Book One in the Appalachian Mountain Mysteries Series
A Life for a Life
My life was saved by a murder. At the time, of course, I didn’t understand that. I just knew I was having the best year of my life. Given all the terrible things that happened, I should be ashamed to say it, but that year was a blessing for me.
I’d just turned fifteen when Della Kincaid bought Daddy’s store. At first nothing much changed. Daddy was still round a lot, getting odd jobs as a handyman and farming enough to sell what Mama couldn’t put by. And we still lived in the house next door, though Mama banned me from going inside the store. She said she didn’t want me to be a nuisance, but I think she was jealous of “that woman from Washington, D.C.”
So I just sat out front like I always did when Daddy owned it, killing time, chatting with a few friendly customers or other bench-sitters like me. I never wanted to go inside while Daddy had the store, not because he might have asked me to help, but because he thought I couldn’t help. Oh sure, I’d go in for a Coca-Cola or Dr. Pepper, but, for the most part, I just sat there, reared back with my chair resting against the outside wall, my legs dangling. Just like my life.
I’ve never forgotten how crazy it all played out. I had forgotten about the two diaries I’d kept that year. I discovered them while cleaning out our home after Mama died in April. (Daddy had passed two year earlier, to the day.) They weren’t like a girl’s diary (at least that’s what I told myself, when I worried about such things). They were notes I’d imagined a reporter like Della or her ex-husband would make, capturing the times.
I’d already cleaned out most of the house, saving my room for last. I boxed up my hubcaps, picking out my favorites from the ones still hanging on my bedroom walls. (We’d long ago sold the collection in the barn.) I tackled the shelves with all my odd keepsakes: a deer jaw, two dusty geodes, other rocks I’d found that caught my eye, like the heart-shaped reddish one—too good not to keep. When I gathered a shelf-full of books in my arms, I saw the battered shoebox where I’d stashed those diaries tucked behind the books. I sat on my old bed, the plaid spread dusty and faded, untouched in a couple of decades, and started to read. The pages had yellowed, but they stirred up fresh memories, all the same. That’s when I called Della (I still looked for any excuse to talk with her), and we arranged a couple of afternoons to go over the diaries together.
We sat at her kitchen table, where she’d placed a pot of tea and a plate of homemade cookies, and talked. And talked. After a time or two recollecting over the diaries, I told Della I wanted to write a book about that year. She agreed. We were both a little surprised that, even after all these years, we didn’t have any trouble recalling that spring.
CHAPTER 1 ABIT
Four cop cars blocked our driveway.
I thought I might’ve dreamed it, since I’d fallen asleep on the couch, watching TV. But after I rubbed my eyes, all four cars were still there. Seeing four black-and-whites in a town with only one could throw you.
All I could think was what did I do wrong? I ran through my day real quick-like, and I couldn’t come up with anything that would get me more than a backhand from Daddy.
I watched a cop walking in front of the store next door, which we shared a driveway with. As long as I could remember, that store hadn’t never had four cars out front at the same time, let alone four cop cars. I stepped outside, quietly closing our front door. The sun was getting low, and I hoped Mama wadnt about to call me to supper.
I headed down our stone steps to see for myself. Our house sat on a hill above the store, which made it close enough that Daddy, when he still owned the store, could run down the steps (twenty of ‘em, mossy and slick after a rain) if, say, a customer drove up while he was home having his midday dinner. But of an evening, those same steps seemed to keep people from pestering him to open up, as Daddy put it, “to sell some fool thing they could live without ‘til the next morning.”
I was just about halfway down when the cop looked my way. “Don’t trouble yourself over this, Abit. Nothing to see here.” That was Lonnie Parker, the county’s deputy sheriff.
“What do you mean nothing to see here? I ain’t seen four cop cars all in one place in my whole life.”
“You don’t need to worry about this.”
“I’m not worried,” I said. “I’m curious.”
“You’re curious all right.” He turned and spat something dark onto the dirt drive, a mix of tobacco and hate.
That’s how it always went. People talked to me like I was an idiot. Okay, I knew that I wadnt as smart as others. Something happened when Mama had me (she was pretty old by then), and I had trouble making my words just right sometimes. But inside, I worked better than most people thought. I used to go to school, but I had trouble keeping up, and that made Daddy feel bad. I wadnt sure if he felt bad for me or him. Anyway, they took me out of school when I was twelve, which meant I spent my days watching TV and hanging out. And being bored. I could read, but it took me a while. The bookmobile swung by every few weeks, and I’d get a new book each time. And I watched the news and stuff like that to try to learn.
