“Read them and weep, gentlemen. Read them and weep.” Archie Donovan Jr. flipped over his cards and spread them with all the puffed pride of a peacock fanning his tail feathers.
Mayor Sammy Whitlock threw in his hand. “You drew that inside straight, didn’t you?”
“I’ll never tell.” Archie raked the pile of quarters, dimes, and nickels across the surface of the round oak table and dumped them into the purple cloth Crown Royal bag he used to transport his poker stake. “Let me just say you can’t be afraid of risk if you want reward.”
“My deal.” Luther Cransford motioned for the five of us to pass him our cards.
I glanced at my watch. Nearly eleven. “I’m afraid I have to bail out.”
“Funeral tomorrow?” Pete Peterson, the town’s barber, looked confused as if somehow a citizen of Gainesboro had died and the news had escaped him. P’s Barbershop was the nexus of Main Street communication for the local men, just like the back booths of the Cardinal Café was gossip central among the women. Like his father before him, PJ, as everyone called him, was a central character in the day-to-day drama of small-town life. If you wanted to know who was on the outs with whom, you only needed to get a haircut.
“No,” I said. “I’m on duty tomorrow. We’ve got the fall craft show out at the fairgrounds. Tommy Lee wants a couple of deputies on hand in case traffic backs up.”
Mayor Whitlock nodded with the exaggerated enthusiasm of a bobble-head doll. “And guess who’s giving the opening speech?” “I have no idea,” Mack Collins said. “Any speech you give would automatically be the closing speech.”
Collins owned a construction company and was one of the wealthier residents of Gainesboro. He was also a North Carolina state senator and one of the mayor’s major campaign donors, and so the thin-skinned His Honor had to laugh along with the rest of us.
I stood from the table. “Thanks for the invitation. I enjoyed losing my money to Archie. But then I’ve been doing that for years.” The group laughed louder. Archie had taken over his father’s insurance and investment business and knew no shame when it came to pushing his policies and annuities. He and I had a history going back to grade school; Archie had been the wise- ass in junior high who called me Buryin’ Barry, a nickname that stuck to this son of a funeral director like white cat fur on a black sweater.
Archie and I were the youngest of the mayor’s Friday night poker gathering. The other men averaged a good twenty years older, each at least somewhere in his fifties or sixties. Archie must have inherited his father’s seat at the table. I was there for the first and probably only time, a last-minute substitute when Taylor Hobbs, the president of my archery club, had to travel to Charlotte when his daughter delivered his new grandson prematurely.
“Tell Susan thanks for letting you out on a Friday night,” Archie said.
“Don’t tell us the romance of newlyweds has worn off already?” Mayor Whitlock winked at his cohorts.
I didn’t tell them my wife of six months had been the one who encouraged me to join them. As a surgeon, Susan was on call this weekend in the ER and she thought a night with the boys would do me good. “Susan and I have an open and honest understanding. She tells me what to do and I do it.”
Luther Cransford laughed the loudest. “Sounds like our Eurleen, right, Sammy?” He slapped Whitlock on the back. “She’s the one in the family who should have gone into politics.” He elbowed Senator Collins. “She’d be governor by now, right, Mack?”
“No two ways about it,” Collins said. “I wouldn’t want to run against her.”
Luther was Whitlock’s brother-in-law and everyone in town agreed the mayor’s sister Eurleen got the brains in the family.
Mayor Whitlock forced a smile. “That’s why I always listen to her advice.” He returned the good ole boy backslap. “And you, Luther, are proof she doesn’t listen to my advice.”
For Mayor Whitlock, the retort was uncharacteristically glib. Luther looked dumbfounded as it took a second for the insult to sink in.
“Just kidding, Luther.” The mayor stood. The game was over. “Thanks, boys. It was a fun evening.” He turned to me. “Barry, you think Susan would let you stay out a few minutes longer? I’ve got a little town business to discuss.”
“Sure.” I smiled, trying to disguise the dread of being trapped alone with someone who loves nothing better than the sound of his own voice.
“Excellent.” Mayor Whitlock glanced over his shoulder at the men climbing the stairs. “Let me say good night to the others and I’ll be right back. Make yourself at home.”
I looked around the room, at a loss for what I should do to make myself at home. The poker club met in what the mayor called his “man cave.” Actually, it was his basement, and the unpartitioned room sported every decor cliché imaginable.
In addition to the poker table, the mayor had a wide-screen TV mounted on the wall in front of an oversized leather sofa and two matching recliners, a well-stocked wet bar, a refrigerator, a pool table, four deer heads that he probably bought at a yard sale, and a NordicTrack treadmill that the mayor only set foot on when taking a shortcut from the refrigerator to the sofa. The treadmill also gave him an excuse to wear his favorite wardrobe item, a Clemson University warm-up suit that must have been altered to fit his rotund body. Its bright orange color turned His Honor into a pumpkin of planetary proportions.
