Out of the Ruins, Ben Reese Mystery #4Out of the Ruins, Ben Reese Mystery #4
Sally Wright
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Georgia's wild Cumberland Island is steeped in family secrets. When bedridden Hannah Hill dies just days after telling ex-intelligence agent Ben Reese about a disguised nighttime intruder, he suspects murder. Treading carefully around questions about mercy and human suffering, Ben pursues a tangle of motives and old mysteries---euthanasia, arson, poaching, and jealousy---between two great island families. 376 pages, softcover from Multnomah.
     

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Chapter One

SUNDAY, JANUARY 10, 1960

CHARLOTTE HILL MACKINNON SHOVED her chair away from her desk and slapped a cloth-and-leather ledger shut before she stood up muttering hotly to herself about the price of food and upkeep and the cost of help on an island.

Paying the lawyers what’s killing me, and any fool can see that’s what they’re counting on. Me, running out of money. And I will too, in not too many years. If I keep having to fight the developer and the federal government.

Charlotte tucked the last letter from the Atlanta lawyer inside the waistband of her skirt to take to Hannah. And then started looking for her car keys, shuffling papers and books and bones on the desk (one small flounder skeleton, the carapace of a horseshoe crab, three sun-bleached vertebrae—raccoon, squirrel and fox), while she felt her heart beating at her own bones and her face getting hot with irritation.

She was standing on a moth-eaten oriental rug rubbing an arthritic thumb knuckle with long bony fingers, glaring around at her office as though a trick had been played on her by a long-standing enemy she believed to be hiding nearby.

She looked past rocks and seashells, and gazed around the loggerhead skull, and the stuffed boar and antelope heads fixed to the dark paneled walls between snake skins, and the several stuffed birds she’d raised or shot.

She glanced at the African spears in a corner, and the photographs of friends in Kenya, next to maps of Cumberland Island from the sixteenth century to the middle of the twentieth.

She stared at the jumble behind the dirt and dust, at the thickets of unmatched family antiques shoved wherever there was room, without much noticing anything but what wasn’t there—the keys to her old World War II Jeep.

Charlotte shouted the short Anglo-Saxon word she saved for special occasions (the one she never had said in front of Hannah, even when Kirkconnell was burning to the ground), as she threw her long silver braid behind her shoulder to get the itch of it off her neck.

She never carried a purse.

They weren’t in the pockets of her old torn skirt.

And she couldn’t think where else to look.

She’d put Rafe’s set somewhere safe a week or so after he died, but she never had remembered where, and ten years had passed without them putting in an appearance.

So the only thing left was to search the backyard, on the route she’d walked from the paddocks to the house. And she picked up the sweater she’d thrown on the floor when she’d come in from feeding her horses—shouting, "About time!" in a harsh scratchy voice, when she felt the keys in the pocket.

Then she shot into the hall, grabbed her coat and hat off the rack of wooden pegs, stepped over two fat yellow labs—and blew through the back door on her way to feed the pheasants.

She scattered grain in their pen by the old wooden stables, then hand-fed the parrots and big macaws in the new winter cages she’d built in the garage, after she’d glanced at the clock on the wall and seen there was reason not to rush.

She didn’t want to get to Whitfield when Hannah was eating dinner. It made her too uncomfortable to watch her being fed.

 

The Jeep started as soon as she turned the key, and she leaned forward and patted the star on the khaki hood, as she headed south to the north—south road on Four Chimneys’s long tree-lined drive.

She’d lived under them for seventy-five years, the live oaks that covered Cumberland, and yet she still couldn’t not look at them—the thick curling limbs a hundred feet long in every direction draped with gray Spanish moss, protecting the island from the east wind off the ocean and the mainland-side marsh from hot afternoon Georgia sun.

Many of the trees stretching above her had been there for three hundred years, shading the natives, the Spanish, the English, the pirates, the soldiers who’d fought there in three American wars, the family of General Nathanael Greene, when they’d owned the island and lived on the south end, and Charlotte’s family since the late 1800s, once they’d come and bought Cumberland.

Although shade wasn’t something Charlotte needed at that moment. It’d been chilly since morning, even for January, gray and damp after a week of rain. And Charlotte wished for half a minute that she’d put the top up on the Jeep—before she buttoned Rife’s Navy peacoat and told herself not to snivel.

She saw three wild pigs ten minutes south of Four Chimneys—right where she eased the Jeep down a quick steep slope onto two parallel wooden tracks, just wider than a car tire, ten feet above a broad tidal creek. There she put it in neutral, and pulled on the emergency, and looked to her right toward the quick curve a hundred yards past, where the creek flowed west into the marsh.