I was named after Daddy – Vester Bradshaw Jr. – but everyone called me Abit. I heard the name Abbott mentioned on the TV and asked Mama if that was the same as mine. She said it were different but pronounced about the same. She wouldn’t call me that, but Daddy was fine with it. A few year ago, I overheard him explaining how I got that name.
“I didn’t want him called the same as me,” Daddy told a group of men killing time outside the store. He was a good storyteller, and he was enjoying the attention. “He’s a retard. When he come home from the hospital, and people asked how he was doing, I’d tell ‘em,‘he’s a bit slow.’ I wanted to just say it outright to cut out all the gossip. I told that story enough that someone started calling him Abit, and it stuck.”
Some jerk then asked if my middle name were “Slow,” and everybody laughed. That hurt me at the time, but with the choice between Abit and Vester, I reckoned my name weren’t so bad, after all. Daddy could have his stupid name.
Anyway, I wadn't going to have Lonnie Parker run me off my own property (or near abouts my property), so I folded my arms and leaned against the rock wall.
I grabbed a long blade of grass and chewed. While I waited, I checked out the hubcaps on the cars—nothing exciting, just the routine sort of government caps. Too bad, ‘cause a black-and-white would’ve looked really cool with Mercury chrome hubcaps. I had one in my collection in the barn back of the house, so I knew what I was talking about.
I heard some loud voices coming from upstairs, the apartment above the store, where Della lived with Jake, some kind of mixed hound who came to live with her when she lived in Washington, D.C. I couldn’t imagine what Della had done wrong. She was about the nicest person I’d ever met. I loved Mama, but Della was easier to be round. She just let me be.
Ever since Daddy sold the store, Mama wouldn’t let me go inside it anymore. I knew she was jealous of Della. To be honest, I thought a lot of people were jealous a lot of the time and that was why they did so many stupid things. I saw it all the time. Sitting out front of the store most days, I’d hear them gossiping or even making stuff up about people. I bet they said things about me, too, when I wadnt there, off having my dinner or taking a nap.
But lately, something else was going on with Mama. Oncet I turned fifteen year old, she started snooping and worrying. I’d seen something about that on TV, so I knew it was true: People thought that any guy who was kinda slow was a sex maniac. They figured since we weren’t one-hundred percent “normal,” we walked round with boners all the time and couldn’t control ourselves. I couldn’t speak for others, but that just weren’t true for me. I remembered the first one I got, and it sure surprised me. But I’d done my experimenting, and I knew it wouldn’t lead to no harm. Mama had nothin’ to worry about, but still, she kept a close eye on me.
Of course, it was true that Della was real nice looking—tall and not skinny or fat. She had a way about her—smart but not stuck up. And her hair was real pretty—kinda curly and reddish gold, cut just below her ears. But she coulda been my mother, for heaven’s sake.
After a while, Gregg and the sheriff, along with some other cops, started making their way down Della’s steps to their cars.
“Abit, you get on home, son.” Sheriff Brower said. “Don’t go bothering Ms. Kincaid right now.”
“Go to hell, Brower. I don’t need your stupid advice.” Okay, that was just what I wanted to say; what I really said was, “I don’t plan on bothering Della.” I used her first name to piss him off; young people were supposed to use grownups’ last names. Besides, she’d asked me to call her Della. Then I added, “And I don’t bother her. She likes me.”
But he was already churning dust in the driveway, speeding onto the road.
CHAPTER 2 DELLA
I heard Jake whimpering as I sank into the couch. I’d closed him in the bedroom while the sheriff and his gang of four were here. Jake kept bringing toys over for them to throw, and I could see how irritated they were getting. I didn’t want to give them reason to be more unpleasant than they already were.
“Hi there, boy,” I said as I opened the door. “Sorry about that, buddy.” He sprang from the room and grabbed his stuffed rabbit. I scratched his ears and threw the toy, then reclaimed the couch. “Why didn’t we stay in today, like I wanted?”
Earlier, I’d thought about skipping our usual hike. It was my only day off, and I wanted to read last Sunday’s Washington Post. (I was always a week behind since I had to have the papers mailed to me.) But Jake sat by the door and whined softly, and I sensed how cooped up he’d been with all the early spring rains.
