By Mark de Castrique
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2007 Mark de Castrique
All right reserved.
"The banjo's bigger than the picker." Susan laughed and set up her folding chair at the edge of the curb. She motioned me to do the same.
About twenty yards away, a portable stage decorated with red, white, and blue bunting stood in the middle of Main Street. A towheaded boy of no more than six climbed up on a wooden stool. An old man in bib overalls handed the youngster a five-string Gibson, and then tucked his fiddle under his whiskered chin.
I settled into the comfort of my canvas camp chair. "That kid's probably been playing banjo since before he could walk. Same goes for great grandpa. The Dickens family's been calling square dances around here for over sixty years."
Susan sneezed. "Well, I'd like to dosado, if I can breathe." She pulled a nasal inhaler from her jeans' pocket and gave a shot up each nostril. "Nothing worse than a summer cold."
"Nothing worse than a doctor who can't cure herself," I said. "I prescribe a couple whirls around the street with me stepping on your feet and you'll forget all about your cold."
The ancient fiddle player, Roscoe Dickens, stepped up to a mike, the fiddle still under his chin, and cleared his throat. "Thank y'all for coming out this evening. It's good to be back in Gainesboro."
Back in Gainesboro? Roscoe made it sound like they'd been on a world tour with The Rolling Stones. The family lived on the outskirts of the county, and my funeral home, Clayton and Clayton, had been burying them as long as they'd been pickin' and grinnin'. He introduced the rest of the family—granddaughter on mandolin, a son on guitar, grandson on bass, and granddaughter-in-law on flute—she had to be an import from the Brevard Music Center. And finally on banjo, little Roscoe Albert Dickens the Fourth. I sure hoped they called him Al.
"Our first number's Down Yonder and we've set this one aside for the Laurel County Cloggers. So step back, give them room, and we'll commence the square dancing shortly."
From across the street a group wearing yellow plaid shirts and dark blue pants broke into precise lines three deep and six dancers across. The predominant hair color was silver. The men were outnumbered two to one, and the body shapes were as varied as a shelf full of recycled jelly glasses. Roscoe sawed out the first notes, the band kicked in, and thirty-six metal-tapped shoes started pounding out an intricate rhythm pattern. Folks lining the curb and the sawhorses that marked off the dance area clapped along. Every face wore a smile.
The Friday Night Street Stomp, as the Chamber of Commerce billed it, drew tourists and locals downtown from June to Labor Day. Each week a different band treated the crowd to an evening of live music. Over the summer, the styles ranged from big band to beach music to classic rock and roll. Tonight, traditional mountain music launched the season, and the clear June sky and cool, soft breeze enticed a record turnout.
Across the street, I saw Mayor Sammy Whitlock schmoozing the spectators. His rotund body was clad in white pants and a red shirt, making him look like a fishing bob bouncing along the flow of the sidewalk. I had to give His Honor credit for being a vocal supporter of the event and authorizing his well-guarded funds to boost the street lighting. Although it was already seven, the evening's festivities could go on for hours thanks to the improved illumination.
I twisted around. Fletcher Shaw waved to me from behind an elderly man in a wheelchair. At first I thought Fletcher was with him, but the motorized chair moved farther down the sidewalk and Fletcher stepped forward. He had two lawn chairs under his arm and a pretty blonde by his side.
"Any room?" he asked.
"Sure." I slid a few feet to the left and Susan did the same. Fletcher unfolded one of the chairs, placed it by Susan and offered the seat to his companion. As she sat down, I recognized her as Cindy Todd, the daughter of Helen Todd, who owned the Cardinal Café. The local diner had been in the Todd family for years and was where I'd devoured countless meals ever since first eating from a booster seat. I hadn't seen little Cindy since she'd left for college several years ago. Her tight jeans and bare midriff showed she'd blossomed from a gangly teenager into a very attractive young woman.
"Hi." I reached over and shook her hand. "Remember me? Barry Clayton. And this is my friend Susan Miller. Are you home for the summer?"
"Just two weeks. Then I start an internship with Bank of America in Charlotte."
"You're at UNC-Charlotte?" Susan asked.
"I'll be a senior." Cindy shook her head in disbelief. "The first in my family to go to college."
"Congratulations. I'd shake your hand but I'm afraid I'll give you my cold." Susan nodded to Fletcher. "And it's nice to finally meet you."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I thought you'd met."
Fletcher grinned. "I feel like we have. Mr. Clayton talks about you all the time."
I laughed. My opinion of the young man jumped up a notch. "First of all, I want both of you to call me Barry. I'm not that much older than either of you. And second, Fletcher, your internship at Clayton and Clayton might not be as glamorous as Bank of America, but you've already mastered Funeral Director Diplomacy 101. Obviously you sweet-talked Cindy to the dance."
Cindy blushed. "I asked him. My mom introduced us at lunch today."
"During my second piece of apple pie," Fletcher admitted.
