The beaches are full on this sunny Biloxi afternoon, but Micah Dunn has no appetite for sunbathing. Watching a group of scientists excavate an ancient Native American site along the Mississippi, the private detective’s thoughts turn first to the archaeologist who broke his heart, and then to murder. Hoping for beads or pottery, the scientists have found a dirt-stained skeleton whose fillings tell them he was killed during the twentieth century, whose amputated leg suggests a veteran, and whose punctured skull says death by pistol.
The bones belonged to Max Chantry, a 1940s reform political candidate who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. But if New Orleans politicos killed him, why did he end up buried a state away? This case is ice cold, but solving it will put Dunn in the hot seat.
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The Last Man to Die
A Micah Dunn Mystery
By Malcolm K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
I met the late Max Chantry on a bright August day with the sound of waves in the background and the smell of salt marsh heavy in the air. John O'Rourke and I were watching the archaeologists work when one of them stopped and gave a little whoop. She was a pretty, fresh-faced girl with a bandana covering wisps of red hair, and a T-shirt that said GEOFIND. She'd explained that they were looking for the foundations of an outbuilding that belonged to the fort. That was why she was surprised to find bones instead.
The supervisor came over with a tolerant look on his face and began to scrape with his trowel. But after a minute or two his expression grew worried and he stood up.
Even from where I stood I could tell the bones were human.
"I'll have to call the Park Service," he grumbled. When he realized we were staring, his jaw set. "And this area is really off-limits," he told us.
I nodded. I'd seen skeletons before; next to decomposing bodies, which there'd been plenty of in 'Nam, they were a pleasure. It was the sort of thing you never got out of your mind, even in the worst drunken stupor. Give me a pile of white bones any day.
"Probably an Indian," O'Rourke said as we walked back toward the beach.
"Or maybe a soldier," I suggested, remembering the ranger's lecture during our tour of the old fort. The first French explorers had anchored here, hence the name Ship Island. The fort, however, had been built later—started before the Civil War and completed afterward. It had been abandoned by the end of the last century, never having fired a shot, although some men had died here of fever. Only in this century had the island become a tourist attraction, first for recreational gambling in the thirties and forties, and then as a national park.
The last of the marsh grass brushed our bare legs and we came back out onto the beach. Ahead, stretching all the way to the west end of the island, was a blanket of bodies. Some lounged under beach umbrellas, listening to radios, and others splashed in the green waves. It was just after noon, when the heat was at its worst, and I was glad for the rubber thongs on my feet.
A nice beach, even with the throng of people, but I was already tired of it. It wasn't only the heat, or the occasional glances at the scars on my left arm, which hung at my side, useless: After this many years I was used to the stares. No, it was really Katherine.
We'd gone to Florida last year for a few days and it hurt to remember how happy we'd been. That was why I'd hesitated when O'Rourke had suggested Biloxi, but he'd insisted. I ought to get away, he said. Think about other things. Had I ever been to Ship Island and seen the old fort?
I had now, and I was still thinking about Katherine.
We plodded over the burning dune, weaving through the sea of torsos and legs. Why did I keep seeing her in the crowd?
We made our way to one of the wooden shelters the Park Service had obligingly provided, and bought some beer. We sat around on the benches until time for the last boat, at five. I had tried watching the faces, trying to figure what they were about, but it hadn't worked. I felt angry with myself. O'Rourke had tried and I had tried, but somehow I just hadn't been able to turn loose. So we tossed away our cups and joined the trickle of visitors who were slowly making their way back along the boardwalk toward the pier on the south side of the island.
A ranger with a sidearm watched us board the ferry that would take us to Biloxi, an hour and twenty minutes away. I wondered idly if the gun meant there was a dope problem. Then it was my turn and I stepped aboard and found a place along one rail.
For the first twenty-five minutes I watched more faces.
They were the same ones, mostly. A man and woman who were too furtive to be husband and wife; she kept looking around, nervous. I'd seen that look often back in the days when I'd been hungry enough to handle divorces. A trio of Cajuns, all drunk and having a good time and not much caring who knew it. A woman my age with a crew-cut boy who seemed incredibly young. I picked him for an airman on leave from Keesler, showing his mother around. If I kept looking I might even spot a pickpocket or two.
By this time I was too bored to care.
"I'll get us a beer," I said, and started for the service counter amidships.
But before I got there a hand reached out and touched my arm.
"Excuse me," she said.
I turned and saw the woman who'd found the bones.
"I wanted to apologize about Sam," she said. "He gets real officious when he's uptight."
I frowned and then nodded. Of course. Sam was her supervisor.
"It's okay," I said, and saw her eyes dart away from my arm. I wondered if she felt guilty about his having been brusque with a handicapped man. But I decided no, she wasn't that kind. I relaxed slightly.
"So who was he?" I asked. "An Indian or a soldier?"
She frowned and then smiled as she caught my meaning.
