A Dredging in Swann
1: Murder and Mercy
If Leo Sackler had written to the parole commission to say he was sorry for killing Hugh Britt, they would have likely let him go. After all, he was past seventy, had kept a fleet of prison service trucks in fine repair for many years, and releasing him would have saved money. But they were wary of a man unable to submit to public regret, who, despite the state’s appeal-proof case against him, tediously maintained innocence. Parole Commissioner Henrietta Cross, dean of the cosmetology department at Swann County Community College, particularly mistrusted him, since she was past seventy herself and had not only been a resident of Swann County when the murder happened, but had known the victim, Hugh Britt, and also his father, Marshall Britt, and also the irrefutable facts of the case, how Hugh and Leo had fought publicly on the Britt dock over the concealed magnets on Hugh’s fish scales, how Hugh had gaffed Leo through the biceps and thrown him back into his boat, how four hours later Leo and his skiff had been stopped by the marine patrol for speeding in a no wake zone, headed away from the Britt fish house. The patrol had noted bloody footprints in the skiff—fish blood, said Leo—written him up, and let him proceed. But Hugh’s body was found axed to death the next morning, and the sheriff found Leo and his boat on Cat Island the next afternoon, covered in cattails. It wasn’t fish blood, after all. It was Hugh Britt blood, and they found an axe in the inlet thirty yards from the dock.
The prosecutor could have gone capital, since Leo was a black man and Hugh was a white man and rich, but also since Leo had returned to the Britt dock after the fight, which meant forethought, or they could have gone second degree, an angry murder, since it no doubt was, Hugh’s forehead being cleaved twice through to the brain. In the end they split the difference and went first degree with a life sentence, which in 1969, the year of the murder, was forty years to a parole hearing. In North Carolina a parole hearing means they look through your file. They looked through Leo’s file in 2010, 2013, and 2016, in each case absent that needful letter of regret, and in each case denied.
Then, early in 2017, Germaine Ford died and made a news and internet sensation by leaving her Sable River farm and fortune to the long-forgotten, unrepentant convict Leo Sackler. She had never married, and cousins descended to protest. But Germaine had been careful, enlisting a psychologist and an eminent Raleigh lawyer in the will’s preparation, and the bequest held up in superior court.
A reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer interviewed Leo in prison. Mr. Sackler, how come she left you her land and money? Were you lovers? Was it guilt because she killed Hugh Britt? Which everybody was thinking.
Leo, a celebrity inside and out now, smiled and said he had never met the lady, didn’t know a thing, but that God grinds fine.
Then the governor, in one of her last acts before leaving office, let him go through a grant of executive clemency.
Two days after his release, Leo appeared at the lawyer’s office with his daughter to receive the keys to the Ford lodge, where, in days long forgotten, he had spent three years of his youth. The day after that he bought a vintage 1954 pickup, three bicycles for his grandchildren, and, because the lodge was empty except for a single rolltop desk, four truckloads of Sears furniture.
2: The Scofflaw
Sebastian Creek’s shift was going long, involving an interview with a bottle-cut victim at the Spartanville emergency room and now a stop-by at Smitty’s Sportsbar where the fight had gone down. The bar had formerly been the TrimTease, a just-out-of-town strip joint and on the off-limits sheet at the Marine base, so the new owner, Chuck Handley, was worried about a black mark with the provost marshal and also downhearted because it was fairly early on Saturday night, and his bar had cleared when his customers learned the cops were coming.
Handley tossed a credit card onto the bar. He said, “His name is Carl Peener, which I know because here’s his credit card, which he left on the bar when he ran off.”
Kate Jersey, the crime tech, a middle-aged woman with a sheriff’s cap jammed over a pile of silver hair, was dusting Peener’s section of the bar. She shook out a zip bag and fingertipped the card into it. She said, “You might have told me you had that, Mr. Handley. I would have said, great, but don’t touch it.”
Handley said, “I guess I was waiting for Seb.”
Seb pressed the plastic over the name, Carl Peener, and shrugged at Kate. He and the bartender had gotten connected a month ago when Handley’s testimony to internal affairs backed Seb on a bribery charge.
Seb, who had spoken to the victim in the hospital, said, “They were arguing about politics?”
“Yeah, but it was the other two guys that were arguing. Peener just butted in, told them they were fools for being on any side, everything’s rigged, that type of deal. Next thing I know, I’m down at the other end, a bottle breaks, and he stabs the guy and takes off. I ran out and saw his van. It was white and had something about furniture on the side. Now look here—this is extraordinary for us. This is way out of the ordinary.”
After Seb got the description—big guy, ponytail, mustache and sideburns, gray sweatshirt, little bit bald, maybe a biker—Kate, who had been on the phone with the card company, said, “He’s from Atlanta.”
Seb used a booth to write it up on his laptop, then sent it to the incidents section of the sheriff’s office. A moment later his phone dinged—the night magistrate had issued a warrant, and it had been forwarded to the state police. Seb called Fernando, the shift lieutenant, to alert him about the warrant and the advisability of a few motel checks, and also that Peener had probably fled for home. The victim had been cut only on the palm of his hand, so the DA would likely not press for extradition, which Peener, who impressed as a felon, would likely know. Kate had packed up and left, dismissing the deputy at the entrance.
Handley had his cleanup guy in early and was arranging chairs with him. Seb, talking fast because he had formed a daring, ardent plan for the rest of the evening, and because a storm was forecast, consoled the bartender that the incident would probably not provoke an off-limits black mark since it was not part of an atmosphere of badness, and he, a sheriff’s detective and former Marine MP, would testify to that if the provost marshal inquired. He began to leave, then impatiently remembered he should make a courtesy call to the Georgia state police, in case they wanted to notate the scofflaw’s sheet, if he had one, which, they informed him, he did, for minor possession, motorcycle theft, and punching out a female, and they thanked him.
