A Dead Man's Honor - Excerpt

Excerpt

Chapter 1
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 31

If dead grandmothers were supposed to be sweet, comforting presences, Hester Rose, my grandmother, had not been paying attention when that particular celestial lesson was taught. Since my arrival in Gallagher, she had been raging-like a five-foot-two fury-nightly through my dreams. But I had done something she had told me plainly not to do, and being disobeyed never did sit well with Hester Rose, even when she was alive.

It took me a while that morning to shake off our most recent nocturnal encounter, but by a little after ten, I was out and about.

I found the used book store, which Joyce Fielding had told me about, on a side street, tucked between an engraving shop and a real estate agent's office. As I entered, the proprietor peered at me over the top of his chunky black glasses and then went back to the chess game on his computer monitor. The only customer in sight was a large pink-cheeked woman with a trace of a mustache. She was occupying an armchair near the door. She darted a glance at me and began to snatch up the books she had piled on the floor beside her. A few minutes later, as I started down the first aisle of bookshelves, I heard the jangling bell over the door signal her departure.

I hadn't meant to run her away. But there was nothing I could do about it if I fell into that category of people she found scary. Or maybe she had wanted the place to herself. I could understand that. I felt kind of possessive myself as I contemplated the empty aisles and the shelves crammed with books.

But my browsing was being done with the clock ticking. I allowed myself one hour, and then down to business. I was working my way through the history section when a volume on a bottom shelf caught my eye: A History of Gallagher, Virginia, 1785-1939 by Harry Glover. I gave an unladylike whoop and dropped the other books I had collected onto the top of the bookcase. With reckless disregard for my last pair of panty hose, I got down on my knees and eased the volume from the shelf. The public library's copy of Glover's history was in Richmond being rebound. Until now I had been stymied in my efforts to get my hands on this book.

The pages were yellowed, the print small. But in the middle section were the photographs that documented events and personages in the history of the city. A July 4th picnic in 1898 with girls in summer frocks and two small boys in sailor suits in front of the town bandstand. A 1905 photograph of Captain William Calhoun, the gallant young Civil War hero who had served as mayor of the city from 1872 until he died in 1919. After his death, a statue had been erected in his honor on the courthouse steps.

The next photograph was a formal portrait of the directors of the Mercantile Cotton Mill seated around their conference table. That was followed by the 1915 graduating class of Piedmont Military Institute. I studied the painfully young faces of the cadets. How many of them had died in World War I? Glory turned to dust.

I turned the page and found myself staring down at a grainy, black-and-white photograph of a man, perhaps in his late twenties, his face somber above his stiff uniform collar. Not a soldier's uniform. A police officer's. According to the caption, the man in the photograph was Officer Thomas Kincaid of the Gallagher Police Department.

"Find something?" a squeaky male voice said above my head.

I jumped and almost dropped Glover's history as I grabbed for the edge of the bookcase to steady myself.

The proprietor of the bookstore had left his perch behind the front counter. He backed up a step as I got to my feet. "Sony about that," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you." Sunlight seeped through the dusty window behind him, sparkling on the gold hinges of his glasses. He pushed them up on his nose, hunched his shoulders, and gave me a lopsided grin.

"My fault," I said. "I was wool-gathering. And, yes, I have found something. A book I've been looking for."

He took the book I was holding out and nodded. "You're lucky you found this before someone else did. Glover's really popular around here. I have a hard time keeping a copy in stock."

"Is Glover accurate?"

"Accurate? Well, you know what Mark Twain said about that. He said, 'Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.'" Another lopsided grin. "Glover's about as accurate as most city historians. Little details here and there that longtime residents like to debate. But for the most part, he seems to have gotten it right."

"Would you ring me up now, please," I said. "I really need to get out of here."

"Sure. I didn't mean to hold you up." He hunched his shoulders again as he spoke.

"Wait ... I didn't mean to sound- I'm a little. ..." I searched for a word. "Unsettled."

His bespectacled gaze went from my face to the book in his hand.

"Is it something in this?"

"Yes." I plucked up the other books I had put down on top of the bookcase. "I'll take these, too, please."

"Let's go up front," he said. "I'll give you your grand total."

