DEEP and DEADLY
A Luanne Fogarty Mystery
by Glynn Marsh Alam
Original Trade Paperback $12.95
Luanne Fogarty, adjunct scuba diver and reluctant linguistics professor,
makes her debut in Glynn Marsh Alam's first novel, DIVE DEEP and DEADLY,
set in the swamps outside Tallahassee.
Born in a swamp house, Luanne has returned to the dilapidated structure after her father's death. She lives on the Palmetto River, between the glass bottomed boat park of Palmetto Spring and the tiny river town of Fogarty Spring. Her nearest neighbor and friend is the octogenarian Cajun, Dorian Pasquin.
Luanne's struggle to repair the house comes to a halt when sheriff's detective, Tony Amado, asks her to check out one of the deep underwater caves at Palmetto Spring where some boys have reported seeing a body. Luanne, a scuba diver who has a lifetime of familiarity with the dangerous caverns, goes down and locates the body of an elderly woman. When the regular sheriff's deputies dive the next morning to retrieve the body, it has disappeared.
They call us the spring people. Those of us who live down from Tallahassee, by the Palmetto River, too far down to notice the tourists on the glass bottom boats at the main spring. Swamp folk, our neighbors are reptilian sometimes, buggy most of the time. We live in the world of screens that hold out mosquitoes and gnats in the oppressing mugginess that sits atop us in the evenings. Even in winter time when bugs fold up, the layer of damp air hovers above the swamp floor, above the still parts of the springs, especially where the sink hole waters rest on tenuous ground--uneasy sand, water, mist. The whole thing drops out like the devil has pulled the plug every few years. Anything on top of the water goes with it, right down to nowhere, maybe to the ocean. No one has ever tracked it far enough to know. All the springs offshoot from the Palmetto, a long primeval forest river that has gouged out limestone caverns for millions of years along its trek from the Gulf of Mexico. Glacier cold water filters into the springs, a place for catfish the size of dogs, and alligators that travel to the depths to drown baby deer before surfacing to gulp them down in jaws that cannot chew. These same alligators raise their young on the dead grass that floats atop the still waters of little inlets around giant cypress trees. But, the springs are not still. Cold water jets up from depths no one has ever seen, cold and plentiful enough to service a hotel built in the thirties for those rich enough to escape the Great Depression.
I live in my family home, the gray wood house closest to Fogarty Spring. I have reclaimed a structure left to rot and throw its ghosts to the jungle, returned to the grunting calls of mama gators searching for lost babies, to sucker-footed rain frogs that infest the bushes outside my window and occasionally travel inside with me. A poisonous water moccasin crawls underneath my steep front steps to cool itself away from the steaming heat of day.
I have, once again, become one of the spring people. If I am lucky, and
treat it kindly, the swamp will let me stay.
“Ms. Fogarty, the fellows from the sheriff’s department want you to come down to the main spring if you can.” Dorian Pasquin stood on my front steps, fanning himself with the tattered straw hat, an appendage to an invisible umbilical at his crown. “They say it’s urgent.” This man, his skin broken to dried up mud patch consistency and tanned from river work in his youth, broke into a white-toothed grin. Those teeth, all his own, appeared like shiny pearls inside a mud oyster. His full shock of white hair lay plastered in humid strands about his ears, except for the very top of his head where it stood up like a cockatoo’s crest. In a rigid stance he may have reached my shoulders. During his eighty plus years, survived in a critter-filled swamp, he had taken on the demeanor of its inhabitants. In spite of his age, he stooped only at the neck. Pasquin moved with the swamp, slow and easy and deliberate, aware of the broken twig behind him, the silvery spider web in front. He was also the nearest neighbor in Fogarty Spring that had a phone. I hadn’t been here long enough to get the phone company to run a line to my house.
“What’s happened? Another drowning, or another Yankee gone snorkeling and got himself on a gator’s dinner table?”
“Don’t know ma’am. I just answered the phone, and they says to come runnin’. Maybe you just better do it.” Pasquin’s Cajun twang had to be one of the last in this area, and how he kept it with so few Cajuns around was a linguistic wonder. But no locals wondered. He was just Pasquin--a Kay-June man. He has always called me ma’am, like an old man playing with his grandchild.
“Can I go to your place and call them back? Likely they want me to bring diving equipment, and I don’t relish driving all the way back over that muddy road.”
“Sho’ can, ma’am, just walk along with me. Saw two copperheads on the way over. You got something ‘sides them sandals?”
I looked down at my Birkenstocks that got me across the wooden floors for hours of scrubbing, repairing, and painting old boards. Sweat poured off my neck. My hair felt like a hot cloth on top of my head. Cropped short, the brown and gray tendrils stuck to my ears. I could smell my underarms without lifting them. If the sheriff wanted to see me, I hoped it would involve a swim. I could use the bath.
