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BOOK: Where the Crawdads Sing
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24.
The Fire Tower

1965

Thunderheads piled and pushed against the horizon as Kya motored into the afternoon sea. She hadn’t seen Chase since their beach picnic ten days ago, but still felt the shape and firmness of his body pinning hers against the sand.

No other boats were in sight as she steered toward an inlet south of Point Beach, where she had once seen unusual butterflies—so powerfully white they might have been albino. But forty yards out, she suddenly released the throttle when she saw Chase’s friends packing picnic baskets and bright towels into their boats. Kya turned quickly to speed away but, against a strong pull, turned back and searched for him. She knew that no part of this yearning made sense. Illogical behavior to fill an emptiness would not fulfill much more. How much do you trade to defeat lonesomeness?

And there, near the spot where he kissed her, she saw him walking with fishing rods toward his boat. Behind him, Alwayswearspearls carried a cooler.

Suddenly, Chase turned his head and looked directly at her drifting
in her boat. She didn’t turn away but stared back at him. As always shyness won, so she broke eye contact, sped off, and steered into a shadowy cove. She’d wait until their little navy left before going to the beach herself.

Ten minutes later, she motored back into the sea and, up ahead, saw Chase alone in his boat, bobbing waves. Waiting.

The old longing swelled. He was still interested in her. True, he’d come on too strong at the picnic, but he’d stopped when she brushed him away. Had apologized. Perhaps she should give him another chance.

He motioned her over and called, “Hi, Kya.”

She didn’t go toward him, but not away either. He motored closer.

“Kya, I’m sorry ’bout the other day. Okay? C’mon, I wanta show you the fire tower.”

She said nothing, still drifting his way, knowing it was weakness.

“Look, if you’ve never climbed the tower, it’s a great way to see the marsh. Follow me.”

She increased throttle and turned her boat toward his, all the while scanning the sea to make sure his friends were out of sight.

Chase motioned her north past Barkley Cove—the village serene and colorful in the distance—and landed on the beach of a small bay tucked in deep forest. After securing the boats, he led her down an overgrown path of wax myrtle and prickly holly. She’d never been to this watery and rooty forest, because it stood on the other side of the village and was too close to people. As they walked, thin runnels of backwater seeped under the brush—slinky reminders that the sea owned this land.

Then a true swamp settled deep with its low-earth smell and fusty air. Sudden, subtle, and silent all at once, it stretched into the mouth of the dark receding forest.

Kya saw the weathered wooden platform of the abandoned fire tower above the canopy, and a few minutes later, they arrived at its straddle-legged base, made of rough-cut poles. Black mud oozed around the legs and under the tower, and damp rot ate its way along the beams. Stairs switched to the top, the structure narrowing at each level.

After crossing the sludge, they started the climb, Chase leading. By the fifth switchback, the rounded oak forests tumbled west as far as they could see. In every other direction, slipstreams, lagoons, creeks, and estuaries wove through brilliant green grass to the sea. Kya had never been this high above the marsh. Now all the pieces lay beneath her, and she saw her friend’s full face for the first time.

When they reached the last step, Chase pushed open the iron grate covering the stairwell. After they climbed onto the platform, he eased it down again. Before stepping on it, Kya tested it by tapping it with her toes. Chase laughed lightly. “It’s fine, don’t worry.” He led her to the railing, where they looked over the marshland. Two red-tailed hawks, the wind whistling through their wings, soared by at eye level, their heads cocked in surprise to see a young man and woman standing in their airspace.

Chase turned to her and said, “Thanks for comin’, Kya. For giving me another chance to say I’m sorry ’bout the other day. I was way outta line and it won’t happen again.”

She said nothing. Parts of her wanted to kiss him now, to feel his strength against her.

Reaching into her jeans pocket, she said, “I made a necklace with the shell you found. You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to.” She’d strung the shell on the rawhide the night before, thinking to herself she would wear it, but knowing all along she hoped to see Chase again and would give it to him if she had the chance. But even her
wistful daydream had not envisioned them standing together on top of the fire tower overlooking the world. A summit.

“Thank ya, Kya,” he said. He looked at it, and then he put it on over his head, fingering the shell as it rested against his throat. “’Course I’ll wear it.”

He said nothing trite like
I’ll wear it forever, till the day I die
.

