I was determined not to think about murder.
In that, I was wrong. Dead wrong.
I’m a crime writer for a publisher who has three magazines. But I was sick of writing about scumbags and the stench of death they cause. I needed to get away from it, maybe forever.
Late that Thursday night as I drove toward the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I ran into an August thunderstorm, but I didn’t care. I figured it a crucible I had to pass through to get to paradise, where I planned to make my home.
I promised myself there were things I was going to do and things I wasn’t when I reached the Outer Banks. I was going to loaf, and read and walk along the beach, and eat at my favorite restaurants from years ago.
Thinking about murder was not on the agenda.
It was after one A.M. when I reached Manteo on Roanoke Island and pulled in under the portico at King’s Motel, where I’d stayed before. My car was loaded with stuff, including my bass fiddle and Janey, my parakeet.
In the sparse lobby, a large young man I assumed was Mr. King’s son slouched in a chair in front of a television. He got out of his chair, still smiling at the TV, and lumbered behind the registration desk. He was taller than his father, with some resemblance, except for his pale skin. How could anyone living at the coast be as pasty as the underside of a snail?
I gave him my name.
“Weaver . . . Weaver . . .” He flipped through a spiral notebook filled with penciled notations. “Here we go . . . Harrison Weaver.” He studied a note scribbled beside my name. “Oh, you’re the murder writer,” he said. “Pop said you were coming.”
I was tired and didn’t want to talk to him. I handed him my credit card and he made an imprint.
“Boy, I tell you that’s something. I mean your timing and everything. You must really stay on top of things.”
I was only half-listening—at first. “What do you mean, timing?”
“I mean getting here just when you did. Just when they found her body. Sally Jean Pearson. They been looking three days for her.”
“Found her this afternoon before the storm, hung up on a cypress stump in the north end of Croatan Sound. Just about like the other one. Lost Colony girl, too. Worked backstage but danced or paraded around or something in the last big scene.”
“You better believe it! Cord around her neck. And they don’t know a bit more about who killed her than they did the first one, you ask me.” He squinted, eager. “I figure that’s why you are here. A murder. Just like you wrote about—four, five years ago.”
“Four,” I said. “But I didn’t know anything about this one. I was in Virginia, working on a . . .”
He grinned. “Right.” He handed me a room key.
I drove around to the back of the motel. Only a few other cars were parked there. My ground-floor room looked out across the parking area to a vacant lot edged with tall pine trees. The setting gave a feeling of cozy isolation I liked.
First thing I did was take Janey in, then came back and got my bass fiddle. Neither deserved to be left in the car unattended, especially in the heat of the next morning. I laid the bass on its side, out of the way. In its black canvas cover, like a shroud, the instrument appeared huge in the small motel room and vaguely ominous to anyone unaware of the rich, polished wood inside.
I got fresh water for the parakeet and gave her a short sprig of millet seeds. “Okay, Janey, you can rest now and get over all the bumping around in the car.” She chirped and bobbed her head. After she settled in, I’d cover her cage for the night.
I took a shower, as hot as I could stand it, and tried to drive away thoughts of murder. But I couldn’t get the thoughts, the images of dead and mutilated bodies out of my head. Death seemed to surround me. Four years earlier, writing about the unsolved slaying of another young woman with The Lost Colony, I had been fully introduced to the Outer Banks. The area fascinated me. After that, whenever I thought about the thin strip of islands that make up the Banks, I did my best not to think about the dead young woman and the killer who remained free.
But it bugged me.
Now there was another one.
And a killer still out there.
I went to bed in a foul mood, knowing what tomorrow meant. Instead of going to Whalebone Bait and Tackle Shop to find out about the fishing and maybe head to the beach to do a little surf-casting, I’d want to go straight to the sheriff’s office. I knew I’d start sticking my nose into this case, despite my promise to myself.
Bright sunshine along the edge of the drapes woke me. I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, until the telephone rang. Janey started chirping, as she did when she heard a telephone ring, wanting to get uncovered.
“Man, you know when to show up, don’t you?” the voice said.
I struggled mentally for a moment to recognize the voice. “Balls?”
“You got it!” Pitching his voice deeper, being funny, he said, “Your gutsy investigator with four balls.”
The caller was T. for Thomas Ballsford Twiddy, a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation. We went back a dozen or so years when I was a newspaper reporter in Raleigh and later in Washington.
“Where are you?” My watch showed not quite seven-thirty.
“Here in Manteo, garden spot of the universe. Where’d you think I’d be when we got a real one going on?”
I had nicknamed him Balls after hearing about an arrest he’d made inside of what had to be the world’s roughest juke joint near Raleigh. He had walked in, grabbed a suspect big as himself by the belt buckle and said, “You’re under arrest.” He hiked the guy practically off the floor by his britches and walked him out of the place backwards, nose to nose, with everyone hootin’ and hollerin’. Any character in the place could have done Balls in and they’d never have pinned it on a soul.
When I heard about it, I told one of the other investigators that a guy’d have to have four balls to pull a stunt like that. The fellow investigator laughed and told another. The nickname stuck.
“When they found the body, I got called in to assist. Ran into old man King in Manteo. Told me you’re coming to town.” He was silent for a beat or two. “Case sounds familiar, don’t it? Lost Colony member. Never makes it home from partying. Strangled. Body found snagged on a cypress stump. Sort of déjà vu all over again, huh?”
“A connection? I mean, four years.”
“Four years, one month. First one was on a July fifth. Who knows? Maybe. Strange.”
Balls would remember the date. So did I.
His voice got male-boisterous and jolly again. “Breakfast? Go somewhere we can talk.” Then, “Catch up on how you’re doing.”
I felt the weight of that old sadness, something I tried to push from my mind. He knew about my rough time after Keely’s death. But I said, “Sure.”
We agreed to meet at the Dunes Restaurant on the Bypass.
I opened the drapes all the way to what I knew, after the storm, would be a day that danced with sun and a light breeze. I dressed—one of two or three Outer Banks uniforms: khaki slacks, golf shirt, boat shoes, no socks. When I stepped outside the air was like a shot of adrenalin: fresh and clean, the pine trees just warm enough in the sun to give off a faint Christmassy smell. With all the rain, my car, a Saab 9000 I treated myself to before I left Washington, looked freshly washed. In fact, the morning was so bright and clean it was like the whole world had just been washed.
Yet, there was that dead young woman.
copyright@2010 Joseph L.S. Terrell