"Neither one. This looks much more recent, judging from the state of the bones and the fillings in the teeth."
She cocked her head slightly. "How do you know about amalgams? Are you a dentist?"
"No," I said, fishing one of my cards from my wallet. "An investigator. You pick up a few things like that. Amalgam fillings came around the turn of the century, I think. And the materials used in them have changed since then."
"That's right. He had some of those, and a gold wedding band."
"You think he drowned?" I asked, mildly curious.
She shook her head.
"Don't think so. Not with a hole that big in his forehead." She made an estimate with her thumb and index finger. "It came out in the occipital area."
"A bullet?" I asked.
She nodded. "I'd say a forty-five."
"That'll do it," I agreed.
"Of course, I could be wrong. But my work as a historic archaeologist brings me into contact with a lot of weapons and I'm pretty familiar with the main calibers." She screwed up her face so the freckles danced. "I guess it could've been a forty-one. But nobody used that caliber much between about 1900 and 1970."
It suddenly dawned on me what she was saying.
"You've got a murder, then," I said.
She nodded. "Right. We've notified the Park Service. Naturally, they've put a hold on our work until the FBI investigates. Federal preserve and all that. But until they finish we're out of work. That's why Sam was so agitated. It would've been bad enough if it'd been an Indian, but we could've just left the bones in place. A murder ..." She shook her head.
The man called Sam emerged from the crowd at the service counter and thrust a cup at her, but his hand halted halfway when he saw me.
"You were at the site," he accused.
"Well, I guess it doesn't matter now," he said bitterly, flopping down on one of the benches with his own cup of beer. "Might know we'd wait three months to get a decent contract and then some shit has to get himself killed in our unit."
He downed his beer with one gulp. I tried to feel sorry for him, but I thought maybe the man with the bullet hole deserved more sympathy.
"Sam, don't be an asshole," the girl said, and I realized that I'd been wrong and he wasn't her supervisor; he just acted like it.
"I'm sure it'll work out," I said.
I found the counter, got a couple of beers, and made my way back to O'Rourke. An hour later we were docking when I turned and saw the girl next to me, knapsack in one hand, Sam at her side.
"Good-bye," she said.
"Good-bye," I replied. "I hope you find out who your dead man is."
"He's been in the ground longer than I've been alive," Sam grunted. "So who cares now?"
I thought of the MIAs in Southeast Asia, and the families still waiting.
"You might be surprised," I said.
"I doubt it," he said, staggering out onto the pier with a sack of equipment.
And he was probably right, I thought, watching them walk away. People disappear all the time, and most of them don't have the aura of a noble cause.
Still, it was a hell of a place to end up.
Over the next week or so I forgot the bones and tried to lose myself in work. I went to Texas for four days to find a missing heir for a bank and then to Mississippi to check the bona fides of a man who had offered to raise a million dollars for a local charity. To my surprise, it turned out he was legimitate, which was the kind of outcome that usually left me feeling good in a game with too few happy endings. So why didn't I feel good now?
The answer was simple: I was still thinking about Katherine. We'd been apart a month now after being together for three years.
It was on the afternoon of the seventh day that I got the call.
"This is Carol Busby," she said, her voice slightly breathless. "We met the other day at Ship Island."
It took me a second, and then I made the connection. "The archaeologist," I said. "So have they identified your burial?"
"You haven't read the papers?" she asked.
"I've been out of town. Why?"
"His name is Max," she said. "Max Chantry. He was a lawyer who disappeared from New Orleans in 1949. It was a famous case then. That's kind of why I'm calling."
"Can you come to our office?"
I shrugged to myself. I didn't have anything else going right now. "Why not?"
She gave me the address. "It's uptown, between Broadway and Carrollton."
I knew the area: It was just off Carrollton, a neighborhood where you needed bars and alarms and a roving security patrol.
"I'll be there in half an hour," I told her. "By the way, how did they identify him? Was it the fillings and the ring?"
"Partly," she said and I sensed hesitancy. "There were some other things with the bones."
"Sort of," she said. "You see, he ..."
"Well, we didn't see it at first, because his lower half was covered, but when they worked down and uncovered the rest of him?"
I waited and then she said it, voice half-apologetic, as if I might take it personally:
"Well, he was missing a leg."CHAPTER 2
The office was a wooden frame structure across from a cemetery. I figured it had once been a mom-and-pop grocery, before the crime rate had soared. Now, heavy bars on the windows and a grille door told the same story I saw in the face of the old black man sitting on the steps of the shotgun next door. He watched me get out and shook his head. No good could result from a white man coming to a neighborhood like this.
I rattled the grille and the inner door opened.
"Oh, hi," she said, and turned the key from the inside to let me in. Fortress New Orleans, I thought, slipping into the cool interior.