I sat down at the poker table, choosing a seat that would keep me closer to the stairs than the mayor.
Within a few minutes, I heard multiple footsteps descending. I turned around and was surprised to see Sammy Whitlock followed by Archie and Luther. One of them might have forgotten something, but not both of them. I realized I’d been ambushed.
The mayor waddled up to me and placed his pudgy hands on my shoulders. Pinned in my chair by a giant pumpkin.
“Barry, this community just doesn’t appreciate all you do for it. Archie, Luther, and I were talking about that earlier, right, boys?”
Archie took the seat next to me. “That’s right, Barry. You guard us while we’re alive and you bury us when we’re dead.”
I must confess I suddenly looked forward to providing Archie with the second service.
“And Archie’s insurance policies make sure I get paid,” I said, trying in vain not to be the center of their attention.
All three laughed too loudly.
“Why, we were even talking about having Gainesboro declare a Barry Clayton Day,” Whitlock effused, and gave my shoulders an extra squeeze before turning me loose.
I wondered how much this Barry Clayton Day was going to cost me—not to have it.
“We all do our part,” I said.
Mayor Whitlock’s head bobbled. “That we do. It’s about taking a village.”
He mangled the quote, but perhaps it more accurately reflected his take-what-I-can-get philosophy.
“And you’ve been a big help to the three of us,” Archie said. “Right, Luther?”
“Right,” Luther grunted. Luther stood six foot five, and even sitting down was as tall as the mayor.
“How?” I asked.
“Why, Heaven’s Gate Gardens,” Whitlock exclaimed. “You always recommend it to plotless families. And we appreciate it.” I felt my stomach tighten. Heaven’s Gate Gardens was a cemetery atop Bell Ridge on the outskirts of town owned by the three men. We’d already run into a conflict a few years earlier when Archie pressed me to recommend the cemetery before adequate landscaping had been completed.
“You’ve done a nice job with it,” I said. “Fletcher and I are pleased to offer it as one of the options for the families we serve.” I brought in the name of my partner, Fletcher Shaw, to underscore I wasn’t making any under-the-table deals for pushing their plots. “Yes,” the mayor agreed. “And we especially appreciate that you’ve never asked for any referral fees.”
The mayor’s selective memory seemed to have forgotten they had been the ones to make that unsolicited offer, an offer I’d vehemently declined.
“That’s why we wanted you to be the first to know.” “Know what?” I asked.
Whitlock nodded to Archie. “You tell him. He’s your best friend.”
Archie clutched my forearm like I was his only friend. “Great news, Barry. We’ve bought more of the ridge and we’re expand- ing Heaven’s Gate Gardens. Heaven’s Gate Gardens South. It’s doubling the size. If the whole town died tomorrow, we could bury everyone.”
“That’s comforting,” I said. “I guess Asheville could supply the gravediggers.”
“Great idea, Barry,” Whitlock said. “I’ll draft a memo for the town clerk’s emergency action file.” The man was serious. “And we’d be honored if you’d attend the ribbon-cutting. We’re building an entrance to the new section. It overlooks I-26.”
“Ah, life passing by at sixty-five miles per hour,” I said.
“Exactly,” Whitlock agreed. “Mention that phrase when you’re consoling families.”
I stood. “Well, I’ll certainly be there if my schedule permits.” Mayor Whitlock clapped his hands. “We thought you’d say that. So, I took the liberty of talking to Tommy Lee about your schedule. He said he’d be happy to free you up Monday afternoon.” I made a mental note to pay Sheriff Tommy Lee Wadkins back for his kindness. Sugar in his gas tank seemed appropriate.
“Fine. Although we might have a funeral.”
The mayor beamed. “We’ve been over that with Fletcher. He said even if someone died tomorrow the earliest burial day would probably be Tuesday. But if they want to be buried Monday afternoon, hell, we’ll give ’em a great deal. Fifty percent off for a plot in the new section.” The idea made him giddy. “A real funeral would be a nice backdrop for the ribbon-cutting.”
The idea—and their audacity—took my breath away. In fact, the man cave seemed to close in on me. I was anxious to leave. “OK. When on Monday?”
“Two o’clock,” Whitlock said. “We want the Gainesboro Vista to have time to get an article and photographs in before deadline.” I could see their ideal caption: “Funeral Director and Deputy
Sheriff Barry Clayton Endorse Cemetery Expansion.” “Wear your uniform,” Archie said.
“No. I’ll be off duty. The mayor saw to that.”
# # #
“Someone must have incriminating photographs if they got you up here.” Melissa Bigham shook her head with exaggerated disappointment.
Archie laughed. “I mean your other one. Your black suit. You’re the only guy I know with two jobs and two uniforms. An under- taker and a deputy. What’ll you be next, Barry? A bus driver?”
I’d just gotten out of my jeep when the feisty reporter hustled over, her Nikon bouncing on the strap around her neck.
