A couple of county cop cars and several pickups, one loaded with an air compressor, crowded around the boat landing at Luna Lake. Pudd Pardee, head of the county rescue squad, leaned against the front fender of a rust-red truck that sported a bumper winch. As I parked my dad's pickup alongside, Pudd jabbed his elbow into the ribs of a tall kid propped next to him. Judging from their gaudy laughter, they were sharing some guy humor.
Pudd heaved himself upright as I strolled over.
"Well, if it idn't Miz Avery Andrews, attorney-at-law."
"Thought you boys were out here dragging the lake for a body," I said, tilting my head to stare up at Pudd's unimpressive fivefoot-eight height. "You're making it look like open-mike night at a comedy club."
"You know how this bidness can be sometimes, A'vry. If we didn't keep our sense of humor, pretty soon these dead bodies'd git to us." Pudd punched his companion in the ribs and cocked him a sly look, then hitched up his jeans and arced a stream of tobacco juice past the bumper of his truck, barely missing his young buddy's work boot.
"Pudd. Get serious a minute. The sheriff sent word. She's holding Donlee Griggs for murder? He's confessed to drowning Pee Vee Probert?"
"So you're defending Donlee? Figured you would. Him bein' so sweet on you and everything. He's always been partial to that red hair of yours."
I've always thought it more a burnished gold, but whatever. And Donlee developed crushes on any female unwary enough to smile at him.
"Yep." Pudd sighed expansively. "He'uz sittin' around the table at Maylene's just last week, goin' on and on about how the overhead lights in the courtroom lit up your hair like golden sunshine."
My eyes narrowed to slits, a look I practice to cross-examine particularly loathsome witnesses. Didn't faze Pudd, though.
Up until two weeks ago, I hadn't seen Donlee since high school. Then I'd been appointed to represent him in a bail hearing on a drunk-and-disorderly charge. An unusual occasion for a class reunion, for sure.
"Think you'll be able to get him off?" Pudd asked. "Or will you two be carrying on your star-crossed love affair through a wire mesh window?"
That didn't deserve a response. I shoved my hands into my jacket pockets and mimicked his good ol' boy slouch, staring toward the lake and ignoring Pudd.
Something about this rescue scene didn't register as real, thoughthe usual contingent of Ghouly Boys were present--the rescue squad guys and police scanner junkies. One old boy dangled his legs off the tailgate of his truck while he finished off a Bud. Another little clump included a couple of county deputies. Neither of them had missed many blue plate specials at Maylene's.
In all, maybe fifteen guys stood around in various poses. And all pretended they weren't sneaking glances in my direction. Something odd about their collective casual air. Or maybe I just expected more intensity at a murder scene.
Donlee had been stuffed into the backseat of a sheriff's cruiser parked at the far edge of the picnic area. His full-moon face brightened when he caught my eye. He lifted his cuffed hands and actually waggled his fingers at me, flashing a gap-toothed grin.
Donlee had been a six-foot-seven goofball even in high school. I'd received my share of do-you-love-me-check-yes-or-no notes shoved through the vents in my locker. I couldn't quite believe he'd killed somebody. But isn't that what folks always say? "He never seemed like the type."
I kept staring toward Donlee but didn't waggle my fingers back at him.
"You know why he committed this heinous act, don't you?" Pudd asked, feigning seriousness and trying to pretend he didn't see Donlee making nose prints inside the cruiser window. "Tragic, itn't it? It 'uz his true love for you that drove him to it."
Pudd's companion--a dark, lanky kid barely out of high school--snorted. When I turned my back on Donlee to glare at him, he shifted his attention to a puddle of Pudd's tobacco spit. At least my slit-eyed stare worked on somebody.
But it didn't stop Pudd. He just kept smiling. He'd always liked a good joke, but I hadn't figured out the punch line on this one.Joking about this just seemed mean-spirited. So I ignored him.
The Donna Karan suit I'd put on for my official lawyer visit with Donlee wasn't heavy enough for an early-morning visit to a boat landing. The November breeze off Luna Lake--which was really more of a pond--nipped through my silk blouse.
"Any idea where the body is? Or how long it might take to locate it?" I tried to get Pudd to focus on the fact that somebody had died. Anything to avoid having to consult with my client. It was just too sad.
