In Undercurrents, the eleventh Faye Longchamp Mystery, Faye has traveled to Memphis, a city steeped in music, poverty, history, and the smoky tang of barbecue. She's there working alone to do an assessment of a site, welcome work for her small archaeological consulting firm.
When Faye spies a child too young to be wandering along a creek alone, she follows the girl. A day later she uncovers a dying woman, buried alive near a spot where Kali might well be hiding. Nobody would blame Faye for running hard, but she can't make herself leave Kali, the woman's now orphaned daughter, who might be in danger. She's not welcomed by the people in Kali's struggling community, nor by the police working the crime. Yet she stays, for Kali, and for the bereaved who need her to communicate their fears to a police department that they trust even less than they trust Faye.
When they confide rumors of other women beaten to death by a man so obsessed with burial that he places fresh flowers in their cold hands, Faye begs the police to widen the investigation to seek a serial killer. They refuse. Faye's gut is telling her that a monster is stalking Memphis, endangering the child she has come to love. If the police can't catch him, then she will have no choice but to try to find him herself.
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He always loved the Madonna-like glow around a mother tending to her child. More than once, this glow had been the thing that called a woman to his attention.
He appreciated the way this mother's deep brown skin shone as she bent down close to a little face that was just as beautiful as hers. Her auburn braids cascaded around her face as she leaned in to hear her child's secrets. White teeth gleamed behind full lips that would have glistened even without the frosty pink gloss she wore. Earrings dangled like a hypnotist's shiny watch. Rings adorned every one of her fragile fingers.
He had been watching this mother with this child for a long time, longer than he'd ever stalked a woman. His attention had strayed, because certain needs must be met, but he always came back to her.
For her, he had broken every one of his rules. They lived mere blocks apart. He knew her name. She knew his. More to the point, the people who would be her survivors knew his name and they knew where he lived. He should have run from her as fast as his feet would take him, but he was transfixed by the graceful tilt of her head as she listened to everything her little girl had to say.
As the two of them neared the crosswalk, she held her hand out in the mother's universal signal of caution. The hand said, "You're too young to cross the street alone." Or perhaps it said, "You're old enough to cross the street alone now, but hold mine, please. I feel safer when you do." Something about the way the child took her mother's hand made him think that the balance was already shifting, years too soon. Perhaps the mother was the one who needed someone steady to look after her.
There was no wedding ring. He always checked for those.
He could have done it, then and there. Nobody could be easier to grab than a woman with a child in tow. Come within an arm's length of the child, flash a knife, grab a wrist, and you were in control. That's where he liked to be, in control.
This woman knew him well. Getting close enough to seize the wrist would be easier than it had ever been, because she knew him. Or she thought she did.
He said her name out loud, again: "Frida."
He liked the taste of it. It vibrated on his lips in the same way that her wrist would pulse against his palm.
Grabbing a woman's wrist was always his first move and, in many ways, it was his favorite moment. There was always a tremble of fear there, playing counterpoint to her rocketing pulse. There was a cold clamminess, too. A hard yank on the wrist could bring her close enough for him to smell her sweat in the very instant that a surge of adrenaline gave the scent a top note of fear. A harder yank could sprain the wrist, dislocate the elbow, sometimes even snap the arm, but he had to wait for that. Until they were alone and no one could hear, he couldn't afford to loose the hungry dog of his desire.
Mother and child crossed the street, hand in hand, and he enjoyed watching them go. The mother had long, slender legs beneath a short skirt that was silky enough to enhance the curves beneath. The daughter's legs were short and sturdy beneath her athletic shorts, but that would change. She was her mother's image made over. In two years, maybe three, she would be as delectable and he would be waiting. Once he'd broken his rules for her mother, he might as well break them for her too.
He let them walk out of sight, but it would be a mistake to say that he let them go. He had decided that they were among the chosen, and this was not a decision that he had ever reversed. The mother was ripe now and the daughter would be soon. They could walk away from him, but they could not escape him.
He knew where they lived.
The slow-moving creek carried a thick layer of olive-green algae. Faye Longchamp-Mantooth shuffled along, using her feet to feel her way along a sandy bottom that she couldn't see. Tainted water lapped at sandy banks littered with beer cans, crumpled plastic grocery bags, and an occasional whitewall tire. Anything that had ever been cast aside by anyone in Memphis, or even in most of west Tennessee, could theoretically be hiding under the scum, so she stepped carefully.
She was wearing boots that were water-resistant, but not watertight, and she'd been slogging along this creek for nearly half an hour, so its blood-warm water now saturated her socks. Her shirt clung to her ribs. Even her bra was sweat-soaked. She was mildly miserable, but she couldn't quit now. To quit would be to admit that a little girl was tougher than she was.
