Authors: Nevada Barr
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Pigeon; Anna (Fictitious character), #Women park rangers, #Mississippi, #Natchez Trace Parkway
Nevada Barr - Anna Pigeon 08 - Deep South
For DOMINICK, who has a genius for taking care of things Because, as I was working on this book, they inspired me personally or professionally and took the time to answer all my questions, I am grateful to Hollis Morris, Terry Winschel, David Christianson, Steve Stilwell, James G. McGraw and the Mississippi Department of Fish'and Wildlife.
The Rambler's headlights caught a scrap of paper nailed to a tree, a handwritten sign: REPENT. Darkness swallowed it, and Anna was left with the feeling she was surely on the road to perdition. God knew it was dark enough. Her high beams clawed the grass on the left side of the narrow lanc, plowing a furrow so green it looked unnatural: neon green, acid green.
At least it's in color, she thought sourly. Everything she knew-or imagined she did-about Mississippi had been gleaned from grainy black-and-white television footage of the civil rights movement in the sixties.
Her worldly goods in a U-Haul, a shrieking Piedmont in a cat carrier, and an ever-faithful, if occasionally disgusting, hound drooling on her thigh, she'd driven straight through from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Twenty-two hours. And she'd done it the old-fashioned way: without drugs. Caffeine didn't count, and six hours north of Dallas-Fort Worth it had quit having any appreciable effect. A marathon drive seemed the lesser of two evils if one was to be a night in a motel room with Piedmont.
Anna poked a finger through the wire door of the carrier buckled into the passenger side of the bench seat. Taco, the black lab she'd inherited after she'd killed her dear friend and Taco's mistress, insisted on squashing his seventy-five pounds between her and the cat.
Wearily celebrating this sign of life from his mistress, he brushed his rubbery tail over her wrist where she reached across him. Piedmont wouldn't even bat at her finger. Eyes squeezed shut, he howled.
"We're almost there," she said plaintively. "Don't you want to rest your throat?" Taco's tail thumped. Piedmont yowled. "Suit yourself." Anna rolled down the window in the hope that the wind would ameliorate the wailings. Her eyes burned. It was too early and too late. It was pitch dark. It was April 15. She hadn't paid her income taxes, and she was in Mississippi. Only a thin and cracking veneer of civilization kept her from taking up Piedmont's lament.
Another hand-printed sign, this one riddled with bullet holes, flashed out of the night: MPENT. FINAL WARNING. Ten miles back, Anna'd started having a bad feeling. Now it was worse. This was not at all what she'd expected the fast track to look like.
At forty-five, she'd finally heeded the ticking of her bureaucratic clock. The appeal of living out her dotage on a GS-9 field ranger's salary had begun to wane. Time bad come to plan for the day she'd no longer want to sleep on the ground, swing a pulaski or argue with violent unsavory types. Promotions were not easily had in the National Park Service. First, one had to scour the pink sbects for a job opening one GS level above that currently held. Then one bad to have, or fake, the KSAS-knowledge, skills and abilities-called for in the desired position. What made a good ranger at Kenai Fiords might be totally useless at Appomattox Courthouse.
That done, one sent in the application. The government then fiddled around in mysterious ways until half the hopefuls died of old age or went on to other jobs. With luck and timing, an offer eventually came.
Given the givens, it wasn't a good career move to turn a promotion down.
For Anna, the call had come from the Deep South; she had been offered a GS-11 district ranger position in the Port Gibson District of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the section that ran from Jackson to Natchez, Mississippi, ninety miles through the heart of one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the union.
"You'll feel better when the sun rises," she promised herself.
"Surely the sun rises even in Mississippi." Taco slathered reassurance on her kneecap.
The air through the window was cool but lacked bite. There'd been snow on the ground when she'd driven down off the mesa above Cortez. Heady scents she didn't recognize swept the cab free of the odor of stale McDonald's fries and cat vomit, but they could not clear the head as the scent of pine or rain on the desert did.
Smell was primal. This stirred an image deep in Anna's subconscious.
Hunched over the wheel, eyes on the writhing black strip of asphalt, she waited as it struggled up through the layers of fatigue: Dorothy's poppy field, Toto, the lion, the girl, tumbling down in a narcotic dream on the outskirts of the Emerald City.