Besides, those walks did me more good than Jake. When I first moved to Laurel Falls, the natural world frightened me. Growing up in Washington, D.C., hadn’t prepared me for that kind of wild. But gradually, I got more comfortable and started to recognize some of the birds and trees and especially the wildflowers. Something about their delicate beauty made the woods more welcoming. Trilliums, pink lady’s slippers, and fringed phacelia beckoned me to, encouraging me to venture deeper.
Of course, it didn’t help that my neighbors and customers carried on about the perils of taking long hikes by myself. “You could be murdered,” they cried. “At the very least you could be raped,” warned Abit’s mother, Mildred Bradshaw, normally a quiet, prim woman. “And what about perverts?” she’d add, exasperated that I wasn’t listening to her.
Sometimes Mildred’s chant “You’re so alone out there” nagged at me in a reactive loop as Jake and I walked in the woods. But that was one of the reasons I moved here. I wanted to be alone. I longed to get away from deadlines and noise and people. And memories. Besides, I argued with myself, hadn’t I lived safely in D.C. for years? I’d walked dark streets, sat face-to-face with felons, been robbed at gunpoint, but I still went out whenever I wanted, at least before midnight. You couldn’t live there and worry too much about crime, be it violent, white-collar, or political; that city would grind to a halt if people thought that way.
As Jake and I wound our way, the bright green tree buds and wildflowers soothed my dark thoughts. I breathed in that intoxicating smell of spring: not one thing in particular, but rather a mix of fragrances floating on soft breezes, signaling winter’s retreat. The birds were louder too, chittering and chattering in the warmer temperatures. I was lost in my reverie when Jake stopped so fast I almost tripped over him. He stood still, ears alert.
“What is it, boy?” He looked up at me, then resumed his exploration of rotten squirrels and decaying stumps.
I didn’t just love that dog, I admired him. He was unafraid of his surroundings, plowing through tall fields of hay or dense forests without any idea where he was headed, not the least bit perturbed by bugs flying into his eyes or seeds up his nose. He’d just sneeze and keep going.
We walked a while longer and came to a favorite lunch spot. I nestled against a broad beech tree, its smooth bark gentler against my back than the alligator bark of red oak or locust. Jake fixated on a line of ants carrying off remnants from a picnic earlier that day, rooting under leaves and exploring new smells since his last visit. But mostly he slept. In a sunspot, he made a nest thick with leaves, turning round and round until everything was just right.
Jake came to live with me a year and a half ago when a neighbor committed suicide, a few months before I moved south. We both struggled at first, but when we settled here, the past for him seemed forgotten. Sure, he still ran in circles when I brushed against his old leash hanging in the coat closet, but otherwise he was officially a mountain dog. I was the one still working on leaving the past behind.
I’d bought the store on a whim after a week’s stay in a log cabin in the Black Mountains. To prolong the trip, I took backroads home. As I drove through Laurel Falls, I spotted the boarded-up store sporting a For Sale sign. I stopped, jotted down the listed phone number, and called. Within a week, I owned it. The store was in shambles, both physically and financially, but something about its bones had appealed to me. And I could afford the extensive remodeling it needed because the asking price was so low.
Back in my D.C. condo, I realized how much I wanted a change in my life. I had no family to miss. I was an only child, and my parents had died in an alcoholic daze when their car wrapped around a tree, not long after I left for college. And all those editors and deadlines, big city hassles, and a failed marriage? I was eager to trade them in for a tiny town and a dilapidated store called Coburn’s General Store. (Nobody knew who Coburn was—that was just what it had always been called, though most of the time it was simply Coburn’s. Even if I’d renamed it, no one would have used the new name.)
In addition to the store, the deal included an apartment upstairs that, during its ninety-year history, had likely housed more critters than humans, plus a vintage 1950 Ford pickup truck with wraparound rear windows. And a bonus I didn’t know about when I signed the papers: a living, breathing griffon to guard me and the store—Abit.
I’d lived there almost a year, and I treasured my days away from the store, especially once it was spring again. Some folks complained that I wasn’t open Sundays (blue laws a distant memory, even though they were repealed only a few years earlier), but I couldn’t work every day, and I couldn’t afford to hire help, except now and again.
