Excerpt – A Cutthroat Business

For your delectation, here are a few words from Chapter 4 of A Cutthroat Business:

Rafe had been correct when he told me that I probably hadn’t come down his way a lot growing up. I’d never been to the area known as the Bog, but I knew where to find it: on the other side of Sweetwater from the Martin plantation. We’re on the north, or Columbia side; they’re on the southern road to Pulaski. And if the town of Pulaski sounds familiar to anyone, it’s probably because it was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. We have so much to be proud of here in middle Tennessee.

I’d driven past the Bog before, looking through the windows of dad’s Cadillac, but this was the first time I’d turned off from the highway onto the rutted one-lane track leading down through the trees.

For all that it’s in the South, Tennessee is not like Louisiana or Mississippi. We’re a rocky state, for the most part. Even in the flatter areas, there isn’t much in the way of wetlands. The Bog was not actually a bog, just a rather dank and dismal place. A small creek — or crick, as we say in these parts — ran through it, a tiny branch of the Duck River. But where it could have been picturesque and pretty, it was just sluggish and muddy brown. It looked unhealthy, like it was carrying disease. A half dozen rusted trailers — mobile homes in my new, professional lingo — were scattered through the spindly trees, and a few shacks squatted here and there among them. Clapboard shacks, low-slung and dilapidated, with leaking roofs and leaning walls. The few cars were American, old and rusted; some had missing parts or sat on cinderblocks, and none looked like they had been driven in the last few years. My immaculate Volvo — the only thing I had gotten in settlement after my short-lived marriage to Bradley Ferguson, aside from the chunk of change that was currently evaporating out of my savings account with every month that went by — was as out of place here as a prize brood mare among mules.

I turned off the engine and got out. The slam of the car door sounded very loud in the silence. And it was very silent here. No birds singing, no children playing, no conversations or music. The brook didn’t even babble. Very quiet.

Maybe too quiet, as they say in the movies. But I was here, so I looked around anyway. There were no names or numbers anywhere, or for that matter any mailboxes. Nothing to indicate in which of these depressing shacks LaDonna Collier had lived and died. If these people ever got mail, it must all arrive together in the big box up on the main road, and be distributed once someone had carried it all down here. Every place looked deserted, and just as neglected and derelict as the next. There was no sign of life, and no one I could ask directions of.

Just for kicks, since I was here anyway, I made my way over to the nearest of the shacks and peered through its dirty window. The interior was empty, save for some debris on the floor. Wire-hangers, crumpled papers, roach motels. It didn’t look as if anyone had lived there for a while.

Stepping carefully around broken bottles, crumpled beer cans and twigs, I moved to the next home. It was empty, too. Mother was right; people had been deserting the Bog like rats fleeing a sinking ship. There was nothing for me to do here but to go home. I turned on my heel to go back to the car, and stopped with a gasp.

He had moved so quietly through the dry grass that I hadn’t heard him, and now he stood between me and the Volvo. For a second, with the sun in my eyes, all I could see was a tall, dark figure, and I recoiled.

He didn’t move. Not when I stumbled back, not when the heel of my insensible shoe got caught in a snake hole, and not when I ended up on my derriere on the dusty ground, with my skirt twisted around my hips and my thighs on display. The only thing that moved was his eyes, from my face to my feet and back, with insolent appreciation.

“Didn’t your mama teach you better manners?” I inquired coldly, in spite of my burning cheeks. The tiny smile on his lips transformed into a full fledged, dangerous grin.

“Hell, no. My mama always said, grab what you can get, ‘cause it’ll be gone afore you know it.”

He held out a hand. I hesitated, trying to remember whether anyone had ever said anything about Rafe Collier being in the habit of forcing himself on women.

“Or you can stay there,” he added, pointedly. I took the hand and let him haul me to my feet. We stood contemplating one another in silence for a moment.

“Are you following me?” I asked, finally.

“Why’d I be following you? This is my place.”

“I thought you were in Nashville,” I said.

“I thought you were in Nashville.”

“It’s my mother’s birthday. I came down for the party.”

He didn’t answer. After a second I added, awkwardly, “I heard about what happened to your mother. I’m sorry.”

“So you came to offer your condolences?” His voice was dry.

I shrugged. It wasn’t as if I could tell him that I had come to the Bog out of idle curiosity, because I wondered if there might be a connection between LaDonna’s death and Brenda Puckett’s murder.

In the silence that followed, the sound of a car engine, backfiring badly, came closer. Turning, I could see an older model Chevy come bumping down the track. It stopped a few feet away, and the driver’s side door opened with a screech. An African-American woman shoehorned herself out from behind the steering wheel and waddled toward us.

She was about my height and age, and approximately three times my weight. Her breasts were the size of watermelons and she had a behind you could have left a tray of drinks on, with no worries that they’d spill. All of her was poured into a hot pink spandex dress with spaghetti straps, which must have been made for a woman half her size. Her hair was bleached yellow and curled into big, fat sausage curls, and her lips were painted a deep cherry red. She looked like a black drag-queen parody of Shirley Temple. Her eyes were small and half buried in fat, but she managed to give me a dirty look anyway, before turning to Rafe. “Who she?”

He opened his mouth, but I intercepted him. “I’m Savannah Martin. Who are you?”

She didn’t answer, nor give any indication of having heard me. “What you bring her here for?”

“He didn’t bring me,” I said. “I came on my own.”

“What you want with a skinny white chick like that? When you can have Marquita?”

She balanced her weight precariously on one foot and thrust the other ample hip out.

I hid a smile. “You know, I’m going to go. I can see you’ve got your hands full here, Rafe.”

I gave him a patronizing pat on the arm. The muscles under the golden skin were as hard as granite. He cut his eyes to me, but didn’t say a word. Marquita growled deep in her throat, like a Rottweiler. I found myself moving a little faster than usual as I headed for my car.

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