She was far behind the girl, just close enough to catch sight of her every five minutes or so. The child couldn't be more than ten, yet she moved in the world like someone who had never been dogged by a protective adult urging her to be careful. There was no question that she knew this creek. Faye had quickly learned to pay attention when her quarry made a random move, stepping deeper into the water than Faye would have expected or crawling up the bank to take a detour that seemed unnecessarily strenuous. When Faye reached the jumping-off points for those odd detours, she inevitably found out the reasons for making them.
Once, a deep hole, hidden by the algae and muck, claimed her leg all the way up to the butt cheek. She'd waited in that hole several minutes, until she was sure the girl was too far away to hear her splash and flail her way out of it. Another time, she'd tripped over a submerged television and barely missed slicing her calf on the exposed shards of an ancient cathode ray tube. Faye had collected ample proof that the girl knew this creek intimately, miles of it. This was despite the fact that, if Faye had been her mother, she would have been years away from receiving permission to leave the back yard alone.
When a culvert came into view, Faye crawled up onto the high bank to get a better look at it. She saw a concrete pipe, maybe four feet across, marking the point where the creek was almost blocked by the bed of a busy road. The pipe throttled the creekwater into a narrower, swifter flow.
Faye hoped that the girl had traveled as far as she intended to go. She didn't want to see her wade into the culvert's fast-moving water, deep enough to splash the hem of her skimpy red shorts. Faye had been following those shorts for nearly a mile, but she'd been keeping her distance. There had been times when the only signs of her quarry were occasional glimpses of their faded crimson through the underbrush.
Why was she doing this, anyway? It had been three days since Faye had first noticed the child hiding in a shady clearing atop the creekbank that loomed over her worksite. Every day since, the little girl had been up there before Faye arrived, ready to roll up her sleeves and do some archaeology. Shortly before noon each day, Faye had seen her creep quietly through the trees lining the bluff, skirting the creek until she believed she was out of Faye's sight. Each day, she returned more than two hours later, closer to three, and waded out of the water at a spot where the creek bluff dipped down to a manageable height. This happened far enough from the spot where Faye worked that the child probably believed that she'd gone unnoticed.
But this had been a tactical error. She'd underestimated Faye, who had also spent her childhood outdoors, albeit in safer places and supervised by an adult. Whenever the girl passed by on the bluff above her, Faye heard the soft footsteps and the rustle of disturbed underbrush. Even the faint splish of small feet stepping into running water was obvious to Faye.
After the girl disappeared downstream on the first day, Faye had listened for the barely audible splashes to fade. Then, certain the child was gone, Faye had climbed up the bluff and checked out her hiding place.
The little girl's stash of treasures was eclectic. Faye found a neat pile of magazines that looked like a sampling of convenience store stock — three issues of Guns and Ammo, a real estate circular, two issues of Car and Driver, and a dog-eared copy of People so old that the cover featured Paris Hilton. She'd also found a cache of pretty-colored stones and a fistful of dried-up yellow water lilies.
There was lots of trash corralled in a plastic bag pinned down by a rock. Faye had admired this act of unchildlike tidiness. Then, because archaeologists are fascinated by trash, Faye had followed her instincts and peeked in the bag.
It was filled with food wrappers, which was no surprise, but Faye hadn't expected the wrappers to lean more toward real food than toward candy and gum. The girl's unkempt hair and too-small clothing had led Faye to assume that she was neglected, but somebody was making sure she ate granola bars, peanuts, and canned fruit. Why wasn't she eating it at home instead of hiding from the July sun in the patchy shade of a copse of water oaks? Was she homeless? Did she live here, outside and alone?
No, that was impossible. There had barely been room in the gap in the trees to sit, much less to lie down and sleep, and there had been no possessions beyond the tattered magazines. This was not the hideout of someone with nowhere else to go.
This line of reasoning made Faye reasonably sure that the child had a home, but was there someone waiting there to take care of her? She studied the girl, far ahead of her in the creek. By her best guess, she was looking at two-days-since-somebody-fixed-it hair, which is a far cry from the hair of a ten-year-old living alone. Some of the braids were starting to fray, but most of the multicolored plastic barrettes still held. A lot of kids' hair looked like that in the summertime.
Where was she going?
On the first day she laid eyes on the child, Faye had stayed at her work, digging with her trowel in the damp creekside sand and watching the girl trek downstream. Hours later, her spying had been rewarded with the sight of a wet, tired child sneaking back toward her cozy nest. Hours after that, she'd seen her stand and fade into the woods again, this time walking away from the water. Faye had presumed she was going to a home where she had a bed and someone to look after her, but she would have liked to be sure.
The second day had been just like the first day, with the girl spending part of the morning hiding in the woods, leaving for a while, then returning to lurk until late afternoon. The big difference was that Faye hadn't been alone. She'd had a witness to help her watch the child skulk through the underbrush.
She'd wanted to follow her then, but her witness hadn't hesitated to say, "You're nuts."
