READ A SAMPLE


Death in Living Gray

by

John Clayton


Chapter 1

Damn. Damn it all,” I screamed, thinking “Damn Henry too,” for telling me that the floor would support the weight. I don’t remember exactly what happened, except that I probably jumped on top of the sofa as it began to fall, so it wouldn’t pin me underneath. The next thing I knew, I was kneeling on one of the metal seats with pains running up from my kneecaps to the top of my head, staring up at Henry’s coffee-colored face peering down at me through the hole in the basement ceiling. It wasn’t Henry’s fault that the living room floor had gotten weak in its old age. It’s just that Henry Adams, the local blacksmith and my sometime welding mentor, knew how to do just about everything around a house or barn. So I’d taken his word that we wouldn’t need to put extra bracing under the floor. And now I was perched on top of four hundred pounds of iron sofa that should have been sitting in front of the fireplace one story above.

Getting up, I was testing my knees slowly when Henry shouted, “Look out, Prudence!” Now Prudence is my name, but Henry never used it, because it was too familiar, and he never said Mrs. Abernathy, because it would have been too obsequious. He compromised by never calling me anything. Until now. So I knew he meant it. The bricks at the top of the fireplace were beginning to peel off. Forgetting my aching body, I leapt back, all the time watching the bricks, in seeming slow motion, one by one, and then in clumps, fall free from the face of the chimney and land on the spot that I had just vacated.

The dislodging of the bricks from the front of the fireplace caused the whole mantel and the narrow built-in wooden bookcases on each side to fall away, exposing the “secret” compartment at the right side of the fireplace. I wasn’t supposed to know it was there, but that’s where my husband, Jack Senior, used to hide his good brandy back when the Abernathy clan still lived here and he could afford to buy good brandy. I used to borrow a nip for myself once in a while when things got a little out of hand. It was especially good in the winter when the almost continuous fire in the fireplace kept it at just the right temperature.

After the bricks had finally stopped falling, I moved slowly onto the pile of debris, looking up at the remaining three walls of the chimney, trying to figure out what to do first: brace the floor or the bricks above the fireplace. Suddenly my upturned face was pelted by a spray of dust and dirty old rags falling out of the secret compartment, causing me to curse the housekeeping practices of my husband’s ancestors—until I realized that I was really pretty lucky for me that it wasn’t more bricks. As I picked some of the rags from my shoulders and tossed them onto the sofa, I could feel that they were actually gray wool fabric. But more important than that, some of the rags were wrapped around bones. In fact, one of the bones that fell directly onto the sofa wasn’t covered with cloth at all. And it was shaped pretty much like a human skull.

As calmly as I could, I called up to Henry that a skeleton was falling out of the fireplace. That he should call Jack Senior—try Jezebel’s Bar—and Sheriff Overhouse—and anybody else he could find at home if he thought it would help.

***

People were putting pieces of bone and cloth into little plastic bags, labeling them carefully—I supposed so they could try to reconstruct the configuration as it had been in the secret compartment. The sheriff was over talking to Jack Senior just like it’d been my husband who discovered the bones, but then the house belonged to him, or rather it belonged to his mother, Victoria Abernathy. On the other hand, it wasn’t really her house anymore, since she had rented it out to make ends meet. Victoria, Jack Senior, and I had had to move over to the little white frame tenant house, which was barely big enough for the three of us.

Sheriff Overhouse turned and approached me slowly, twisting his broad brim hat in his hands, his ruddy complexion becoming redder, probably at the thought of dealing with a hysterical woman. But I wasn’t hysterical. So far, I had been calm and collected. But nobody knew that except Henry Adams, and right then he was outside stabilizing the chimney by hooking an old horse collar around the worn bricks and tying it off to the oak tree in the side yard, the weeping willow in the front near the creek and the magnolia out back.

“Now you just relax, Miz Abernathy, and tell me just what happened here. If you can, that is.” The sheriff kept on twisting the hat and got even redder in the face. Lou Overhouse was as honest as they get in these parts but he only kept getting elected because an Overhouse had always been Sheriff in Mason County. Lou got by because there wasn’t much crime around here, and even when there was a small transgression, everybody generally knew who did it. Of course, that was before the commuters started moving in to escape urban violence but bringing with them all the new problems of white-collar criminality. I doubted that the sheriff was up to dealing with the emerging world and, in fact, the commuters were pushing to get a real police department—which would be a shame, because there was something comforting about Lou’s bumbling.

So I helped him along. “The floor gave way. And then the chimney,” I explained. That sounded a bit weak, so I started with how six months before a young couple named Midge and Bill Taylor had rented the house for a year to see if they liked the country and the commute to Washington and they had seen a tractor sofa in my shop/barn over between the manor and the tenant house and wanted me to make them one, and, as the sheriff knew, that was what I did for part of my living—make “junk” furniture out of old tractor parts for the technocrats who were beginning to commute from Mason County to their big important jobs in the Washington metropolitan area. And so with the help of Henry Adams, I had welded one together, but we had miscalculated either the weight of the sofa or the strength of the floor and it had fallen through, creating a chain reaction whereby the facing of the fireplace and the mantel had fallen into the hole along with me, and fortunately no one was hurt, but a bunch of old bones and cloth had fallen out on top of me. So we did the right thing and called the county law enforcement authority, namely him. Pretty succinct, I thought.

At least the sheriff had become less florid. “And you never saw the deceased before?”

Well, the deceased was pretty unrecognizable, but I answered anyway, “No, I never saw a Confederate soldier in this living room except for Jack Senior before the Confederate Memorial Day Ball over at Mr. Pickerill’s, and as you can see, he’s here, alive.”