“Take me to your house,” Chase said. Kya imagined the shack hunkered under oaks, its gray boards stained with blood from the rusting roof. The screens more holes than mesh. A place of patches.

“It’s far,” is all she said.

“Kya, I don’t care how far or what it’s like. C’mon, let’s go.”

This chance of acceptance might go away if she said no.

“All right.” They climbed down the tower, and he led her back to the bay, motioning for her to lead the way in her boat. She cruised south to the maze of estuaries and ducked her head as she slipped into her channel, overhung with green. His boat was almost too big to fit in the jungle growth, certainly too blue and white, but it squeezed through, limbs screeching along the hull.

When her lagoon opened before them, the delicate details of every mossy branch and brilliant leaf reflected in the clear dark water. Dragonflies and snowy egrets lifted briefly at his strange boat, then resettled gracefully on silent wings. Kya tied up as Chase motored up to the shore. The great blue heron, having long ago accepted those less wild, stood stork-still only feet away.

Her laundry of faded overalls and T-shirts hung tatty on the line, and so many turnips had spread into the forests, it was difficult to tell where the garden ended and the wilderness began.

Looking at the patched screen porch, he asked, “How long ya lived out here by yourself?”

“I don’t know exactly when Pa left. But about ten years, I think.”

“That’s neat. Livin’ out here with no parents to tell ya what to do.”

Kya didn’t respond except to say, “There’s nothing to see inside.” But he was already walking up the brick-’n’-board steps. The first things he saw were her collections lining homemade shelves. A collage of the shimmering life just beyond the screen.

“You did all this?” he said.

“Yes.”

He looked at some butterflies briefly but quickly lost interest. Thought,
Why keep stuff you can see right outside your door?

Her little mattress on the porch floor had a cover as worn as an old bathrobe, but it was made up neat. A few steps took them through the tiny sitting room, with its sagging sofa, and then he peeped into the back bedroom, where feathers in every color, shape, and size winged across the walls.

She motioned him into the kitchen, wondering what she could offer him. For sure she had no Coca-Cola or iced tea, no cookies or even cold biscuits. The leftover cornbread sat on the stovetop next to a pot of black-eyed peas, shelled and ready to boil for supper. Not one thing for a guest.

Out of habit she stuck a few pieces of wood into the stove’s firebox. Stoking it just so with the poker; flames jumping to instantly.

“That’s it,” she said, keeping her back to him, as she pumped the hand crank and filled the dented-in kettle—a picture of the 1920s propped up here in the 1960s. No running water, no electricity, no bathroom. The tin bathtub, its rim bent and rusted, stood in the corner of the kitchen, the stand-alone pie chest held leftovers covered neatly with tea towels, and the humped refrigerator gaped open, a flyswatter in its mouth. Chase had never seen anything like it.

He cranked the pump, watched the water come out into the enamel basin that served as the sink. Touched the wood stacked neatly against
the stove. The only lights were a few kerosene lanterns, their chimneys smoked gray.

Chase was her first visitor since Tate, who had seemed as natural and accepting as other marsh creatures. With Chase, she felt exposed, as if someone were filleting her like a fish. Shame welled up inside. She kept her back to him but felt him move around the room, followed by the familiar creaks of the floor. Then he came up behind her, turned her gently, and embraced her lightly. He put his lips against her hair, and she could feel his breath near her ear.

“Kya, nobody I know could’ve lived out here alone like this. Most kids, even the guys, would’ve been too scared.”

She thought he was going to kiss her, but he dropped his arms and walked to the table.

“What do you want with me?” she asked. “Tell me the truth.”

“Look, I’m not gonna lie. You’re gorgeous, free, wild as a dang gale. The other day, I wanted to get as close as I could. Who wouldn’t? But that ain’t right. I shouldn’t’ve come on like that. I just wanta be with ya, okay? Get to know each other.”

“Then what?”

“We’ll just find out how we feel. I won’t do anything unless ya want me to. How’s that?”

“That’s fine.”

“Ya said you had a beach. Let’s go to the beach.”

She cut off pieces of the leftover cornbread for the gulls and walked ahead of him down the path until it opened wide to the bright sand and sea. As she let out her soft cry, the gulls appeared and circled above and around her shoulders. The large male, Big Red, landed and walked back and forth across her feet.

