had served a term on the state highway commission a while back. In contrast, the farmhouses seemed fewer, darker, sadder than before, doubtless because so many small farmers hadn't survived and had left their hollow homes and heritage behind to secure their debts. But the land itself, that furrowed sea of gray-black soil, the land seemed the same as always, at least to me, a city boy impervious to signs of topsoil loss and surface erosion and rootworm infestation and the thousand other imperceptible calamities that may one day render the Great Plains barren.
And soon there was the Chariton River Bridge, and the Dale Church hill, and the nursery and the Skinner place and the Chevy dealership and the Cooper Creek Bridge and then we were there. Home. Chaldea. Population 6189, or so proclaimed the sign that greeted us from behind the scars of a fully-choked shotgun blast.
A rush of landmarks scrambled my memories, no single one able to leap forth and make itself fully known. But even at the edge of town I knew exactly where I was, the Dairy Queen and the scrapyard and the sale barn marking the place as firmly as a fingerprint. My general impression was that time had trod lightly on Chaldea, not fatally, but enough to stunt its growth. Almost all I saw was familiar and thus a part of me, for I had realized long ago that Chaldea had made me, more than anything except my parents, what I was and still was not.
Excerpted from Fatal Obsession by Stephen Greenleaf. Copyright © 1983 Stephen Greenleaf. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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