Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason is a humorous crime novel about a man who finds himself in most unusual circumstances (available February 12, 2013).
Sad sack Jason Getty has lived in fear ever since killing a man in a rage and burying the body in a remote corner of his yard some 17 months earlier. Just as the guilt-stricken Jason decides that he has gotten away with the crime, the landscaping crew he’s hired to clean up his neglected property find a body under the mulch bed beneath his bedroom window. Police later unearth a second body nearby. Neither is the man he murdered. While the police investigate and Jason worries about that third body, Leah Tamblin becomes obsessed with discovering if one of the bodies is Reid Reynolds, her often unfaithful fiancé who disappeared 13 days before their wedding.
There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard. Jason Getty had grown accustomed to the strangling night terrors, the randomly prickling palms, the bright, aching surges of adrenaline at the sight of Mrs. Truesdell’s dog trotting across the lawn with some unidentifiable thing clamped in its jaws. It had been seventeen months since he’d sweated over the narrow trench he’d carved at the back border of his property; since he’d rolled the body out of the real world and into his dreams.
Strangely though, it wasn’t recalling the muffled crunch of bone that plagued him, nor the memory of the cleaning afterward, hours of it, all the while marveling that his heart could pound that hard for that long. No. It was that first shovelful of dark dirt spraying across the white sheet at the bottom of the grave that came to him every time he closed his eyes to sleep. Was it deep enough? He didn’t know—he wasn’t a gravedigger. Then again, in his mind he wasn’t a murderer either, but facts are facts.
No disaster can stay shiny and new forever. No worry has ever been invented that the mind cannot bully down into mere background noise. For the first few days and weeks, Jason thought of nothing else. Every night, sometimes twice a night (and one fretful night, the first time it rained, it was six times), he slipped through the shadows to the margin of evergreen and poplar that marked the end of his acreage to check and recheck the integrity of his secret. To his eyes, the irregular rectangle of disturbed earth might as well have been bordered in neon. It was a gaudy exhibit to the barbaric instinct that lay curled at the core of every tamed human brain. Evolution had brought us out of the trees, then culture had neutered the beast, but even a eunuch can get angry.
To his right, his little rancher offered up a cozy nook that glowed and whirred with modern conveniences. To his left and just beyond the trees, the ground fell away to a cleared swath of municipal land dotted with linked pairs of electrical towers marching off into the civilized distance. But this middle ground called back to him over and over, whispering, chanting in time with his knocking heart, to keep him ever mindful of the one moment he’d lost millennia of breeding and found himself the puppet of a howling primal rage.
Jason didn’t sleep. He didn’t eat. He filed his reports and managed his client list robotically and correctly, without forgetting for more than a few seconds at a time that a body was moldering under several feet of topsoil and pine needles thirty yards from his back door.
Then one day, Dave from Accounting made a joke and Jason laughed. The sound of it rang sudden and carefree, natural as a lightning strike. His skin stung as a warning blazed though his blood. You’ve killed someone, you idiot. You buried him out back. Don’t forget! But by that time, five minutes had already gone by, and he found, as more days came and went, that the spell became a worry, became a niggle, became part of who he was.
The heater blew his own sour breath back in his face as he sped home from the first time he’d allowed himself a break. He’d blurted, “Yeah, sure,” at the unexpected invitation to Friday’s after-work beers. The glow of good cheer faded with the parting handshakes, and in its place needles of chills played at odds with the sweat running in all his creases. No amount of anxious accelerator stomping made the drive home take less than forever. He’d bypassed the house altogether and fled straight into the woods, knowing he’d find . . . what? Nothing. Just trees and wooded rustling-quiet and the distant, sibilant whisper of freeway traffic.
The ground kept its promise to lie still, and the pines and leafy trees were faithful to sift camouflage over the scene. Jason’s thoughts by day took on an uncriminal rhythm, but the burial came back each night to play against the inside of his eyelids, only in more Technicolor than there had actually been on that moonlit October night.
The anniversary of the incident erased much of his progress. Jason imagined the universe contained just enough irony to disallow him the turning of that last calendar page; the one that would symbolically stretch the hundred-odd steps from the back deck to the body, as if day 366 were a magical meridian in time—his own personal New Year’s Day. He marked it, survived it, and spent another winter hibernating in a cocoon of fading anxiety. The nightmares, however, they lingered.