I followed him to the front of the store. The chess game on the computer monitor had been replaced by a screen saver featuring the cast from "Star Trek: Voyager." A light was blinking on and off in one corner. "I've got mail," he said.

He glanced from my books to me. "Casey Jones, huh? You have a child?"

"I was a child," I said. "My grandfather worked for the railroad."

"What about this one about duels?"

"I'm interested in honor," I said. "And the Army survival manual is in case I ever find myself stranded in the desert without water and dying of a rattlesnake bite."

I was doing my best to hold onto my patience. But he must have sensed that he was not making me happy with his slow, methodical process of opening each book, pushing up his glasses, licking the end of his pencil, and then writing the price of the book down on the pad in front of him.

"Hope you don't mind," he said. "I never use the cash register unless it's a big purchase. I like to add things up in my head. Keep it simple when I can."

"Oh," I said.

"That'll be forty-four seventy-five. Sorry, the Glover was twenty-five. You're at the university, aren't you?"

"Yes," I said, handing him three twenty-dollar bills.

"I thought so. You look like the professor type. What department?"

"Criminal justice," I said and reached for the bag containing my books.

"Cool! Serial killers and all that, huh?"

"No, I do crime history. Excuse me, I really do have to go. My change?"

"Oh, sure. Hey, if you need help finding anything else, just come on back by or e-mail me-the address is on the bookmark-and I'll try to track it down for you."

"Thank you," I said. "I'll keep that in mind."

"Have a good day," he said over the jangle of the bell as I opened the door.

A good day? That hardly seemed likely. It was All Hallows' Eve, and I had just found something wicked in my bag of treats.

There was a telephone booth on the corner. As I waited for John Quinn to come on the line, I stared at the four-letter word someone had scratched into the metal wall. Too bad I could never bring myself to use it. It certainly fit the present situation.

"Chief Quinn speaking."

"Quinn-" I began.

"Lizzie? It is you. When Sergeant Burke said Professor Lizzie Stuart was on the line, I thought he must have gotten the name wrong."

"What . . . why would you think that?"

"Because, Lizabeth," he said, "this is the first time in the almost fifteen months of our acquaintance that you've ever called me."

I never knew how to respond to teasing. Light quips never came to me. I stared at the scratched metal wall of the booth and fumbled for a response. "You . . . before I arrived in Gallagher, you called me twice," I said. 'The first time was when you got here, to give me your new address and contact information. The second time was when I was about to leave Drucilla. You called then to remind me to check my spare tire for air and to watch out for speed traps. Other than that, Quinn, you always e-mailed."

"Yes, but in the two and a half months since you've been in Gallagher," he said, "I have been calling more often. You, on the other hand, have never called me. Until today."

I shoved at the telephone booth door with the toe of my pump, creating an opening wide enough for a stream of hot air to enter the smoke-stale space. "All right," I said. "I haven't called. I didn't know you wanted me to call. I'm calling now because I-"

'Thanks, Mike. Is the September report here too?"

"What?" I said.

"Sorry. Sergeant Burke just handed me a printout."

"Quinn, I need to talk to you about-"

"Lizzie, you don't know how much I hate to ask this when you've called me-but may I call you back? I have to do a press briefing at noon about that brawl in the student center."

"What brawl?"

"Last night. The aftermath of a billiard game. Stitches required and arrests made. Three of our students and a couple of local-"

"Quinn, I saw a dead man."

"You what?"

"I saw a man who is supposed to be dead."

"Happy Halloween," he said. "Are you in your office? I should be done in an hour or so, and then I'll-"

"Quinn, I am not joking. I'm holding a book in my hand." I unclenched the fingers of that hand. "A history of Gallagher. I found it in a used bookstore a few minutes ago."

"What does this book have to do with-"

"It has a photograph of Thomas Kincaid. The police officer I told you about. The one Mose Davenport shot."

"And he's the dead man you saw? Was he sitting up or lying down?"

"Quinn, this is not a joke," I repeated. "I'm looking at Kincaid's photograph, and the caption beneath says, 'Killed by a Negro felon in 1921.'"

"The Negro felon would be Mose Davenport. And if he shot Kincaid in 1921-"

"I know that," I said. "But about two weeks ago I saw a man who looked like Officer Thomas Kincaid. Who looked enough like him to be his double."

