The path curved gracefully along the bottom of a small hill. Ancient live oaks shaded the split rail fence separating the house from a field planted with cotton, a remnant of the twelve hundred acres of the original plantation. Lovingly refurbished by the park service to its 1820s self, the inn stood alone on a low knoll overlooking the field and the Trace, watery window glass watching Fords and Buicks where once had been soldiers of the American Revolution, Indians and traders from the Ohio Valley. Brick steps, built by the NPS for visitor convenience, led up the grassy slope.
The stand was built, as were all well-appointed dwellings in the old south, with an eye to shade and breezes. Stilts supported it several feet above ground level to aid in air circulation, and a deep porch, complete with a rocking chair, ran the length of the house. Three doors opened onto the porch. Two were closed, probably bolted from the inside if the last interpreter off duty the previous night had adhered to protocol. The one furthest to the left stood ajar as if someone had left in a hurry.
"Why don't you tell me exactly what you did," Anna said as they reached the bottom of the brick steps. Probably it wouldn't matter much, but she knew Shelly needed to tell her story and would probably feel more comfortable talking now that they were getting close.
"I got here just before eight," Shelly said. "And I opened the visitors center like I was supposed to. The visitors center door and both the bathroom doors were locked." Shelly was speaking slowly. Her voice wasn't as high-pitched as it had been when Anna arrived, but she would probably sound like a child all of her life. There was thought behind the park aide's words. She was working to remember details. A good witness, if she'd seen anything worth witnessing.
"I opened the cash register. Everything was just like it was supposed to be--you know, nothing missing or anything like that."
They were on the brick stairway now, and Anna's heels were clicking annoyingly again.
"At nine I walked up here, up to the house, to open it up. I opened Grandma Polly's room first. There on the end."
Anna knew which room was Grandma Polly's. One of the reasons Mt. Locust was so well preserved was that it had belonged to one family for many generations. Paulina Chamberlain came to Mt. Locust as a bride in 1801. When she died in 1849 she left it to her descendants. In the 1940s, another Chamberlain gave Mt. Locust to the National Park Service and stayed on to serve as the first ranger there. The last of the line, Eric Chamberlain, still served, working as a GS-4 park aide. There was one open plot in the family cemetery at the end of a tree-shaded lane on the park boundary. When Eric died the cemetery would be complete and Mt. Locust would lose by it.
"You opened Grandma Polly's room," Anna nudged when Shelly failed to go on.
"It was locked like it's supposed to be so I wasn't thinking about anything, then I saw this thing on the bed. I thought it was like a big fish, a landed walrus maybe. That's stupid, isn't it?"
"Not stupid," Anna said. The human brain was an organ designed to make sense of things. When faced with the senseless, it scrambled madly through known images, desperate to make a match.
"What then?" Anna asked. They'd reached the top of the brick steps and stood on a landing. The wooden stairs to the porch were in front of them. Anna wanted Shelly to finish her recital before they went up. It would be easier to clear her mind if her attention wasn't divided.
"I paged you."
"Did you go into Grandma Polly's room?"
"No. Yes. Sort of. I went in maybe a few steps. Till I saw what it was."
"Did you touch anything?"
"Nothing." Shelly was emphatic about that.
From Hunting Season by Nevada Barr, Copyright © February 2002, The Putnam Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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