"I asked if he planned to dance that off tonight, and here we are." Cindy gave him a wink that made me wonder if my summer intern might bail on me for a Charlotte funeral home.
Clayton and Clayton had never had an intern before, but the growing influx of summer tourists, many of whom were pushing the eighty-plus age range, had increased the number of those senior citizens who wouldn't last till fall. The request from the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science to employ one of their students over the summer break coincided with our seasonal surge in business. Fletcher Shaw had arrived two weeks ago and was adjusting to life in a small mountain town as well as anyone from a suburb of Detroit could be expected. Better, considering he now sat beside one of the prettiest girls in western North Carolina.
A line of the cloggers pranced near the curb. I tapped the armrest of my chair in time to the music and turned to Cindy. "Well, I hope you'll translate ol' Roscoe's mountain twang for Fletcher. Otherwise, he's likely to misunderstand and grab some burly mountaineer. That could be a promenade to the hospital."
Cindy laughed and looked at Susan. "Then I'm glad we've got a surgeon here. Mom says you're the best, or at least you've had the most practice from patching up Barry."
"I call him my walking resumé." Susan wasn't kidding.
Fletcher and Cindy looked at me for a response, but I wasn't about to get into a litany of the injuries my unofficial detective work had inflicted upon my body. "I just hope I can get through the square dance in one piece."
I turned my attention to the crowd and caught sight of Sheriff Tommy Lee Wadkins across the street. He gave me a wave and pointed to his uniform. He mouthed the words "on duty," but with his wife, Patsy, on his arm, he looked anything but on duty. I expected he'd be out swinging his bride left and right before the evening was over.
The Laurel County Cloggers finished with a flourish and received an enthusiastic round of applause. As they clickety-clacked off the street, Roscoe Dickens invited any and all to join the first square dance.
"Just the basics," he said. "We save the fancy steps for when y'all are sweatin'."
I turned to Susan. "Want to give it a try?"
She sniffled. "I'd better not. If colds are passed through hand contact, I'll wipe out nearly fifty people."
"Why don't you dance with Cindy?" Fletcher asked me. "Then I can see what the calls mean."
I stood up. "You game?"
Cindy bounced to her feet. "Sure. Just don't laugh at me. I fell down the last time."
"Don't worry," Susan said. "If you do, everyone will know it's because Barry tripped you."
I grabbed Cindy's hand and we hurried out to the street. Roscoe needed a manageable number and sometimes he had to subtract dancers to make things work. The old man counted couples off as odd and even, and then explained a few basic moves. Cindy and I listened as if receiving orders for a commando raid. Neither one of us wanted to screw up. After several practice trials without music, Roscoe pronounced us fit to dance, and the band started playing Arkansas Traveler. The first call sent our big circle moving left, some shuffling, some skipping, but all getting into the rhythm of the tune.
My favorite part was when the men and women moved around the circle in opposite directions, weaving in and out, going from left hand to right. I could jump seventy years in a single swing as a laughing ten-year-old followed a rejuvenated octogenarian. Roscoe skillfully maneuvered us through our newly learned steps until reunited partners strutted their stuff in a promenade finale. Cindy and I bowed to each other, and then at Susan and Fletcher sitting on the curb. They clapped their approval.
As we headed toward them, an elderly gentleman stepped off the curb. His grim expression caught my eye, and I could see that more than his hand was buried in his tan windbreaker.
"Get behind me," I whispered to Cindy.
Before she could move, the man pulled a pistol from his pocket. "Lincoln!"
The couple beside us froze.
"You bastard." The man raised his gun. "This is for Lucy."
I saw a blur out of the corner of my eye as the man next to me grabbed his partner and hurled her at the old man. The girl slammed into the gunman and two shots rang out from his pistol. Cindy cried out, and then a chorus of screams erupted from the panicked crowd as people desperately scrambled to safety. Cindy fell against me. I caught her around the waist and felt warm blood between my fingers.
The other girl lay on the pavement with blood flowing from her head and stomach. The man with the gun looked down at her and then at me. The man she'd been dancing with had disappeared.
I held up my hand. "Drop the gun. No need for innocent people to get hurt." I saw Tommy Lee circling behind the man, motioning the few stunned spectators who remained to clear out. If I could keep the man talking long enough, Tommy Lee would get the jump on him.
"He took my Lucy from me," the man repeated.
"Then we'll catch him. We'll bring him to justice."
Tommy Lee was twenty feet away, coming in at an angle with his gun drawn.
"No. No good." The man quickly stepped to his right and spun around facing Tommy Lee.
That move put Cindy and me behind him and in the line of Tommy Lee's fire. Tommy Lee hesitated, and his shot came a fraction of a second after the man pulled his trigger. To my horror, both men collapsed to the pavement.
Cindy whimpered in pain. I stood in utter disbelief, gazing at the scene. In the glare of the mayor's new lighting, pools of bright red blood flowed from three bodies in the street and a fourth clutched in my arms.
