• Clair Lamb

THE DIRTY SOUTH — Chapter 1


Chapter 1 of THE DIRTY SOUTH, coming from Hodder & Stoughton (UK) on August 20, 2020 and from Emily Bestler Books (US) on October 20, 2020.


1

The tide rolled in, erasing the first of the footprints in the sand, like the memory of a presence gradually being excised from the history of the beach. The marks were small, as of those left by a child, except no child had walked there, or none that Parker had noticed; yet when he looked up from his book, the evidence was before him. Bare feet: he could discern the marks of the toes, and the rounded indentations of the soles and heels. The footprints ended within a few yards of the tree against which he sat, as though the visitor had regarded Parker for a time before moving on.


But the prints progressed only in one direction, and seemed to ascend from the sea: an emergent ghost, arrived unnoticed, come to bear witness in silence.


Parker removed his glasses, cursing – not for the first time – the necessity of them. His optometrist had suggested progressive lenses, which struck Parker as just a fancier name for bifocals. It was an error she was unlikely to make again, Parker regarding progressives as a short step from adopting pince-nez, or wearing spectacles on a gold chain while smelling of cheap sherry. Now, nonprogressive lenses in hand, he looked left and right, but it was an instinctive response and nothing more, because he did not really expect to glimpse her: this lost daughter, this revenant being.


“Jennifer.”


He spoke her name aloud, and let the wind carry it to her. He wondered what had drawn her here. She would not have returned to him without cause.


He closed his book and stood to brush the sand from his trousers. He was reading Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man, and thought he might have enjoyed meeting the writer. He had devoured L’Amour’s Westerns as a boy, because his grandfather’s shelves were filled with copies, but he hadn’t returned to them in the years since. Parker supposed he’d underestimated L’Amour because of the nature of his novels, and their association with the games of cowboys and Indians played when he was young, or the TV shows that had once obsessed him: The Virginian, Casey Jones, The Adventures of Champion. Now it turned out that L’Amour had read more of the great works of literature than anyone Parker had encountered, either in life or in print. He had spent time as a hobo on the Southern Pacific Railroad, as a deck- hand on Atlantic vessels, as a boxer, as a writer, and always with a book close at hand. Parker felt as though he had encountered a kindred spirit in L’Amour, albeit one much wiser than he would ever be.


The fall leaves were turning, the woods slowly transforming from green to red and gold, their colors like a smokeless conflagration. A chill had crept into the air as the day progressed: not so much as to make sitting by Ferry Beach uncomfortable, but sufficient to rouse a man from his reading and cause him to seek shelter at last.


But Parker did not want to leave, not yet. He experienced a familiar, unsettling sense of dislocation. The traffic sounded wrong to him, as though heard through fog. The light was smoked in sepia, the smell of the sea now heavy with decay.


And his dead child had come.


Parker recalled the night his mother passed away. He had been sitting with her at the hospital before returning to the house in Scarborough that they shared with his grandfather, and in which they had lived together since the death of Parker’s father. His mother was sleeping when he arrived, and sleeping when he left, neither speaking nor moving for the duration of his visit. It was dusk as he departed, and he remembered thinking that the world appeared oddly skewed, its angles and the disposition of its structures no longer true, so that he had to concentrate hard on his driving for fear he might sideswipe another vehicle, or mount the curb while turning. He had made himself a sandwich in the kitchen with some leftover beef, and poured a glass of milk. He ate just a few bites of the sandwich, and then out of necessity rather than appetite. The pleasure had disappeared from food as soon as his mother entered the hospital; now he, like she, survived largely on fluids. His grandfather was dozing in an armchair by the living room window, and had not heard him return. He did not wake the old man, who needed his rest. Those on a deathwatch do not sleep well.


When the call came shortly before midnight, summoning his grandfather and him to the hospital because his mother’s time was running short, he was not surprised. He had known it was near, even as he held her hand earlier that evening. He could see it in her face, hear it in her breathing, and smell it on her skin and breath as he kissed her goodbye. She seemed to be growing smaller in the bed, her life essence evanescing, diminishing her as it went, and in her withering she exuded a chemical rot.


She was dead by the time they reached the hospital. He thought she might already have been dead when the nurse called, or close enough to make no difference, and the woman had decided not to break the news over the phone, but instead let them remain a father and a son for just a little longer. His mother was still warm when they arrived, and he and his grandfather each held one of her hands until she grew cold.


At the time, Parker was seeing a girl from Scarborough named Kathryn, and while his grandfather spoke with a doctor in the corridor, he found a pay phone and used it to call her. Kathryn answered on the third ring, even though he’d expected her father to pick up at that time of night. She told him that she hadn’t been able to sleep, but couldn’t understand why. She’d been sitting on the stairs when the phone rang.


He had always loved her for that. Sometimes, he thought, a person could intuit.


Like now.


He decided not to linger, leaving the sand and the footprints behind. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one to have sensed the approach of wrongness. Whatever trouble was circling had also drawn his daughter, come to see what might be brewing, come to protect him. Vehicles passed him on the road, but all were unfamiliar, and he recognized none of the faces behind the wheel.


He reached the house. The external security light clicked on as he neared the front door, but he headed round the side to enter from the kitchen. He had grown into the habit of using this entrance because the house often felt too big, too empty, when he came in through the hall. Even the attempt on his life that had almost killed him — the shooters approaching from the trees, using the darkness as cover — had not caused him to alter this routine, although the additional safety systems installed in the aftermath of the attack probably contributed to a certain peace of mind, however belated it might be.


He placed his book on the kitchen table, turned on a lamp, and sat. He followed the movements of the sun as it altered the pattern of light on the salt marshes, and listened to WBQA, Maine Public Classical. Eventually he resumed his reading, and when the phone rang he was almost grateful, because he sensed that the source of the shadow was about to reveal itself at last. He picked up and a voice, unchanged, spoke to him from down the years.


“Mr. Parker?”


“Yes.”


“This is—"


“I know. It’s been a long time.”


“It has. I hoped we’d never have to speak of this again. I’m sure you felt the same way.”


Parker did not reply, and so the man continued.


“I thought you should know,” he said. “They pulled a body from the Karagol.”


The past shadows us.


The past defines us.


In the end, the past claims us all.


THE DIRTY SOUTH will be available from Hachette Australia on August 13, 2020; from Hodder & Stoughton (UK) on August 20, 2020; and from Emily Bestler Books (US) on October 20, 2020.