Pudd kept staring and grinning and working his tobacco wad. The guys scattered in clusters around the lake's edge alternated between studying the water and sneaking looks over at us. They seemed to be eyeing us more than the activity on the lake.
"Nope," Pudd said.
The breeze wasn't strong enough to push up waves. Bubbles appeared at regular intervals on the lake's dark surface.
"How long can those guys stay under there?" Even the thought of it felt cold.
"Aw, they can swim all day with those suits. The ones freezing their arses off are those two numbskulls bobbing around in that boat out there."
In a two-seater flat-bottom johnboat, two men huddled in camouflage-green jumpsuits and jackets. Every now and then, one would crane over the side as if he could see something in the greenish-brown water. Then, turtlelike, he'd poke his neck back into his coat collar.
"Those guys love it," Pudd said. "Gives 'em a chance to practice."
"Practice?" He wasn't taking any of this seriously enough. My next question was cut off by the arrival of another pickup. It slid to a stop behind my truck.
The newcomer's door popped loudly as it opened, thensquawked shut. As soon as he slammed the door shut, I found myself face-to-face with the reportedly dead Pee Vee Probert.
"Pee Vee!" Pudd threw up his hands in mock surprise. He had shifted from comedian to dramatic actor in the time it took Pee Vee to slam his door. "You're alive!"
"'Course I am, nidjit. Heard you all 'uz dragging the lake. Come on the scanner. Found anythin' yet?"
"Actually," I observed wryly, "you're not supposed to be here."
He jammed his hands on his skinny hips. "Sez who? Hit come over the scanner." Like that was all the permission he needed.
"No, I meant you're not supposed to be here." I pointed at the ground where we stood. "You're supposed to be there."
With his lips pursed in his sun-dried face, Pee Vee's gaze followed my pointing finger to the lake. He stared for a few seconds at the small rivulets the breeze made on the lake and at the two guys sitting, like a couple of sillies, in the boat. Then he looked at me as though he might need to put some distance between himself and a crazy person.
Pudd couldn't hold it a second longer. Tobacco-stained spit spewed from his rubbery lips, and he doubled over as far as his protruding belly would allow, sounding like a Macy's parade balloon with the air hissing out of it.
Pudd guffawed. "You ain't got sense enough to know you drowned, Pee Vee."
Pee Vee looked bewildered. But I was a few hundred yards ahead of Pee Vee on this one. Not that that was hard to do.
"Donlee Griggs apparently told these guys he drowned you in the lake," I explained.
"He never!" Pee Vee's voice shrilled.
"No, he didn't. But he--"
"--called the dispatcher." Pudd pinched his thumb and forefinger across his eyes to wipe away tears of laughter. "Told 'em he'd held a gun on you, off the dock over there. Kept you swimming till you drowned. He said--" Pudd's voice cracked like that of a twelveyear-old in the church choir. "He said it 'uz over a woman."
Pudd poked at his companion. The kid kept eyeing me nervously.
"That woman," Pudd blurted, pointing at me.
"I never!" As Pee Vee whirled on me, his indignation carried his voice up another octave.
We'd drawn a crowd by this time. The rest of the crack law enforcement team who'd gathered around the boat ramp joined us for a close-up.
"Donlee said seeing A'vry had rekindled the old high school romance"--Pudd's eyes were streaming from the effort of his tale--"said he needed to do something extry-ordinary to get her attention. Said a murder trial would let the two of 'em spend plenty of time together. Preparing his defense and all." Pudd pulled a handkerchief with a fraying hem from his hip pocket and wiped his eyes.
"I never!" Pee Vee announced, but less shrilly.
"Thank you, Pee Vee," I said as graciously as I could. My cheeks were burning. I hoped it looked like windburn rather than humiliation.
I'd skipped breakfast for a stupid prank. I couldn't be angry with Donlee. He really was stupid. But Pudd and some of the rest of this crew would pay. I didn't know how or when, but they'd pay. I felt like the village idiot--or, worse yet, like little Avery Andrews playing mommy-dress-up. A gangly hometown kid, the brunt of a goofy, embarrassing joke. I might as well be making nose prints on the window myself.
At least the rescue guys had gotten in some practice dives.Fuming, I turned toward my truck, careful not to skin my shoe heels on the gravel. Donlee could stay locked in the back of the cruiser awhile longer, for all I cared.
