Uncivil Seasons, page 1
by Michael Malone
Copyright © 1983, 2001 by Michael Malone
Cover design © 2001 by Chip Kidd
Cover image by William Eggleston/A+C Anthology
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in Uncivil Seasons are fictitious. The setting is the state of North Carolina, and certain public institutions and public offices are mentioned, but the characters involved in them are entirely imaginary. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Uncivil seasons / by Michael Malone.
1. Police—North Carolina—Fiction. 2. North Carolina—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3563.A43244 U5 2001
For Barry Hoffman
“Round up the usual suspects.”
The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of than hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom; and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the duke; peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death.
—Nick Bottom, a Weaver
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Part One: The Sea Maid’s Music
Part Two: Bottom’s Dream
Part Three: The Seasons Alter
Preview Of Time’s Witness
About the Author
The Sea Maid’s Music
Monday, January 17
Two things don’t happen very often in Hillston, North Carolina. We don’t get much snow and we hardly ever murder one another. Suicide is more our style; we’re a polite, college town, and our lives are sheltered by old trees. Maybe once a year a blizzard slips around a corner of the Smoky Mountains and blusters its way east, or a gale swells up from Cape Hatteras and runs across the Piedmont to break up our agreeable liaison with nature; but usually storms lose interest along the way. Whenever one does barge through town, merchants stockpile sleds as recklessly as Carolina blockade-runners once stowed tobacco and cotton. Schools close. Cars spin off the road. People have accidents.
They commit murders, too, but much more often in thought and word than deed. There is some impertinence in being a homicide detective in a town that wants to go on believing it is still too small and too temperate to require such expertise. That I should be the detective obliged to remind them of their susceptibility seems a further affront to Hillston, for I’m one of them. My mother is a Hillston Dollard. Her family has sheltered the town since its founding; they founded it. They sheltered it with pride; defensive, unchallengeable pride in the town, and the Piedmont that circled it, and the state that circled the Piedmont, and the country that circled the state. That’s what Dol lards did. It was the family business. For me to be searching for killers among us would have struck Hillston as an improper lack of family feeling, except that, of course, as everyone said, we rarely murdered one another.
The trouble was that now Cloris Dollard was dead, had been found dead last Sunday, her skull crushed. She was my uncle’s wife.
• • •
“The sky looks like snow,” I told Mrs. Lawry Whetstone.
“Never happen, sugar,” Susan said.
I was standing naked beneath my overcoat beside the bedroom window of the Whetstone summer cottage, glumly looking across the January gray lake toward Pine Hills Inn. The Inn was Hillston’s oldest restaurant; old enough to boast it had been reduced to the degradation of serving as the stables for invading Federal troops during the War of the Confederacy. My circle ate at the Inn. Snug in a booth there an hour ago, Susan Whetstone had repeated that she just couldn’t see the sense in her divorcing Lawry and ruining everything. She’d poked at the shrimp sunk inside her avocado, and brushed her blond hair up from the nape of her tan neck and said, “No, sugar, it’s better this way.” Susan and I had been having an affair for eighteen months; a year ago, I hadn’t thought it was better this way. Now I no longer asked her to leave Lawry, but she hadn’t seemed to notice I’d stopped, and she went on refusing to come away with me. It seemed impolite to point out she needn’t worry about my feelings, especially after it had become so clear that Susan was not a worrier.
Susan’s husband, Lawry, was a vice-president of C&W Textiles, Hillston’s biggest industry, a century-old complex of mills and manufacturing that Lawry was determined to haul, against the will of its elderly patriarch, into the hightech gloss of what the newspapers were in the habit of calling the New South. Lawry flew around to places like Japan and Houston and neglected to take Susan with him. He’d been away in Atlanta for two weeks now, either buying or selling. “Who knows, who cares,” said Susan, no backseat careerist.
I was standing by the window. She was stuffing designer sheets and towels apparently stolen from Hyatt hotels into the hamper and pulling the beige-checked coverlet over the bed. She found my shorts and tossed them at me. She’d already showered and dressed again; she had a postcoital efficiency I found depressing.
“Justin, it’s 1:30. I better run. Laurel Fanshaw told me somebody, she wouldn’t say who, was going to bring a motion to impeach me off the effing Charity Ball committee if I wasn’t at this meeting today. I bet it was Patty. I can’t believe you were so gaga over her; she’s such a bitch.”
“I was sixteen.” I lit a cigarette. “You better run.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be back at work by two?”
“I’m supposed to check Cloris’s ‘socialite connections.’ Aren’t you one of them?” I brought Susan her suede boots. “That’s what Captain Fulcher told me today.” I mimicked my chief’s fidgety face. “‘Nobody can beat Senator Dollard’s wife to death and rob her blind in her own house while I’m at the helm. Check out everybody, Savile, but don’t step on any toes. You can be sure nobody in her circle carted off a crate of Mrs. Dollard’s silverware, right? You know, my wife has the same pattern! Grand Baroque.” I did a set of his mouth cl
Susan said, “Funny man. I love it when you do Fulcher. He is so tacky.”