Then he was done. His daring plan was to drop by the Fairchild pottery studio on the way home and ask Mia Fairchild for a get-acquainted coffee date, hopefully the next morning at the Inlet Café, if she could make it by eight. Seb met her six months before when he picked up his then-girlfriend, Charlene, from a pottery class. The studio was at the end of Willow Road in patrol section two, and two weeks ago, when it was burglarized, the lieutenant had assigned the case to Marty Jerrold, the section two detective. In the hallway after the briefing, Seb had asked Marty for the case, and Marty had said, sure, but look, how about take these motorcycle thefts too, three of them, different houses but definitely-probably connected, so really one case. Which Seb had done, despite Marty’s smirk-hiding straight face.
As Seb left the bar and entered the parking lot, he received a double jolt. The first jolt was from a neon-lit pile of trash flickering in a wind eddy beside the bar’s dumpster, a perfect IED hide, except this wasn’t a street in Iraq where trash piles sometimes exploded. That kind of jitter hadn’t happened in a while, a year maybe, and he flashed that it was his coming Mia gamble, his keyed-up wanting, which killed calm and left him exposed. He closed his eyes and stood, took some breaths.
When he opened them, he got his second jolt, Squint Cooper, exiting his SUV and coming toward him with a computer tablet. He was a man in his sixties, broad-shouldered and lanky, with a bald head and a crown of silky gray hair hanging to his collar. He wore a white T-shirt and denim jacket and stood three inches taller than Seb’s six two. Seb exhaled slowly, steeling himself for a session with Squint, a man known for contempt, rough humor, and a bullying brilliance.
Squint stopped in front of him, wearing his customary slant smile which said, everything’s a joke and so are you. He said, “I called your dispatch, and she told me you were out here on a call. Somebody got stabbed?”
“Cut with a bottle. Is this important? Because I’ve got to—”
“Well, you got a minute, don’t you?” He held the tablet between them and woke the screen.
Seb said, “A fast minute.”
Squint, intent on the screen, said, “How’s Gretchen? I saw on the web where she’s back in Italy leading her tours.” A sudden wind gust whipped his long hair into a neon-silvered halo.
Seb made a smile. He said, “C’mon, man. I got to move.” The Cooper and Creek families had become oddly intertwined, first because when he was a Marine CID sergeant, Seb had arrested Squint’s son, Cody Cooper, for possession with intent. A few years later Squint dated Seb’s mother, Gretchen, and together they arranged a romance between Seb and Squint’s daughter, Charlene. Cody had been locked up for two years, a circumstance which did not daunt the love affairs, neither of which lasted more than a few months anyway.
Squint said, “All right. But kindly tell Gretchen her pal Squint conveys his regards. I hope she enjoys the Colosseum, where she’ll be on Monday. Now look at here.” He held the tablet sideways and touched the start arrow. A video began, a drone’s view, the camera passing over a T-top fishing boat in gray-green water.
“This is from that eco fucker Peter Prince. He was drone-snooping my hogs this afternoon, and he posted it to the web.” The camera swung over an island, then a strip of water, then another island occupied by a solitary tent, an orange octagon bubble.
Squint said, “I had a tent just like that. Or else it’s mine, which it might be.” He stroked the video forward, then let it play again.
The camera showed treetops now, then the long metal-rippled tops of hog barns. It moved down a road, then showed the farm’s dead box, a black metal dumpster overflowing with hog carcasses. Squint stroked again, and the camera showed two miniature figures below, one aiming a rifle. “That’s me shooting at it. See how he’s zigzagging?” The camera lolled and waved across the sheds below. He stroked the video forward and showed a blue van driving along a gravel driveway. “That’s Jorge. I sent him after it in the van, but he lost it over the pine barrens.” Squint tapped the tablet and closed its case. “And yes, I had some misfortune. The fans in my number three shed went down and fifty-three near-finished hogs asphyxiated from ammonia poisoning. No one’s fault or else God’s. Now there it is for all to see. Fifty carcasses in the dead box. He flew over just around noon. I come to lodge my complaint. I want a deputy on this. Which I have complained before to no avail.”
Seb, who had called Prince several weeks before at Squint’s behest, said, “He doesn’t scare. He knows the law better than we do.” As a tweak, he added, “He’s a fearless crusader.” Then, instead of lecturing Squint once again on the ambiguity of North Carolina’s drone surveillance law—or asking the question that naturally occurred to him—what happened to your backup fans?—he asked, an attempt at diversion, if Squint had listened to the Shaun Davey version of “The Parting Glass” yet.
Hell yes, he had, and he was coming as usual to the Sunday evening singing practice, but couldn’t the sheriff stake out the farm just temporarily?
Seb said, “Squint, we’ve been through all that. The sheriff won’t spend deputies on violations of a vague-ass law. Did you get a drone?” A month ago, Seb had advised a counter-drone strategy, whereby Squint’s drone would follow Prince’s back to Prince’s sneaky launch site, then submit the video to the district court, thus providing enough evidence for a judge, if he was so inclined, to charge Prince with a drone-snooping misdemeanor and impose a $250 slap on his high-minded wrist.
Squint said, “I’m not taking up drone flying, but if one fine day we find his LZ somebody’s going to the emergency room.”
Seb said, “So long, Squint. Tell Cody and Charlene I say hello. Now I got to get home before this storm.”
He patted Squint’s shoulder and walked to his Honda. Behind him, he heard Squint’s SUV start and crunch through the lot onto the road. He opened the trunk, removed his jacket, and shrugged out of his shoulder rig, then stowed it and his nine millimeter in the trunk vault. It was eight-thirty now, possibly too late for a drop-by at Mia’s, especially on a Saturday night.