Sudden movement on the lake caught my attention. Two divers broke the water's surface about fifty feet out, and swam furiously toward the boat ramp.
Something about the urgency of their movements affected everyone. Several men migrated toward the point where the two swimmers would come ashore. One of the fellows out in the boat fumbled with the tiny motor, trying to catch up with the divers.
They arrived practically together, and both flopped down onto the rough ramp with a recklessness that surprised me, considering they wore neoprene suits. That roughed-up concrete ramp could cut like broken glass.
Carrying his fins, the first swimmer jerked his mask off, gasping.
"A car," he croaked. His mouthpiece swung against his chest as he duck-walked in his booties up the ramp. "A car down there."
The second diver had not joined the crowd on the ramp. Instead, he'd veered straight for the trash barrel chained to a pole at the lake's edge, flapping across the grass in his fins. He leaned over and vomited up his toenails, with expressive, ungentlemanly sounds.
The older diver, the one telling the story, turned a peculiar peasoup color around his lips and spoke louder, trying to drown out the sounds from the trash barrel. "An old one, from the looks of it. At least a seventies model." He swallowed hard and glanced at his flippers.
His timing was flawless. His companion with the weak stomach ceased his retching at the same moment he announced, "There's a body inside."
A body. The crowd shifted, glancing at one another, moving a half step closer in--and closer to each other.
"Been there awhile, I'd say. But it was--" He paused and swallowed. Pudd, who stood directly in front of him, took a step back. Just in case the guy got queasy.
The diver, his face pinched into a tight circle by his rubber hood, shook his head. "It was--I've never seen anything--it's like a skeleton. But it's covered in this yellowy-white stuff. Looks like soap. It's--"
The retching sounds at the barrel started up again, though weaker than before. My own stomach gave a slight heave.
Some of the guys stared over their shoulders at the lake, their interest obvious. Others watched the older diver, now in the center of a loosely drawn circle. Everyone tried to ignore the guy at the barrel.
"We need to get that thing lifted," Pudd announced. "See what we got. Let me pull the truck down there, see if that winch can do the trick."
The onlookers stared alternately at the lake or the ground, talking with a quiet animation, not-so-secretly glad the show had taken a macabre turn.
I counted quickly. The crowd had grown to about thirty Ghouly Boys--a couple of trucks with volunteer fire stickers on them, some county cops, some passersby, and a handful from the rescue squad. Not a lot of entertainment options on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I guess.
"I doubt that winch'll do it," the diver commented to nobody in particular as Pudd maneuvered his truck, front end forward, onto the ramp.
The younger diver, who'd been studying the inside of the trash barrel, now stood at limp attention beside the ramp. No one stood with him, whether to avoid his shame or the smell, it was hard to say.
When Pudd stopped his truck and started to unwind the winch,the younger diver stepped forward to unhook the cable. Nobody interfered; everyone was anxious to let the guy redeem himself.
The older diver waddled to the front of Pudd's truck. "Somebody ought to radio for a wrecker, just in case."
"Aw, this'll pull a dump truck, Carl," Pudd huffed, bent over his task.
"That thing's mired up right bad in the mud there. I'm not too sure--"
Pudd cut him off. "We'll giv'er a try."
The younger diver had already headed out into the water as the electric motor on the winch hummed, feeding out the cable.
His partner shrugged, pulled his mask into place, took a couple of puffs on his mouthpiece, and flopped down the grass bank like a B-movie swamp creature returning to his own.
Pudd might have every confidence in the superiority of his equipment, but obviously not everyone shared his optimism. From a county car to my right, I heard background radio squawks interrupted by a deputy calling to town for a wrecker.
A drawling voice at my shoulder startled me. I'd been so focused on the figures disappearing under the murky water, trailing the wire cable, that I hadn't heard Dale Earnest come up behind me.
He missed a beat when I offered my hand. In Dacus, women don't offer to shake hands with their father's barber. It would take me a while to relearn the social norms.
"Good to see you, Avery," he said, clasping my hand in both of his. "Your dad told me, when he came in for a haircut last week, that you'd be coming home."
How very diplomatic. Dale Earnest had certainly heard aboutmy coming home from sources other than my dad--sources less inclined to be charitable about the circumstances of my return.