All of which was lost on Sheriff Overhouse. “Then I don’t suppose you know how he got into the chimney,” he said. His forehead wrinkled a bit. “How do you know he was a Confederate soldier?”

“The gray wool cloth, for one thing, and you must have the same idea since you called him a he.” There were only a very few women running around posing as men during the war or even in the present reenactments, so the probabilities were strongly in favor of it being a man. 

The sheriff looked thoughtful, “Maybe. But that means he’s been there almost one hundred and fifty years. We’ll have to wait for the forensic report on that.” He drew up, and trying his best to be official, said, “Well, don’t leave town, and could you send Henry Adams in so I can talk to him?”

I looked through the window at Henry tying a rope to the willow in the front yard and screaming at his helper, Stuart, up on the roof, to make sure that there was no slack. Noting that none of the deputies had offered to help with shoring up the fireplace, I suggested, “It would be safer for you to talk to Henry outside, since he’s pretty busy. Maybe you can help him pull the rope taut.”

The sheriff peered through the front door, called his deputy, Weevil Tuttle, to help with the rope, and then trooped across the front porch, for once not twisting his hat—mostly because he’d plopped it down hard on his head.

The forensic team continued to dust and photograph and collect, apparently   unperturbed by the possibility of the rest of the chimney falling in on them.

***

But about a half an hour later, I decided that they must have been aware of the danger because they had waited until Henry tied the chimney off before risking a foray inside the fireplace. Two specialists had crawled in to fingerprint the boards that had remained in situ after the crash. From where I stood, it looked as if they were just dusting the little bracing boards that were nailed into the cement between the bricks about halfway up. The boards must have held the shelf, which was the bottom of the upper half of the secret compartment and which formed the divider between the upper and lower parts. It looked like the only way to get into the lower half was to push the little iron lever inside the fireplace, open the door to the upper part, and remove the shelf. A shiver ran through my stomach as I realized I’d been nipping from a bottle that was stored just above a rotting body. But, by then the body was probably already a skeleton and the bottle contained a mild disinfectant. That helped a little. The rest of the forensic team, having finished their work, put the bones in a big box and loaded it into the back of the ambulance, which somebody had called in case the person might be still alive.

That thought brought back the shiver and I turned away, my eyes looking for something familiar to grasp, latching out of instinct onto Jack Senior in the dining room. He was explaining the situation to his mother who just returned from a game of bridge with her friends from the Daughters of the American Revolution, generally abbreviated DAR by its pedigreed members.

I could see her through the door, sitting on a side chair, wringing her handkerchief and complaining solidly that this would never have happened if Uncle George Ebenton hadn’t been killed in the war—that he had had all the brains in the family. It was somewhere close to the millionth time I had heard her say that since I married Jack Senior thirty years ago and moved here from California. 

And for about the half-millionth time, Jack Senior muttered that if Uncle George Ebenton had not been killed, then she, Victoria Abernathy, née Ebenton, would not have inherited the manor. From listening to the exchange, and knowing the ages of the participants, one might have assumed that Uncle George Ebenton had died in the Second World War. But that was not the case, as it had taken me about a year after my marriage to figure out: Major George Ebenton had been reported missing in action on July 3, 1863, after following some general named Pickett up some damned hill. He had married just before the war and had no children. The manor and about four hundred acres had devolved on his brother, John, Victoria’s great-grandfather, and had remained in the family through the male line until Victoria, who had no siblings, brought the estate in marriage to Carter Ball Abernathy, whose life, death, or other circumstances were never mentioned in the family. Victoria had one son named for her great-grandfather John, but everybody always called him Jack. When our son was born we called him Jack Junior, so John just naturally evolved to Jack Senior.

Victoria had always held Uncle George Ebenton up as a paragon of virtue, and maintained that things would never be quite right again since the South had lost the War Between the States (Civil War for those readers from above the Mason-Dixon Line). And judging by Jack’s and my personal finances, they never would be. But it did get tiresome, particularly those sudden outbursts where you didn’t have enough forewarning to turn off your listening.

Suddenly Victoria’s lamentation was overwhelmed by a hubbub from around the fireplace. The sheriff was picking his way over the kneeling workers to where the head forensic guy was kneeling down carefully emptying a bag onto the boards next to the hole in the floor.

He held up a glittering sparkling object, about ten inches long. Everybody stood up and just looked. Everybody that is but Victoria who had pushed her way through to a position in front of Sheriff Overhouse. There was silence. Even from across the room, I recognized what it was: a diamond bracelet, part of the jewelry that had been stolen from Mr. Pickerill’s house about the time of the Confederate Ball last May, almost a year ago. The burglar had taken the jewels from a safe hidden in a nightstand in the master bedroom. Although the total value was about one and a half million, this bracelet was worth only around seventy-five thousand. Pictures of all of the pieces had been displayed at length in the local newspapers. The Sheriff’s Department had made multiple rounds of the county looking for leads. Somebody had made an anonymous phone call alleging that I had taken the jewels while working over at Mr. Pickerill’s, so they made a real job of searching the manor house and my shop—mostly, I guess, because they didn’t have any other leads. They didn’t find anything.

The locals had been augmented by a team from the Greystone Insurance Company that had systematically covered all the same ground that the sheriff had. But the case was still open. At least, I assumed it was open, since there had been no announcement of the jewels having been found, in spite of the fifty thousand dollar reward that Mr. Pickerill had offered.

I craned my neck. The forensic man was carefully turning the bag inside out. Nothing. A second guy inside the fireplace called out that there didn’t appear to be anything else hidden in the secret compartment.

Well, we’d found part of Mr. Pickerill’s hoard—the only bad thing was that it was hidden along with a dead Confederate soldier in the Abernathy fireplace.