“He’d be crushed to know you think so; he wants to be ‘in,’ like you.”
“Not as ‘in’ as you, sweetie.” She shoved her foot into the magenta boot by pushing against my bare leg. “I like that scar on your leg.” She opened my overcoat and ran her hand down my calf. “I think it’s the fact that it’s a bullet wound that turns me on.” She walked to the dresser mirror to watch herself slide into her mink coat. “On TV, they said a robber killed Cloris. Meanwhile, it has got to be the creepiest thing I ever heard.” Her hand stopped, lipstick poised.
I asked, “Did you ever hear of anybody really disliking Cloris?”
“Come on! You think somebody killed her on purpose? Get real, Justin.” The lipstick plummeted into the suede purse. “Bye bye. I loved it today. I’ll call you.”
Shivering, I walked barefoot into the kitchen; like the rest of the cottage, closed for winter, the room smelled thickly of stale air. The table and counters were piled with summer’s leftovers: white sail bags, OFF! cans, black flippers, badminton birdies. In their empty refrigerator I’d put my bottle of Jack Daniel’s. I poured my fourth drink of the day, carried it out on the screened porch, and stared across Pine Hills Lake, a dark, flat oval ringed by the coves where, in summer, Hillston resorted in old-fashioned vacation homes. Somewhere on the other side, behind banked evergreens, was the Rowell Dollard cottage. When I was a child, I’d been brought there often, balking, to play with the daughters of the woman whose murder I was now assigned to investigate.
When I was a child, we called the place the Ames cottage, because back then Cloris had been married to a man named Bainton Ames. It was only after his death that she’d married Rowell Dollard, and so become a relative of mine, because Rowell was my mother’s younger half-brother; and so become, because Rowell was a Dollard and a state senator, just the kind of person no one in Hillston wanted to believe could ever be beaten unconscious and then smothered with her own pillow in her home on Catawba Drive, which was (as Captain Fulcher reminded me) the best street in town.
I’d grown up on Catawba Drive, but had not driven for a long time along its shaded, twisting road until last Monday, when I was called to come look at Cloris Dollard. I was called by authority higher than Captain Fulcher’s, because the circle closed ranks.
Because my father had played music on weekends with Cloris’s first husband.
Because I’d been a (reluctant) usher at Cloris’s second wedding. (Reluctant because I didn’t like Rowell Dollard, who persisted in trying to give direction—his own—to my life.)
I was called in because Mother’s cousin was the state attorney general. He’d gone over Fulcher’s head to relieve me of all other cases, so that I could devote my time to discovering who’d killed Cloris, and then telling him about it the day he returned from his golf resort.
Because my mother’s oldest brother (Uncle Kip) was a U.S. senator. Because one of my mother’s grandfathers had been governor, like his father before him.
There was no need for me to worry about getting back late from lunch. In Hillston, family talked louder than money. Usually, although not always in our case, they spoke the same language. Captain Fulcher did not care for me, but he was afraid to make it obvious. He assumed that sooner or later I would tell Mother’s people to find me a job as a judge or a senator, and then it would be better for him if I had never become aware of how covetously he despised me. His pink, frantic jowls flinched whenever I referred to Mrs. Dollard as Cloris.
After my childhood I had come to call her Cloris, but I’d rarely seen her. She was only a large, handsome shape passing me on the golf course or on the dance floor of the Hillston Club. Last Monday, I’d stood on the vast yellow carpeting of the vast colonial bedroom, and followed the smear of dried blood and the track of scattered pearls that led to the queen-size bed where Cloris Dollard had lain dead all night on a daisy coverlet, her suit ripped loose at the shoulder, a shoe absurdly dangling from her foot, the pillow now taken away from her face so that Richard Cohen, our medical examiner, could say what was immediately clear: someone had broken her skull, someone had pushed hard enough on her face to crush her nose. I’d stood, looking down on her body, and remembered her voice when I was a child, a full, warm, smoker-deep voice that made all her words sound like laughs.
And I recalled one moment from the summer I was six. Cloris and my mother, both in their bathing suits, stood on the dock at the Ames lake cottage, watching Uncle Rowell swim out to pull upright the little sailboat Bainton Ames had just capsized. Cloris was tugging up her suit straps and saying to my mother, “Honey, you’re crazy, don’t envy me! Thank your stars you’re so petite and don’t have to lug these damn things around with you everywhere you go!” She put her hands beneath her breasts and pushed them up. I recall my sudden wonder at all that amplitude of flesh, so different from my slender mother’s body. I recall my squirming flush as I realized they were talking about their breasts.
When I called to tell my mother that Cloris was dead, she had sobbed, “Oh, my God, where’s Rowell? Is he there? Oh, poor Cloris. I’ll come over. Poor Rowell, poor Rowell. And his primary!”