The quizzical look Mr. Earnest fixed on me, and the gentle, saccharine politeness of his tone, told me he knew more than my dad would've told him. The circumstances of my firing were too complicated to be adequately absorbed by the grapevine. So I wondered which tendrils had reached the cracked-leather pump chairs in Mr. Earnest's barbershop.
"Came up to drain the water lines at the cabin," he said. "Wasn't expecting this much excitement."
I smiled. I knew we'd both pretend that he knew nothing at all scandalous or questionable about me.
A couple dozen cabins sat tucked back among the pines on needle-strewn winter-weedy banks around a small, still lake. Luna Lake, only twenty minutes north of Dacus, serves as a busy weekend getaway in summer but sits largely abandoned in cold weather.
A shout from the ramp stopped conversations in the clustered groups. Pudd swung around and into the truck cab, as fast as his bulk would allow, to reach the brake. Pudd's young buddy cut off the winch's motor and scuttled out of the way before the truck, on a slow slide toward the water, could run him down.
"Shoulda tied that thing off on a tree," Mr. Earnest observed. "Winch'll pull the truck underwater 'fore it pulls that car out."
Pudd got the truck stopped and several of the Ghouly Boys gathered around to hatch another plan.
Mr. Earnest nodded. "Don't use the cabin much anymore," he said. "Might not keep it. With so many Yankees coming in, I can probably get a good price for it."
I nodded. Mr. Earnest, his hands jammed into the pockets of hisL.L. Bean jacket and his bald head shining in the weak sunlight, could've been mistaken for one of those retired Yankees. Until he opened his mouth.
"I hear tell you've moved into your granddad's cabin up here." He squinted at me. "That a good idea?"
"Well, it'll do until I decide on something more permanent. Mom and Dad tried to get me to stay with them. But the cabin needed some work. It's a nice change, after living in Columbia."
"You sure it's safe?" Mr. Earnest asked bluntly. "Not too many folks up here this time of year."
"I'll be fine." I didn't elaborate. Years ago, my grandfather had not only taught me to shoot, he'd bought me a nice little S&W .38 and educated me on the advantages of hollow points.
Mr. Earnest leaned against the hood of a county cop car, settling in to watch the lake. "You setting up practice in Dacus?"
"No. I'm just working out of Carlton Barner's office temporarily." To keep busy, I picked up court appointments and guardian ad litem cases that the county's other attorneys avoided like plague-ridden rats. I'd left Columbia a few weeks ago without a clear plan in mind, but with no reason to start a real job search until after the holidays.
He nodded, staring at the lake. The winch whined weakly, straining to dislodge the car from its mud bed. Mr. Earnest didn't seem in any hurry to get about his business.
"Funny, you and Melvin Bertram coming home at the same time."
"Who?" I settled back against the car hood next to him.
"Melvin Bertram. You too young to remember him?" He sighed, his round belly shifting beneath his crossed arms. "He's been gone, law, I guess ten or fifteen years now. Time sure has a way of getting away from you."
I nodded. The pace of conversation and most else in Dacus now struck me as odd. I'd been away almost ten years, to attend law school and then to practice law. In that time, I'd forgotten the circadian rhythms of my growing up, the paced conversations with deep currents. The pauses, in some cases, spoke more than words. He was saying something important. I waited, hoping I could hear it in the pauses.
He continued. "Yep, probably closer to fifteen years. Were you gone by then?"
"In high school," I said. But Melvin Bertram's name rang only a faint bell with me.
I studied the trees that rimmed the small lake--scarcely more than a shirttail full of water, in my Aunt Letha's words. The leafless hardwoods sketched stark patterns against the watered blue sky. A half dozen docks jutted around the lake's rim, though the only boat visible was the rescue boat.
"Peculiar he'd come to mind," Mr. Earnest said, then sloughed off the topic like a too-warm overcoat. "How's your momma and daddy doing? Can't believe he decided to buy that old newspaper."
I smiled, mostly to myself. "Yep. He's been getting a lot of ribbing about that." My father had surprised the Rotary Club one day by announcing that he'd bought the Clarion, after a working life as a mechanical engineer. "He says the paper's only assets are a bunch of old machinery, and he can keep that running as well as anybody."
Mr. Earnest chuckled, his belly heaving. "That's 'bout true."
The rumbling arrival from Todd's Wrecker Service interrupted our slow conversation. Whoever had radioed into Dacus for a wrecker without giving Pudd's winch a chance to prove itself had been wise. But, before the wrecker could maneuver into place, Pudd petulantly had to rewind his cable and back his truck out of the way, the tires spitting gravel.