***

 

The forensic team had unloaded all their equipment for a second time and was carefully tearing up the floor around the hearth. Sheriff Overhouse had already called Mr. Pickerill to come and formally identify the jewels, although they looked pretty much like the photographs that had been circulated last year. Jack Senior, Victoria, and I were on the other side of the room, talking to the sheriff.

 “Must have been somebody dressed as a soldier at the last Confederate Day Ball,” the sheriff mumbled at Jack Senior, casting only a halfway sideways glance at me, twisting his hat again since he was inside and felt obligated to take it off. “Maybe he was hiding Mr. Pickerill’s jewels in here.”

“But then why would he be in there with them?” It was better for Jack Senior to ask, since I was keeping a low profile, hoping that the sheriff would forget about the anonymous tip. My husband and Lou Overhouse had been classmates at the local high school before Jack Senior went off to the University of Virginia and Lou did two years of law enforcement at the local junior college. Still, they had more in common with each other than they did with commuters—or with me, for that matter.

“And who killed him?” Victoria asked. “Did he get shot and then crawl into the hiding place? Nobody’s ever used that compartment for anything. Even in the War Between the States, Uncle George Ebenton had all the silver hidden under a plowed field because all the rows looked alike—that is, unless you had a map. Uncle George was pretty smart that way.” Victoria, who brought the family history up on every possible occasion, apparently didn’t know about Jack Senior’s brandy. 

“Maybe he had an accomplice. They met here to divide the jewels and the accomplice killed him, stuffed him in the compartment, and left the bracelet by mistake.” The sheriff made what appeared to be a wild guess, but he was looking around at me to see if it hit a nerve. It looked like he hadn’t forgotten the tip.

While I was trying to shrink out of mind, Victoria asked, “Then why didn’t he take all the jewels? It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Maybe they had a fight outside and the wounded perpetrator ran in here to hide—bringing the bracelet with him just because he happened to be holding it,” the sheriff suggested—another leading guess. This time he was looking at Jack Senior, who was staring at the floor cogitating.

At this point, I really wanted to ask how a live human could compress himself through the door into the top and then wiggle down into the bottom. The section of the bookcase that swung out when you pushed a little lever was only about two and a half feet high by two feet wide. Of course he could have taken the shelf out, but then how did he know the bottom of the top half was just a shelf? Even then it would have taken quite a gyration since the bottom of the opening was chest high. I suppose a corpse could have been stuffed into the top, but even that maneuver would have been hard.

But I didn’t want to raise the issue aloud and let slip that I’d known about the compartment for years. I know that’s odd, but there were some things my husband and I never talked about, and his hidden brandy was one of them. So I didn’t say anything and focused my mind on getting the sheriff to raise the issue.

But my mental telepathy didn’t work. The sheriff was listening attentively as Jack Senior, without raising his head, spoke to the sheriff, causing the latter to lean forward too. “I don’t see how that would be possible. Mother and I were the only people who knew about that compartment,” my husband explained quietly, “unless of course some of Mother’s second or third cousins heard about it from their grandparents.”

The sheriff didn’t acknowledge the camaraderie of a shared secret, but looked up at Jack Senior firmly, all the while twisting his hat. “Then, what it comes down to is that some person or persons stole the jewels, killed an accomplice or witness, put the body in there, and accidentally left the bracelet in the excitement. He or they would have had to know about the compartment.” The sheriff didn’t belabor the point: his implication was pretty clear: it had to have been one of the Abernathys. But he was even-handed. “We’ll make inquiries to see if anybody saw anything unusual around here back at the time of the ball. And if you’ll give us a list, we’ll check with your cousins to see if any of them are missing.”

***

J. Augustus Pickerill, III, was an unimpressive sight: short, skinny with curly reddish hair shot with gray. He’d just arrived with his bleached blond and svelte wife, Cassandra, in his bleached blond and svelte Mercedes driven by his bleached blond but not so svelte butler cum chauffeur, Maurice. They said around here that Pickerill’s looks were deceiving because he’d made a lot of money on Wall Street and then bought the old Whitaker Place over on the other side of the county seat just after he had acquired Cassandra from Brooklyn by way of Hollywood. That’s what some said. Others claimed that he made his money wholesaling sauerkraut in New York City; some said that he was old New England money and went to Yale; and still others that he was mob connected. But the latter guess was probably due to the appearance of Maurice, who looked like an evil albino bodyguard in a kung fu movie.

Nobody knew anything much for sure except that when he got here Pickerill made a big social splash, giving money for a wing on the county hospital and holding an annual Confederate Memorial Day Ball on the first Friday night after May 31. Five years before, just after he had renovated the main floor of the old Whitaker Place, he invited all the wealthier white people in Mason County to come in period costume. The locals probably would never have worked themselves up to put on such a ball but they were never wont to turn down a free drink––so they attended en masse, the men dressed up as majors or colonels even though most of their ancestors were privates. Mr. Pickerill hadn’t invited any of the black members of the community, but Henry Adams took it upon himself to come anyway, dressed as General Lee, complete with white beard—putting on whitey it used to be called. Some of the local gentry objected––it was a desecration of a holy memory––but others thought it was pretty funny, especially those who thought that there was nothing holy about the desecration of the land brought on by the war. It didn’t hurt that Henry, in his capacity as blacksmith, kept the gentry’s expensive horses walking. So the ice was broken. The annual party became an open house and anyone could come as long as they wore a period costume. Some of the commuters even came in the Yankee uniforms of their forebears. But Henry was the only Black since most of the others had outgrown the art of getting what they wanted with jokes. Relations between the races in Mason County were semi-tolerable as long as whites didn’t mention the Confederacy or blackface minstrel humor.