He was going to do it though. As Seb got behind the wheel, his felt his heart start and felt the adrenaline flush of female fear. Like high school, he thought, but it was a good true normal fear, way more welcome than an IED flutter. The black plastic was still glinting in the wind beside the dumpster, just a scrap of bag now, an ordinary harmless muteness, but five minutes ago a portal back to Anbar and the day-to-day staying-alive fury. He breathed. He was going to see this woman. It was selfish, because what did she know of wild war on the other side of the world, but let it be selfish. Sometimes it was brave to be selfish.
As he swung around in the parking lot, he glanced down the alley behind the bar and in the security light above the bar’s rear door saw a white van and a big guy climbing into the driver’s seat. Seb gunned the Honda down the alley, squeezed between the vine-tangled chain link and the van, then angle-parked in front, blocking the van. The guy could have backed up, but in the side mirror Seb saw the door open. The guy got out. He had a mustache and ponytail and heavy sloped shoulders. He came forward.
Seb swung out of his car and held up his hands, hesitating the man’s forward progress. He said, “Carl, did you hurt that bartender?”
3: The Flytrap Pirate
Cody Cooper snugged into his sand chair, packed a pipe, and lit up. Across the channel, over the barren outer island, he could see a little piece of ocean and above that a line of black clouds spiking soundless lightning. Maybe the clouds were coming toward him, maybe headed out to sea. Hard to know. The lightning was beautiful and silent, like a painting.
Probably he should put the tent back up before hard dark, since it was complicated, full of tabs and rods and grommets, and had been hard enough to assemble in daylight. And it would be a gamble to sleep in the open, in case the storm was coming toward him. But right now he wanted to cool out after the hard slog of all-day digging, and also after his momentary panic. The panic happened when he returned with the flytraps and saw the bright orange tent. When he put the tent up that morning, it was a figuring-out challenge, a pride thing, and only when he got back with the flytraps did he realize, fuck me, the tent was like waving an orange flag at the Marine patrol. Five minutes ago, he had grabbed it down, madman fast, and stuffed it under a bush. Putting the tent up in the daylight was his malformed mind working in sections again, leading him astray.
He had scouted the Marine canals the day before, looking for patrols, but it was a wilderness training area, and he hadn’t seen any. That morning he’d cruised up the waterway, finally found the water tower, then found a bushy bump of island a few hundred yards south and threw up his tent. Then he took the boat to the mainland and, fifty feet from the shore, as remembered from ten years ago, he found the pod of Venus flytraps flourishing in a luscious green carpet all around the water tower base.
And amazingly, and sort of sad, he found the cracked gray remnant of his homemade bungee cord, still hanging from the tower’s walkway a hundred feet up. He had made the cord out of bundled latex tubing in his senior year in high school, and it had worked fine, first for trees and then for bridges, earning him a coveted daredevil reputation. The water tower had been his last jump and drew a cheering, jeering, fifty-kid audience, which provoked him into a too-horizontal swan dive. The spring-back shot him into the descending pipe, ending his daredevil career with a hospital stay and several visits to the dentist. He had been modeling himself after Sam Patch, the famous New Jersey leaper, who, just like Cody, made a last, crowd-goaded jump, except that Sam had not survived.
Cody toked, then began letting the Ka-Bar battle knife somersault from his fingertip into the sand, trying for a perfect stick. He had shortened the knife by grinding its broken tip and now used it as a flytrap digger. It was one of his prize possessions, since from time to time it wafted up the memory of his barracks buddy, Kenny Bartol. In Iraq, he and Kenny had been trapped in their blown-up Marine transport truck for three hours, which is how Cody had broken the knife tip, trying to pry open a smashed first aid kit. Kenny was in a frenzy about his leg stumps, and when Cody finally got the kit open and tied him off, Kenny had turned white, then started to mumble, then died. Cody started drugging after that, and the Marines kicked him with an Other Than Honorable. He kept the Ka-Bar though, and from time to time as he dug flytraps he sent Kenny good wishes in case he still existed somewhere.
The water tower flytraps had produced a mighty haul, four full pillowcases. And he had only thinned the pods, leaving enough to reseed for next year, in case he was still in the business. Which he wouldn’t be, he hoped. He would have a nest egg by then and be able to have an achievement. He could have a restaurant, or he could buy a small piece of land and have a paintball course. Or he could start a nursery, with the paintball course in back, a combination thing, which was a smart idea that he would have to remember, but then it was gone, and he couldn’t get it back, except to feel that it was some good inspiration for the future, now vanished in the marijuana mind dance. He should have a notebook to capture achievement ideas, which often came when he was stoned, and which he needed since he couldn’t get a decent job because of his prison stint.
He toked again, and Keisha floated up with her happy pixie face. His attention was currently centered on Keisha as a promising life companion. And it was a combination nursery–paintball course! Keisha could help, sell tickets and water plants. He considered writing nursery and paintball in the sand to remind himself tomorrow morning, but the storm was coming, he could see it closing now, and rain would wash the words away, and it was dark, and fuck, and he had to put the tent up.
He popped up from his sand chair and dragged the tent back to the flat place, and what a complicated motherfucker, and which part was the floor, and then it was up. Some irresistible intelligence in him had risen and mastered it. His mind was in sections, yes, but now and then a good section prevailed, or also it was luck. He tossed in the flytrap pillowcases, got his sleeping bag from the boat, and his pack with the energy bars, flashlight, water bottle, and book, and tossed them in.
He stuffed another pipe, then went back to his sand chair to wait for the storm, remembering that he had forgotten some important idea, something about plans for the future, which he had thought of writing in the sand, and should have, since it was gone.