There were no flocks of ibis. Which was no great surprise. The creek was too deep at high tide for them to feed. So she looked to her left, toward the center of Cumberland, hoping for egrets, or at least an alligator, while she listened to a Carolina wren.

Trees and vines hung over the water—emptying now toward the western marsh, running gray-green in the gray light—where a tall Great White Egret, its neck crooked in a painful-looking S, its tail feathers draped like a white lace train, stood fishing on one thin leg with silent concentration.

Charlotte grabbed her binoculars from the passenger seat, and watched the big bird catch a fingerling with awe-inspiring speed and swallow it with a shake of its head.

It gazed toward her, for several seconds, and then ignored her again—before silently spreading its wide white wings and sweeping up over the trees.

Charlotte smiled to herself as she put the Jeep in gear and climbed up the steep south hill.

When she came to the fork in the shady green tunnel (the narrow main road she kept hacked out of live oak and saw palmetto jungle), she hesitated, and then turned left—right where two armadillos were fizzing along like windup toys, tiny toes scurrying under the tank on top, oblivious apparently to the Jeep and the person, having very little brain with which to work.

Charlotte stopped on the way, the way she always did on Cumberland when something caught her attention—this time to watch Pretty Peggy crop frostbitten grass in a pine clearing, her chestnut coat thick now and matted, while her dark bay baby nursed. Peggy was wild like all the other horses on the island, except for Charlotte’s two geldings, and ready to bolt if the Jeep got too close.

A quarter of a mile later, Charlotte pulled off, in a burned clearing between two ponds at White Branch where a few tall pines grew scattered near the marshy edge. She looked down at the patch of mud where she knew they liked to sun, without expecting to see any that late in the day, in that much cold and gray. But there was one—a young alligator, maybe five feet long, his scaly snout half open, his eyes following Charlotte closely, the ridges on his head and back and tail the green of old moss and mud, his crooked short reptilian legs faster on land than you’d think.

Charlotte talked to him, as she got out of the car, and watched him from fifteen feet away, till he slid backwards into the water with hardly a ripple behind.

Then she backed the Jeep between two pines, shoved the gearshift into first, and looked at Rife’s last wristwatch.

It was quarter to six, so there was time to see what the crew had done at Stafford graveyard, but not stop anywhere else.

It was better than it had been, when she trekked in from the main road and opened the iron gate in the moss-covered stone and tabby wall. The weeds had been mowed. The cigarette wrappers were gone. But there were vines that needed cutting back, and breaks in the walls to be mended.

Charlotte planned the next talk she was going to have with Roy Black as she trotted a few feet on the path toward the car—then stopped and laid a hand on her heart. She told herself not to think about it then. That she’d find a doctor worth seeing next week when she went down to Jacksonville to talk to the lawyer there.

I ought to call the New York PR. lady too, when I’m on the mainland. The one that Hal recommended. Because publicity’s going to be crucial. Now, and in the future.

Why is it starting the first time I turn the key? Now if I could pad the springs in the seat, and keep my foot out of the hole by the clutch—

Oh, no.

It was the wild turkeys. The same two females from the afternoon before, hopping out into the road from the same stretch of saw palmetto, running south in front of the Jeep.

It was amusing, in a way. The two of them shuffling along as fast as they could, looking over their shoulders at Charlotte, their brown speckled feathers ruffling as they ran, swaying from side to side, kicking up a plume of sand.

She’d laughed at them the day before, to begin with. Till they’d kept it up for almost ten minutes at not more than five miles an hour.

She pulled up closer, hoping it would make them fly.

But it didn’t. And Charlotte backed off the gas and waited.

I have to remember to tell Hannah about them. It’s just the kind of thing to make her laugh.

Though how she can laugh at anything is more than I can understand. I wouldn’t if I were her. I’d be a royal pain in the backside, and no one would darken my door.

* * * * *

"It makes me want to spit! My family has cleared, and planted, and tended this island for eighty years. We’ve spent a fortune taking care of all the animals and plants that make it what it is. An absolute earthly paradise, without any of the commercial junk that’s ruined the whole east coast. And what do my sniveling niece and nephew do? Sell to Eddie Montgomery so he can sell it to some snake of a developer! It’s all I can do not to strangle all four of ‘em!" Charlotte grabbed both sides of her head with her hands in half-serious desperation, and rushed away from the four-poster bed in the first-floor room that had been hers and Rife’s before she’d made Whitfield an inn.

"I don’t reckon it’ll do much good to ask you to stand still a minute so I can see your face while you talk."