“What you got?” J. Augustus shouted at the sheriff as he strode past me from one of the back doors of the car. Maurice was slowly ambling around to open the door on the other side for Cassandra when suddenly the two Dobermans, which were riding in the front passenger’s seat, started a cacophony of barking that drowned out everything. Maurice jumped away from the car, but J. Augustus walked back a few steps and put his hand in a sort of horizontal position. The dogs shut up immediately. He’d gotten the pair a couple of months before and liked to carry them around just so he could show off his prowess in controlling them. He swung back toward the sheriff and said, “Well?” as if it hadn’t been his dogs that had interrupted the proceedings.

Sheriff Overhouse pulled the bracelet from his briefcase, still wrapped in its protective plastic bag, and walked down the steps from the porch where we had all been waiting. He was holding the bag up in the light so it could be seen better by Mr. Pickerill, who immediately reached out to grab it.

The sheriff pulled it back, muttering, “Fingerprints.”

Pickerill started to protest, his hand poised in midair, and then smiled, nodding his head. “Of course, of course. That’s certainly mine. I could tell from a mile away. But where’re the rest? The diamond tiara, the ruby bracelet, and the sapphire brooch that was my mother’s, and all those little rings. His hand was inching up to reach for the bag again, so the sheriff slid quietly back out of range.

“That’s all we found, Mr. Pickerill,” he said, trying but failing to twist his hat using the hand not holding the bag. So, since he was outside, even in front of a voter, he sat it squarely on his head. “We’re going to tear up more of the floorboards now—looking for the rest.”

“Be sure you do!” Mr. Pickerill snorted. “That tiara was my wife’s favorite, as well as being worth a half million. Isn’t that right, Cassie?” He looked for confirmation to the blond fantasy slowly walking up from the back of the car.

Cassandra was inspecting her scarlet fingernails, which were in violent but complementary contrast to the black leotard that she was wearing. “Yeah, I really liked that.” I always thought she should be chewing bubble gum while she talked. But actually her vices of that type were confined to smoking cigarillos after dinner. Still, she always managed to make my skin crawl something like fingernails on an old-fashioned blackboard. Maybe it was because the ebony tights were really just an exercise outfit in which she had not one lump of body out of place. If I tried to wear something like that, I’d look like a black hearse with mumps.

Mr. Pickerill nodded over toward the forensic crew. “I see that you’ve called in the state police to take over the investigation.”

“Oh, they’re just doing the lab work. We’ll handle the actual investigation with our own staff,” the sheriff said.

“I thought that since they’re here already they might as well lend a hand,” Mr. Pickerill persisted

“Mason County pays good money to the Virginia state police to do the forensic work, but they can’t just run in and take over anytime they want.” The sheriff started to take his hat off, then thought better of it.

Actually, I was thinking the same thing as Mr. Pickerill. The only violent death that the sheriff had to deal with was the result of a bar brawl or a hunting accident. He wasn’t really equipped for a mysterious body, hidden in unclear circumstances. After all, he hadn’t done real well on finding Mr. Pickerill’s missing jewels.

Jack Senior supported the old boy network, however. “I think Sheriff Overhouse has the capability to find out what happened. After all, he’s been elected by the people of Mason County five times,” he said.

The sheriff nodded without making any obvious show of appreciation.

Mr. Pickerill opened his mouth, closed it and then opened it again, “That’s nice for you to say, but after all it’s your house where my jewels were found.” He stared at Jack Senior, the house, and then at me. “Maybe you have something to gain by sloppy police work.”

While the sheriff had implied in private that he thought we could have been involved, an outsider like Mr. Pickerill was not allowed that presumption. But this was a rich voter, so he calmly explained, “Let’s not draw hasty conclusions until all the facts are in, and the first fact will be the result of the autopsy done under the supervision of the state police—just like you want.”

Mr. Pickerill looked peeved. “If you have made no progress in two weeks I’ll call my Congressman. Those jewels were very important to my family.” He included his blond wife in a sweep of his arm and retreated toward the back of the car. Maurice, who had been resting on the front right fender of the Mercedes, staring at his fingernails, slipped off to hold the back door open for Cassandra—who floated onto the back seat while casting a vacant smile all around.

The car slowly turned around in the drive, allowing the Dobermans in the front seat a sweeping view of the property, and crept out to the highway, fading into the distance—between a school bus and a truck full of locally grown Virginia turkeys.


Chapter 2

We could always sell the pasture that runs right up to the barn,” Jack Senior said. “Les Dixon said he’d buy it in a minute.” He was groping for an easy out as we sat in the kitchen because Victoria was in the living room playing Tuesday Morning Bridge with her DAR cronies.

“The only problem is that we need that much to be a farm,” I said, explaining something that he already knew. “So the zoning people will let me use the old barn as a shop.” You’ve got to have over twenty acres to be a real farm. If we sold the field, it would put Victoria’s land at under ten. Then I’d have to go round and round about using our residence as a retail and construction shop. Of course that wouldn’t have mattered even five years ago, but the newly arrived commuters wanted to protect the environment just as they had found it and the board of supervisors, knowing where the next vote was coming from, was going along with all the new zoning restrictions.

Jack Senior nodded mutely, staring into his coffee cup. Our manor house tenants, Bill and Midge had found a new development only halfway from Washington where the builder had promised to keep the trees and leave a lot of green area. They were moving out in the morning leaving us with a big hole in the floor and no rental income.

