They’d been talking about Linnie Glynn Cane since 1925, about the pecan tree where she was found hanging, and how her ghost never came to rest. No sooner do Gale and her four-year-old, Katie Pru, arrive in town than tragedy strikes again. Martin Cane, a straitlaced, religious man and host of the annual Southern Gospel Singing and Barbecue, turns up dead—killed by a rifle blast—in the midst of the festivities. Now it is up to Gale to untangle the twisted facts behind Martin’s death. Was the motive suicide, greed, revenge—or a long-delayed justice? To find out, Gale will have to dig deep into the town’s darkest secrets and her own painful past.
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STATLERS CROSS, GEORGIA
The fish house sat approximately twenty feet from the edge of Martin Cane’s pond, on a little incline of grass that would have delighted children with its downhill roll if in the end it didn’t deposit them in a soup of scum and muddy water. Martin had built the fish house himself the summer he turned thirty, when the heat from the big house, combined with the squalls of his infant daughter, had caused him one day to lift the blender from the kitchen counter and drive it through the cabinet. His wife Cammy, the baby on her hip, had looked in silence at the splintered door. Say something, he had yelled. You know damn well it was the baby I wanted to smash through a wall She had leveled her eyes at him. Go away, she had said evenly. Go do something with your hands. And don’t come back until you’re in control.
He left for two weeks, sleeping by the pond in a pup tent and working late into the night hammering two-by-fours until he had the frame of a small building. He wanted to be able to hose it clean, so he left a one-inch gap between the bottom of the wooden frame and the cement floor. And he wanted the structure airy to combat the searing Georgia summers, so instead of boards he stapled wire screen halfway up three sides. Five years later he added a sink, and ten years after that, electricity and a stove. But in the beginning, the fish house was nothing more than a handwrought sanctuary, his retreat from the world when he felt like putting his fist through somebody’s face.
Martin stood in the fish house now and stared through the wire at the pond. To the left of the pond a pack of men in light cotton shirts and baggy jeans sweated over a barbecue pit and a pair of roasting pigs. Far to his right he could hear the grunts of men erecting tents on his land and detect the sweet odor of grass as it ripped beneath their shoes. But mainly he smelled cologne. He didn’t need to turn around to recognize the man who had carried it into his sanctuary.
“Martin, are you prepared?”
The fragrance was spicy, like a woman’s fingers when she baked. His daughter Sill had snide names for the man’s cologne: the Preacher’s Patchouli, the Savior’s Sweet Scent. But Martin didn’t put much stock in what his daughter said. Sill was an abnormal concoction. A lost soul.
“It’s nearing time, Martin. People will start arriving soon. Are you ready?”
Martin listed forward, his nose inches from the wire screen. He had built the barbecue pit following a rage, too. It had always struck him as ironic that a project started in so much anger could result in so many blessings. He watched as two men poked tongs into the cinder block pit and lifted a small pig from its grate above the embers. They carefully rested it atop a thick wooden board anchored to the top of the pit. Through the wire, Martin could discern the animal’s parched flesh. It looked strangely dressed with its ears and tail wrapped in damp cotton strips. He had given the roasting instructions himself. Don’t let the ears on the little one burn. It’ll look unnatural if you do. And put rocks in its mouth and belly. Otherwise it’ll wither up and the women’ll have a fit if it’s too ugly for their vines and fruit. People from all over the country come to this shindig for the real McCoy, boys. Let’s make ’em believe they’ve found it.
Now the pig, tipped in swaddling clothes, looked unnatural anyway. It lay on the wooden board like a crisped baby.
He heard impatient shuffling behind him. “Martin? Where is your mind at? What in the world’s wrong with you?”
Martin turned and settled his eyes on the lanky man in the doorway. “I’m gonna be honest with you, Ryan. This sounded like a good idea when we planned it. I’m just not sure about it anymore.”
Ryan Teller gave a snort, not, Martin thought, a particularly attractive act from a man of God.
“Of course it’s a good idea, Martin. The best idea. What’s the key to any event? Crowds of people. And they’ll come. We’ve heightened the show. A little music, a few games, a lot of religion. They’ll be here, buddy, ’cause you’re so damned good at what you do.”
Teller moved to the side of the table, close enough for Martin to catch the faint odor of his body beneath the cologne. Despite the beat of the fan paddles overhead, beads of sweat plumped along his hairline. Teller smiled, and his lips glided over his teeth like eels.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time I heard of Statlers Cross, Martin? Five years ago I was reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and there it was, on the upper right-hand side, clear across the page: ‘Praise the Lord, It’s an All-Night Pig-Pickin’.’ I punched my finger right through the middle of the paper, I got so excited. A town with enough sense to preserve an old-fashioned church barbecue and singing. What could be more perfect?”