"Susan! Cindy's hit!" I gently lowered Cindy to the pavement, careful to keep her wounded side elevated.
As Susan and Fletcher ran toward us, I searched the crowd and saw the mayor backed against a storefront window. "Whitlock, find a deputy. Have him radio for four ambulances." I didn't know if the county EMS had four ambulances.
The petrified politician shook off his fright and hurried as fast as his stubby legs could carry him toward the next block, where traffic was being diverted.
Susan knelt beside me. "I've got her. Check Tommy Lee."
"Are there any doctors here?" I shouted to the crowd as I ran to Tommy Lee.
One of the Laurel County Cloggers patted the hand of the woman beside him and joined me by the sheriff. "Walter Bond. Retired, but I spent ten years in the ER."
Tommy Lee groaned. His one eye flickered open. The ever-present black patch covered the other. "God damn," he whispered. "Gun-downed on Main Street in my own town."
His wife Patsy knelt beside him. Tears streamed down her face, but her voice was steady. "Quiet," she urged.
He gave a faint nod. "Right chest wound. Check the girl. Secure the scene." Then he lost consciousness.
As Dr. Bond began checking Tommy Lee, I saw Susan run from Cindy to the other wounded girl. She knelt down and put her hand on the girl's carotid artery. I ran over to do whatever I could to help.
"Fletcher's putting direct pressure on Cindy's wound. This one has a faint pulse. Bullet hit her abdomen, and there's a head injury where she hit the pavement." Susan sighed. "It'll be touch and go. Tommy Lee?"
"The guy with him used to work ER. Chest wound. If the bleeding's not too bad, he's got a good chance."
"Check the old guy," Susan said, and focused all her attention on the girl.
I went over to the shooter and knelt down beside him. The man lay on his back. His eyes stared up at the night sky, but he no longer saw anything on this side of infinity. The hole in his jacket showed Tommy Lee's shot went through the heart. As a decorated vet from Vietnam, the sheriff had instinctively fired with deadly accuracy, even as a bullet tore through his chest.
I looked up to see Deputy Reece Hutchins running toward me. Behind him came the mayor, his face as red as his shirt. Maybe the fourth ambulance would be needed after all.
Reece looked at Tommy Lee lying between Patsy and the doctor. "Is he—?" He couldn't bring himself to say any more. His lip quivered and his hands twitched by his side.
Reece and I had had our differences. I found him arrogant and territorial. I'd come to suspect part of that attitude was because he resented the special friendship his boss and I had developed. But there was never any doubt as to his loyalty to Tommy Lee. The pain on his face spoke clearer than any words.
"He's alive, but it's serious. CindyTodd has a gunshot wound in her right side. The other girl's hanging on by a thread." I nodded at the dead man lying at my feet. "This one's the shooter. He didn't make it."
Reece didn't make a move. He kept looking back at Tommy Lee as if the unconscious man would give him orders.
"Tommy Lee said secure the scene," I finally said. "He'd want you to be in charge."
The breath caught in Reece's chest. He could only nod.
I stood up and leaned close to him. "There's a mystery here, Reece. This guy was gunning for somebody else. A white male, paunchy, about fifty. I didn't get a good look at him, but the shooter called him Lincoln." I pointed to the girl Susan was attending to. "The son of a bitch used that girl as a shield. I have a feeling he's the reason behind all this. The reason Tommy Lee got shot."
The wail of sirens pierced the air.
"Then we'll get him." Reece grabbed my arm. "Will you go to the hospital? Keep me posted?"
"Sure." I looked at the old man's body again. "Let me know if you get an ID. It'll be the first question out of Tommy Lee's mouth."
We both smiled in spite of the dire situation. We knew Tommy Lee too well.
While Reece cleared the street in preparation for the ambulances, I made a quick round of the injured. Fletcher kept his hand pressed against Cindy's side. His face was nearly as pale as hers, and she looked like she was going into shock.
Susan had stripped the unknown girl's blouse away from the stomach wound and used the cloth as a compress. "I think the bullet went through clean. The head injury could be more serious, but I won't know till I get her in OR."
"Is she the priority?"
"They're all a priority."
I saw Fletcher whispering encouragement to Cindy. Patsy was stroking Tommy Lee's forehead, and Dr. Bond was bent close to the sheriff's chest.
"First ambulance here takes you and this girl," I told Susan. I could see Reece flagging an emergency team at the cross street. A second vehicle with flashing lights came from farther down the block. Both cut their sirens and I didn't hear another.
My gut tightened. I knew what Tommy Lee would want. He'd gone back for a dying comrade in the face of enemy fire. His bravery cost him an eye, but he'd have done it again without hesitation.
Susan must have read my mind. "I don't think Cindy's as bad as Tommy Lee."
"Are you sure about that?"
"I can't be one hundred percent sure."
Excerpted from Final Undertaking by Mark de Castrique Copyright © 2007 by Mark de Castrique. 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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