Under the Lake, page 1
Under the Lake
From Publishers Weekly
The Edgar Award-winning author of Chiefs (basis of a TV miniseries) and the bestselling Deep Lie now offers a highly readable if somewhat overheated thriller-cum-gothic that includes murder, drug smuggling, faith healing, hallucinations, revenants and incest. A one-time ace reporter rents a cabin in a backwoods Georgia town, then stumbles upon and determines to solve the town mystery, which involves a seemingly affable sheriff, an autocratic town father and an incest-ridden family whose once-prosperous farm now lies under a lake. He joins forces with a plucky female reporter bent on proving that the sheriff is "dirty," and there's never a dull moment as the story surges toward its exciting climax. The conclusion is a little too far-fetchedbut by that time readers have had more than their money's worth. Major ad/promo; Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club alternates.
Under the Lake
Benny Pope stole the boat because he had never been fishing. He had lived right next to the lake forever, but he had never been fishing. It didn’t seem right. The more beer he drank the more apparent this injustice became, and, at two o’clock in the morning, after two quick sixpacks, he determined to right the wrong.
He shuffled from his room at the back of Ed Parker’s Sinclair station, clutching the other two sixpacks of the case of beer and made his way past the wrecked cars and piles of old tires, through the trees and down to the little dock where Ed rented space to locals. He cast a slightly-out-of-focus eye on the array of small boats tied there and chose the aluminum skiff belonging to the lawyer, McCauliffe, because there was a fishing rod lying in it and because it had two motors. Two motors seemed like a good idea to Benny; you never could tell when one would conk out. Folks were always bringing them up to the station to get fixed.
Benny got the outboard started easily enough, though he nearly fell overboard doing it, then he pointed the skiff toward the middle of the lake, steering an erratic course. The night was clear and warm and still, and the noise the outboard made soon began to intrude upon Benny’s appreciation of the nature around him, so he switched it off and changed to the little electric trolling motor which ran off a car battery. Its dim hum was more in harmony with the surroundings, and soon Benny had some line played out behind the boat and was happily trolling aimlessly across the lake, unconcerned with whatever kind of lure he was towing. He was fishing, by God. He glanced back toward the town. The only electric lights to be seen were at Bubba’s, where a low-stakes pool game was still going on. The old timey gaslights along Main street cast a warm glow over the brick storefronts, giving the white trim a honey tint. It was all very pretty, Benny thought, a pretty town. He was glad he lived there. During the week, he did his work, stayed sober and said hey to folks, helped Ed bring in the business to the filling station. On Saturday nights, he cashed his paycheck, bought a case of beer, and drank it by himself. Sundays, he slept late. He didn’t go to mass any more. Nobody did. He cracked another cold beer and settled in the bottom of the boat, his head resting against a seat cushion, and gazed, awestruck, at the wild array of stars twinkling at him in the moonless night.
Benny wasn’t sure what time it was when he woke up. He was closer to shore, and the little electric motor was draining the last of the battery’s juice, barely moving the boat. A moment later it stopped altogether, and the boat drifted. The night and the water were absolutely still. The stars were reflected in the lake, and for a moment Benny felt he was floating in space, with stars both over and under him. He was so enchanted with the beauty of the moment that he didn’t even want another beer. Then he saw the lights in the water.
They were obviously not stars; they were too bright and too well arranged. Benny froze just for a moment. The faint memory of an old movie came to him, something about space invaders. If the lights were reflected in the water, then they had to be over his head, but he heard nothing. Jesus God, it was a flying saucer! Those things didn’t make any noise, did they? He got slowly to his knees, unable to take his eyes from the reflection in the water. The lights weren’t moving; the goddamned thing was hovering right over him! He forced himself to slowly swivel his neck and look up. There was nothing there. It was gone. It had flown off in an instant, without a sound, before he could see it.
Benny’s breath rushed out of him in a huge sigh of relief. He sank back into the boat. Now he needed another beer; he drank deeply from it. He was too sober for this sort of experience. He set the beer down on a thwart and reached into the back pocket of his overalls for the half pint of Early Times he had stashed there in case the beer didn’t do the job. It wasn’t doing the job, now, and he knocked back a bunch of the bourbon and chased it with the beer. His heart was thumping against his chest, accelerated by his close call with being kidnapped into space. Benny had read something in Readers Digest about some folks that had got kidnapped by a flying saucer, and while it sounded like they had had an interesting experience, it sure had screwed up their lives good. Nobody had believed them or anything, and sure as hell, nobody would believe him if he got kidnapped into space and came back to tell about it. Shoot, they didn’t believe him about his other experiences, the ones he’d had right here at home, so he could imagine the grief he’d have to take if he told them he’d been off in a flying saucer, even if he really had been. As the bourbon found its way to the right places, he began to chuckle at himself, at his foolishness. He laughed out loud. He began to feel cold, and he pulled at the bourbon again. It was time to be getting back. He struggled up to the seat to start the outboard and in so doing glanced at the lake. The lights in the water were back, winking at him in the ripples his movements in the boat had made.