We were too tired for recriminations. The cost to fix the house had been estimated. Even with Henry Adams working for free because he felt guilty about miscalculating the strength of the floor, and paying Stuart’s low wages, the cost of the repairs was going take all the rent we would have gotten for the next year. And now we didn’t have that. Jack Senior was quiet, trying to figure out how to keep on philandering without saying it aloud. That was one of the things we didn’t talk about. And he knew that I had to keep something in reserve for the shop. They were funds he couldn’t touch. That was something else we didn’t talk about. Unlike many couples, we didn’t have fights about money. We just didn’t talk about it. And we made do. Over the years since I moved here, Victoria, who actually owns the old farm place, had sold off three hundred seventy of the original four hundred acres, unfortunately not waiting to get the boom caused by the influx of commuters. So we had thirty acres left including the old manor house, which we were now forced to rent out, the tenant house where we lived and the old barn where I had my shop and part-time retail antique establishment. We would make do again. Just like always. Without talking. Because I didn’t have the guts to scream.

Jack Senior picked up his summer weight plaid sport coat and said, “I’m off to lunch. See what’s cooking around Mason County.”

“Jezebel’s?” I asked.

As he swung open the kitchen door to avoid his mother, who was coming back from the living room after saying goodbye to her bridge cronies at the front door, he turned and muttered, “The River Bend Restaurant is the sociopolitical center of Mason County. And I’ve told you a thousand times, the owner’s name is not Jezebel. Her name’s Delilah, Delilah Jones.”

***

Jack Senior closed the door softly as he left. No slamming in anger. Always the gentleman.

I could not see how a man with his talents could be so at loose ends. When I married him, he was a lawyer: UVA law school. Then about fifteen years ago there was a misplaced trust fund. I don’t to this day believe that he did it on purpose. Just massive inattention to detail and a few easy corners to cut. No criminal charges were filed but it got him disbarred. Right afterwards, he just sat and stared at nothing. “Give me a little time,” he said, “to get my head together.” Well, it’s been a decade and a half, and all he ever tried was an occasional harebrained get-rich-quick scheme—nothing either profitable or too terribly costly: just pointless.

So Victoria had sold off pieces of land to pay expenses, including sending my two kids to college. I helped her make a little extra from the antiques in the manor house, though in truth most of them weren’t real antiques—just reproductions from the 1920s and 30s. Then again, some were the real thing: antebellum. So I learned to tell the difference. That was how I got in the antique business myself. First selling Victoria’s things in the barn on weekends, and then buying a few items from the local farmers who retired to Florida. Their kids hadn’t wanted to take over the farmsteads if it entailed eking out a living from the soil.

But once I’d gotten the hang of it, I found the antique business pretty boring, so I started turning old tractor parts into furniture. It paid most of the bills, although I still traded in real antiques as they became available.

I wanted to call my closest friend, Fanny Beecham, to enlist her aid in figuring what to do about the dead body and the jewels. But just like Jack Senior, I avoided Victoria and Uncle George Ebenton by crossing the backyard to use the phone in the barn. Only, on the way, I ran right into the bridge group—always good for a half an hour gossiping if I didn’t have anything else to do—which I did. So keeping right on moving, I shot them a quick wave as they were getting into Sarah Reilly’s Volvo station wagon. Virginia Goodenough, rotund, jolly, and perpetually disoriented, hopped doggedly into the back seat. She was the Episcopal minister’s wife, about half a generation younger than Victoria, since her husband was still the active pastor at the church that Victoria attended. Ruby Dixon, Les’s mother and one of Victoria's old school friends, was hobbling slowly into the front seat, helped by Sarah Reilly, who was about thirty, with a blond ponytail and bright clear skin. Sarah had inherited her position in the bridge group from her paternal grandmother and seemed to fit right in, working most of the night to support herself as a commercial artist because she had to eat, and taking the days off to be a 1950s-style Southern matron because it was her duty.

***

Jezebel’s was pretty dead as I waited for Fanny, who was, as usual, late. We’d decided to meet there because it really was a gathering place. Of course, I knew the name wasn’t really Jezebel’s. It’s just I was pretty sure that the owner, Delilah Jones, was having an affair with my husband. So once, in pique, I’d called her that Jezebel  and Fanny picked it up. Then half the community started using it without knowing why. And now that was the unofficial name in spite of the protestations of Jack Senior. The latter was sitting at the bar reading Jezebel/Delilah’s Wall Street Journal, ignoring the rambunctions of Hank Cooper and a few of the other good ol’ boys who were gathered for a noon pick-me-up between morning and evening chores.

I was sitting in the sunroom, which had been sectioned off from the main restaurant and bar in the front. Several owners ago, someone had thought it would add class to the place to put in big picture windows overlooking the curve in the Salt Lick River that gave the place its real name, The River Bend Restaurant. I sat lolling in one of my own creations: an extended latticework of struts from several old threshers, with swings hanging down in conversational groupings. I’d built it for Jezebel when she bought the place—and before she took up with my husband. The front part of the building was still original, with a solid walnut bar about twenty-five feet long, and I’ve got to give her this: Jezebel kept it polished. The remainder of the restaurant was filled with ratty empire-style chairs, with red velvet upholstery, placed around the solid walnut tables that matched the bar. The walnut furnishings were worth more than the building. I was hoping that Jezebel would sell them to me at a good price before the whole shebang fell into the river.

 There was a ruckus over at the bar and suddenly Jezebel had Hank Cooper by the nose, twisting it so hard that his legs buckled. She was leading him, waddling knock-kneed and pigeon-toed toward the door. That happened at least once a week when he’d had too much to drink, so nobody paid any attention. Jack Senior was down on the floor quietly picking up a broken beer bottle. He straightened up, really striking—tall, straight, slim, with wavy white hair, all his, and a medium complexion starting to get tanned from the early summer sun. Flawless white teeth. Just as trim as he was when I met him thirty years before, but he didn’t offer to help his girlfriend. He sat back down at the bar placing the broken pieces in a neat little pile for Jezebel to dispose of, doing what needed to be done with no fuss or hassle.