4: Big Dog
Leo Sackler woke that morning and felt the free-from-prison gladness come again, waking him with its ordinary kindness. He was drifting on gladness, is how he thought about it. It was like a hungry man, a starving man, and now he’s in a food-everywhere place, and the food is not tricky. You turn and there it always is, at your fingertips, at your elbow, right up on you everywhere, only it’s freedom, instead of food, the gladness of freedom, deeply better than food, to be free every morning and anything whatsoever to do. First go out on the porch, urinate off the porch into the morning trees and sun, then cross the big room into the big kitchen, fry a plate of eggs, eat them all or not, have toast, a pot of coffee, then out to the well, free to work or not to work. But definitely work.
He had been out seventeen days, but he hadn’t found the letter until the second week, so he had only been digging out the old well for five days. But he was already down more than fifteen feet. She didn’t say how deep the well was back in the day, but if it was thirty feet and the digging went soupy, and he had to hire help, he would hire help and just be the video man. He learned he had a knack for the new things, even after forty-eight years absent from the world. He had heard about the iPhone but had never seen one, and when he left the phone store with his daughter, Virginia, and they sat in his truck, and she explained and taught, he focused hard through the gladness and found it all simple to see. He was going to be able to live in this new world.
Now it was getting toward noon. He had made a dozen trips up and down the ladder, made another foot at least, might make another before the rain came. When the rain came, he would stop working. It came to him he could get naked and walk around in it, leave on his tennis shoes and do a rain scamper like a child. That’s just what he would do. It would be foolishness, because it would not be enough, not even to wash him. But it would be partway enough, and he would most definitely do it.
He felt the shadows deepen, then felt a patter of clods on his hair and neck. He stuck the shovel hard in with his boot and looked up to see another little clod rain coming. It scattered on his forehead and eyelids. He was ten feet below the man on the surface, a tall man with the morning sun behind him, a shadow man in jeans and a baseball cap.
The man said, “What the fuck you doing down there?”
Leo said, “Don’t be throwing clods down on me, please, sir. You want my attention just call down. What I’m doing is just what it look like. I’m digging my well. How can I help you?”
“I come to see you. I went through your house, saw all your stuff. I could have had my way with your goods. You’re Leo Sackler?”
“Yes, sir. How can I help you?”
The man stepped sideways out of the sun, and the hole brightened, showing Leo’s brown face, polite, irritated, and fear-suppressed. The man moved again, and the hole re-darkened. The man said, “I like your truck. That’s a honey. How much you pay for that? I know they ain’t cheap.”
“How can I help you?”
As Leo put his foot on the ladder’s bottom rung and started to climb, the man kicked the top rung, and the ladder jumped halfway across the well before it clattered back on the brick wellhead. One of the rungs collided with Leo’s forehead. He dabbed his skin for blood, but it was dry.
The man said, “They say you a millionaire today.”
Leo unstuck the shovel and dropped it across his shoulder. The spade could be a shield, if it came to that. He said, “Speak your piece.”
The man said, “I’m going to start you at a thousand dollars a month. That’s no more than a mosquito for a man like you. I’m the big dog in the neighborhood, and no man is safe but through me. From burglars or arsonists or snipers neither. That’s my pronouncement to you. Best advice, do not get squirrelly. What’s your answer?”
“What’s your name, son?”
“You call me son, I’m the one looking down? A thousand a month for peace. What’s your answer?”
“Let me think on it.”
“You already thought on it. What’s your answer?”
“All right, then.”
“You got my thousand to start?”
“No, sir. I must go to the bank.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow. Don’t get squirrelly.”
The hole brightened again as the man vanished. Leo swung the shovel down, folded his hands on the handle top, laid his forehead across them. He had been thinking of the lovely rain. Now he thought of a gun, thought of the bank, thought of the young deputy that had been coming around. He craved to sit, but the buckets were already full of mud and couldn’t be inverted. He leaned against the well wall and let his head fall onto his chest, deeper and deeper.
5: Alley Fight
Peener stopped, and Seb said again, “Did you hurt that bartender?”
Peener said, “No, I didn’t. I did borrow three twenties from him, since I needed gas money. The motherfucker gave my credit card to the cops. I bet you got it.”
“Yes, I do. I’m with the sheriff.” Seb reached behind him and slipped the handcuffs from his belt. He said, “Get on the wall, Carl. I got to hook you up.”
Peener said, “I’m not going with you.”
“Yes, you are. You stabbed a guy.”
“I was defending myself.”
“Get on the wall, Carl.”
Peener smiled and shrugged. “Let me see your gun.”
Seb said, “If I see yours, you’ll see mine.”
“I don’t carry one. Being a felon.”
Seb nodded, then said, “I locked mine in the trunk.” He added, a between-men comment: “Where I can’t get to it.”
Peener made an appreciative laugh. “Well, damn, son, we got to tussle.” He came forward in a boxer’s shuffle, fists up.
Seb retreated past the hood of his car, put the Honda between him and Peener. He scanned the gravel for a weapon. He was back in Anbar now. He had put on the battle jacket. He would think later, he would think honestly: it felt good, it was also home.
Peener said, “C’mon, chickenshit.” He came around the Honda.
Seb ran to the rear of the van, tried the door, a tire iron, anything. It was locked. He moved between the van and the bar. Peener circled the Honda, then crossed between the vehicles, went into his stance again. He said, “C’mon, dawg, let’s fight it out.”
Seb walked forward, the handcuffs in his right hand. He feinted with his left, flinching Peener’s concentration, then whipped the handcuffs hard across the broad face. Peener shouted with pain, lurched back, and as he straightened, Seb kicked him perfectly between his thick thighs. Peener said, “Fuck,” and hunched. Seb spun him and pushed him hard toward the wall. The rear door swung open—heavy metal rear door, Handley the bartender coming to see—and Peener went face-first into the edge with a bad sound. He was down and out.
