The Covenant: New Excerpt

The Covenant by Jeff Crook follows former Memphis police detective Jackie Lyons as she investigates a mysterious death in the second installment of the Jackie Lyons Mystery series (Available January 12, 2016).

When photographer and former Memphis police detective Jackie Lyons finds Sam Loftin's lifeless body in the same location where his daughter died five years earlier, there's no reason to think he didn't kill himself, too. No reason, except Jackie has just seen Sam's ghost act out the last violent moments of his life.

In investigating his murder, Jackie is drawn into a tumultuous battle between wealthy and powerful suburbanites and a charismatic preacher trying to serve the poor and homeless. But a deeper mystery lurks beneath the petty rivalries and jealousies of a gated community, one that stretches back into the distant past and reaches out to snare the youngest of this generation. A secret so dark, it can only be protected by “The Covenant.”

1

I WAS PARKED IN FRONT OF THE liquor store at the corner of Poplar and Highland, about to stick a fat envelope in a mailbox in the hope that my photos of the dead and their uniformed attendants might earn me a fat government check. I wrapped every corner of the package in three layers of tape to keep the postal inspectors from steaming it open. I hoped to score some real money from the pedigreed jokers who decided what was and wasn’t art, the kind of money that could make a real difference in the train wreck of my life, not the nickel-and-dime stuff I usually got from the police and the insurance companies for my photographs of accident victims and overdoses.

Since I had nothing else to depend on, hope seemed a good plan, but I might as well have spent the postage on a lottery ticket. Who was I, after all? Just some aging nobody with a car with no air-conditioning and a broken taillight, too dry to summon enough spit to lick her stamps. I had a disk drive full of photos of the faces of the dead, and a few who had left their faces on the road, and all that work had got me exactly nowhere, living in a by-the-hour motel on the outskirts of Memphis. If you could even call it living, chasing ambulance sirens, waiting for the phone call that would be the difference between ramen noodles or nothing to eat at all. I’d been off the smack for over a year now and I was still waiting for my life to turn around.

I opened the mailbox and dropped my package inside. When I returned to my car, I found a woman crawling into the passenger window. I shouted and she backed out waving a steak knife that she had probably lifted from a restaurant back when she had enough money to steal from restaurants.

“Gimme,” she shouted. She might have been my age, probably a lot younger—the meth had aged her like a broken time machine. She looked like she needed a hit in the worst way. She was about to shake apart. I noticed a couple of kids, two girls, peeking out from behind a van parked in the gas station parking lot on the corner.

“Are those your kids?” I asked. That threw her for a second. She wasn’t used to robbing people at knifepoint. She probably never did anything worse than lifting purses out of grocery carts and open car windows at the convenience store. She glanced back at her kids, then at the closed liquor store, then at the traffic passing not twenty feet away. It was like she only at that moment realized she was trying to rob somebody in broad daylight on a Sunday morning.

“Gimme your purse, bitch!”

I could have taken the knife away from her and dented the rusting hood of my car with her face, but that was the last thing she needed and the last thing I wanted. By this point, she was just looking for a good enough reason to run away. So I gave her one.

“I ain’t got a purse,” I said as I reached behind my back. “But I got a gun.”

She took my advice and lit out, shouting for her babies to run. I got in my car and closed the open glove compartment. It was empty anyway.

As I pulled out onto Highland, my phone started to ring. The name that popped up on the display seemed familiar, though I couldn’t remember why. I almost didn’t answer it, but I needed a job more than I needed not to answer a wrong number.

“Jackie?” Her voice sounded familiar, too. “Jackie Lyons?”

“Yeah,” I said blankly.

“I was afraid your number had changed, it’s been so long since we talked,” she said. “How have you been?”

“Fine.” I still didn’t know who she was.

She seemed to sense it. “You probably don’t remember me. This is Jenny. Jenny Loftin.”

I said, “Yeah,” again, because her name meant almost nothing to me. I knew a Jenny once, for less than an hour, and I never learned her last name.

“You found my cell phone and returned it to me,” she said. “I was Ashley’s friend.”

