"Did you check for a pulse?"
"No. God no. I mean this guy's really dead. Dead dead. I wasn't going to touch him. No way. Gross."
"Okay," Anna said. "Were the other doors locked?"
"I don't know. I went down to the VC to call you. I guess I should have checked."
"No. You did just exactly the right thing." Anna started up the wooden stairs, Shelly trailing after.
"Want me to check them now?" the aide asked. No longer alone, she was warming to the adventure aspect the crime offered and was eager to be a part of it.
"No," Anna said. "Right now it's best if we touch and disturb as little as possible."
"Oh, right. Fingerprints."
The door hardware at Mt. Locust was so old and pitted with rust Anna doubted they would be able to lift any fingerprints, but she said nothing. Shelly had found a reason she could understand for leaving well enough alone. If it kept Anna from being interfered with, she was happy with it.
Anna's patrol car, with everything she'd need in the trunk, was parked in front of her house at Rocky Springs, fifteen miles north of Port Gibson. Before heading south, she'd stopped in the Port Gibson Ranger Station and scraped up a tape recorder, camera, gloves, measuring tape and notebook. The camera, long in storage, was dusty; its functioning suspect. Having set the grime-streaked rucksack she'd liberated from behind the seat of the fire truck to tote this hastily assembled investigation kit on a bench beneath a window, she pulled out two pairs of latex gloves, put one on and handed the other to Shelly.
"Let's take a look," she said. Mt. Locust was painted white, the paneled doors and shutters over the windows done in a bright cheery blue. Heels clacking on porch planks, Anna walked to the half-open door, Grandma Polly's room. Using her fingertips she gently pushed the door until it was completely open. A shaft of early sunlight chased the door's shadow, running across the worn wooden floor to illuminate the old bed, its mattress stuffed with Spanish moss, ropes netted beneath for support.
The sudden light in the gloom threw the object on the patchwork coverlet into glowing relief. Big fish. Landed walrus. The images were apt. "Gross," Anna murmured, unconsciously echoing Shelly Rabine's summation.
Lying on Grandma Polly's bed, drenched in autumn sunlight, was a fat white man. Very white. Fish-belly white. But for a pair of underpants, probably cotton, possibly Fruit of the Loom, he was naked. From her vantage point at the doorsill Anna could see the wide puffed bottoms of two splayed feet, heavy calves and meaty thighs, a great rise of belly as white as lard and folded in on itself near the navel. One arm and hand, so brown from the sun they looked as if they'd been borrowed from a different cadaver, stuck over the side of the bed, elbow locked, palm up. The face was obscured by the mounded belly and one sagging pec.
"You going to wait till somebody else gets here?"
Part of her brain registered both the disappointment and the understanding in Shelly's voice. The young woman thought Anna was afraid to face the dead by herself. In Anna's estimation, dead bodies were about the most trustworthy humans on the planet. It wasn't squeamishness or fear that kept her in the doorway; before she contaminated the crime scene with her presence she wanted to take note of everything she could. Contamination, to her, not limited to the inevitable effluvia of her hair, skin and shoes, but to her mind as well. Once she stepped in the door she became part of the room. She would see it differently.
"Hand me the radio, Shelly. There in the bag." The part of the Natchez Trace Anna served as district ranger ran through four counties: Adams, Jefferson, Claiborne and Hinds. All were held in concurrent jurisdiction with local law enforcement. Investigations were worked by federal, state and county agencies. It was a system that worked well; cooperation was the rule rather than the exception. The other death Anna worked had been at Rocky Springs in Claiborne County, so Paul Davidson had shared that tragedy. Mt. Locust was in Adams County, where Anna had yet to meet the sheriff. That was about to change.
From Hunting Season by Nevada Barr, Copyright © February 2002, The Putnam Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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