The incident took forty-five minutes to clear. Kate was back for the scene, and since Seb was a participant, she took the investigation too, Seb making sure she got clear and detailed testimony from Handley that he had opened the rear door himself, just at an unfortunate moment for Peener. The EMS guys had taken Peener to the hospital, a skull-deep gash on his forehead and seeing double, and already complaining about police brutality.
It was going to be the third complaint against Seb this year, and State Bureau of Investigation would open a case, since that was the promise the new sheriff had made when he got elected. That was why he got elected. He had beaten an old-boy incumbent of twenty-four years, some of whose deputies had been going in terror of the citizenry, white and black and poor, and had finally shot a good old boy in a trailer-park tussle for a Taser, supposedly. One deputy was fired and two quit, but all without charges, so it wasn’t enough to settle the outrage, and the new sheriff vowed to bring in the SBI to investigate deputy misconduct. Swann County was way off I-95, the notorious Iron Pipeline for drug transport, so corruption wasn’t the issue, at least for that election, though it might be soon, with heroin use and overdose death spiking. No, what was on the county’s mind, and on the Raleigh paper’s mind, and on the nation’s mind, was police brutality.
There were two main bad parts for Seb in the incident. One was that the new sheriff was his former Marine Corps boss, the provost marshal of Camp Henderson when Seb had been a CID detective. So if the sheriff didn’t hammer his old sergeant, the press could sniff favoritism.
The other bad part, the worse bad part, was that a month ago bartender Handley had testified to internal affairs that Queeny Barker, a black male transvestite, had indeed fallen to her knees in front of Seb as he entered the bar to arrest her for soliciting, seized his buttocks, and shouted, “I’m gonna suck my Sebby’s dick.” It wasn’t the dick-sucking shout that mattered, it was the buttocks seizing, since Queeny claimed to the booking sergeant that she was a victim of police corruption and injustice, having paid Seb one hundred dollars and still been arrested, just look in his back pocket, which Seb did, removing the bill and handing it over for evidence. Queeny, who was bipolar and bad with her antivirals, had a year ago gone from HIV to AIDS and was still locked up, having been refused bail for her soliciting charge in order to protect the public. So now it was the same bartender backing him twice, first with Queeny, now with Peener. Plus, two months earlier, a dealer selling near a middle school swore that Seb had squeezed his testicles to make him reveal the location of his stash. In that case, Seb had only seized the testicles, a squeeze being unnecessary. Peener would be Seb’s third complaint in less than a year and trigger an SBI investigation. The press would love it. The sheriff would hate it. The public would frown.
Back in his Honda, he had to decide: go see the girl or brood. So go see the girl. It wasn’t ten yet, and he knew she sometimes worked late, who knows, even on a Saturday night, and he could breathe on the way. Definitely the fight had been a joy—except poor Peener, with his concussed brain and split forehead, which Seb didn’t yet but might later, maybe, feel something about—so don’t hide the joy, but put it on the shelf with the other wrong joys, where he could see it and watch it and take its measure, everything being measured now and for the last several years against the joy he had felt in Iraq when he had died for six minutes.
And there she was, lights on in the studio, bent over her potter’s wheel, raising a slender cylinder. She looked up, puffed back a lock of hair, and gave him a bland oh-it’s-you expression. Two weeks earlier, in his initial interview with her about the burglary, he’d mentioned that he and Charlene were no longer together. The conversation then had gone from professional to friendly to interested, which was not professional, so then back to professional but with a memory of interested. He had watched her knowing smile come and go and had gotten a wise feeling from her.
Now she sat up straight, waiting. After a short no-progress report concerning the burglary, he made his eight o’clock coffee offer.
She said, “Oh.”
He said, “If you can make it.”
The kind wise smile came. She said, “No Charlene?”
“No, no. We’re friends, but …”
She said, “Okay.”
He felt a joy burst and gripped it back. It would be an upwind challenge. She was a halfway famous artist and might be an I-don’t-date-cops type besides. But he had gotten his yes.
He extended his hand to shake, smiling away her muddy-handed shrug. They shook, and he wrung his hands together to dry the clay, holding his face sober, not gathering her appreciation with a look. He had gotten his yes, a great valuable main thing.
Back in his Honda, he breathed and breathed. Don’t hope was important. But hope was important too.
6: Simple True Guys
Seb headed home to Swanntown on the Marine cut through the base. The expected storm had arrived. The thunder altered from booming to banging and occasional lightning jagged into the swamp, illuminating the asphalt and dashboard. Rain made a frenzy on the windshield, and his Honda rocked, but he knew the road and stayed at seventy a few seconds longer, past smart. He had been expressing himself with speed.
Now he let up and coasted to fifty. He had done well, he thought. They would have coffee together, out on the inlet dock on the water. The storm would be through by then, and there would be the cool morning sun on her auburn hair. Then he thought, no, he had blown it with that wet-clay handwringing bullshit. Why not a smile there, at least a goofy shrug? Instead his sober soldier self, his squared-away, upstanding self. In some ways, with women every man was screwed from go, and not just emotion-hiding soldiers. Men fell in love with softness and beauty and slants of smile and teasing comments, which came from the other world, housed in that fairy body and face, which danced around you, seeing your exposure and dismay and considering both surrender and indifference.
Maybe he wasn’t ready. But he longed. So he was. Anyway, she had agreed to coffee.
The fight joy had subsided, though not enough yet to feel any Peener sympathy. Besides, who knows, the door opening might have saved Peener an even worse beating. Seb had put on the battle jacket.
His first deployment had been during the invasion, and when he returned, desperate for an anchor, he married Glenda, his college girlfriend. Four years later he was redeployed into the Surge, where, for him, the killing began. First, he shot at some guys on a balcony, then at some guys in a street, then for certain killed a guy behind a propane tank, then for certain two guys on a stairwell. His last kill, just before his own death, had been a teenager, a boy crawling through the scrub with an RPG. Seb had picked him up from his post in an irrigation ditch, got him centered in his four-power, and just before he squeezed off saw the kid irritably slap a mosquito on his temple, then put a bullet through the same spot. When they advanced, he steered past the body and force-fed himself a glance at the kid’s dead eyes, somebody’s kid, somebody’s brother, and under the battle hate his heart woke. The boy had been alive. He had slapped a mosquito.