"Do you care about what I just said?"

"Course I do, as you—"

"Well, then?"

"Don’t know why I bothuh. You can’t tell a Hill, born and raised, much of anything, any more than you can get ‘em to change their ways." Hannah Hill’s wide gray face, propped on a flat foam pillow and turned toward Charlotte’s back, smiled as though she were trying not to laugh.

"You oughtta know, since you went and married the worst of us! Well, maybe not the worst. Papa was nothing to write home about either."

"What’s Eddie Montgomery up to now?"

"Trying to talk Hal Sutton into selling to the big-shot Atlanta developer. Just the thought of a causeway’s got Hal so upset he’s about to call the park service back in and sell his land to them instead. Course, you know what I think of the park service and the way they’re stickin’ their nose in."

"Yes, I surely do. The next time you talk to Eddie, would you ask him to come see me?"

"Eddie and I don’t talk, you know that. We holler at each other once in a great while from twenty feet away"

"Tell him I said it’s important. Ask Amelia to do it for me, if you wouldn’t mind."

"What do you want to talk to him about? No, don’t tell me. I know too much already about your pernicious little schemes."

"Now, wait—"

"I’ll get her to do it first thing tomorrow"

"Thank you, Charlotte. I appreciate the help."

"I’m not going to turn my back on Cumberland." Charlotte was looking straight at Hannah, pulling her long silver braid forward across her narrow shoulder.

"I know you aren’t, and you shouldn’t."

"It’s the last big barrier island that’s still the way it ought to be, and I’m not going to let it happen, Hannah. I’m not. You hear me? I swear to you that there’s not going to be a golf course on Cumberland, or a swimming pool, or a causeway over to St. Mary’s. There’s never going to be a string of tacky little vacation cottages, or some big pretentious development that caters to the nouveau riche."

"Nevuh’s a long time, honey. Nevuh’s not somethin’ you and I control."

"The National Park’s not going to take over either, I can tell you that, and they’re working at it. They are. I talked to a woman in Bradley’s office. I knew her mother during the war, and she said—"

"Congressman Bradley?"

Charlotte whipped her head around, her black eyes fierce, deep-set and hawklike, as she said, "Who else would I be talking about?"

"Well, you might could be—"

"She said they’re doing a ‘long-term assessment,’ and talking about bringing in seventeen hundred people a day. Twelve thousand a week, she said. Can you imagine what that’d do to the turtles? Loggerheads have been coming here to lay their eggs for nobody knows how many hundreds of years, and what would happen to them? And the wild horses, and the rare birds, and the woods full of deer and wild pig? Take the pig off the island, and you know they’d have to, if they brought all those idiots over here every day, and we’d have diamondbacks comin’ out our ears. This is America, Hannah. How can the government take my land?"

"By right of eminent domain."

"If Rife were still alive, or my Uncle Jim, either one, they wouldn’t let it happen! Never in a million years." Charlotte MacKinnon stood glaring at Hannah, her fists on her narrow hips, her dark eyes hot in a broad-boned face that was cut in a complicated lace of lines by weather as much as time.

"Honey, you know I sympathize. I want you to fight this fight with every bone and blood vessel you got. But you still gotta take care of yourself. You went and got yourself so worked up you fainted Tuesday, and I don’t think—"

"Who told you that! I told Roy—"

"I’m not gonna be sayin’ who told me, so take you a good deep breath and don’t even bothuh. Charlotte, honey, if you want to win this battle, you have to eat well, and get you some sleep, and not punish yourself more than you can stand. If you don’t, your body’s gonna give out on you before you can see it through." Hannah’s wide pale eyes were holding Charlotte’s hard.

And Charlotte turned her back on the bed and stared out at the night on Cumberland, black and blowing, through a tangle of ancient live oaks. "It makes me want to spit."

"You said that already. Could you toss you anothuh log on the fire? Would you mind? I’m feelin’ kinda chilly. You eaten today?"

"Don’t start mothering me, Hannah. Don’t you presume!"

"All right. I stand corrected. Well, no, I lie corrected." Hannah smiled to herself and turned her head toward the French doors. "Motherin’s not somethin’ I’m much good at." Hannah’s voice had gotten dryer, and weaker, and she was licking at cracked lips.

"Mary may not be much to brag about, but you did a good job with Johanna. Better than I did with Leah, as anyone with eyes can see. Was it easier that Johanna wasn’t yours?"

"I doubt it, honey, but I don’t know"

Charlotte dropped two more pine logs on the dying fire, then straightened her back and looked at the hall door. "I’ll tell Roy to bring you some more wood."