That spring, the neglected upkeep of his house snagged his attention and gave rise to a new and improved brand of concern. The shrubs were overgrown and the small front garden bristled with three seasons of vagabond weeds, but somehow the thought of wielding a shovel and hoe turned his spine to putty and made everything in the pantry vaguely nauseating. Three consecutive Saturdays had him bravely facing down the shed door and left him three consecutive Sundays in bed with a fever of uncertain origin.
If home is where the heart is, Jason had lived in his throat for a long time. As such, not a lot of maintenance had been required beyond crunching antacids to cool the pipes. His paranoia resurfaced with the surety that the neighbors, even as spread out as they were, would begin to wonder about the shaggy disarray of his lawn. The nagging cycle of peering over his shoulder and in between the curtains crested again.
In May, the riotous blooming of dandelions and sow thistle left him with little choice: do it yourself or hire out. Dearborn’s Landscaping contracted for the lowest bid to aerate and seed the front lawn, prune the bushes, weed and edge the front and side mulch beds, and plant low-maintenance perennials all around the entry and up the driveway. Jason aimed to keep himself from yard work for as long as possible and didn’t mind writing off the cost one little bit. A craggy foreman named Calvin brought two young men and an open-mesh trailer full of rusty gadgets for the two-day job of grooming away a year and a half of avoidance.
Jason hovered out front all that first morning: washing his car, chatting up Calvin, making a Broadway production of checking the mail—twice at that, and well before the postman had even made his rounds. By midday, he dared to breathe a little easier, completely convinced that none of them would go one step farther than they had to. A bold line had been drawn at the edge of their contractual obligation, and obviously no one was headed out back for fear of finding anything more to do.
He made himself a sandwich and watched the workmen from the windows for a while before wandering off to the den. He enjoyed a dog show on television, one ear straining for any out-of-place thump or rustle from the men outside. Hearing no such thing and wrung out from all his chafing, Jason let his head fall back against the easy chair. Just for a moment. The late-afternoon sun slanting in through the window weighed like warm gold coins on his eyelids. He fought the drag of them, but the orange glow was so pretty, so cheerful. The recliner cradled him close while the ceiling fan shushed the thoughts from his head.
In his dream, a young man in Dearborn’s coveralls knelt in the grass. He smiled and nodded up to Jason after having just slotted the trowels and handforks back into his toolbox, absently brushing his hands clean of their work. Jason yammered gibberish. He flailed and capered, willing to do a bare-naked anything to stall off the inevitable moment when the gardener would look down again to gather up his kit. The young man, his face familiar but somehow not quite recognizable, listened intently as Jason babbled, all the while wiping bloody dirt from his hands onto a corner of white sheet that poked up from a ragged rent in the ground.
Jason tipped the carafe fully upside down to fill the mug beyond common sense’s recommended limit. Once he’d added the cream, he realized that no one outside a Zen-tranced surgeon was lifting it from the counter without spilling, and no doubt burning, a sloppy mess all over hand and Formica alike.
“Crap,” he muttered, and leaned down to blow steam from the brimming cup. The doorbell startled his pursed upper lip into the scalding coffee, and one flinch later, the imagined mess materialized pretty much as he’d predicted, although it was his lip, not his hand, that stung. “Crap,” he said again. At least the spill had left the mug manageably full. He gave it half a turn against the dish towel and brought it with him to the door.
Calvin and crew had arrived shortly after eight, expecting to be done by lunchtime. The front yard was now trim and tidy, and the flower bed’s machined edges were well beyond what Jason could have managed on his own with the shovel, even if he had been able to bring himself to touch it.
He’d felt better just watching them unload the trays of flowers. The glow of the colors was contagious, and the sprays of healthy green radiated rightness. Respectability had to be a well-kept garden, and Jason’s mood went warm at the sight of it. The workers had been at it for nearly two hours, and Jason expected a blushing request for restroom privileges. What he got instead, at the front door, was an eyeful of an ashen-faced Calvin.
“Mr. Getty—” It was all Calvin could manage.
“Yes?” Jason’s mouth answered on autopilot while a roar rose up in his ears, a nearly mechanical hum, as his mind calculated what in his yard could make a suntanned gardener turn white and trembling.