Flashes of green, unfurling black; the road bad a mystic sameness that was stultifying. Maybe she should have stayed on Interstate 20 to Clinton, Mississippi, as the chief ranger bad instructed, instead of following the tortuous directions for a shortcut she'd gotten when she called one of her soon-to-be field rangers in Port Gibson, a jovial fellow who called himself Randy She rolled the window up. With the sandman already in hot pursuit, the last thing she needed was a hypnotic. The road coiled around on itself in a hairpin turn. She was going too fast. The U-Haul bore down on the Rambler, then drifted, slewing the car to the right.
She slammed on the brakes. Taco slid to the floor, clawing her leg in a last bid for stability.
The tall was wagging the dog both inside the Rambler and out. Anna stopped fighting the wheel and steered into the skid as if she was on black ice. In the hectic instant that followed, headlights slicing impossible colors from the night, animal caterwauling foretelling the end of the world, it crossed her mind that black ice was a thing of the past. What would replace it in the way of hazard and adventure, she had vet to find out.
Soundlessly, painlessly, the trailer left the road, dragging the rear wheels of the Rambler with it. The coupled vehicles came to a stop with nary a bump. The car tilted unpleasantly and the red-lighted trailer in the rearview mirror held a drunken pose. "Everybody okay?" Anna's voice shook, and she was glad only furry and therefore sympathetic cars were there to hear. Taco scrabbled up onto the seat, his untrimmed nails doing the aging vinyl no favors.
The engine had died. Anna rested her head on the steering wheel.
Regardless of the situation, it was good to be still. Silence, after twenty hours of radio, trucks, tapes and the high-pitched whine of rubber on pavement, hit like the first drink on an empty stomach.
Something warm and wet and vile penetrated her car, and she remembered she was a dog owner. "Two seconds," she begged.
The tongue insinuated itself into her armpit and Anna gave up.
Having pulled the leash from under the cat carrier, she fought the usual battle to overcome the dog's joy at a potential walk long enough to clip it to his collar. "Me first," she insisted, and in a fit of good manners Taco waited till she'd slid clear and stood on shaky legs before bounding out the driver's door. The leash slipped from fingers numbed from too long clutching the wheel, and the black lab loped off toward the taillights of the U-Haul.
"Don't go chasing 'coons or whatever the hell dogs chase down here," she muttered. Outside the car, silence was shattered.
Stunned by the sheer magnitude of sound, Anna leaned on the door and listened.
A chorus, a choir, a nation of frogs sang from darkness curtained close by trees. Wide and deep, the sound chortled, chirped, tickled underfoot, overhead, from every direction. Basso profundo croaks, rough and guttural, were buoyed up by a cacophony of lesser notes.
Big croaks. Big damn frogs, she thought. Or alligators. She'd seen live free-range alligators a few times when she'd been on assignment on Cumberland island off the coast of Georgia, but they hadn't uttered a word in her presence. Without questioning it, she'd come away with the idea gators were dumb. Maybe that wasn't so. Mississippi had a whole new natural history she would have to learn.
Big frogs, she decided for the moment, and turned to follow in Taco's paw prints, to see what, if any, damage had been done. One step and she was on her butt, amazed and outraged but otherwise unhurt.
Wet grass lay over earth as liquid and slippery as warm Jell-O. A good surface to take a fall on. A foul surface to try and pull an overloaded trailer off of-or out of, as the case might be.
Using the door, she pulled herself upright. Slipping and grabbing in a parody of a vintage Jerry Lewis routine, she made it around the Rambler's hood and onto the asphalt. By the glare of the headlights she saw she was covered from the elbows down in caramel-colored liquid.
Taco padded up next to her, grinning in idiotic doggle bliss.
"We're not in the desert anymore, Taco," she said, paraphrasing Dorothy's observation as she wrenched open the passenger door to fumble under the seat for a towel and a flashlight.
Piedmont had not stopped complaining. "You're getting on my very last nerve," she warned the cat. He remained unimpressed.
Flashlight and towel in hand, she closed the door on the vocalization of feline suffering. The towel smelled of things that had once been on the inside of the cat and the flashlight beam was only slightly less brown than the Mississippi mud, but it would suffice.
Taco danced like a puppy, though Anna figured him to be five or six at least, then dashed off to the rear of the little caravan, yipping and grumbling as if the news was not good for humans but extremely entertaining for dogs.
Anna followed, her moccasins squisbing at each step. Frog music, velvet darkness, and perfumed air all closed around her, and the walk of twenty feet took on a bizarre timelessness. She'd been too long on the road.