"It was hard for Leah, the way things were then. Bein’ raised a Hill on Cumberland. Would you mind givin’ me a drink of watuh? You don’t have to touch me anywhere, just hold the glass and aim the straw at my mouth."

"Would you hush up? I’m perfectly willing to touch you! I don’t know what you’re talking about."

"There’s nothing you hate more than nursin’ people. You know that. Animals you do just fine. You gonna eat here at the inn?"

"Got to, I guess. Don’t have a thing in the house. Need to get a list to Adam before he takes the boat in the morning." She was holding the straw for Hannah with an awkward self-conscious look on her face, like a dog who’s thinking about sneaking out the door.

"I presume you’re fixin’ to change your clothes?" Hannah was smiling, looking up at Charlotte with half-mocking eyes.

"I am not gonna start worrying now about how I look. I’m seventy-five years old, it’s my inn, and I haven’t cared what anybody thinks since I was twenty-five!"

"Charlotte—"

"They’re my antiques these ‘guests’ are setting their behinds on, and my oriental carpets they’re tracking sand on, and I—"

"You’re chargin’ ‘em a fair amount for the privilege, honey, and they don’t expect you, the niece of James J. Hill, seen on society pages across the country, to be—"

"I haven’t been on a society page since 1949!"

"—to be wearin’ ten-year-old tennis shoes without laces, an old cotton skirt with holes in the back, and a sweater that’s been eaten by moths and washed till the pills are the size of popcorn."

"Come on now, Hanny, it’s not as bad as that."

Hannah didn’t say anything. She lay without moving the way she always did—the way she had for two-and-a-half years, her arms tucked under the covers, the only life visible shining from her face—and smiled at the outrage, fading into irritation, on Charlotte Hill MacKinnon’s.

"All right, Miss Smarty Pants, I’ll put on my other clothes. You better be glad I’m a patient woman. I don’t know anybody else who’d take that kind of bullying from an upstart poor relation!"

"Charlotte, honey, patient is not the word anyone in the whole wide world would use to describe you. We put your clothes in the armoire. My files are takin’ ovuh the dressuh, and Amelia had to move your things."

"What do you keep in all those files?"

"Things I’m interested in. Stories ‘bout people who puzzle me. Political decisions I want to ponduh. How the papers presented ‘em years ago, and how they talk about ‘em now, and how opinions get changed because of that. Now, that looks very nice. Your black ballet slippuhs should be there too, somewhere in the bottom. We threw away the white ones. One of the soles was fixin’ to come off. You may have to make you a light."

Charlotte was tying a black-and-brown wraparound African batik skirt on one hip, having already buttoned a black cotton blouse. "Why are you such a meddler all of a sudden? You didn’t use to be such a pain in the neck. It’s only been since the MS got really bad. Every time I think about that chair—"

"Then don’t. You knew that wasn’t right. You knew it."

"That was my business, and it wasn’t up to you to interfere. Hannah, I don’t want to go out and talk to them."

"You’ll do fine. You can be pleasant for a little while with folks you’ll nevuh see again."

"They make me feel like an animal in a zoo, watching my every move. ‘Robber baron’s niece’ right there on their faces. When they don’t know a thing about Uncle Jim or how he ran his railroads. You know how ethical and hardworking he was."

"I know, but—"

"He built a fairly priced transcontinental railroad that supported itself when none of the government-subsidized ones could keep going."

"He was kind too, to the—"

"And having these people stare at me, and fawn all over me, some of them, just because of Uncle Jim, makes me want to be really outrageous and give ‘em a big thrill."

"I reckon that’s the price you have to pay. If you turn Whitfield into an inn to make you some money, there’re gonna be guests you have to talk to. Course, you also might meet someone who can help you fight for Cumberland. Lot of these people are somethin’ impordunt. But I wouldn’t try to be outrageous if I were you. You do that just fine on your own."

"I suppose you think that’s funny" Charlotte grinned at Hannah as she opened the hall door. And then she said, "I’ll send Carrie in to turn you over, and I’ll come say good-bye before I go."

Charlotte took time for granted that night.

The way most of us do most days and nights.

Because forty-five minutes later, standing by the grand piano in the sitting room at Whitfield Inn, eating cold shrimp and drinking iced tea, talking about the developer who was trying to buy the island—Charlotte fell to her knees, rolled on her side, and died from an aortic aneurysm.

The crystal glass she was holding didn’t break when she fell. Which was noticed at the time. And remarked upon later, after it had disappeared.


Excerpted from:
Out of the Ruins by Sally S. Wright, copyright 2003. Used by permission. All rights reserved.