Chase stood a little distance away, watching as Kya disappeared
into the spiraling birds. He hadn’t planned on feeling anything for this strange and feral barefoot girl, but watching her swirl across the sand, birds at her fingertips, he was intrigued by her self-reliance as well as her beauty. He’d never known anyone like Kya; a curiosity as well as desire stirred in him. When she came back to where he stood, he asked if he could come again the next day, promised he would not even hold her hand, that he just wanted to be near her. She simply nodded. The first hope in her heart since Tate left.

25.
A Visit from Patti Love

1969

A light knock sounded on the door of the sheriff’s office. Joe and Ed looked up as Patti Love Andrews, Chase’s mother, appeared shadowy and fractured through the frosted glass. Still, they could recognize her in a black dress and hat. Graying brown hair in a tidy bun. An appropriately dull shade of lipstick.

Both men stood, and Ed opened the door, “Patti Love, hello. Come on in. Sit down. Can I offer you some coffee?”

She glanced at the half-empty mugs, lip-drips running down the rims. “No, thank you, Ed.” She sat in the chair Joe pulled up. “Do you have any leads yet? Any more information since the lab report?”

“No. No, we don’t. We’re going over everything with a fine-tooth comb, and you and Sam’ll be the first to know if we come up with anything.”

“But it wasn’t an accident, Ed. Right? I know it wasn’t an accident. Chase woulda never just fallen off the tower by himself. You know what an athlete he was. And smart.”

“We agree there’s evidence enough to suspect foul play. But it’s an
ongoing investigation and nothing definite yet. Now, you said you had something to tell us?”

“Yes, and I think it’s important.” Patti Love looked from Ed to Joe and back to Ed. “There was a shell necklace that Chase wore all the time. Had for years. I know he was wearin’ it the night he went to the tower. Sam and I had him over for dinner, remember I told you that—Pearl couldn’t come; it was her bridge night—and he had on the necklace right before he went out to the tower. And then after he . . . well, when we saw him at the clinic, he didn’t have the necklace on. I assumed the coroner had taken it off him, so I didn’t mention it then, and with the funeral and all, I had forgotten about it. Then, the other day I drove over to Sea Oaks and asked the coroner if I could see Chase’s things, his personal effects. You know, they had kept them for the lab work, but I wanted to hold them, just to feel what he wore that last night. So they let me sit at a table and go through them, and, Sheriff, that shell necklace wasn’t there. I asked the coroner if he had taken it off, and he said no, he had not. He said he never saw any necklace at all.”

“That’s very curious,” Ed said. “What was it strung with? Maybe it came off when he fell.”

“It was a single shell hung on a piece of rawhide that was just long enough to go over his head. It wasn’t loose and was tied in a knot. I just don’t see how it could’ve flung off.”

“I agree. Rawhide’s tough and makes a mean knot,” Ed said. “Why did he wear it all the time? Did somebody special make it for him? Give it to him?”

Patti Love sat silent, looking off to the side of the sheriff’s desk. She dreaded saying more because she’d never admitted that her son had been involved with marsh trash. Of course, there had been village rumors that Chase and the Marsh Girl had been involved for more than
a year before his marriage. And Patti Love suspected even after, but when friends had asked about the stories, she’d always denied them. But now it was different. Now she had to speak out because she just knew that wench had something to do with his death.

“Yes, I know who made the necklace for Chase. It was that woman who boats around in that old rattletrap boat; has for years. She made it and gave it to him when they were seeing each other for a while.”

“You talking about the Marsh Girl?” the sheriff asked.

Joe spoke up. “You seen her lately? She’s not a girl anymore, probably mid-twenties and a real looker.”

“The Clark woman? Just trying to be clear,” Ed asked. Brows bunched.

Patti Love said, “I don’t know her name. Or even if she has one. People do call her the Marsh Girl. You know, she sold mussels to Jumpin’ for years.”

“Right. We’re talking about the same person. Go ahead.”

“Well, I was shocked when the coroner said Chase didn’t have on the necklace. And then it occurred to me that she’s the only one who’d have any interest in taking it. Chase had broken off their relationship and married Pearl. She couldn’t have him, so maybe she killed him and took the necklace from his neck.”

Patti Love trembled slightly, then caught her breath.

“I see. Well, this is very important, Patti Love, and worth pursuing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Ed said. “You’re sure she gave it to him?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I know because Chase didn’t want to tell me, but he finally did.”