The next day Seb caught an RPG fragment through his armpit into his aortic arch. When they got him to the hospital his pulse was 180 and the pressure almost gone, and then he was gone and came up out of his body and saw the doctors and nurses working over him and then went down a tunnel of glorious light, and there was his dead father, who had killed himself, now benign and kindly, and he saw his whole life go by like shuffling cards, and some others that shined, and then one of the shining ones came forward and said, you have more to do, and embraced him, and the love that went through him and around him showed Seb everything about life that he would ever know. Then he woke up in the hospital, and they sent him home.
Glenda found him one night in their backyard, sobbing. She laid her hand on his shoulder and said, “Seb, maybe you should get some help.” He wanted her commiseration, but also, and more deeply, he felt it as pain. The love was gone, the angel love and her love too. Now it was the ordinary world of courtesy and chatter which had no view into the world of blood and death. He blamed her and blamed himself for blaming. More oppressive yet, he had begun to sense the agonizing indifference of everyone to everyone.
In war, where one moment you are speaking to a friend and the next he is a ragged corpse, where the missions come one after another, where entire families die at checkpoints and mortared markets, where he had killed a boy slapping a mosquito—in that finality something more brutal even than war was revealed, that through all life, and in all hearts, there existed a secret current of indifference, and when you returned from battle, filled with jitters, dreams, and flashbacks, and tried to reenter normal life, you felt the smooth walls of that indifference like a coffin. Normal life denied you readmittance, first with useless solicitude, then with silence. You could not emerge from the numbness that had protected you, and the military that had trained it into you was incompetent to free you. Rage built, and helplessness, and despair. If you escaped booze, drugs, suicide, and jail, you redeployed fast because you needed the clarity of war, where your enemies were simple and true and over there, the guys shooting at you, and your friends were the simple true guys beside you shooting back.
Then Glenda confessed her affair. She wasn’t in love either, she said, and maybe never had been. Anyway, he was changed, she said, and what did he expect? He was behind a wall.
After they divorced, to free himself from the combat cycle he applied to the Marine Criminal Investigation Division, and his last deployment had been stateside at Camp Henderson, just outside his home county, where he had been a CID sergeant under Henry Rhodes, now the new sheriff. He moved back to the barracks, unmoored. When his enlistment was up, he left the Marines to finish college.
To supplement his income, he formed a rock band. He began to take long slow walks in the woods around Raleigh, and on the walks began to sing, not rock songs, but hymns and slow-cadenced folk ballads that his mother, a music teacher, had taught him as a child, songs in which human emotion had been purified and distilled. Feeling began to reemerge. He thought more and more of his near death experience, learned it was called an NDE, that thousands had had them, in the past and especially now, since the sixties, when cardiovascular resuscitation became possible. They were the same in every era and culture, a tunnel or river, dead relatives, angels or Jesus or Krishna, and always love and welcome. He eventually saw the indifference of the world that had tormented him more evenly and recognized it in himself as well. He graduated and took a job with his old commander. Battle fever was a jacket now, a dangerous jacket, no doubt, but you could take it off, and there was a closet for it, and you could close the closet.
His mother, who was then dating Squint Cooper, the famous Silver Star–recipient hog farmer, sensed the change in him, and invited him to dinner and also invited Squint’s daughter, Charlene. Seb hesitated. After all, when Seb was a Marine MP, he had sent her brother, Cody, to the brig. But she was bright-minded, and it hadn’t mattered. Charlene was pretty and willing, and they’d dated for a few months. It was like a movie though, his front self saying the words, his behind self watching and wanting solitude, sometimes wanting to run.
Then he met Charlene’s pottery instructor, Mia Fairchild. Something in him thawed. Something woke and wanted. He picked Charlene up at the studio three times, then told her he needed a break. He was not ready, he said, and hoped he was lying.
7: The M416
When the storm neared, Cody left the sand chair and lay on top of his sleeping bag to watch the lightning strikes out over the water. Next thing, a seventy-five knot wind was raking his campsite. Seventy-five knots, he learned from his sister the next day, was hurricane force. The tent went flat and started flapping like a pinned bird. Which meant he had missed a tab or grommet in the stoned tent erection he had been so proud of. Or else his dad had bought a cheap tent. If Cody hadn’t had the foresight to get his body flattened on the floor, the tent would have kited into the night.
When the rain started, it was horizontal and bullet-hard, and, since the net window was blown tight across the top of his head and bald spot, it stung like crazy. This was the point, he would think later, that fate started.
He wrestled the window sideways, so that now it came down beside his face. That was when the first chopper blasted over, the engine noise almost blending into the storm, but lower pitched and noticeable. Then the twin lightning strikes came, big-time fatefully, and the glare showed the blacked-out chopper and also something big tumbling from the underslung cargo net. Then blackness again.
It was super vivid, so maybe a hallucination. He had toked two bowls that evening, but he didn’t hallucinate on weed, unless it was laced, and he did not lace his weed. But he had anointed one baggie with a sprinkle of nicotine from Charlene’s e-cig stash—product research—then got the baggies confused. So maybe he had just made a discovery—hallucinogenic nicotine marijuana. Five seconds later, still wondering whether he had hallucinated or seen something amazing, a chopper dropping its load into the drink, he saw a second chopper roar over, also blacked out. A few seconds after that the campsite was bathed in pearly white, and he heard the whumping concussion of the explosion. And he saw, very clearly, twenty yards out in the creek, wheels down, the load sticking up like a timber snag, the M416 trailer that had dropped from the net.