In ankle high boots, my feet sticky inside the plastic material, I tugged on the warped screen door. Pasquin had sat down on one of the steps and peered between his legs.
“Ma’am, you got a long dusty black moccasin under here.” He stressed the sin on moccasin. “Best you watch that thing. He bite you, you ‘ain’t got a phone--nasty business, ma’am.” He stood up, fanned and walked in rhythm, his gaze first on the ground, then up the trees. I followed him through the forest.
The hotel clerk drawled his Southern as fast as he could.
“Well, Ms. Fogarty, I think some teenage boys went diving where they ought not to and found something that scared them half out of puberty. They came running up here to the hotel and said there was a body in the first cave. Cops know who the expert diver is in these springs. Said to get you down here fast. Didn’t say nothing about diving gear, but I’d say you better bring it along.”
“Don’t they have their own divers?” I stood in a room that closed in on me. Pasquin’s living room retained every piece of overstuffed furniture he had ever bought in his whole life. A frayed, dark red and green Persian rug lay over the entire floor. Heavy green velvet curtains covered closed windows. From a back room somewhere, a powerful air conditioner blew cold air through the hall. By the time it reached the living room, it made a cold streak that bypassed the phone table altogether. My sweaty hand slid down the black plastic receiver.
“All right. Tell them I’m on my way, but I’m going to have to load the gear, then jump some friggin’ mud puddles before I get there.”
The clerk grunted his understanding.
“Guess you ain’t never going to get away from diving in them holes, Luanne. Don’t matter if you get to be old as me, you still going in them holes.” Pasquin chuckled and lifted a tea glass in my direction.
I shook my head, eager to get to the main spring and see what could be important enough to drag this forty-five year old out of her back-breaking construction project
My ‘84 Honda station wagon, already loaded with pieces of lumber, some old bricks I’d picked up at a demolition site, and God knows how many packages of cafe curtains that were on sale at K Mart, could have passed for a homeless abode. When I tried to throw in scuba gear--tank, mask, hoses, flippers--it wouldn’t fit. It took me twenty minutes of dumping things out, carrying them to the screen porch so they wouldn’t get wet if the habitual afternoon shower appeared, then hoisting the diving equipment into the wagon. Manufacturing more sweat, I had to sit down and drink an iced tea before taking off on a rutted road that had seen better days. In spots, I guided the Honda around deep puddles, placing one set of wheels precariously on a narrow shoulder. The puddle on one side, a deep ditch on the other--I have seen cars run into these ditches and nearly drown the occupants. Sometimes you can’t see the water for all the reeds and grass. After a mile of this, I turned onto a dark asphalt road and hit the gas. The only witness to my speeding, a black snake trying to cross the road, hurried up when he felt the vibration of the car. I hate snakes, but I don’t like killing them. Nothing humanitarian about that. It’s just the wiggling under pressure that revolts me, like the thing just won’t die.
When I reached the entrance to Palmetto Springs, the park ranger at the ticket booth waved me through. My back trickled with sweat and my shorts looked as though I’d peed in them; the Honda’s air conditioning conked out years ago. A dip into cold water--if that’s what the sheriff wanted me to do--would feel good. I panicked a little when I realized he might want me to translate for some tourist who got into trouble. I’d taken some French and even lived in Paris for a while. Everyone in Tallahassee thought I could speak all the dialects, including Haitian and Quebecois. My degree is in linguistics--the science of language, not the fluency of languages--but most people don’t know this.
I wound through the well manicured road that leads to the hotel bath house and restaurant. Gray moss hung from the trees, but not all the way to the ground, as though the gardeners wanted something of the South to be there, but not enough of it to stain the buildings, roads, and cars. I wondered just how you trimmed moss to hang that way.
Pulling to a stop nearest the bath house, I had to walk another hundred yards to the glass bottom boat docks where a group of cops stood around, pretending to talk crime scene to each other, but most likely setting up a poker party. Whatever, it looked serious.
“We got a problem down there,” an even-toned statement came from Deputy Loman, a large bellied man whose eyes looked as if they would snap shut any minute. He pointed a thumbs down. When his superior joined us, he turned his head slightly and gazed over the spring water, his heavy lids still half way over his eyes. If he had been a snake, his tongue would have darted in and out.
“Luanne.” The monotone came from a face that looked as though it had rarely seen a dead person, though I knew otherwise. Detective Tony Amado and emotion had parted company years ago. His tall, dark, and handsome serenity fooled many a young female. Thinking he could be the Latin exotic, they cried with boredom when he drawled out Southernisms and preferred chasing deer to skirt. “Kids been diving illegally in the first cave area. Said they saw the body of a woman down there. We called in our divers, but they’ve been loaned out on a boating accident case on the Ochlockonee River. We need somebody to go down there and, at least, tell us what’s there. You game?” He stared, unblinking, at me with dark marble eyes. His white shirt collar fit tight against the olive-skin on his neck. The crispiness of his entire garb made me wonder if he ironed before he answered a call.