“Do you know anything else about the necklace or their relationship?”

“Not much at all. I don’t even know for sure how long they saw each
other. Probably nobody does. He was very sneaky about it. Like I said, he didn’t tell me for months. Then after he told me, I never knew whether he was going out in his boat with his other friends or with her.”

“Well, we’ll look into it. I promise you that.”

“Thank you. I’m sure this is a clue.” She rose to leave, and Ed opened the door for her.

“Come back anytime you want to talk, Patti Love.”

“Bye, Ed, Joe.”

•   •   •

A
FTER CLOSING THE DOOR
, Ed sat again, and Joe asked, “Well, what d’ya think?”

“If somebody took the necklace off Chase at the tower, that would at least put them at the scene, and I can see somebody from the marsh being involved in this thing. They got their own laws. But I just don’t know if a woman could’ve pushed a big guy like Chase through that hole.”

“She coulda lured him up there, opened the grate before he got there, then when he came toward her in the dark, she coulda pushed him in before he even saw her,” Joe said.

“Seems possible. Not easy, but possible. It’s not much of a lead. The
absence
of a shell necklace,” the sheriff said.

“At this point it’s our only lead. ’Cept for the
absence
of prints and some mysterious red fibers.”

“Right.”

“But what I can’t figure,” Joe said, “is why she’d bother to take the necklace off him? Okay, as the woman wronged, she was hell-bent on killin’ him. Even that’s a stretch for motive, but why take the necklace when it could connect her smack-dab to the crime?”

“You know how it is. Seems like there’s something in every murder
case that doesn’t make sense. People mess up. Maybe she was shocked and furious that he still wore the necklace, and after committing murder, it didn’t seem like a big deal to snatch it off his neck. She wouldn’t have known anybody could link the necklace to her. Your sources said Chase had something going on out there. Maybe, like you said earlier, it wasn’t drugs at all, but a woman. This woman.”

Joe said, “’Nother kind of drug.”

“And marsh folks know how to cover prints because they snare, track, trap, and such. Well, it won’t hurt to go out there and have a talk with her. Ask her where she was that night. We can question her about the necklace and see if it shakes her up a bit.”

Joe asked, “You know how ta get ta her place?”

“Not sure by boat, but I think I can find it in the truck. Down that real windy road that goes way past a long chain of lagoons. A while back, I had to make house calls to see her father a few times. Nasty piece of work, that one.”

“When we going?”

“Crack of day, see if we can get there before she takes off. Tomorrow. But first, we better go out to the tower and search really good for that necklace. Maybe it’s been there all along.”

“I don’t see how. We’ve searched all over that place, looking for tracks, treads, clues.”

“Still, we gotta do it. Let’s go.”

Later, after combing through the muck under the tower with rakes and fingers, they declared no shell necklace present.

•   •   •

P
ALE LIGHT SEEPED UNDER
a low, heavy dawn as Ed and Joe drove down the marsh track, hoping to get to the Marsh Girl’s place before she boated off somewhere. They took several wrong turns and ended
up at dead ends or at some ramshackle dwelling. At one shack somebody yelled, “Sheriff!” and mostly naked bodies took off in all directions, charging through brambles. “Damn potheads,” the sheriff said. “At least the moonshiners kept their clothes on.”

But finally they came to the long lane that led to Kya’s shack. “This is it,” Ed said.

He turned his outsized pickup onto the track and cruised quietly toward the dwelling, easing to a stop fifty feet from the door. Both men got out without a sound. Ed knocked on the wooden frame of the screen door. “Hello! Anybody home?” Silence followed, so he tried again. They waited two to three minutes. “Let’s have a look ’round back, see if her boat’s there.”

“Nope. Looks like that log’s where she ties up. She’s a’ready gone. Dag-nabit,” Joe said.

“Yep, heard us coming. She can probably hear a rabbit sleeping.”

The next time they went before dawn, parked way down the road, and found her boat tied to its log. Still no one answered the door.

Joe whispered, “I get this feelin’ she’s right here watchin’ us. Don’t you? She’s squattin’ right here in the damn palmettos. Purt’ near. I just know it.” His head swung, eyes scanning the brambles.

“Well, this isn’t going to work. If we come up with anything else we can get a warrant. Let’s get outta here.”

BOOK: Where the Crawdads Sing
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