“Mr. Getty, we’ve found something. We think you’d better come have a look.”
“All right, just let me get some shoes.” Jason stumbled as he turned, sloshing more coffee out of the cup onto his pants and the floor. But what did it matter? The game was up. Thank God, I can’t do this. No, you can play dumb. You can run. Why did they go back there? Why were you stupid enough to hire a landscaping crew, you worthless, spineless . . . must think: What the hell am I going to say?
Somewhere on the way from the closet to the front door, Jason’s mind went blank. He stopped berating himself and gave up casting around for canned answers to the inevitable questions awaiting him in the backyard. He simply walked out the door, pulling it shut behind him. Calvin stood, twisting his red baseball cap in his calloused hands. Jason nodded to him and followed him off the front stoop, numbed straight through to the soles of his feet.
The four of them gathered in a cluster, standing closer than men who didn’t know each other normally would, staring down into the rich black-brown of newly turned soil. Jason had a number of abandoned ambitions and had once dreamed of being a doctor. He had pored over medical encyclopedias, memorizing words that carried mystery and clout on their convoluted syllables: frontal, parietal, sphenoid, zygomatic—they flooded his mind as he looked at the ground and labeled what he saw, what the other men saw as forehead, crown, temple, and cheek. The skull’s eye sockets were filled with peat, but there was no mistaking the contours and ridges. A human being, or part of one at least, had been unearthed on Jason Getty’s property.
Four men stood, three in horror and revulsion and one in complete bewilderment. Jason had followed Calvin down the front steps like a man on his way to the gallows. Part of his mind noted, with a pang of regret as they passed, that the living-room windows needed washing. He had turned around the corner of the west wall, past the den window with its closed blinds, his eyes glued to the label jutting up from the collar of Calvin’s blue work shirt—itching to reach out, to tuck it in, and make things right. His musings led him to run up Calvin’s heels, not having noticed that he’d stopped. Not having expected him to stop nearly so soon. They hadn’t even cleared the back of the house.
The foreman and his crew had uncovered a body, but not the body that Jason had interred all those months ago at the back edge of the yard. That body remained tucked into the shade of the trees and was as far away as it could be and still have Jason Getty paying the taxes on its gritty resting place. This skull turned a baleful eye from the mulch bed at the side of the house, directly underneath Jason’s bedroom window, and he had no idea who it was.
Leah Tamblin hit the garage-door button again. The hinged panels trundled up and shuddered to a halt only a third of the way open. A taunting slice of spring morning reflected in off the driveway. The defeated motor took a moment of silence, reversed itself, and the door rattled back down again, making Leah officially late for work.
“Oh, come on.”
The dangling release handle proved a test of her farthest reach, but eventually she flung the door up its tracks and backed the car out of the garage and into her next dilemma. Leah, being five feet and half an inch tall on a poufy-hair day, was too short to bring the door back down without a ladder, and no way she was leaving her garage door opened to the elements, climatic or criminal.
Leah closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath, which might have worked wonders had she thought to unclench her grinding teeth. If she was going to be late, she could at least have the repair appointment in the works. She stomped back into the house and dialed her office number, pulling the telephone directory from the bottom cupboard. The phone tucked into place between her cheek and shoulder just as her supervisor answered the call.
“Chris, hi. It’s Leah.” She flipped and rifled the pages of ads in the vicinity of G for garage-door repair. “I’ve got technical difficulties this morning. I’m gonna be a little l—” The flyer slipped out from between the phone book’s pages, from somewhere near the end of the alphabet, as she lifted the book for repositioning. The corner of the paper was brittle and wrinkled from having been wet at some point. It slid across the countertop, and she stopped it with a tentative palm to keep it from sailing onto the floor. Reid smiled up at her, frozen in midparty mirth, from under the bold proclamation MISSING. Chris, on the other end of the line, cleared his throat, but out of necessity or impatience she couldn’t tell. Truthfully, she barely noticed. “—late,” she finished in a whisper.