Back when we first met, one of his army buddies said that about him: steady and unassuming. No bragging about his accomplishments. Once I saw a bunch of medals in his old duffel bag. But Jack Senior never talked about them.

I’d met him in a bar while his unit was assembling before deployment to Vietnam and didn’t even wait for a second date to spend the night in bed. We had a month together in Hawaii before his second tour—he had a few months to go after the first tour, so why not extend for a whole year and get back to the fighting? He ended up a captain.

Jack Junior was three months old when Jack Senior finally got home. The real reason that my son was named Jack Junior is that when I filled out the papers at the hospital, I didn’t know that my future husband’s real name was John. He knew I was pregnant, since we wrote back and forth, but his letters just told me that the war couldn’t do without him long enough to get married. When he got back, he did the right thing, even though it was the sixties and I guess I didn’t really expect him to. We were married by a nondescript justice of the peace and I left California for the Old South, a new bride. We told everyone that we’d been married on his first leave in Hawaii. No one here ever thought to ask if it was really true. My own mother, who knew the facts, talks so much that nobody ever listens to anything she says—not that she would tell on purpose—it’s just that she has to fill up natural intra-conversational gaps with something. The marriage might not have been too bad if he’d had a regular job for the past fifteen years. I didn’t know that his family was rich when I married him, so not having much wouldn’t have been a letdown. But he hadn’t done anything at all to save the family estate. If he had, I might even have accepted his dallying with Jezebel and the others, I guess. I mean, we were both over fifty. I figured he was compensating for having been disbarred. Or maybe that was just the way he was. Or maybe it was my fault because I was too lazy to do anything about it. Or maybe there was something important between us despite everything else that was going on. Even when I hinted at his adultery, Jack Senior was his usual fair-minded, gentlemanly self, suggesting that if I thought he was having an affair, I should even things up with a fling of my own. And I tried. I really tried. But it didn’t work out. So I didn’t know whether I was mad at Jezebel on moral grounds, or because she was doing better than I was.

***

 

“How’s my favorite citizen of Mason County?” No sexual innuendo. Just an oblique opening line from a short, trim figure leaning over the table. I glanced up at the man, who had a black pencil-thin mustache, a polka dot bow tie setting off a gray pinstripe suit, and polished black shoes matching the black hair slicked back over a perfectly oval skull. Clarence P. Yancy: real estate salesperson, insurance agent, mortgage broker, occasional purveyor of used cars—and the reason I was off extramarital affairs.

Actually, he wasn’t all that bad, if you can stand a surfeit of prissiness. And he did work hard, what with all his various jobs. It’s just that Fanny started calling him Old Oilhead because of his hair styling, and then I started to call him that when Fanny was around. How can you sleep with a man if you can’t tell your best friend, and how can you tell your best friend that you’re sleeping with Old Oilhead? Even if it wasn’t much worse than his real name: Clarence P. Yancy. I couldn’t even use him to make Jack Senior jealous. All the guys thought he was a wimp, since he never swapped any womanizing stories when he had a beer with the gang up at the bar. So, about six months ago, I dropped him. Besides, the prissiness was really beginning to wear.

Speaking of which, standing behind Old Oilhead was an actual Prissy: the chubby svelte Chair of the Mason County Board of Supervisors, Priscilla Lattimore Goodenough, the second-cousin-once-removed-in-law of the Episcopal minister. The reader may rightly complain that chubby svelte is a contradiction in terms, but that’s the only way to describe her. Almost as tubby as me, but with the lumps in all the right places, wearing a green dress with one of those grayish sheens that softly highlight every undulation. Blond hair, not a strand out of place, a pug nose, coral pumps, and a single strand coral necklace. Her husband, Jeff, was the only undertaker in Mason County, so she could afford to spend a bundle on clothes. But I must admit that I’d never seen anyone spend so much to cover so much with such a rewarding effect. Well, it got her elected and reelected. That, and the way she kowtowed to the commuters and the campaign for a Country Clean Way of Life.

Old Oilhead was continuing his unctuous courtesies. “We saw your van in the parking lot and decided to stop and offer any help we could.” What he really meant was that he’d like the inside scoop about the body. But his sincerity was really sincere. I mean, he really did try to sell nice used cars, which had only been driven by little old ladies on Sundays. He must have been doing something right because he was making a decent living. In his capacity as real estate agent, he had been in charge of some modifications to the old Pickerill estate while J. Augustus and his bimbo bride were off cavorting on the Riviera last year. I’d been selected to redo the rec room in funky country modern: tractor parts. Old Oilhead and I used every bedroom in the house. He cleaned up each one immediately afterward, rather that waiting to do them all just before the Pickerills came home, like I would have done. I don’t know which came first: fear of losing Fanny’s approbation for having an affair with him, or irritation at watching him cheerfully tidy up any mess I made. 

 “We were on our way to meet the representatives of the Martin Consortium,” Prissy said. “They’re thinking of locating a computer company in the county, and who is better to show them around than Clarence?” Old Oilhead took a polite little bow as Prissy continued,”High tech, you know. We’ve grown beyond the chicken plucking houses. This county needs white collar business and gentleman farmers to appeal to the commuters.”

Old Oilhead nodded seriously again, and I tried my best to emulate him as Prissy ploughed on. “In fact, the Mason County Poultry Processing Plant is closing down. Since the commuters have given such a boost to the economy, local labor has become too expensive to chop off chicken heads. So MCPPP is moving to West Virginia, leaving the plant abandoned. I thought you might be interested in volunteering to help turn the old factory into an artist colony. It’s just the sort of white collar atmosphere that the county wants.”