Teller’s face was suddenly grim. “Then I forgot all about it. I was too busy doing Man’s work. But eventually the Lord found me and guided me here. He said, ‘Ryan, give up your $150,000 advertising job in Atlanta, sell your expensive cars, become a minister. I’ll find a way to get you to Statlers Cross.’ And He did it. Why, Martin? ’Cause of you, brother.”
From inside the main house, a phone jangled faintly. Martin’s throat constricted. Silently, he counted to eight. If it was for him, it would take eight seconds or whoever answered to register the information, ask the caller to wait, walk to the back door, and call his name. A prayer might have been more effective, but he had learned that prayer was too close to panic. Better to focus and count.
At nine seconds he relaxed. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans and sighed. “Don’t think we’re not grateful, Ryan. I’m just worn-out. We been working on those damn pigs for nineteen hours straight.” He shrugged. “You’re right, of course. It’s perfect.”
Ryan grinned. “There you go, buddy. The devil’s wearing you out. But you keep pushing him away. Everything’s in my car. After the gospel singers finish, we’ll have our turn.”
The preacher slipped from the fish house and headed to the western part of the lawn where members of the youth Sunday school class were rolling out barrels for the cold drinks. His cologne lingered. Never trust a minister who smells prettier than your wife, Daddy. Sill had said it laughing, but her eyes had been like marble.
From the barbecue pit a man yelled. “Martin! Big one’s done. Come take a look at her!”
Martin banged open the fish house door and strode toward the rising smoke. As he approached, the pack of men broke apart. Cooper Langley, one scrawny leg hiked onto the wall of the pit, grinned and slapped Martin on the shoulder.
“Whatcha say, Martin? Looks good this year, don’t she?”
The pig weighed forty pounds—not enough to feed the hundreds of people expected but enough to keep the mystique of an authentic Southern ritual. Funny what a little good press could do for a place. Twenty-odd years ago candidate Jimmy Carter had stopped at a church pig-picking in a spit on the map called Statlers Cross, and the national press corp had gone wild. Every June since, the suburbanites and city dwellers had packed the fields, looking for the quaint and true. Never mind that most of the pork, 2000 pounds of it, had been cooked yesterday by a restaurant over in Walton County. Never mind that the homemade biscuits had been frozen for weeks. Anything for the work of the Lord. Martin smiled broadly and returned Langley’s slap.
“She looks fine. Heck of a long day, fellas, but I’d say it was worth it.” He gestured at the smaller pig. “Why don’t you two younger boys carry the little one over to the food table? It’ll work as a centerpiece. As for Mama here, let’s get the show on the road.”
On the ground lay a cloth feed sack. Martin reached inside and pulled out a single-bit axe.
“Wanna let her cool a bit?” Langley asked.
Martin shook his head. “It’s getting near time and the women are waiting in the kitchen to pull the meat off. Besides, it’ll be nightfall before the dang thing cools off out here, it’s so damn hot.”
Langley picked up a pair of cooking mitts and pulled them on. “I’ll hold her, Martin. The rest of you, stand back.”
He pressed his hands into the large pig’s haunches and carefully turned her on her side. With the mitts firm against the belly and spine, he nodded to Martin. “Go ahead.”
Martin lifted the axe over his head and brought it down with such force the blade bit into the board. The pig’s neck severed cleanly, the head sending up a shower of ash and embers as it rolled into the pit well. Langley bent down and grabbed it by the snout.
“My grandmother could’ve made a heck of a stew outta this,” he said.
“Mine, too,” said Martin. “But Ella doesn’t like to look at it. Toss it back behind the pen for me, will you. Coop? I’ll put it with the rest of the parings once the women finish. Right now I got a load of things to take care of. And if I could get a couple of you fellas to carry this swine into the kitchen …”
As the men trundled away with their load, Martin sucked in a breath thick as gauze. It was too damn hot. During the week, the thermometer had soared past ninety, reaching temperatures usually reserved for the dead of August. And it wasn’t the type of heat that disappeared quickly—with evening coming, the air still wrapped around Martin as if to bury him. Maybe no one will come, he thought. Maybe they’ll stay home in front of their air conditioners, and all of Ryan’s plans will be for nothing. But the nausea in his belly told him he was a fool. Ryan would get his multitude. That’s why God had called him. Ryan Teller was a bulldozer for the Lord.