“I forgot I gave you my number.” It was the only thing I could think to say to her at the moment. Ashley St. Michael was a photographer, and I had bought her camera from her husband, James. They were both dead now, murdered by the same man four years apart. I had met Jenny when I found her cell phone, unaware that she and Ashley had been friends long before I met either of them.

“I saw you on the news,” she said. “It must have been awful, what you went through.”

“It was pretty bad.” She didn’t need to hear my sea stories, so I didn’t go into detail, but the same lunatic who killed Ashley and James had very nearly greased me over some pictures I took of him without his permission. I managed to punch his ticket first, but not before he put me in the hospital and all over the local news for a week or two.

“But you’re OK now?” she asked.

“I’m doing OK.” The physical wounds had healed, but in my nightmares I wasn’t nearly so tough as I liked to pretend.

“I think about you sometimes, but I just never had a reason to call before.”

I don’t know why she was apologizing. I hadn’t thought of her at all. I had forgotten her completely.

“Are you still a photographer?” I allowed that I was still in the business and tried not to let her hear the hope in my voice.

“The pastor of our church needs somebody to take some pictures. I was wondering if you could meet him here at my house this afternoon, if you’re not too busy.”

“I think I can fit you into my schedule,” I said.

2

JENNY TOLD ME HER PASTOR was planning to renovate an antebellum home and he wanted it photographed in its current ruined state. The house would be the parsonage for the church they were building on the adjacent land.

Jenny lived on Plantation Lane at the end of a forested cul-de-sac in Stirling Estates—a wealthy gated community in Malvern, Tennessee, fifteen interstate miles and two worlds away from Memphis. I had just enough gas to get there and back, so I drove out Sunday afternoon, feathering the pedal and coasting down hills. It was April, jacket weather, still cool in the morning, though today it had warmed up enough to feel like June. Patches of buttercups lined the highway and the trees were budding and blooming like adolescents in love. I drove with my windows down just to smell the honeysuckle.

As I pulled up to the gate, the elderly gentleman in the Bavarian guard shack didn’t like the look of my papers, but my name was on his list so he raised his barber pole and let me through.

Apparently Sunday was Dressage Day at Stirling Estates. People in top hats and split-tail coats sat atop fifty-thousand-dollar horses that pranced along the verge, skipped rope, mixed martinis, and maybe solved calculus equations, while groundskeepers followed in golf carts to shovel up the turds. Most of the estates had barns, and pastures surrounded by miles of white, three-rail fence, or vast green expanses of front lawn for artillery practice. There were two golf courses, because one is never enough, which had hosted pro golf tournaments in the past, a lake big enough to ski and sail, tennis and squash courts, and a clubhouse with a world-renowned restaurant that only served residents. It was the sort of place where you didn’t need a membership sticker on the bumper of your car. Everybody I passed knew I didn’t belong. I left them in my mirror worriedly reaching for their phones.

I could smell money all over this job, megachurch money, slobs of it. I didn’t have all the proper photographic equipment, but I had to make my pitch. Maybe there’d be enough to outfit myself like a professional photographer.

One section of property at the north end of the lake had never been developed—forty acres of old timber and brambles hiding the ruins of the plantation house that had given the Stirling community its name. All those putting-green lawns I passed on the way had once been cotton fields, back in the day when this was still boondocks and Memphis was a two-day buggy ride away. Then the railroad came through and turned the old tavern and Chickasaw trading post into Malvern—a market town of considerable though brief prosperity, until it was burned to the ground by the zealous torchbearers of Northern aggression. A historical marker near the gate declared Stirling Plantation the approximate location where General Sherman might have very nearly almost been captured, according to local legend.

Where Plantation Lane ended, a two-track dirt trail continued across a weedy field, dipping down and to the right to enter the woods. On the left, the ground rose up to the levee that created the lake. This street was lined with the newest houses of Stirling Estates—huge, modern monstrosities with more bathrooms than common sense. The lots were considerably smaller than the older sections of the community; these barely had room for a pony. The houses were clean and blank and dimensionless, like photographs from a glossy real estate magazine, especially with all the For Sale signs in the front yards. Times were hard, even for the pearl-wearing set.

