“I wish you wouldn't drive so fast,” April said to me from the passenger seat of our small car. “You know I hate it when you get like this.”
She was right to worry. We blew by a “Speed Limit 55” sign at nearly eighty miles an hour and were tearing around the corners of the old country road like circuit drivers on the final lap.
“I'm sorry. We're just pressed for time. We need to move.”
“What's the rush anyway?” she asked.
“I got a call from Mike. He wants me to take a look at some suspicious accident on route 81. He says it's important.”
“Yeah,” I said as the car jumped up suddenly leaving behind gray pothole-ridden pavement for smooth black asphalt, “Not his style, I know. But he's meeting us there. So, I don't know.”
“Mike?” she asked with a slight grimace, “When did he start caring about accidents?”
“About an hour ago apparently.”
April paused for a bit and propped her elbow against the window, resting her chin in the palm of her hand. I could tell she was trying to act calm in the face of my outrageous driving but she was clearly getting annoyed. However, my eyes remained firmly on the road and on my watch as I tried desperately to meet my deadline while the minutes kept ticking away.
“So anyway, what is the rush?” she asked.
“Well, I called the local police on the scene. They're cleaning up the accident now and plan to have everything gone by seven.”
“Seven? What time is it now?”
“About 6:20, give or take. Luckily we're almost there.”
“Where exactly is there?”
I paused a moment and looked around me. I saw nothing but trees and telephone poles blowing by me at an ever-increasing rate of speed. Though my foot was inching closer and closer to the floor, the miles only seemed to drag on longer and longer.
“The middle of nowhere apparently. The exact geometric center of nothingness,” I finally replied.
When we finally pulled up to the scene at a shade past 6:40, the wreck was very much intact and it was a sight to behold. The road, which had been relatively straight for the past mile or so suddenly veered almost ninety degrees to the right and a car had completely missed the turn, run over a reflective arrow and smashed headlong into a hard embankment.
The car looked like Hell. Since the embankment wasn't exactly flush with the road the right side had hit first and the car was sent spinning to the side where it's rear end struck a tree. The result was an accordion-like effect that took at least a foot off the length of the car and created an abstract lump of crumpled steel and glass out of what once was a perfectly sound machine.
The driver, obviously, hadn't fared much better. A few feet away from the car's final resting place an ambulance crew was putting the finishing touches on a body bag and loading it onto a waiting stretcher. For the sake of my stomach, I prayed that I wouldn't have to investigate that particular element.
No sooner had April and I been able to take in the full horror of the scene, when one of the local cops came running up to our window.
“Excuse me sir,” he said with a thick southern accent as he tugged as his belt, “There ain't nothin' you can do here. You best be on your way.”
I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out my badge, “I'm special detective Altru, I was called here by Mike…”
“Tony!” Mike called out interrupting my sentence. He had finally spotted my car and was trotting over to greet me. Though Mike was a good-natured guy, as good-natured as any politician can get, he wasn't a small fellow, despite being on the short side, and with his Italian blood giving him such dark hair and smooth facial features, he looked ridiculous pretending to run over to me.
He stuck his hand inside my lowered window and shook my hand, “I'm glad you could make it Tony, we got a doozy on our hands here.”
I pushed open the door and got out. Though I heard April do the same, I didn't see her as Mike, being one of those huggy, personable guys, grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me up and down.
“Jesus,” he said, “Do you wear anything but black? Every time I see you you've got that damn suit on. You look like you're going to a damn funeral or something.”
“That's funny,” I said before he could continue, “Every time I see you it's because someone's dead. I thought I was dressing appropriately.”
“Heh,” he said looking around at the other officers on the scene.
“Besides,” I said tugging on the lapels of his gray jacket, “I think I'm doing better than this polyester monstrosity.”
Mike knew I was sensitive about my eccentricities and picks at them only to get under my skin. Of course, I know he's sensitive about his weight and his clothes but even more sensitive about being taken seriously by the officers he works over. That's why, when I heard the snickering around me, I knew I'd scored a good blow.
However, I also knew he'd forgive me, it wasn't like he had much choice.
“Well,” he said pushing my hand away and straightening his jacket, “What do you say I show you around.”
After introducing me to the other officers, he showed me around the scene of the accident. He showed me the marks in the grass where the car went off the road, the point of initial impact and showed me the car itself, which was surprisingly devoid of blood for such a major accident. However, all in all, I saw nothing interesting.
When he was done, I looked at him and said, “Ok Mike, I give up, why did you drag me out here?”
“What do you mean?”
“This is an accident. It's as plain as day. There's no evidence of foul play, there's not even another human being in sight outside of the local cops and the only thing remotely interesting is the lack of skid marks in the road.”
“Why does that interest you?” he asked.
“Well, there's two warning signs for the turn up the road, I'd like to think that the person at least tried to stop before running off the road, but apparently they didn't. Speaking of which, who is the victim?”
Mike pulled out his notepad and thumbed through the pages, “The license was for a Shela Albertson, 27, from Morton just down the road. However, the body was too mangled to confirm so we're going to have to get a final identification at the morgue. Maybe then we'll get some more background.”