Like her half-brother, Mother had been bred a Dollard. She knew that primaries were the family business.
Out on Susan’s porch now, hairs rose from the goose bumps on my bare legs. A colder, quicker wind swirled up inside my coat, and my muscles tightened to shrink away from the gusts. Gray swells on Pine Hills Lake slapped up at a gray swollen mass of clouds that had hurriedly spurned over the sky and blotted the day out. It looked very much like snow. As my head tilted up to finish my whiskey, I noticed a different shade of gray steam skyward from the crest of the piney hill that sloped up from the side of the Whetstone lot. At first I thought of a fire, then saw that it was chimney smoke, then seemed to remember that hidden in that evergreen foliage was the vacation compound belonging to old Briggs Cadmean, president of C&W Textiles.
Hillston was a quiet college town, but it took the clattering noise of Cadmean’s mills to pay for so much quietness. For the past fifty years Cadmean had owned the mills; he was the hub of the wheel. Eighty now, he was seldom seen socially. His pleasures had presumably been pecuniary and domestic: he’d made millions, he’d married often. Two wives had left his ugly downtown mansion on the arms of their lawyers; two had left in expensive coffins. Now he lived alone. I’d heard that his children, some of them old themselves, had all fled from him—several by dying. Why should his summer house be open in January? Surely, at his age, he too was not forced out here by a clandestine affair? Did the compound even still belong to Cadmean? I couldn’t remember if Susan had said he’d sold it. She’d said something about it today at lunch, but I’d been drinking at lunch, and I forgot things when I drank. What I forgot first was how frightened my Dollard relatives were that I would start drinking again. “Some men can’t handle it,” Rowell had often informed me. “You seem to be one of them.” Rowell had plans for me that meant he had to keep the skeleton gagged in the closet; to him the noise of ice in a glass in my hand sounded like the rattle of bones breaking loose and shaking the doorknob. I threw what was left of my drink toward the lake and went inside to get dressed.
• • •
At 2:30 I was walking unsteadily up the wide stone steps of the municipal building when I was stopped by Sister Resurrection, a tiny, old black woman who’d been trying to save Hillston for half a century. She always stopped me when I’d been drinking, somehow she sensed that’s when I was most likely to agree with her. Now she shook her makeshift cross at me and said, “God’s ready to put a stop to all this trash! He got no time to mess with mercy now! Praise Him!”
I said, “Why shouldn’t He have time? He had time to start the whole mess.”
She had no answer, or didn’t care to share it, and marched in her fluttering rags away, insistent that we all rejoice in the imminent Armageddon. I followed he
Inside on the fifth floor, Cuddy Mangum, Hillston’s other homicide detective, stood in the hall, fiddling with his scores on a college basketball pool that was tacked up above the coffee machine. Captain Fulcher couldn’t fire me because of my family; he couldn’t fire Cuddy Mangum because Mangum was discreetly running the department for him. He wanted to fire us both.
At Cuddy’s feet sat the dirty, white, unclipped little poodle (more or less) that he brought with him nearly everywhere he went, despite Fulcher’s demands that he stop. The dog’s name was Mrs. Mitchell, or Martha. He’d named her for the wife of Nixon’s crony John Mitchell, and with her light frizzy bangs and sharp nose she did somewhat resemble that lady. Cuddy said he’d found Mrs. Mitchell abandoned on Airport Road the day he’d returned to Hillston from Vietnam, when he was feeling that the government had done to him about what it had done to Mrs. Mitchell, when they both had just been trying to help out.
As I came down the hall, Cuddy waggled his eyebrows. “How was your lunch break?” And he gave his crotch a few quick pumps.
I said, “Cuddy, that’s the kind of gross, white-trash social style that gets you assigned to investigate ax fights in the By-Ways Massage Emporium parking lot, while I’m off interrogating Daughters of the Confederacy with our toes dangling in their private pools.”
He winked his caustic, blue-jay eye down at me. “Is that where you were? I told your visitor you were off doing something hushed up and high-class, but my, I didn’t know it was toe-dangling! Sort of shrivels you up though, in January, doesn’t it, all this dangling? Now, was this pool water? You sure it wasn’t lake water?”
I pointed at my cubicle and felt in my jacket pocket for a cigarette. “Who’s in there?”
“I don’t know, but I’m in love with her.” He blocked me with his tall beanpole body; his white acrylic “ski” sweater smelled like pizza. He sighed loudly. “Now, tell me, Justin Bartholomew Savile the Five, why’d I have to grow up gross and country, and you so classical ivy and antebellum with your mama’s folks that used to be the governor and all just running the state so big, why when their wives get whopped on the head, the attorney general has you put right on their case without a kiss-my to our fathead captain, not to mention me and my four years’ seniority.”
Other author's books:
- Delectable MountainsUncivil SeasonsThe Delectable Mountains
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