Reid’s face was still around. In the living room, his eyes crinkled over smiles of varying ease in posed school portraits that chronicled the variations in the rock-star hairstyles of his younger years. There were band photos and a few scattered candid shots in easel-backed frames throughout the house. Stuck to the refrigerator, there was even a magnet made from a snapshot of the two of them at the beach, sunny and windblown, grinning at the camera with their arms wound around each other. But these were fixtures, all but invisible to her. In their routineness, they were easier to forget than the jarring holes they left in her peripheral vision when she tried to pack them away.
His clothes had hung in the closet until the dust on the shoulders of his darker shirts was a grim billboard to his absence. But to be rid of the dust, she’d have to wash the clothes, and the thought of doing a load of laundry for a man who would never need it was more macabre than simply leaving everything just as it was. Eventually, she’d packed his things into boxes and, once she’d grown weary of tripping over them, moved the boxes to the attic.
The paraphernalia of the search had been the hardest to gather up for storage. She’d left stacks of papers and bundles of relevant mail spread out over the counter for so long, as if they still had potential; as if the clues and leads were only stubbornly disconnected, waiting to be joined together by a worthy Dr. Frankenstein and jolted awake to finish Reid’s rescue. Lowering the lid over the box of police reports, press clippings, and her own notebooks of lists and contacts had sent her running to the bathroom, falling to her knees, and dry heaving over the commode until flashes of light swam across her eyes. Holding this morning’s stray reminder of that time in her life, she couldn’t remember having stashed one of the flyers in the phone book or why she would ever have done such a thing in the first place.
Reid had gone out with an itinerary: stop by his work for a barstaff training meeting; hit the music store for guitar strings; Home Depot for an extension cord and lightbulbs; and bring back a late lunch. He had made his meeting and the trip to the music store. Four days later, the police identified the burned-out shell of his car on a gravel road nearly sixty miles away.
The day he disappeared dragged on forever: annoyance first at the inconvenience, suspicion next, culminating in a shouting match with Dean, his brother, when Leah accused him of knowing “exactly where he is and covering for him just like you did the last time.” Dean’s insistence that they phone the police, once the sun had set and Reid’s voice mail registered full, had sent the mistrust cresting over into fear. Dean was never without a joint or two in his pocket, and he was well-known by the authorities for his petty association with the fraternity of usual suspects. He avoided the local police as much as they kept their eyes peeled for him, and nothing short of disaster would have him inviting the cops into his life.
There was no real sleep with Reid missing. Not for the initial few days. Somewhere in the first forty-eight hours, the lights went out at someone else’s say-so and Leah’s eyelids closed in spite of themselves. She’d lie down, achingly alone, at everyone’s insistence, and without her consent her brain would unhook itself from consciousness. But if there was a footfall on the stairs, or a ringing telephone, or headlights sweeping across the bedroom walls, the crashing, pounding awareness of all that was wrong with the world burned away the blankness in an instant.
Leah’s waking hours cycled through minutes of fretting; of frantic doing, and the marshaling of the troops—friends, relatives, and volunteers—to do also; of praying and discovering that she alternately believed in God and loved Him, believed in God and hated Him, and that she was kidding herself and there was no God. Then there were the seconds she forgot that anything was wrong at all.
When she’d gone looking for a recent photo for the flyer, she’d found Reid’s AWOL sunglasses in the desk drawer and picked them up with a laugh, turning around to tease him for his forgetfulness. Through the dining room she saw Sheila, Reid’s mother, nodding soberly to a police detective at the kitchen counter. For three seconds and one clear, deep breath, Leah had been free of the day. Reality seeped back through her in a slow, sad flood. A rising, cold dread was what spoiled these moments, not the hot collision of panic and urgency that hurled her from sleep. Her brain continued to trick her like this, running for refuge measured in a few calm heartbeats. It happened more and more as the exhaustion set in.
The first three days were a series of battles with the experts over whether there was any real problem at all. By the end of the evening on the first day, Reid’s family and closest friends were convinced there had been some sort of an accident. Dean went driving the most likely routes Reid would have taken, and Sheila dialed the closest hospitals with shaking fingers. Leah spoke to the manager of Neptune, the club where Reid tended bar and played most of his gigs. She called the other band members, who dropped everything and came running, as she knew they would. The gravity of phoning the police, with its implied admission of catastrophe, smothered a quiet down over the group as they waited for the patrol cruiser.