“I see,” I said looking at him impatiently. I started giving him hand signals to continue but he simply shrugged his shoulders at me. Eventually, I relented, “So why I am I here?”
“Oh, you don't know?” he said with a puzzled look coming over his face.
“No, I don't know. You haven't told me,” I said, my frustration showing through.
“Oh, that's right,” he said reeling back a bit, “Well, you see, this is the thirteenth wreck and the tenth fatality at this turn in the last two years and for a highway this empty that's a pretty big deal.”
Honestly, that didn't shock me. It was a horrible turn and it was painfully obvious the only reason they cut it as sharp as they did was to avoid the rock structure that the car thrust itself into. It was a classic case of sloppy road craftsmanship and, as far as I was concerned, nothing more..
“So, then this turn needs a guardrail, not a detective. Bad planning doesn't equal homicide. You can't prosecute the road planner, as much as I'd like to.”
“You see, it goes a bit beyond that. The local residents are pretty spooked. They're saying that it's cursed land or something like that.”
I did a quick 360 on my heels and tried to see if I could feel anything special about the area. I don't believe in curses, not those types of curses anyway, but I figured if there was something there I might be able to pick it up. Unfortunately, the feeling of death was still heavy in the air and the panic of the scene pretty much drowned out anything else I might have been able to feel.
“So is this road built on an Indian burial ground or something?” I asked, my voice dripping with sarcasm, “I mean, they have to have a reason for believing that. ”
“Nope, it's built on the land of a dead hypnotist.”
At that point, I nearly broke down and cried. After months without a case I get dragged nearly two hours into the wilderness for a spook story about a hypnotist. It was all I could do to avoid a random outburst of emotions and eek out, “Ok, what's the story,” in a semi-serious tone.
“Well, the legend is pretty well known out here. It's about a guy named Marxam the Great. He was one of those stage hypnotists like you invite to parties or see at comedy clubs. He was a big smash in the eighties, toured the country and everything. That is until he was exposed as a fraud. Apparently he paid his subjects to do as he commanded and, in one show, when one of them didn't like a 'suggestion' the guy dropped the charade and started fessing up to the audience about what was going on.”
“So much for going out on top,” I said still trying to keep a straight face.
“Anyway, his career was ruined. He couldn't get a job doing kid's parties, much less headline acts. But then, luck smiled on him and his father passed away leaving him all of this land.”
“How much land?”
“It goes for about a mile or so in that direction,” Mike said pointing down the road from the crash, “We're near the edge right now but he owns a lot of property on both sides of the road. Probably almost a thousand acres.”
“Pretty nice inheritance for a down-and-out showman. So where does this feared curse come in?” I asked, starting to get impatient.
“You're standing on it,” Mike said pointing to the asphalt beneath my feet, “You see, about four years ago the state wanted to build a highway between Morton and Jamesboro. Unfortunately, to do that, they had to cut his property almost in half.”
“I see, but by law he had to be compensated for use of his land. That's a Federal deal.”
“And he was,” Mike continued as he pulled out a little notebook and began to flip through it, “But not well enough, at least not according to Marxam, who's real name was, for the record, Jeffery Marx.”
“Like Karl Marx?”
“No relation, trust me. I checked. But anyway, he made a big stink about it, even went to town hall to file protests. Other landowners sold willingly, the money was good in their mind and they wanted the project done, but he held out until the state forced him to give up.”
“You can't fight city hall. I could have told him that,” I said.
“Yeah, but he never stopped trying. Even threatened the bulldozer drivers with a bow and arrow. Luckily, the bastard died before the highway was finished. Otherwise, he might have taken a few potshots at cars if you know what I mean.”
“Doubtful, but anyway, keep going,” I said motioning for him to wrap things up.
“Well, all he got done before he died was planting a forest to block the view of his house from the soon-to-be road and leveling another one to write letters to every senator he could. Still though, everyone around here seems to think he's placed some kind of curse on the road and, well, they have ten bodies to point to as evidence.”
I walked over to a rocky part of the embankment and found a stone to sit down on. To Mike, I must have looked like I was pondering the story he told deeply but, honestly, I was trying to figure out why such a respected law enforcement official was buying such malarkey. It made no sense.
“Tell me something,” I said as a realization flashed across my eyes, “You said that there have been thirteen crashes, but only ten fatalities, what do the survivors have to say about it?”
“Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you about that!” Mike said, his voice finally getting excited, “They all reported that they kind of slipped into a trance, almost the second they drove onto his property. Two don't even remember the crash.”
I could feel my smug expression slide into a deep gaze. Though I consider myself about as adept as anyone magically, I'm always open to the notion that there's something out there that I don't understand. Add to that volumes of knowledge that no one has stumbled across and suddenly this hypnotists curse becomes a lot more real.
“So, what do you want me to do?” I asked solemnly.
Mike threw his hands up and sat down beside me, “I don't know. My phones are ringing off the hook on this one. These guys are the conservative backbone of the state and they got me in office. Now they're scared to death by the ghost of some half-assed hypnotist and they want me to do something about it.”