“First cave? I can probably dive without equipment and make a sight identity if that’s all you want.” I had done things like this many times in the past. For a fee, of course. The county sheriff’s department has me on their roster of certified back-up divers. My daddy taught me the basics at the edge of Fogarty Spring, then I continued with lessons and diving groups all through high school and college. When I joined the linguistics department as an associate professor, I met the archeology department--or rather Harry MacAllister, archeologist. With him, I had explored every cave in these springs, and I knew the danger.
“When you’re ready,” Amado nodded.
I took off for the bath house where I changed into my bathing suit. On the way to the far end of the dock, I yelled for Amado to get someone to unload the equipment, just in case.
Standing at the edge of the boat dock I could see straight down into clear water. Farther back, water grass, that long-stemmed dark green stuff that hides tadpoles and gators alike, blocked the view. But here, the bottom dropped suddenly to great depths. The white limestone looked inviting, unpolluted, like a huge swimming pool. Only the water stays around seventy degrees year round, colder at greater depths. It feels like a bucket of ice cubes at first, takes your breath away.
The first cave entrance bore straight down then veered off to the right. From the dock, it seemed a shadow of the tall cypress trees, but I knew it led back into a deep hole where mastodon skeletons had been found. Aiming in that direction, I dived in head first. Taking the water like this was easier than slipping in one body part at a time. After a full shock, I adjusted and headed straight for the cave opening. I could still hold my breath for three minutes if I needed to.
When I reached one side of the opening, I touched my fingertips to the rough wall to steady my view into the hole. Not too far back, the interior darkened. But just before that darkness, I saw a waving motion, something white. Moving closer, I found myself looking straight down on the top of somebody’s head, somebody with gray hair. Unable to hold my breath any longer, I swam to the top and climbed the dock ladder.
“Something’s down there all right, and it could be a human body. I need the tank to get a good look. You got an underwater camera on you?”
“No, but I’ll bet the hotel has one.” Amado helped me with the tank. “Loman get up there and see what they got,” he yelled without turning to his deputy.
“There’s a current down there that wants to push me all kinds of ways,” I said as I squeezed water from my hair.
“You don’t have to go, Luanne. You know that.” Tony put his hands on his hips and spoke to the dock.
“You always say that! Are you covering your bureaucratic ass again?”
He tossed the flippers at my feet without an answer. I could see Loman near the hotel door, motioning to some preteen to go running with a camera. Good! I hated to be the only witness to something like this.
“Boss said there’s only two-three pictures left in the camera, but it works real good.” The kid stood wide-eyed in front of me. I must have appeared to him a comic book Amazon in flippers, tank, hoses, and mask.
Squatting at the edge of the dock, I pushed over backwards into waters that felt like the Arctic and headed for the opening once again. This time I went straight through the hole, past the white hair, treading water about five feet in front of the object.
But, it wasn’t an object. It was an old lady. White hair, girdle, stockings that were half unsnapped, a bra that had come loose on one side. Something strange about that side of her. Her plump arms outstretched, lots of brown liver spots. Something tied to her wrist, something in a plastic bag. I moved closer, but not close enough to touch, and could swear it was a Bible waving off a small rope tied around the bluing flesh just under her palm.
I avoided looking at the face until last. This was the hard part, the human part. It had puffed up with water or death or whatever makes people’s faces puff up. Her mouth and eyes, wide open, magnified inside the plastic bag that covered her head. Someone had used her glasses string to secure it around her neck. The glasses still there, bobbed at her chin. The top of the bag had been ripped and her white hair flowed out, waving back and forth in the water like a mermaid signaling her sailor-lover one last time.
When I realized I had been staring at this sight for too long, I took the camera and finished the film--three shots: the head, the arm with the Bible, and a full body photo. MacAllister had trained me well.
Topside, I handed Amado the camera as I removed the scuba gear. “You’ve definitely got a crime here, Amado. These pictures will shock even you. And I didn’t bother to attach direction lines. Just dive straight into the opening, and there she is.”
“You know we appreciate it.” Amado frowned at the camera, then pretended to shake off the water.
“Yeah. And thanks for the swim.” I wanted to kick his creased trousers right into the water. Nobody had a right to stay so cool in this heat, not with an old lady’s corpse hanging around just below your feet.
|Other books by Glynn Marsh Alam: Deep Water Death, Cold Water Corpse, Bilge Water Bones, High Water Hellion, Green Water Ghost, Moon Water Madness and River Whispers|
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