8: A Hanging
The Honda had climbed back to sixty, and now a massive gust slapped it into the opposite lane. Seb corrected and slowed again. The wild, brave wind matched his mood. He started the song “Four Strong Winds,” holding the wheel with his right hand and cupping his ear with his left to hear above the racket of rain.
“Four strong winds that blow lonely …”
Then the sky on the ocean side blossomed amazingly white yellow and brightly endured, so definitely not artillery or a lightning strike. An instant later, even over the rain crash, he heard the rolling thumps of explosions. The green rectangle of mile marker six flared past in his headlights. He lifted the radio mike.
“Lori, how copy?”
A female voice crisped through the speaker. “Lori. Go ahead, Seb.”
“I’m on mile six of the Marine cut. I just observed a major explosion on the sea side. In the swamp. I think it’s an aviation crash. You better call the base.”
“No. It’s hell and gone in the swamp. I couldn’t see it, but the sky lit up, and I heard it. Call the Marines. Tell them mile six.”
“It’s not artillery?”
“It was fuel.”
“Copy that. Out.”
It would be an accident. They wouldn’t waste that much fuel in training. Unless they might. Some battalion commander gets an idea. So maybe an exploded fuel dump for some wild hair reason. But likely choppers. It would be choppers. And violent flaming death.
Lori called him back three minutes later.
“Sebastian. How copy?”
He lifted the mike. “Go ahead.”
“It was a chopper, or two choppers. I spoke to the provost watch over there. They’re going frantic.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m about to leave the cut. Going home.”
“Well, you got to turn around.”
“They want me out there?” He began to slow, looking for a turnaround.
“This is unrelated. I just got a call from Deputy Garland. He was on patrol out near Twice Mile and went to check on Leo Sackler, which he’s been doing, I guess.”
“That got the Ford place?”
“Right, that got the Ford place. And he found Leo hung by the neck in a hole. Randall’s securing the crime scene.”
“Randall says he is definitely dead.”
“It’s not a suicide? It’s a crime scene?” Seb had stopped the Honda and now backed into a chained-off gravel road, then swung back onto the asphalt in the opposite direction.
“Well, you’re the detective. It might be Randall’s wishful thinking.”
“What do you mean, a hole?”
“Randall says Leo’s been digging a hole out there. I guess it’s real deep. And now he’s hung in it. From a ladder or something. Randall was talking fairly fast. I called Lieutenant Stinson, and I’m fixing to call the rest of the squad. And the sheriff. I had you as on-call, which the lieutenant said was right. By the way, he thinks you’re going to be on courthouse duty for a while because of your fight. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. And, just so you know, I did not violate the man’s civil rights. I’m turned around. ETA in ten minutes. Tell Randall to stay out of the hole. Tell him to get out his plastic sheet and cover everything he can. Is it raining in town?”
“It stopped. It’s probably still raining on Randall though. The sheriff will love that. About the plastic.”
“I know he will.”
Seb crossed the Fleming Ferry gate in the rapid-pass lane, went eleven miles west along Sable River Road to Twice Mile Road, then a short stretch to the Ford farm gate, a rust-covered arch of ornate blacksmith-twisted iron. The gravel road made a soggy crunch, but the rain had stopped. He passed under the straight-line canopy of oaks, the typical Southern passage to the manse, which was a two story, many windowed erection of peeled logs and copper roofing, a hundred feet wide and half as deep, set on the bank of the once pristine Sable River inlet. The inlet was currently being despoiled by farm, lawn, and parking lot runoff, and also, three years ago, it was inundated with twenty-five million gallons of Cooper Farms hog shit, which flowed down Council Creek past the lodge and into the inlet, resulting in a million menhaden and spotted trout deaths and an uproar of lawsuits.
He turned left in the gravel parking area, and his headlights jounced at a brown Swann County cruiser parked beside a red Ford pickup, shiny and ancient, the swollen rear fenders like matronly hips. Randall emerged from the cruiser with his leather investigation logbook and hailed him. He was an early twenties black man, a six-month deputy, just released to his own patrol. His gym-bulked size was evident even under his slicker.
He was at the door when Seb’s car stopped, backstepping as the door opened.
As Seb got out, his flashlight glanced Randall’s large-jawed face, which seemed to Seb intent with first-murder excitement. He would not know about the chopper crash then. Seb considered mentioning it, but that would mean exchanging rue, which he was not inclined to do with this eager youth.
Seb said, “Randall Garland?”
They shook hands and said it was nice to meet each other.
Seb said, “You tape it off?”
“Well, I started. Then I thought I better get that plastic down. I was halfway into it and here come the rain and wind. What we need is stakes too.”
The new sheriff had used part of his welcome money for replacement items for the patrol car trunks, flares, tape, and blankets, plus—the sheriff’s innovation—a roll of four mil plastic for outdoor crime scene preservation, just in lucky time to protect the death scene of the mysterious Leo Sackler.
“Did it blow off?”
“Half of it did. It’s plastered all over the trees.”
“We going to be in the woods?”
“No, just the side of the house. You won’t need boots.”
“I was thinking chiggers and ticks.” It was middle May, and Seb had seen the unmowed grass on the lawns as he entered.
“Oh, man. I been in there already. You got any bugspray?”
Seb retrieved a spray can from his door panel, sprayed his cuffs and ankles, and handed the can to Randall.
Seb said, “Anybody in the house?”
“No. I knocked, then I went in and made a sweep. It was unlocked.” Randall sprayed his cuffs, then wrote briefly in his logbook. “I got you in at 10:34.”
Seb replaced the bugspray in the door, retrieved his flashlight, then rummaged for a pair of latex gloves, and slid them on. He calculated. Ten hours before his coffee date with Mia. Give him a few hours at the scene, he might get home to sleep and shower. Or sleep in his car, get a toothbrush at a 7-Eleven. They started across the gravel.