At the back of the U-Haul she stopped and stared. Taco leapt about with glee. "This can't be right," she said stupidly.
Caught in the demon eyes of the taillights, a tree, a foot in diameter where it leaned against the bumper, lay over the trailer. Leafy boughs embraced the orange and white metal. Roots poked out of the ground, bent and angry as arthritic hands where the tree had been uprooted by the force of impact. Except there'd been no impact.
Nothing but a gentle slide into this oblivion of sentient and predatory plant materials. Had she dozed off behind the wheel? She didn't think so, but it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
Too dull with lack of sleep to do much else, she played her pathetic light over the rear of the trailer. No scrapes, no dents, therefore no impact. Unfortunately, logic had no effect on the tree. A locust, she guessed, twenty-five or thirty feet tall, bad her vehicles in a death grip. If she pulled forward, the half-buried roots would act as an anchor and she'd dig herself into the slime. Back, and she'd ram the topmost branches down over the trailer and onto the roof of the Car.
"Well, shit," she confided in the dog and stood a moment hoping things would be different. She could unhitch the trailer, drive off and return for it-or what was left of it-with the proper equipment.
Assuming the Natchez Trace Parkway bad the proper equipment.
Home was in that white and orange box, and a deep unsettling unease boiled up at the thought of leaving it on the side of a strange road in a strange land. "Shit," she reiterated.
Headlights rounded the corner from the direction she'd come. In proper rabbit fashion, she stared into them. Engine noise and the metallic Complaint of a derelict truck momentarily quieted the frogs.
Fear, not even a thought before, sprang full-blown from some Yankee collective unconscious. James Dickey and Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and "squeal like a pig." Mississippi Burning, I have a dream," and chain gangs in the cotton fields. Nothing personal, nothing even secondhand, yet Anna had been fed a nightmare of the rednecked heart of Dixie.
The truck clattered to a stop and was instantly enveloped by a toxic cloud of exhaust. A plaid-covered elbow hung out the window Above it, thrust into the pale beam of Anna's flash, was a round face under a beat-up ball cap. "Lady, you look to be in a whole heap of hurt." The voice was thick, its owner talking around a wad of chewing tobacco the size of a golf ball. Anna blinked, waiting to see if her leg was being pulled or if he really talked that way. "A whole heap of hurt," be repeated. "Looks like it," she said. Taco wandered back to resume guard dog duties. He leaned against her muddy thigh, beating a canine welcome on the bumper with his tail. "Hunter?" the moon-pie face asked.
"Tourist," Anna said, too tired to explain about jobs and transfers.
The man's pale face split into a laugh, and Anna saw, or thought she saw, streaks of tobacco juice on his teeth. Her old Colt.357 wbeel gun was in the glove box. The thought comforted her as she edged in that direction.
"What did she say, Baby?" a creaking voice cut through the onesided hilarity. "Tourist." Ancient laughter crackled from the window, leaking around the man Anna could see.
"Not you," the driver managed, merriment abated. "Your dog. He a buntin' dog?"
"Tourist," Anna said again. "What, Baby?"
"Tourist dog, Daddy." Much laughter. Anna found herself inclined to join in but was afraid it would turn to hysteria. "Get on with it, Baby. I got work to do," came a querulous creaking from the invisible passenger.
The round face sobered, the wad of chaw was more securely stowed in the cheek and
"Baby" got down to business. "Daddy wants to know if y'all need a hand." By way of reply, Anna shined her failing light on the locust clutching her trailer. The verdant embrace struck her funny bone, comedy of the absurd, and she laughed. "You wouldn't happen to have a chainsaw on you, would you?" Baby looked at her as if she was a half-wit, then said to the darkness beyond his shoulder: "Lady needs a chainsaw, Daddy." Anna heard the unhappy notes of bent metal being forced as the passenger door of the truck opened and closed. Taco whined and wagged. Rummaging noises emanated from the pickup bed, then an old man-somewhere between sixty and biblical-came around the end of the truck, red brake lights lending his shrunken cheeks and spindly silhouette a devilish cast. In his left hand was a chainsaw with a twenty-four-inch blade. "Whatcher need cut? That tree you backed on into?" Anna was torn between efficiency and dignity. Efficiency lost. "I didn't back into it," she defended herself. "I slid ever so gently into the muck and, bingo, a tree was on me." Pretty lame, but it was the best she could do.