While Jake and I sat under that tree, the sun broke through the canopy and warmed my face and shoulders. I watched Jake’s muzzle twitch (he was already lost in a dream), and chuckled when he sprang to life at the first crinkle of wax paper. I shooed him away as I unwrapped my lunch. On his way back to his nest, he stopped and stared down the dell, his back hairs spiking into a Mohawk.
“Get over it, boy. I don’t need you scaring me as bad as Mildred. Settle down now,” I gently scolded as I laid out a chunk of Gruyere I’d whittled the hard edges off, an almost-out-of-date salami, and a sourdough roll I’d rescued from the store. I’d been called a food snob, but these sad leftovers from a struggling store sure couldn’t support that claim. Besides, out here the food didn’t matter so much. It was all about the pileated woodpecker trumpeting its jungle call or the tiny golden-crowned kinglet flitting from branch to branch. And the falls in the distance, playing its soothing continuo, day and night. These walks kept me sane. The giant trees reminded me I was just a player in a much bigger game, a willing refugee from a crowded, over-planned life.
I crumpled the lunch wrappings, threw Jake a piece of roll, and found a better sunspot. I hadn’t closed my eyes for a minute when Jake gave another low growl. He was sitting upright, nose twitching, looking at me for advice.
“Sorry, pal; you started it. I don’t hear anything,” I told him. He gave another face-saving low growl and put his head back down.
“You crazy old hound.” I patted his warm, golden fur. Early on, I wondered what kind of mix he was—maybe some retriever and beagle, bringing his size down to medium. I’d asked the vet to hazard a guess. He wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. It didn’t matter.
I poured myself a cup of hot coffee, white with steamed milk, appreciating the magic of a thermos, even if the contents always tasted vaguely of vegetable soup. That aroma took me back to the woods of my childhood, just two vacant lots really, a few blocks from my home in D.C.’s Cleveland Park. I played there for hours, stocked with sandwiches and a thermos of hot chocolate. I guess that’s where I first thought of becoming a reporter; I sat in the cold and wrote up everything that passed by—from birds and salamanders to postmen and high schoolers sneaking out for a smoke.
A deeper growl from Jake pulled me back. As I turned to share his view, I saw a man running toward us. “Dammit, Mildred,” I swore, as though the intruder were her fault. The man looked angry, pushing branches out of his way as he came toward us. Jake barked furiously, but I grabbed his collar and held tight.
Even though the scene was unfolding just as my neighbor had warned, I wasn’t afraid. Maybe it was the Madras sport shirt, so out of place on a man with a bushy beard and long ponytail. For God’s sake, I thought, how could anyone set out in the morning dressed like that and plan to do harm? A hint of a tattoo—a Celtic cross?—peeked below his shirt sleeve, adding to his unlikely appearance.
As he neared, I could see his face wasn’t so much angry as pained, drained of color.
“There’s some … one,” his voice cracked. He put his hands on his thighs and tried to catch his breath. As he did, his graying ponytail fell across his chest.
“A body. Somebody over there,” he said, pointing toward the creek. “Not far, it’s …” he stopped again to breathe.
“I don’t know. Cross … creek.” He started to run.
“Wait! Don’t go!” I shouted, but all I could see was the back of his shirt as he ran away from us. “Hey! At least call for help. There’s an emergency call box down that road, at the car park. Call Gregg O’Donnell at the Forest Service. I’ll go see if there’s anything I can do.”
He shouted, “There nothing you can do,” as he ran away.
Jake led the way as we crashed through the forest, branches whipping our faces. I felt the creek’s icy chill, in defiance of the day’s warmth, as I missed the smaller stepping stones and soaked my feet. Why didn’t I ask the stranger more details, or have him show me where to find the person? And what did “across the creek” mean in an eleven thousand-acre wilderness area? When I stopped to get my bearings, I began to shiver, my feet numb. Jake stopped with me, sensing the seriousness of our romp in the woods; he even ignored a squirrel.
We were a pack of two, running together, the forest silent except for our heavy breathing and the rustle we made crossing the decaying carpet beneath our feet. Jake barked at something, startling me, but it was just the crack of a branch I’d broken to clear the way. We were both spooked.
I stopped to rest on a fallen tree as Jake ran ahead, then back and to the right. Confused, he stopped and looked at me.
“I don’t know which way either, boy.” We were just responding to a deep, instinctual urge to help. “You go on, Jake. You’ll find it before I will.”
And he did.