“And I see you’re covering another Pulitzer Prize contender.
Your editor must be holding the front page.”
“Jonah Tugman should be holding his nose, wasting resources on a cemetery opening.”
“Wouldn’t have anything to do with the Heaven’s Gate Gardens ad that runs on the obituary page, would it?”
Melissa laughed. “Of course not. Jonah’s journalistic standards are the best money can buy.”
We started walking down the newly graveled road. Melissa stood about a half foot shorter, maybe five two, and her brown hair was cut in a simple, no-nonsense style that said “shower and towel dry.” She wore tan slacks and a light-green windbreaker. Melissa was always neat, but never overdressed. She looked like a young elementary schoolteacher, which disguised the brain of a barracuda searching for prey. We’d broken several national stories together, and her greatest asset was that people underestimated her until they felt her teeth in their flesh. I knew she’d turned down numerous big-city job offers, and although journalism was her passion, it was trumped by her love of the western North Carolina mountains.
About twenty yards down the slope, a group of men milled around a stone wall. Archie, Mayor Whitlock, and Luther stood with their backs to us, engaged in conversation with two men wearing bib overalls, in stark contrast to the dark suits of the cemetery owners.
“At least it’s a pretty day,” Melissa said. “I could be in my cubicle writing obituaries.”
The September sunshine had warmed the afternoon air to the high fifties. A light but steady breeze blew across the ridge, or maybe it was the wind from the eighteen-wheelers rolling along I-26 on the valley floor.
“Life passing by,” I muttered. “What?”
“Nothing.” I looked ahead. “Are those the Tucker brothers?” “Yeah. Barney. I forget the other one’s name.”
“Me too. Barney does all the talking anyway.”
The Tucker brothers owned a backhoe and worked as grave-diggers and performed odd jobs around the county. They’d had the misfortune of uncovering an unexpected skeleton when we were moving a grave several years ago, a skeleton that turned out to be an old boyfriend of my wife.
“Evidently they’re still building the entry sign,” Melissa said. “They aren’t ready for the ribbon-cutting.”
“Are they postponing?”
“Hell, no, Barry. It’s just you and me. And the Tuckers. I can guarantee you Whitlock won’t want them in the shot.”
As we drew closer, I heard Barney say, “But the cement will need to set up before we put any weight on the post.” He pronounced the word, “SEE mint.”
“That’s right,” the nameless Tucker brother chimed in. “Well, we can’t have a picture of Heaven’s Gate Gardens
South without a god damned gate.” The mayor jumped up and down with each word.
It was then that I understood the origin of the phrase, “hoppin’ mad.”
“What if we hold the gate up while you take your picture?” Barney asked. “People will just think we’re some of the dignitaries.”
Sputtering noises came from the mayor like he was being waterboarded.
The sound of our footsteps on the gravel filled the space between his gasps.
Archie turned around. “Hi, Barry. We’ve got ourselves a situation.”
Everyone faced me. I looked beyond them to a white wrought-iron gate on the road behind them. Two cherubs were fixed to the bars. White gateposts lay flat on the grass on either side. To my left I saw the rock wall with a bronze plaque embedded in the stonework. HEAVEN’S GATE GARDENS SOUTH were the words in relief.
“Everything’s ready but the posts?” I asked.
“Yes,” Barney said. “It rained Friday so we had to stop work on the wall. We come here early this morning and finished it less than thirty minutes ago. The gateposts got to have a solid anchor.”
I nodded like I planted posts every day. “I understand. How long would it take you to dig holes that you had no intention of filling with concrete but would temporarily keep the posts erect?” Barney scratched his grizzled chin. “I see. Just something snug for the picture, and then we could widen the holes for the permanent placement.” “Right.”
“I reckon about fifteen minutes a hole.”
I turned to Melissa. “You OK with that?” “For a story of this magnitude? Sure.”
I alone appreciated her sarcasm.
“That’s great,” Mayor Whitlock said. “You got a good head on your shoulders, Barry.” He clapped his hands. “Well, let’s get to it, boys.”
For the next five minutes we watched the Tucker brothers trade off as they buried the manual posthole digger deeper into the ground with each thrust. It ranked up there with watching PJ give haircuts.
Then a muffled clank rose from the hole as the blades bit into something harder than earth. Barney lifted up the dirt and when he dumped it to the side, we saw shards of pottery mixed with the soil.
“What’s that?” Archie asked.
I saw Melissa’s eyebrows arch as she studied the pieces.
Barney lifted the digger higher. “Probably some ol’ jug.” He brought the tool down like he was smashing through granite.
Another crunch. He extracted the digger and opened its jaws.
More shards of pottery.
And I saw something else. Pieces of bones. What looked like human bones.
Barney stared at me, his grizzled face pale as chalk. “Oh, man. Not again.”
Melissa’s camera whirred like a machine gun.