He looked quickly above him, determined to catch it this time, then back at the reflection. He did this three or four times before he realized that there was nothing above him. He looked back at the lights. They were still there, but they weren’t reflections in the lake. They were under the lake.
Benny stared dumbly at the lights for a moment, tried to get his brain to think through the bourbon. The lights didn’t seem close to the surface, but far below. And there was a pattern, a familiar pattern. A house. They were the lights of a house. And all of a sudden Benny knew, he remembered. He had seen this place before, and he had never expected to see it again. He looked quickly up at the shoreline for evidence that this wasn’t happening. Trees; up yonder a cabin. He turned and looked for the water tower in the town, found its string of red lights in the distance over a promontory. His mind triangulated his position as if it were a big radio. He was in the cove. Oh, sweet Jesus, he was back in the cove.
In terror, he looked back at the lights; now he could see more. He was looking at fields and trees under the lake. He could see the house and the road from above, as if he were floating in some silent dirigible. As he looked, the lights of a car pulled away from the house and moved rapidly up the road. He had, he knew, seen all this before. Benny Pope lost his fight with panic. He grabbed the starter cord on the outboard and yanked, and thank God, the engine started immediately. Then, as he reached for the gear lever, a soundless explosion of light came from the lake, illuminating the water about him. For an instant the little boat seemed afloat on a sea of pulsating light.
Benny slammed the motor into gear and twisted the throttle wide open. The boat shot forward, dumping him into the bilges, screaming. He kept screaming as he somehow found his knees and got the wobbling, yawing boat pointed toward the distant town water tower. His screams mingled with the roar of the motor and echoed off the hills.
Bubba Brown had finished mopping the floor at Bubba’s Central Cafe and Recreation Parlor and was fishing for his keys to lock up when Ben
“I seen it, Bubba, I seen it!” Benny was shouting. “Over to the Cove! I seen it again!”
“Hey! Come on, Benny!” Bubba yelled back at him, holding his wrists and guiding him toward a seat in a booth. “Just sit down here and take it easy for a minute.” He got a bottle of his own stuff from behind the counter and poured a stiff one into a water glass. “Here, now get that down and relax.”
Benny knocked back the whiskey and held onto the table edges while it did its work. “I seen it, Bubba,” he said, and he seemed to be calming down a bit.
Bubba poured him another drink. “Now look, Benny, you been doing real good, lately. You been going easy on the booze, and you haven’t seen anything for a couple of years, now, have you?”
Benny yanked off his Caterpillar cap and wiped his sweaty brow with a sleeve. “I seen under the lake,” he gasped.
“What do you mean, you seen under…” Bubba stopped and stared at the little man. “Jesus, Benny,” he said. “Your hair’s turned all white.”
John Howell stirred to the sound of a familiar voice. Elisha Cook, Jr., he registered immediately. He kept his eyes shut and listened to the next voice. Sidney Greenstreet. He had the scene before Bogart even spoke: The Maltese Falcon and Bogart had just been drugged. Howell sat up and, throwing up a hand against the morning sunlight, stared at the television set in disgust. The Maltese Falcon was a midnight, not a mid-morning movie. Where did these people come off putting a dark movie like that on at ten o’clock in the morning? Probably some postgrad Bogart freak of a programmer at the station. Howell should be waking up to “I Love Lucy” reruns, not The Maltese Falcon. What was the world coming to? There was no sense of fitness, of propriety any more.
He looked about him at the seedy room above the garage; it was a mess, as usual: manuscript paper scattered over the desk and floor; the typewriter, its keys dusty from disuse, waiting. The sight of it filled him with the nameless dread that seemed to start most of his days lately. The inside of his mouth felt like the inside of his head; swollen, inflamed, dirty. There was an empty Jack Daniel’s bottle and a second, one-third empty, on the desk next to the typewriter, silent evidence of the origin of his condition. No, not the origin, just a symptom. The origin was harder to pin down, required more thought than Howell felt able to muster. Howell fixed his mind on the only thing that would move him off the old leather sofa and get him into the house: a toothbrush. He would kill for a toothbrush.
He squinted to bring his wristwatch into focus: eleven fifteen. Shit; he had an appointment at noon. He struggled upright, slipped his feet into his sneakers, grabbed the empty bourbon bottle and headed for the house, dropping the bottle into a trash can next to the back door. He didn’t want the maid picking up empties.
“Afternoon, Mr. Howell,” the maid said, drily, as he passed through the kitchen. Bitch. He didn’t need that from her. He ran up the stairs to the bedroom. She had left it pin neat; the maid wouldn’t have to lift a finger. He dug a suit out of his dressing room, flung it on the bed, brushed his teeth violently far two minutes, then dove into a hot shower.
Forty-five minutes later, miraculously on time, he sat, flipping idly through the pages of Poultry Month magazine and wondering what the hell he was doing here. The reception room was a perfectly normal, even tasteful one, with plush carpets, leather furniture and decent art. Only the seven-foot-high fiberglass chicken seemed out of place.
The phone on the reception desk buzzed, and the young woman lifted it and turned toward Howell. “Mr. Pitts will see you out.” she said. She rose and opened the office door for him.