“Basically, you want me to solve this and prove that there's no curse or ghost or anything like that, right?”
“Yeah, that'd be the best.”
“And saying that these are just isolated accidents isn't going to help. Right?”
“Not with these guys. City folk might buy it, but these guys are way too superstitious for that.”
I put my head in my hands and slowly started running my fingers through my hair, “Why do I feel like I should be riding around in a Technicolor van and hanging out with a talking great dame?”
“Listen,” Mike said with a sigh, “Are you going to help me or not?”
“I don't have a choice. You've got my paycheck. But I'm not going to approach this from the curse angle, not yet. I'm going to try to find a cause.”
“Well, good luck to you, any ideas where you're going to start?”
I stood up and shuffled my feet around in the dirt, “Well, when trying to piece together multiple deaths, you try to tie together the victims. I'll start there, see what they had in common. Maybe that'll turn up something. I'll need the full accident report on all thirteen crashes though. Can you get that to me?”
Mike stood up and pointed over at the two local cops still walking around the scene, “I can get them for you, but it'd be quicker to talk with them since their department wrote up all of them. I'd have to go through channels and that can take a while.”
“Alright, I'll see what I can do for you,” I said reaching out to shake his hand, “I'll call you when I find something, or nothing as the case will probably be.”
“Good luck,” he said clinching my hand tight. “Talk to you soon.”
Without missing a beat I turned around and walked over to the officers. I'd been introduced to them earlier as deputy Howard and deputy Kinard, but they seemed to simply prefer James and Jake so I decided to try the more friendly approach.
“James, I need your help with something. Mike wants me to…”
“That is deputy Howard to you sir,” he said with a heavy, almost offensive twang, “I am an officer of the law and I will be treated as such.”
“My apologies,” I said trying to bite my tongue, “I need the accident reports from this and the previous twelve crashes here. I was wondering if you could help…”
“Listen buddy,” deputy Kinard interjected, “We don't want your help and we sure as Hell ain't gonna give you none. You want anything from us, you're going to have to pry it from our cold, dead fingers son.”
I was done playing nice. My eyes narrowed and I began to focus a little harder on the world around me. I paused trying to plan my next move but I quickly realized that I'd have to use “channels” to get those reports. So, I decided to settle for the next best thing.
“It's a pretty nice set up you've got here, you must write a lot of speeding tickets.”
“How do you know that,” deputy Kinard said as he tried to light a cigarette pursed between his lips.
“Well, both of you are driving 2002 Camaro cruisers. Rural cops can't afford that kind of wheels unless they're raking in some serious fines.”
“Oooowe,” deputy Howard cried, “You must have studied hard in detective school. Oh wait, that's right, you dropped out because you couldn't cut it.”
I resisted launching a pressure point strike against him and instead just watched the two of them celebrate with a round of high fives and grunts.
“How does it feel to spend your entire life taking money from good people who were passing through your county instead of actually fighting crime?”
“Hey,” deputy Kinard jumped in, “It ain't my fault that they can't go the speed limit. It's forty five through this stretch and if they're over that, they're getting a ticket. It's that simple.”
“I see, you've got a point there. Well, I guess I'll be on my way. I have things to do. Have a good day gentlemen.”
For their part, the deputies were too stunned to respond. One of them, deputy Kinard I believe, waved at me meekly, but I was too busy turning the other cheek to notice. I just walked back to my car where April was already standing in wait.
“We done here?” she asked, impatient.
“Yeah, what's wrong?” I asked.
“Those two assholes,” she said motioning to the deputies. “They wouldn't leave me alone for a second.”
“I'm surprised you didn't kill one of them,” I responded dryly.
“I should have, but they aren't worth going to jail over.”
I chuckled a bit at myself, “I couldn't agree more. Let's get out of here so we can figure out what's going on. There's nothing more here, unless you like windbags.”
April nodded at me and we both climbed into the car and sped off, back the way we came.
However, about half a mile down the road, a glint of silver on the opposite side of the road just below the treeline caught my eye and I pulled over.
“What now?” April asked, her frustration obvious.
“Nothing, is that knife still in the glove box?”
“Yeah sure but…”
“Give it here.”
April opened the glove box and handed me my pocketknife, which, up to that point, served only to cut nylon rope that I used for ties. “What are you…?”
Before she could finish her sentence I was out the door and hopping across the empty highway. I climbed a small embankment, took my knife and started sawing away at a branch.
Though the branch was thick and the knife was small, it only took a few seconds before the sharp blade found it's way through the wood causing the branch to fall to the ground, revealing a “Speed Zone/Speed Limit 45” sign that was concealed beneath it.
I quickly dashed over to the car and hopped back in. No sooner had I turned the key than we were in drive and pulling back onto the highway.
“What was that all about?” April asked as I began to get back into the lane.
“Pruning,” I said trying to remain calm.
April shifted in her seat so she could see out of the rear view mirror. After a quick glance she looked over at me, smiled and said, “Uh-huh, pruning, got it.”
“Pruning. Just pruning. And you never saw me doing that. Ok?”
April let out a faint laugh, “Got it.”