This was rather bold of him, since she was the one who'd be signing his paychecks. Faye had hired Jeremiah Hamilton as her assistant more for his local knowledge than for his decent-but-not-exceptional archaeological expertise.
Jeremiah was in his late twenties. He held a master's in anthropology, and he was now a third-year doctoral student, but, more importantly, he had grown up in a house that stood less than a mile from their worksite in Sweetgum State Park.
Jeremiah's local knowledge was inarguable. His archaeological knowledge wasn't nearly as extensive, but he thought it was. Jeremiah was one of those people who really liked to explain things to his boss, and he liked to do it carefully and thoroughly. He was probably just trying to impress her, or maybe he just liked to hear himself talk, but it felt like he was doing it just in case she turned out to be stupid.
"Why are you worried about this particular little girl?" he'd asked as the girl in question traipsed out of sight. "Do you know how dangerous this neighborhood can be? And do you know how many little girls live in it? If she's really been sitting up there eating snacks and reading all summer, she might be better off than most of them."
No, Faye didn't know how many little girls lived nearby.
She also didn't feel qualified to judge who was better off than whom, and she didn't think Jeremiah was qualified, either. She did know she didn't like Jeremiah's suggestion that she shouldn't worry about one little girl's safety unless she was prepared to make sure all little girls were safe. Since it had been her first day as his boss, she hadn't said, "That's a logical fallacy," out loud. She'd merely shot him an eye roll that said it for her.
Jeremiah might have been an annoying know-it-all, but he'd seen the eye roll and backed down. Nevertheless, Faye had known what he was thinking. It was as clear as if he'd spoken out loud.
You're an outsider, Dr. Longchamp-Mantooth, and you should mind your own business.
Jeremiah was going to need recommendation letters for post-docs and faculty positions soon. It would help his case if he learned to be more diplomatic with the people who could write them for him. Faye had held her tongue and changed the subject.
On this, the third day of her new project, Jeremiah had gone to the university to oversee the final day of training for their crew. This was the last day Faye could anticipate working alone for the duration of the project, and she was done with being a passive spy. It was time to find out where the little girl went every day. Making sure a child was safe just seemed like the right thing to do, despite what Jeremiah, the judgmental local expert, had to say.
In the end, Faye's reason for going after the girl was a simple one. She was curious. Curiosity had gotten her into trouble before, but it had also taken her on some adventures.
Being her own boss had its virtues. If she wanted to take a long lunch and spend a couple of unpaid hours slogging down this creek, nobody could stop her. Thus, her curiosity had brought her to this moment, standing in a murky creek and staring at the round dark opening of a culvert.
Crouched behind a stand of cattails, uncomfortable and wet, Faye wondered why she hadn't just called out, "Hey! Little girl! Can I talk to you? Do you mind telling me where you're going?"
Deep down, Faye knew that a direct question would have left her looking at the back of a child who was running away, fast. The child's furtive glances and smooth, silent movements said that she was cautious and that she had good reason to be.
As Faye watched, her quarry walked with purpose toward the culvert, which protruded from its bed at an alarming cant. Stooping her head as she approached it, she didn't slow down.
Dang. She was going in.
Faye watched her wade into deepening water that was opaque with the goop washed off the streets of a major city, not to mention the excess fertilizer applied to the green lawns of Memphis. The water lapped at scrawny brown thighs and faded red shorts as the child strode into the culvert and disappeared.
Cursing herself for her inability to leave a question unanswered, Faye stepped into the sunlight and waded toward the culvert. She could feel the current tugging at her calves, her knees, her thighs. She wished wholeheartedly that she hadn't worn full-length pants with heavy cargo pockets that dragged her down even more than the sodden pants did, but she plunged on.
At five feet nothing, Faye rarely had reason to think, "I'm too tall," but the culvert succeeded in planting that thought in her head. Bending her knees and leaning forward, she was able to enter standing up, though she had to work hard to keep her breasts and belly dry. With both hands holding her phone out of the water, she plunged ahead.
Putting her face so close to the scummy water forced her to acknowledge that it didn't smell very good, but it was too late to turn back. She shuffled her feet through the silt on the concrete bottom of the pipe and made her way slowly, allowing plenty of time for the little girl to stay ahead of her.
The rough concrete undersurface of the culvert dragged against her back, but it kept her oriented in the dark. She knew she wouldn't have to go far in this condition, hunched over and mostly blind, probably just the width of a two-lane road. Still, the light on the other side looked very far away. She headed for it, single-minded in her desire to forget about the smell and the unidentified squishy things under her feet. Soon enough, she stepped into the light ...
... and fell into waist-deep water.
She twisted as she fell, because it was imperative that she land butt-first, keeping her phone overhead in both outstretched hands. She'd opted for the waterproof case, but still.
Excerpted from "Undercurrents"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Anna Evans.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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