The spectators perched around staring, like we didn't have anything better to do with our midmorning.
Which I didn't. I could've walked over to get Donlee Griggs sprung from county detention. Donlee's alleged victim stood a scant twenty yards from me, jeans riding low on his skinny hips and brown locks stringing over the neck of his grubby flannel shirt. So avoiding a murder charge would likely be a formality.
But I wasn't in any hurry. Especially since that goof ball had planned all this just so I would rush to his aid.
Pudd's laughter still burned my ears. I really should make a phone call to assure that the wheels of justice began to grind. But I needed a little while to nurse my pique--and my embarrassment. You really can't go home again.
The wrecker kept feeding cable to the divers.
I couldn't help being surprised at myself. True, the tense boredom and promise of drama here reminded me of a courtroom. But two weeks ago, I couldn't have imagined propping my rump against the hood of a car, staring across the lake and shooting the breeze with the guy who cuts my father's hair. I'd been too busy calculating billable hours and buzzing around Charleston or Columbia in my black BMW from lunch meetings to hearings to late-night preps for morning depositions. Killing an hour or two in the company of a bunch of county employees and police scanner addicts wouldn't have been on my agenda.
Now I had nowhere to run. And not much to run around in since I had no leased BMW. My closetful of business suits hung in the only closet I could claim--in my old room at my parents' house; the lake cabin boasted only wall pegs. And my most important client sat periodically stamping nose prints onto the window of a county cop car.
The wrecker cable drew taut as the motor ground loudly. A fewof the cops gathered at the bottom of the ramp, right where the wrecker would flatten them if its brakes failed.
Out on the lake, the johnboaters positioned themselves closer to shore. They wisely stayed a safe distance away from the taut cable as it disappeared into the water. The onlookers stared, most not speaking now. Several minutes went by, filled only by the sound of the winch and the intermittent squawk of two-way radios. Then the water at the base of the boat ramp churned.
In a bubble of muddy water, the car's rear end appeared. Even with most of it still underwater, the car dwarfed the bobbing two-seater boat. The juxtaposition of the two objects jarred my senses. Cars aren't routinely resurrected from watery graves.
Slowly, as the truck's winch continued to whine, more of the car lifted into view. The sheet metal had rusted to a mottled red-brown shade. The mud-caked tires hit the submerged end of the ramp.
Johnnie Black stopped the winch, leaving only the car's trunk and rooftop visible.
The divers, belly-floating beside the car, seemed to be checking the underside of the car.
"Good thing it 'uz right side up," one of the amateur rescue experts standing near me commented. "Otherwise they'd've had to flip that sucker in the water."
Several watchers drew in closer, forming a tighter ring around the drama. Not close enough to get in the way, but eager not to miss any of the good stuff.
One of the divers flipped a hand signal to the wrecker operator, who started pulling up cable again. Slowly.
The car inched up the ramp. Water streamed down the sides in muddy rivulets. Reddish-brown stains coated the window glass, leaving a color like someone had tried to wash away dried blood.Distinguishing between the rusty parts and the red mud was impossible.
I'm no good at identifying makes and models, but the sedan sported a boxy broad trunk and a mass of sheet metal that current gas mileage restrictions won't allow. A Ford decal decorated the trunk.
The car's rear end crept up the ramp. The onlookers craned, necks extended like vultures' for a better look. The front seat wasn't yet visible.
As the car emerged from the water, the front end canted sharply downward. But I didn't have to move for a better look. The car's passenger obliged me by floating into view against the rear window.
I'll never look at a kid's Magic 8 Ball in the same way again.
Murky water filled the car. Inside a shape floated into view, undefined at first. Then the face--or what remained of it--drew close to the window and took form through the murk. A human head. Not exactly a head. But not quite a skull either. A waxy yellow padding outlined the cheeks, jaw, and neck. The eye holes gaped, hollow and black.
Floating limply, the head tilted. The grinning teeth tapped once against the glass. Then the apparition floated back into a shapeless form in the murk.
The guy who'd been glad they hadn't had to flip the car clamped his hand over his mouth and stifled a gagging sound.
SOUTHERN FRIED. Copyright © 2004 by Cathy Pickens. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.