Lurton Pitts came at him from behind the huge desk like a baseball manager comes at an umpire after a questionable call. Only at the moment his hand shot out did the man smile. “John… can I call you John? I’m awful glad to meet you. I’ve admired your work for an awful long time, I can tell you. I’ve been reading your stuff ever since you won the Pulitzer Prize for the stories about those murders. I read your book about it, too. Fine stuff, that was.”
“Well, thanks, Mr. Pitts…”
“Call me Lurton, son, everybody does. Can we get you a glass of ice tea or something?”
Howell supposed that a man who had on his office wall a warmly autographed photograph of himself with the Reverend Jerry Falwell would not have a bar in the same office. “No thanks, I’m just fine, uh… Lurton.”
“Good, good,” Pitts said, directing him toward a chair and circling the desk to find his own. “I’m grateful to Denham White for arranging this meeting. I know how valuable your time is, and I’ll get right to the point. What do you know about me, John?”
“Well, only what I read in the papers, I guess.” Howell knew that the man had over a thousand Little Chickie fried chicken parlors all over the country, that he was the quintessential self-made man, and that he espoused causes and gave money to charities and office holders that were all over the political ball park, from far right to far left field. It was hard to get a fix on Lurton Pitts.
“I’ve had a rewarding life,” Pitts said, leaning back in his high-backed leather chair and gazing out over the Atlanta skyline. “My daddy was a one-mule farmer until I showed him how to get in the chicken-raising business. I was fourteen when I figured that out. By the time I was twenty-one I was the biggest chicken farmer in the state. I opened my first Little Chickie that year, too. It’s grown by leaps and bounds, and I don’t mind telling you we’re snapping at Colonel Sanders’ ass, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
“Mmmm,” Howell said. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. Why was he here?
“But my interests have always been broader than the chicken business,” Pitts continued. “I’m interested in foreign relations; bet you didn’t know that.”
“Nope,” Howell replied, trying not to giggle.
Pitts leaned forward and fixed Howell with an intense gaze. “John, can I confide in you?”
“Oh, sure.” This was some bizarre joke of Denham White’s. He would arrive at lunch and there would be six guys around a table, drinking martinis and speechless with laughter. He tried to think of some graceful way just to leave, but failed.
“This is strictly off the record, now.”
“Don’t worry, Lurton, I’m not a newspaperman anymore.”
“This is August first, the year of our Lord 1976,” Pitts said. “In November, Gerald Ford is going to be reelected President of the United States.”
“Could be,” Howell said.
“The American people are not going to elect a peanut farmer to the presidency,” Pitts said, in a voice that brooked no argument.
Howell agreed with the man but said nothing.
“Four years from November I’m going to be elected the next President of the United States of America,” Pitts said, with absolute confidence.
Howell let his breath out as slowly as possible to keep from bursting out laughing and worked at fixing his face in an interested expression.
“I guess that’s left you pretty much speechless,” Pitts said after a moment.
“Pretty much,” Howell agreed. Pitts was not only eccentric, he was crazy. If the American people wouldn’t elect a peanut farmer president, why a chicken farmer?
“Well, let me tell you, I’m not going about fulfilling this ambition haphazardly. Some of the finest minds in this country are signing on to help me realize it.”
“Anybody I know?”
Pitts held up a hand. “Too soon to talk about that right now. What I want to talk about right now is you.”
“Me?” Here it came. He wondered how long Denham White had been planning this.
“I want you to write my autobiography.”
Howell was so entertained by the contradiction in that statement that he forgot to reply.
“What do you think of that?” Pitts asked.
“Well, it’s very kind of you to think of me fo
“Lurton. But I’m pretty wrapped up in my own work at the moment…” That was a bald-faced lie; half a dozen publishers had already rejected his attempt at a novel, and he didn’t have an idea in his head.
“Yes, Denham White told me that you were writing for yourself at the moment. Of course, you understand that I would expect to meet your usual fee for writing a book. Excuse me if I get personal for just a minute, John, but how much did the Pulitzer Prize pay you?”
“A thousand dollars.”
“And how much did you make on the book when that came out? Then I would expect to pay you sixty thousand dollars to write my book.”
Howell was speechless again, but not in danger of laughing. He was astonished at what the mention of that sum was doing to his insides.
Pitts rose, walked to a credenza and picked up a cheap, plastic briefcase. He set it down in front of Howell. “Tell you what,” he said. “This contains twelve reels of recording tape. I’ve spoken everything I can remember about my life onto those tapes. You take them home and listen to some of them, then call me back and tell me if you think you can make a book out of them.”
Howell got to his feet. “Well, I’ll be happy to give you my opinion, Lurton, but I don’t know…”
“Just listen to them, John. I think you’ll realize what a story my life has been. Call me in a few days.”
“All right.” Howell picked up the briefcase and held out his hand.
“There’s just two things I ask of you,” Pitts said. “First, nobody must ever know that I didn’t write the book myself. Wouldn’t look good.”
That suited Howell. He would never be able to hold up his head again if anybody he knew thought he had even considered ghostwriting a book for Lurton Pitts.
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