Jenny’s house was the last house on the left. It was smaller and considerably older than the other houses on her street, a heap of blood-colored brick, wooden shutters painted coffee-black, and a green front door. Hedges twenty feet high bordered a deer park lawn shaded by hundred-year-old pecan trees. As I parked on the street, I didn’t see any other cars, but there was a man walking in my direction across the levee. He seemed to be waving at me, so I killed the engine.

Three girls were jumping rope in Jenny’s driveway, wearing polished Mary Jane shoes and red, blue and yellow Sunday jumpers from church. As I collected my camera gear from the trunk, they sang a rope-jumping song:

Wire, briar, limber lock.

Three old geese in a flock.

One flew east, one flew west,

one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

The girls were so lively and pretty in their primary school colors, with the spring flowers in manicured beds as backdrop, I knelt in the street and uncapped my lens to take their picture. I’d heard the song before, maybe in elementary school, which was the last time I skipped anybody’s rope. The rhyme was part of something longer, but I couldn’t remember the words.

The oldest dropped her rope and walked toward me. “What are you doing?”

“I’m a photographer,” I said as I snapped her photo.

“If you want to take my picture, you have to pay me.”

If she hadn’t been so serious, I might have laughed. She was maybe eleven, but already nearly as tall as me and nearly all of it leg. With her cheekbones and jade-green anime eyes, she might already be doing modeling work for Elle magazine. She wore a pair of diamond earrings that cost more than my car. I tried to make a joke to cut the tension. “So this is how kids earn money these days. Whatever happened to lemonade stands?”

“The homeowners’ covenant doesn’t allow lemonade stands,” she stated as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. The other two girls looked eight or nine and more interested in getting back to their rope jumping than interrogating me. “Or unescorted visitors,” the girl added with a pretty sneer.

I reminded myself that she was only eleven, even if she was as big as me, and that her mother would call the cops if I ruined all those expensive orthodontics. I smiled and asked, “So how long have you been modeling?”

That melted her icy little heart. “Almost four years!” She made it sound like a lifetime.

“I bet you make a lot of money.”

“Not really. I haven’t done anything national yet. Just local photographers.”

“I’m a local photographer,” I said.

“But you’re a girl!”

“Lots of photographers are women.”

“I’ve only ever worked with men.”

Of course she had. “So what’s the going rate for one picture?” I wasn’t really negotiating with her. I just wanted to see what she’d say.

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“On what you want it for.”

“Just something for my portfolio.”

“Oh, I’ve done lots of portfolio stuff. How about twenty bucks?” I guess I was getting the family discount.

I patted my pockets. “Gee, I think I left my checkbook in my Ferrari. I’m actually here to meet a preacher named Deacon Falgoust. Do you know if that’s him?” I pointed at the man walking toward us along the levee.

She glanced in that direction and said, “Is what him?” I barely heard her. Something was wrong with the guy. He was staggering around and shielding his head with his arms as though being dive-bombed by birds from a Hitchcock movie. After a few steps he stumbled and went down, then popped up again, took another drunken step and pitched over the lake side of the levee.

I handed my camera to the girl.

The slope was steeper than it looked from the road but I climbed it faster than I thought I could. By the time I reached the top of the levee I had dialed 911 on my phone, but the operator hadn’t answered. I found the man lying facedown in the water just at the edge of the rocks. My old Coast Guard training kicked in and I jumped feet-first into the lake. The water looked shallow but it was over my head, and at first I couldn’t move from the shock of the cold. All I could do was watch the cloud of bubbles rise in the murky black around me. He was silhouetted against the surface above me, his glazed eyes staring out of a blank, bloated face.

I felt stone under my shoes, pushed off and came up beside him. I rolled him over, even though there was no point in trying to save him.

He’d been in the water for a couple of hours, at least—long enough to ice him down to the temperature of a dead fish.

 

Copyright © 2016 Jeff Crook.

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Jeff Crook is the author of the previous Jackie Lyons novel, The Sleeping and the Dead, as well as several other novels including Sword of the Prophet. He is a native and lifelong resident of the city of Memphis.

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