The police confirmed that he’d not been arrested and they took a preliminary report, all the while trying to disguise boredom as reassurance. Reid was a young man with a car and a wallet full of credit, and the obvious implication was left to hang in the air. They grilled Leah as to whether they’d argued, which she denied. The next morning dawned, impossibly surreal, as the first day since the eighth grade that Leah didn’t know where Reid was.
Of course, plenty of hours had been unaccounted for in the previous sixteen years, lost hours that had always been a point of contention. Reid loved Leah, there was no doubt. And she loved him. They had been a couple since Mrs. Doyle’s homeroom class. But his head had, on occasion, been turned. When she had known or suspected, Leah would fume and rant for a few hours, then withdraw into the threat of unending silence. Eventually she would give in to the barrage of honest remorse. Reid was always hugely sorry in proportion to how much he loved her.
Leah was neither weak nor stupid; she was practical. In her mind, relationship was compromise, and compromise was a simple contract. Everyone offers up something as a loss in order to gain a list of must-haves. Constant fidelity was the sacrifice in this transaction, but Reid was affectionate, talented, and celebrated as the life of the party. In all of his faults, what was good was real. He had held her hand on the science-class field trip through the old-growth forest and never let her go. As angry as she ever got with him, she always felt him there in her left hand, a warmth that tingled in her palm and held her back from the uncharted wildness that could (and surely would if given half the chance) gobble her up and erase her as if she’d never existed at all.
Reid on his own, though, was only part of the arrangement he secured for Leah. It was family, and the years of warm belonging she’d felt, that kept her at his side. Ideas and ideals were fine enough, but Reid, with his smile and off-brand devotion, delivered a clan, solidly there, that loved Leah more than her blood ties ever had: an amusing puppy of a brother in Dean and a mother, with all the sweet connotations the word can hold, in Sheila. Sheila, in her terribly fragile health, owned Leah’s loyalty and heart more than her son ever had.
And it was Sheila, with her gentle manipulations, who had brought them all to the very threshold of a wedding to keep them together. The police officers had made much of how Reid had vanished thirteen days before he was due to walk down the aisle. Cold feet made such easy work of a missing person’s investigation. And indeed, a set of cold feet figured prominently in the goings-on, but they weren’t missing. They carried Leah from room to room, trying to stride off the nervous energy of guilt.
She’d walked with Reid into one very real and tangly wood when they were children, and little by little over the years they’d walked right out into another one, a metaphorical snarl of need and obligation. She knew very well the long, swooping drop between playing along with a situation and being legally bound to it. She’d come to the very edge of that bridge and peered between the slats, hesitating at the choice to cross or jump.
With Reid gone, Leah’s manic pacing wore flattened tracks into the carpet, the edgy, useless circles run to purge regret from a bride who had been praying for a way out. But the house, she found, was a treadmill, and she couldn’t outrun the secret, little thrills of what her life might yet be. She didn’t have to back out. She didn’t have to crush Sheila. She didn’t have to break Reid’s heart. These notions sparked without permission between the fits of crying and the pangs of wanting his hand back in hers, and on their heels, she wrestled the knowledge of how awful these thoughts made her.
His mother’s pale face shook with rage at the slow track of official involvement in those first few days. The phone never stopped ringing, and the parade of well-wishers and do-gooders kept up an industrious buzz that felt nothing like progress.
When they came with news of Reid’s car, the mood shifted. The civilians retreated in discomfort with hollow offers of “anything we can do,” and the police presence increased threefold. No one said it for days, but everyone knew that Reid was dead. The investigation flowered in false leads, then collapsed under the ponderous weight of nothing to go on.
The milestones of time accumulated—a week, and the crying was still rampant, as were the kind prompts not to lose hope; a month, and the phone rang much less, but still occasionally with callers who didn’t realize that he was gone; a year, and a picture of Reid went into the casket with Sheila and rested in a marked grave in a churchyard. His smiling likeness was tucked away in the crook of a dead woman’s arm, and also at some point into the back of the telephone book, then finally into a cupboard drawer in the kitchen, while his body lay under hastily strewn and unconsecrated ground, tapped into place with a garden shovel on a moonlit night by a man that none of the rest of them knew.
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Copyright © 2013 Jamie Mason