Authors: James Sallis
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
WALKER & COMPANY, NEW YORK
To the memory of
My thanks to George Gibson and Michael Seidman
for their patience and persistent support;
to Vicky as always;
and to Major Mark Collins
of the Memphis Police Department.
If your kneebone achin’
and your body cold . . .
You just gettin ready, honey,
for the cypress grove.
Skip James, “Cypress Grove Blues”
I HEARD THE JEEP a half mile off. It came up around the lake, and when it hit the bend, birds took flight. They boiled up out of the trees, straight up, then, as though heavy wind had caught them, veered abruptly, all at once, sharp right. Most of those trees had been standing forty or fifty years. Most of the birds had been around less than a year and wouldn’t be around much longer. I was somewhere in between.
I watched the Jeep as it emerged from trees and the driver dropped into third for the glide down that long incline to the cabin. Afternoon light on the lake turned it to tinfoil. Not much sound. High-in-the-throat hum of the well-maintained engine. From time to time the rustle of dry leaves as wind struck them and they tried to ring like bells there on the trees.
He pulled up a few yards distant, under the pecan tree. Shells on its yield so hard you had to stomp them to get to half a spoonful of meat. I swore that squirrels left them lined up under tires for cracking and sat alongside waiting. He got out of the Jeep and stood beside it. Wearing gray work clothes from Sears, old-fashioned wide-top Wellingtons and what looked to be an expensive hat, though one that would have been more at home further south and west. He stood leaning back against the driver’s door with arms crossed, looking around. Folks around here don’t move fast. They grow up respecting other folks’ homes, their land and privacy, whatever lines have been drawn, some of them invisible. Respecting the history of the place, too. They sidle up, as they say; ease into things. Maybe that’s why I was here.
“Good afternoon,” he said, final syllable turned up slightly in such a way that his utterance might be taken as observation, greeting, query.
“They all are.”
He nodded. “There is that. Even the worst of them, here in God’s country. . . . Not interrupting anything, I hope.”
I shook my head.
“Good. That’s good.” He pushed himself off the door, turned to reach inside, came out with a paper sack. “Looks to be room for the both of us up there on that porch.”
I waved him aboard. Settling into the other chair, like my own a straightback kitchen chair gone rickety and braced with crisscrosses of sisal twine, he passed across the sack.
I skinned paper back to a bottle of Wild Turkey.
“Talk to Nathan, by some chance?”
My visitor nodded. “He said, as the two of us hadn’t met before, it might be a good idea to bring along a little something. Grease the wheels.”
Nathan’d lived in a cabin up here for sixty years or more. Step on his land, whoever you were, you’d get greeted with a volley of buckshot; that’s what everyone said. But not long after I moved in, Nathan started turning up with a bottle every few weeks and we’d sit out here on the porch or, coolish days, inside by the fire, passing the bottle wordlessly back and forth till it was gone.
I went in to get glasses. Poured us both tall soldiers and handed his across. He held it up to the light, sipped, sighed.
“Been meaning to get up this way and say hello,” he said. “Things keep shouldering in, though. I figured it could wait. Not like either of us was going anywhere.”
That was it for some time. We sat watching squirrels climb trees and leap between them. I’d nailed an old rusted pan onto the pecan tree and kept it filled with pecans for them. From time to time one or the other of us reached out to pour a freshener. Nothing much else moved. Up here you’re never far away from knowing that time’s an illusion, a lie.
We were into the last couple of inches of the bottle when he spoke again.
I shook my head. “Did my share of it as a boy. I think that may have been the only thing my old man loved. Game on the table most days. Deer, rabbit, squirrel, quail and dove, be begging people to take some. He never used anything but a .22.”
“When I was twelve.”
I went in and made coffee, heated up stew from a couple of days back. When I returned to the porch with two bowls, dark’d gone halfway up the trees and the sounds around us had changed. Insects throbbed and thrummed. Frogs down by the lake sang out with that hollow, aching sound they have.
“Coffee to follow,” I told him. “Unless you want it now.”
We sat over our stew. I’d balanced a thick slab of bread on each bowl, for dunking. Since I’d baked the bread almost a week before and it was going hard on stale, that worked just fine. So for a time we spooned, slurped, dunked and licked. Dribbles ran down shirtfronts and chins. I took in the bowls, brought out coffee.
“Never been much inclined to pry into a man’s business.”
Steam from the cups rose about our faces.
“Why you’re here, where you’re from, all that. Folks do pay me to keep track of what’s going on in these parts, though. Like a lot of things in life, striking a balance’s the secret to it.”
Frogs had given up. Paired by now. Shut out by darkness. Resigned to spending their evening or life alone.
Time for mosquitoes to take over, and they swarmed about us. I went in to replenish our coffee and, returning, told him, “No great secret to it. I was a cop. Spent eleven years in prison. Spent a few more years as a productive citizen. Then retired and came here. No reason things have to get more complicated than that.”
He nodded. “Always do, though. It’s in our nature.”
I watched as a mosquito lit on the back of my hand, squatted a moment and flew away. A machine, really. Uncomplicated. Designed and set in motion to perform its single function perfectly.
“Can I do something for you, Sheriff?”
He held up his cup. “Great coffee.”
“Bring a pot of water to boil, take it off the fire and throw in coffee. Cover and let sit.”
He took another sip and looked about. “Peaceful out here, isn’t it?”
An owl flew by, feet and tail of its prey, a rodent of some sort, dangling.
“Tell the truth, I kind of hoped I might be able to persuade you to help me. With a murder.”