"All right. Where were you at the time? What was this man doing?"

"I had driven onto campus," I said, remembering that morning. "I was trying to get to my office before the rain started. You know how much I hate storms, and the sky was so dark I thought- Anyway, just as I turned onto College Avenue, it began to rain. To pour. And there was this man standing on the comer at Alumni House waiting to cross the street."

"Thomas Kincaid's double?"

"Yes, but I didn't know that at the time. All I knew was that he was getting soaked. So I stopped to let him cross. As he passed in front of my car, he turned his head and looked at me. He looked right at me," I said. "And he smiled and waved. The rain was pouring, and he was smiling."

"Definitely a sign that he was up to no good," Quinn said.

"Quinn, will you please-"

"Okay. You saw this man. And now you've found Kincaid's photograph, and there's a resemblance. And you think what?"

"I think I want to know what's going on. You're the university police chief."

"Believe it or not, Lizabeth, I'm not clairvoyant."

"I'm not asking you to be clairvoyant. I just want you to help me think this through. Do you think he was a relative? A descendant of Kincaid's?"

"Unless you believe in ghosts, that's the most likely explanation."

I rubbed at the dust on the cracked book cover my hand was resting on. "Today is Hester Rose's birthday. She always said she'd die on Halloween too."

"But she didn't," Quinn said. "Your grandmother died in summer. Well over a year ago."

"I know that. And I know I sound half-hysterical, going on about seeing a dead man. I know how I sound. But last night I had a dream about Hester Rose-"

"What kind of dream?"

"An unpleasant one," I said, remembering the dream of the hissing baby snake curled up on Hester Rose's dressing table beside her hat and gloves. Of Hester Rose appearing in the doorway with snakes coiling around her head and Medusa fury in her eyes. Definitely a very Freudian dream. "An unpleasant dream," I said again to Quinn. "And now, today, on her birthday, I find this photograph of Thomas Kincaid-the man she saw shot to death when she was twelve years old."

"And you think the two things are connected?"

"She told me never to come to Gallagher."

"But you are here."

"Yes, I'm here," I said. "But maybe I shouldn't be."

"Why?" Quinn asked. "Because you think you've stirred up the restless spirit of a dead man?"

"No, because the tiny hairs are standing up on the nape of my neck, and I feel sick to my stomach. And I don't think I really want to know what happened in 1921."

'Then maybe you should stop digging into it."

"I came here to do research," I said.

"Lizzie, I need to get moving."

"Sony," I said. "Your press briefing. And I'm meeting someone for lunch."

"Who?" he said.

"Richard Colby."

"Colby? I thought you said he had an attitude problem."

"I_ when did I tell you that?"

"It must have been during one of those rare conversations," Quinn said, "when you actually talked to me."

Stifling inside the telephone booth, I shoved the door wide and spoke above the roar of a bad muffler on a passing car. "When I actually talked to you . . . what does that-"

"Why are you having lunch with Richard Colby?"

"Because he invited me. What did you mean about-"

"He's married. His wife is a professor in the psychology department."

"I know that. We've having lunch, not meeting for a rendezvous at a cheap motel."

"Good," Quinn said. "You can pick up all kinds of things in cheap motels. About this Thomas Kincaid-double thing-we'll try to figure it out later, okay?"

"Don't worry about it," I said. "I'm all right now. What did you mean about my not talking to you, Quinn? We've talked about all kinds of things."

"Yes, we have, haven't we?" he said. "We've run the conversational gamut. Our jobs. Events in the news. Health and fitness. Movies, books, politics. All kinds of things. Nothing too personal, though."

"If you've been finding our conversations so superficial. . . ," I said, feeling a hollowness in the pit of my stomach. "You were the one who Initiated this whole 'let's be friends-'"

"Is that what we are?"

"I don't know what you-"

"I know you don't," Quinn said. "And I don't have time right at this moment to discuss it. I've got to go do the damn-"

"Press briefing," I said. "Happy Halloween."

"Lizzie, whoever your mystery man was, he wasn't a ghost."

"Of course not," I said. "I don't believe in ghosts."