Seb said, “That’s his pickup?”
“Looks like a high-priced antique.”
“He paid twenty-five thousand for it. It’s a ’54 F-100. He and his dad used to work on them.”
“Lori said you were out here checking on him. You get to know him?”
“A little. I’m on area two patrol, and I think, well, what if he gets victimized? Maybe those Coopertown boys think he’s got some of that money in the house. So I wanted to show the cruiser for visual deterrent.”
“How many times?”
“This is my fourth trip.”
“You shoot the shit with him?”
“Sort of. Nice place, nice view, that kind of stuff. Nice truck.”
“You usually come after dark?”
“No, just this time. I had come in the daylight, and I wanted to slow roll Coopertown in the dark.”
“Did they see you?”
“In the daylight they did. This evening a few guys had fires going under the bathtubs in Elton’s yard. Before the storm.”
“You ever run into visitors out here?”
They left the graveled lot and crossed through the knee-high grass of the side lawn. A mound of red-brown earth came in view, coursed with rivulets. Beside it was a round hole, six feet in diameter, and above the hole a multipurpose ladder was cocked in a V. At the top of the V hung three lines of thin nylon rope. Two were relaxed and led to the handles of five-gallon plastic buckets upended near the mound. A third bucket lay on its side some yards away. One rope was taut.
Randall said, “Last time I come out here, he was down there digging. He said he was going to dig out the old well.”
A handled rod with some type of clamp at the end leaned against the ladder. In a moment, Seb placed it. A selfie stick. Which likely meant a phone somewhere. The top of another ladder emerged from the dark of the hole. Beside the hole, a stepladder lay across a sheet of clear plastic. Another plastic sheet made a pearly cummerbund around the trunks of a stand of pines twenty yards away.
The woolly white top of a head came in view. Seb circled, flashlighted the dark brown face, slack jaw, brown tongue, open eyes. The face and clothes glistened with rainwater. The rope looped around his neck and under his right armpit, so that the arm was erect over his head, elbow bent, the wrist and hand dropped near the opposite ear, like a dancer’s move. Below, a shovel lay crosswise on the uneven mud. He wandered the light methodically over the bottom. There was no phone visible.
Randall said, “It’s brick on the sides down there.” The deputy shined his flashlight on the wall. “You can make out the bricks.”
Seb said, “Why was he digging out the well?”
“I asked him, and he said, ‘Everybody needs water.’”
“How did he say it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did he say it sly, like that’s not the real reason but I can’t tell you the real reason?”
“He said it more friendly. He wanted the whole family to move in with him, so maybe he needed water. Or maybe he wanted something to do, like a guy glad to be out of prison. Like why he bought that old truck. That’s what I thought.”
“Did he say how old the well was?”
“No, but it was grass on top. He had to cut through the sod.”
Seb said, “Did you check for a pulse?”
“Well, I couldn’t get down to him, and I didn’t want to pull him up in case I would mess things up. I laid down and touched his cheek, and it felt like cold putty, so I thought, well, I guarantee he’s dead.”
“I suppose you laid that ladder on the plastic.”
“Yeah, because a while back, man, the wind was—”
“It would have been better just to have gone back to the cruiser, Randall. If it’s a crime, I’m going to need clues.”
Randall threw his arms halfway wide. “Well, I wondered. But the rain was coming hard, and I was thinking, maybe I’ll save a footprint. There’s some dirt under there.”
Seb raised the light slightly so that Randall’s face emerged from shadow. The face was strained, earnest for fairness but ready for blame.
After a moment, Seb said, “Maybe you’re right.” When the flashlight gleamed Randall’s face again, Seb saw the strain had relented to relief. He said, “I was on the cut going home, and I witnessed two choppers exploding in a fireball over the swamp.”
“Oh, my God!”
“That’s all I know. Lori says they’re responding over there. About fifteen minutes ago.”
“We need to start a grid search. We’re looking for a phone.”
9: Misfortunate Find
Cody scrunched in his tent, waiting out the wind. He didn’t want to catch a flying branch in the face and also didn’t want to wade the creek with busy lightning. Ten minutes later the lightning stopped, and the wind was down to a thirty-knot gale. He shrugged around under the sodden nylon until he found his flashlight, then backed out the door and beamed the light around. Several of the tent pegs had come out of the sand and some of the cords were whipping around, but most still held. He saw that Charlene’s aluminum boat, which he had tied to a bush, had come completely out of the water, five-horse motor and all, and lay streamed on its bowline a few feet from the tent. If he had tied it looser, the prop could have bashed him in the head.
He crossed to the water and aimed the flashlight across the canal, and there it was, the M416, standard little military trailer, crisscrossed with straps, and under the straps its cargo, two six-foot-long cases stenciled with FIM-92.
The fate part of his finding the M416 had started years ago, in Kuwait, when he and Kenny Bartol had been the only two guys in his company selected for Stinger training. A squad of low altitude air defense guys had driven them into the desert and let them each shoot down a drone, so that now, standing on the water in a wild gale, Cody knew exactly what he was looking at.
His heart raced, and he was instantly full of prickling danger and panic hurry. He would have time, since those choppers had crashed, definitely, and that’s where the Marines would be, swarming the wreckage. Then again, the pilot might have radioed, lost my cargo, heading back. That right there was why they crashed, probably, one guy turning and the other guy right in his face.
Later he would wonder: Did he even consider not taking them? He had not. The section of his nature that made the extravagant swan dive off the water tower now started him across the canal. Except he was barefoot, so he turned and trotted back to the tent and rummaged out his tennis shoes, and also—good thinking—his trusty Ka-Bar. He knew military straps and buckles, but right now needed shortcuts, all and any.