LIFE, SOMEONE SAID, is what happens while we’re waiting around for other things to happen that never do.
as Brother Douglas would have said, hoisting his Bible like a sword and brandishing it there framed by stained-glass windows depicting the Parable of the Talents, Mary Magdalene at the tomb, the Assumption.
Back then and back home, there among kudzu in the westward cup of Crowley’s Ridge and eastward levees built to keep the river out, I’d been a golden child, headed for greatness—greatness meaning only escape from that town and its mean horizons. I’d ridden the cockhorse of a scholarship down the river to New Orleans, then back up it to Chicago (following the course of jazz) where, once I had secured a fellowship, head and future pointed like twin bullets towards professordom. Then our president went surreptitiously to war and took me with him. Walking on elbows through green even greener than that I’d grown up among, I recited Chaucer, recalled Euclid, enumerated, as a means of staying awake and alert, principles of economy—and left them there behind me on the trail: spore, droppings.
No difficulty for
boy, rejoining society. I got off the plane on a Friday, in Memphis, stood outside the bus station for an hour or so without going inside, then left. Never made it home. Found a cheap hotel. Monday I walked halfway across the city to the PD and filled out an application. Why the PD? After all these years, I can’t remember any particular train of thought that led me there. I’d spent two and a half years getting shot at. Maybe I figured that was qualification enough.
Weeks later, instead of walking on elbows, I was sitting in a Ford that swayed and bucked like a son of a bitch, cylinders banging the whole time. Still making my way through the wilderness, though. If anything, the city was a stranger, more alien place to me than the jungle had been. Officer Billy Nabors was driving. He had breath that would peel paint and paper off walls and singe the pinfeathers off chickens.
“What I need you to do,” he said, “is just shut the fuck up and sit there and keep your eyes open. Till I tell you to do something else, that’s
I need you to do.”
He hauled the beast down Jefferson towards Washington Bottoms, over a spectacular collection of potholes and into what appeared to be either a long-abandoned warehouse district or the set for some postwar science fiction epic. We pulled up alongside the only visible life-forms hereabouts, all of them hovering about a Spur station advertising “Best Barbecue.” A four-floor apartment house across the street had fallen into itself and a young woman sat on the curb outside staring at her shoes, strings of saliva snailing slowly down a black T-shirt reading ATEFUL DE D. A huge rotting wooden tooth hung outside the onetime dentist’s office to the right. The empty lot to the left had grown a fine crop of treadbare auto tires, bags of garbage, bits and pieces of shopping carts, bicycles and plastic coolers, jagged chunks of brick and cinder block.
Nabors had the special on a kaiser roll, Fritos and a 20-ounce coffee. I copied the coffee, passed on the rest. Hell, I could live for a week off what he spilled down his shirtfront. But that day his shirt was destined to stay clean a while longer, because, once we’d settled back in the squad and he started unwrapping, we got a call. Disturbance of the peace, Magnolia Arms, apartment 24.
He drove us twelve blocks to a place that looked pretty much like the one we’d left.
“Gotta be your first DP, right?”
“Shit.” He looked down at his wrapped barbeque. Grease crept out slowly onto the dash. “You sit here. Anything looks out of whack, you hear anything, you call in Officer Needs Assistance. Don’t think about it, don’t try to figure it out, just hit the fuckin’ button. You got that?”
“Gee, I’m not sure, Cap’n. You know how I is.”
Nabors rolled his eyes. “What the fuck’d I do? Just what the fuck’d I do?”
Opening the door, he pulled himself out and struggled up plank-and-pipe stairs. I watched him make his way along the second tier. Intent, focused. I reached over and got his fucking sandwich and threw it out the window. He knocked at 24. Stood there a moment talking, then went in. The door closed.
The door closed, and nothing else happened. There were lights on inside. Nothing else happened for a long time. I got out of the squad, went around to the back. Following some revisionist ordinance, a cheap, ill-fitting fire escape had been tacked on. I pulled at the rung, saw landings go swaying above, bolts about to let go. Started up, thinking about all those movies with suspension bridges.
I’d made it to the window of 24 and was reaching to try it when a gunshot brought me around. I kicked the window in and went after it.
Through the bathroom door I saw Nabors on the floor. No idea how badly he might have been hurt. Gun dangling, a young Hispanic stood over him. He looked up at me, nose running, eyes blank as two halves of a pecan shell. Like guys too long in country that had just shut down, because that was the only way they could make it.
I shot him.
It all happened in maybe twenty seconds, and for years afterward, in memory, I’d count it out, one thousand, two thousand. . . . At the time, it seemed to go on forever, especially that last moment, with him sitting there slumped against the wall and me standing with my S&W .38 still extended. Right hand only, not the officially taught and approved grip, never sighting but firing by instinct, how I’d learned to shoot back home and the only way that ever worked for me.
I’d hit him an inch or so off the center of his chest. For a moment as I bent above him, there was a whistling sound and frothy blood bubbling up out of the amazingly small wound, before everything stopped. He had three crucifixes looped around his neck, a tattoo of barbed wire beneath.
Nabors lay there lamenting the loss of his barbeque. Man like him, that’s the note he should go out on. But he wasn’t going out, not this time. I picked up the phone and called in Officer Down and location. Only then did it occur to me that I hadn’t cleared the rest of the apartment.
Not much rest to clear, as it happened. A reeking bathroom, a hallway with indoor-outdoor carpeting frayed like buckskin at the edges. Boxes sat everywhere, most of them unpacked, others torn open and dug through, contents spilling half out. The girl was in the back bedroom, in a closet, arms lashed to the crossbar, feet looped about with clothesline threaded into stacked cinder blocks. Her breasts hung sadly, blood trickled down her thighs, and her eyes were bright. She was fourteen.