I didn’t try to explain that welding was a dirty art form, as I looked down at my own somewhat singed jeans with at least one burn hole. I did have a white-collar blouse, but that was more by chance than anything else. Prissy turned the plow at the end of the field and kept right on gee-hawing along.

“But I won’t ask right now, since I’m sure you’ll be busy explaining dead bodies and missing jewels. I do really hope that these little incidents won’t give the county a bad name after all our work to publicize that it’s such a safe place to raise kids.” She ignored Hank Cooper, who was sticking a hand in the side window, trying to get a beer from the cooler behind the bar. He was rewarded by having it whacked pretty hard with a stick of one-by-one inch lumber that Jezebel kept for that purpose. Hank went jumping out into the parking lot, screaming and waving his arm over his head.

Old Oilhead, also ignoring Hank, leaned close over the table. “I hear you lost your tenants. I’ve got several prospects who might be interested. Let me know when I can show the place.”

Well, I’d have taken a tenant from the Devil if necessary, so I accepted the offer. “It’ll take about two weeks to repair all the physical damage. But forgetting the corpse might take a little longer.”

“There’s no requirement to say anything about that—unless, of course, the place is haunted. That’s not the case, is it?”

I allowed as I didn’t think so, as he slid his hand down from the chain and grasped mine, “Deal, then. I’ve missed seeing you around. Maybe we could get together and just yack sometimes.” With an almost imperceptible and very proper wink, he turned to escort Prissy toward the front door, stopping to speak to Jack Senior, who glad-handed Priscilla and put a familiar arm around Old Oilhead’s shoulder. I felt pretty much like throwing up. Damn Fanny’s perpetual lateness, leaving me to deal with them alone! I had to go to the ladies’ room, among other things to check out my face—which must have been by now, if my mother's early admonitions were correct, frozen permanently into a grimace.

***

I always took off my belt, tied it around the door handle, and hung onto the other end when I used the john in the ladies’ room. The original restrooms hung out over the river, for obvious reasons. Even with the advent of indoor plumbing, nobody thought to move the toilets. The gradual erosion of the riverbank had left the structure in a precarious position: gently at first, and then more acutely, sloping down at the back. The floor had failed to the point where there were large stress cracks in the wall. It was almost like being in the great outdoors. 

Looking out through one of the cracks, I could see Henry Adams and Stuart welding a brace between the floor under the sunroom and the riverbed—which was mostly dry brown rocks except when the river was at flood stage. They probably needed a brace under the toilets too, but money was tight. And besides, you couldn’t modernize too aggressively in Virginia because of the great respect for tradition.

Just then, into my cramped view bounced Fanny, dressed in khaki Bermuda shorts and a white semi-military shirt with epaulets. From her shoulder hung a large tan leather bag that served as purse, briefcase, and general catchall. She strode across the dried mud, and, waving at Henry, pointed to the sunroom. Henry nodded his head, indicating the current weld and apparently agreeing to come in as soon as it was done. Hank Cooper, who was by now down in the middle of the creek, standing precariously on two semi-wet rocks, taking a leak, waved as Fanny passed going up the bank. And Fanny imperturbably waved back.

I pulled my way hand over hand back up my belt, wedged a leg behind the sink, leaned back, and took a good look at my face. Most of the grimace was gone. I was feeling more relaxed now that Fanny was here. She was good at getting action started. Doing anything was better than waiting for the slow wheels of the local justice to turn. It cheered me up, until I remembered that the reason we had to do something was that we, the Abernathy clan, had been in possession of an unidentified corpse and some stolen jewelry, and if possession is nine-tenths of the law, then we must, in the eyes of the law, most probably be the people who put them in our possession.

***

Henry and Stuart were coming in the front door as I headed back from the ladies’ room. Fanny was sitting so she could write on the table that was the center of the conversation. Jack Senior was looking attentive from his perch on a swing to one side. Fanny took a swig from her double bourbon, drew a line across a page, and announced, “We’ll list everything we know, then everything that’s a question, and then assign a person to investigate each unknown. The sheriff, bless him, will need some help on this one.” Organizing was Fanny’s forte. Her husband had been one of the contractors selling authentic country tract houses to the commuters in the northern part of Mason County, and after he died of a heart attack, Fanny ran the company with the help of his old staff. Or rather, they ran it and she oversaw. But she was used to getting her way. Jack Senior had wheezed at the condescending reference to his old buddy, Lou Overhouse, but it was pretty close to the truth and he knew it.

“What we know is…” It was Fanny’s way of asking a question, directed at me.

I guess I looked a little nonplussed at the abruptness of it all, so Jack Senior filled in. “While Prudence and Henry were installing a tractor sofa in the living room of the manor house, the floor gave way, dropping the tractor and Prudence into the basement. The force of the fall must have shaken loose the front of the fireplace, exposing a skeletal corpse, in a Confederate lieutenant’s uniform, and a diamond bracelet. The bracelet was part of a larger cache reported missing by Mr. J. Augustus Pickerill last year. Sheriff Overhouse is investigating with the aid of the state police. He has asked us for a list of relatives who might have known about the secret compartment. I drew up the list last night. We’re still waiting for the results of the autopsy.” Six sentences. Would that he had been so concise and thorough about trust funds! Jack Senior laid a neatly hand-written list of relatives on the table, next to Fanny’s pad.

Fanny took it as her due, adjusted her glasses, and looked back at me. “What else do we know?”

I blinked, so she looked at Henry, and then around at Stuart. No response. So she looked back to Jack Senior, who said, “The Abernathys are a little financially strapped. We may, for that reason, be prime suspects.” He didn’t look at me. “That’s why you’re here asking questions and we’re not waiting for Sheriff Overhouse to do his job.”

Fanny took another shot of bourbon and said, “Then, what is it we don’t know and need to find out?”