"Rent was cheap here," she said, as if reading my thoughts. "And with the iron grilles, what can anybody do?" I looked around the room. It was cavernous, the only furniture a couple of desks and a lab table strewn with artifacts. I didn't tell her somebody with a cutting torch could be in and out in five minutes, with the computer.
"Where's your partner?" I asked, taking a basket chair under a slowly turning overhead fan.
"He had to do some research across the river," she said. "That's why I called you. Sam would pitch a fit if he knew you were here."
I took in her bronzed skin, and the cutoff jeans that showed her long legs, and I nodded.
"Jealous sort," I commented, as she sat down across from me.
"Kind of. He has this thing about control."
"I know the type," I said. "So what can I do for you? Surely the FBI and the Park Service have investigated this Max Chantry?"
"Oh, sure. I think they would've been glad to file it away and forget if it hadn't been for me. See, I sneaked a look at the ring on his finger before we had to leave the scene. It had an inscription: 'Max and Lydia.' I knew somebody had been waiting for him to come home and I couldn't stand the thought of him just being reburied in another unmarked grave."
She had my interest now. "So what did you do?"
"I called a friend at the Picayune and asked him how I ought to go about finding out who the man was. I thought maybe he could give me some names of people to talk to at the main newspapers in Louisiana and Mississippi. I figured with a first name and the fact he was missing a leg, maybe if I could get them to look through some old issues, ask some of their friends ..."
"And it worked?"
"Yeah. Turns out he didn't even have to call any friends. Somebody at the paper had done a series on unsolved cases a couple of years ago and he knew who it had to be. My friend dug out the story and sent me copies of the clippings. I passed them on to the FBI and they just acted like I was wasting their time."
"They hate to be shown up."
She made a face. "They hadn't even been able to get to first base with dental and medical records. Everything was missing or misplaced after so much time."
"It figures," I said. "Anyway, there aren't any commendations for solving killings too old to be prosecuted."
"So you decided to be your own policeman."
She shook her head. "Not exactly. I just couldn't stand the thought of him lying there all those years, forgotten. I was curious."
"So what did you find out?"
She reached over to the desk and handed me a photograph that had evidently been taken from a news clipping.
"This is a picture of him," she said.
I stared down at a young man in an army officer's uniform, his dark brows slightly furrowed, as though he were frowning at something. It was a handsome face, marred only by a slightly crooked nose. A far cry from the, bleached bones on the beach, I thought.
She took the photo back and handed me a folder.
"My friend did a good story for the Picayune when he was identified," she said. "It's in here."
I glanced down at the headline: FORTY-YEAR-OLD MYSTERY SOLVED.
"But all he could do," she went on, "was rehash what was in the old files: How Chantry'd been a political figure back then and disappeared. These say more." She handed me a sheaf of photocopies. "They're newspaper clippings from the time that my friend had made from the Picayune files."
I thumbed through the folder. "You've really gotten into this."
She screwed up her face. "History fascinates me. That's why I'm an archaeologist."
"So what did you find out?"
She leaned toward me in her chair.
"Max Chantry was a war hero. He lost his right leg in the war, then came back in 1945 and started practicing law. He took a case where the Mob and the City Hall crowd were trying to frame a man for some deaths and he won an acquittal. But somebody killed his client a few days later, and Chantry blamed the politicians. After that, all he could think about was reform. He got involved with the crowd that was trying to throw out the mayor and the others that were left over from the Huey Long era. He was running for D.A. in the 1949 election."
I nodded. My father, the Captain, was from that generation. All over the country young men had come home from the battlefields and decided they'd had enough of the old-style politics. In some states, war heroes had become congressmen, senators, governors. In New Orleans they'd elected one mayor.
It was easier then, because they had war heroes. When I came home from 'Nam it was different. I couldn't help but reflect that it must have been nice to have people smile when they saw your uniform and rows of medals.
"Let me guess," I said. "The machine faction wouldn't play dead."
She nodded. "It was in 1948, just a year before the election. See—" She held up one of the clippings and I read the lurid headline:
LOCAL ATTORNEY KILLED BY BOMB.
"That was his partner, Herbert Levinthal. Levinthal was driving Max's car but Max was in the office when it happened. He ran back out and tried to save Levinthal but it was too late."
I stared down at a grainy photo of a demolished car and my pulse quickened. I'd seen bombs explode in 'Nam and I'd seen what happened afterward. It wasn't pretty.
"So they were trying to get Chantry," I said. "I wonder why? I mean, usually politics isn't that hardball, not even around here. What did he have on them?"
She flipped to another clipping.
"This was before the bomb," she said. "You see this picture of Max?"
I squinted down at another picture of the dead man; in this one he was standing behind a podium with his hand raised. There was something in his hand.
"He's holding up a list," Carol explained. "It says he found the names of all the people at City Hall who were getting payoffs from the Mob. After the bombing everybody figured it was the list they were after."
Excerpted from The Last Man to Die by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 1992 Malcolm K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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