“Who knew about the hiding place in the fireplace?” I asked, trying to appear as more than an appendage to the conference.

Fanny looked again at Jack Senior, who answered, “Nobody to my knowledge. Except for Mother and me.” He apparently never looked at his brandy level. Of course, I never took much and I never bothered to enlighten him. “We have this list of relatives that I made for the sheriff,” he added, patting the paper on the desk. “I’ll start calling this afternoon to see if anyone is missing a relative or whether they know of anyone who remembers the secret compartment. I may have to visit a few of the older ones to see if I can jog a memory.” Another expense, damn it. But he was right.  

“So Jack Senior has his assignment. What else don’t we know?” Fanny was looking at me once more.

“Who knew about the jewelry and who knew about Pickerill’s safe under the bedside table?” I duly asked.

“An outsider wouldn’t have known about them or the hiding place,” Jack Senior said. “So at least one of the burglars had to be a local person.”

“I’ll ask around the country club and the church,” Fanny offered. She smiled at Jack Senior. “Please ask Victoria to check out the DAR—discreetly, of course.”

Although she was from one of the oldest families in the area, Fanny hadn’t much use for tradition. She’d even gone so far as to marry into a family that had been transplanted from South Carolina only five generations back. They used to be Beauchamp before they changed the spelling to Beecham—the way it sounded. “And Henry, can you ask around the black community?” Henry nodded his head as she twisted round to face him. “Also ask if anyone saw anything unusual anywhere in Mason County about the time of the burglary. And, by the way, you might ask if anybody remembers about the secret compartment.” She carefully didn’t mention the condition of servitude that might have allowed them to know. But Henry’s wasn’t a slave family anymore. In fact, just ten years before, he had bought over one hundred acres of the old Ebenton holding from Victoria to add to the eighty-odd his family already owned. Farmed it when he wasn’t shoeing horses or welding. He grinned and said “Yes’m.”

Fanny grinned back at Henry before turning to the group and asking, “And what else is important?”

“Why did the thief leave the body in the fireplace to begin with?” Henry, now that the ice was broken, felt obligated to participate. “And why did he leave one bracelet that was worth almost one hundred thousand?”

“Maybe,” John Senior answered, “they had a falling out, and one thief shot the other, and the wounded thief managed to hide in the secret compartment with the one piece he got away with.”

“You’re suggesting that there were two thieves in cahoots” I pushed the idea along. “That means a local who knew about the jewelry brought in an accomplice to do the actual burglary, decided to bump him off, and then took all the loot afterwards. That’s why no locals are missing and one dead Confederate soldier was in the secret compartment.” I was looking around for agreement when Fanny’s next double bourbon arrived, along with a beer for Henry, a soda for Stuart, another white wine for me, and a Perrier for Jack Senior. Jezebel stocked it special for him. The tray also contained several sandwiches cut up in quarters. Hot pastrami, BLT, and tuna salad were guided into the middle of the table. My husband made a big show of getting his wallet out to pay, but Jezebel waved her hand, “Celebrating getting new braces under the sunroom!” She bowed toward Henry and smiled at Jack Senior. Maybe her secret was free lunches. Jack Senior’s allowance from my tractor furniture business certainly wasn’t big enough to live very well and he hadn’t worked any little deals in the recent past. That was probably why he wanted a trip to visit relatives—some spending money in his pocket.

But he took the gracious gift as his due, the same way he gave things, and continued the conversation. “The corpse was wearing a lieutenant’s uniform. If he didn’t know that nobody wears a lieutenant’s uniform to a Confederate Ball, he must be from somewhere else. On the other hand, people would have noticed the odd uniform.”

Fanny laughed. “Can you recognize the difference between a Confederate lieutenant’s uniform and a major’s right off? You wouldn’t even notice.”

And Jack Senior had to acknowledge that this was true.

I took my turn. “If he was from someplace else, there must be some record of him staying here, or eating here, or getting gas here. That means that we check every motel, hotel, restaurant, and service station in the surrounding area. And that might not be much help, because it’s an easy drive from Washington.”

Fanny grimaced. “It’s all we can do, though—unless we can bypass some of the process and find out what the sheriff finds out. He’ll have a couple of deputies do it, but he won’t know what to do with the results when he gets them.” She took a swig of bourbon and looked at Jack Senior.

“I’m not going to put Lou Overhouse in an awkward situation. We know he won’t discuss an ongoing investigation, especially where there’s a possibility of local involvement. I won’t do it.” And Jack Senior got up, saying he had to go home to use the phone to call relatives while his mother was playing golf with Reverend Goodenough over at the Mason County Public Course. We couldn’t afford the Country Club anymore. As he left, Jack Senior waved at Jezebel standing behind the bar.

Fanny turned to me. “We could try Weevil Tuttle. He’s loyal to Sheriff Overhouse, but he’s also loyal to his aunts, what are their names, ah…Tillie and Tattie, who live over by Ornery Springs. You‘re friends with them, aren’t you?”

“Well, I did buy on old Ford 8N tractor from Tillie and Tattie last year, and they’re trying to sell me an old combine. I can go out to look at it. Maybe let it be known that Weevil’s opinion on the body and the jewels would be very helpful in proving that the Abernathys are innocent.”

“Then do it. That’s your assignment for the rest of the day. Get them to put in a word with Weevil and then get him to keep you informed of what the deputies find out.” Fanny was getting up from her swing, putting her legal pad in her purse, when Stuart moved up to stand in front of the table. “Yes, you’ll be helpful later when things are sorted out better,” she said, as Henry added, “Come on Stuart, “let’s see if we can finish the welding before it gets dark.”

And we all headed toward the front door.

END OF SAMPLE



You can purchase the complete book at the Bitingduckpress Online Store