The outer door wedged more than usual when Eppie tried to open it to get the paper. He pushed, pulled, cursed his thirty-nine-year-old out of shape body; the door remained stubbornly shut. With one final enormous heave, it slid partially open. Immediately the cause was evident; there was a corpse splayed across Eppie’s front steps.
Eppie eased his girth sideways out of the door and gawked. The dead man appeared to be in his fifties. His white hair arose in short greased spikes matched by an oversized white shirt under which the thin body seemed to float. It was the expression on the man’s countenance that caught Eppie’s attention. His coffee eyes were bulging in terror, striations of red streaking through his pupils. His mouth was ajar, framed by large yellow teeth, one of which was absent in front.
There was something next to the man’s left hand. Eppie leaned over. Afrin nasal spray, missing its top.
“Eppie! Don’t stay out there all morning! Where’s the paper?” Susan called from the table.
“Honey, don’t come out here. Something bad has happened.” He collected the paper and eased back in the door. “There’s a body on our steps.”
Susan ran in from the kitchen. “You’re kidding. For real?” She brushed by him, stuck her head out the cracked door. “Oh my God.” Her left hand cuddled into his. He picked it up and brushed the knuckles with his lips, inhaling her scent of lemons and fresh-cut grass.
“Alright, Ephraim Griggs, you are not getting involved in this. Last time you got involved in one of your mysteries, that gang from Nashville dang near burned down the house. I’m not playing, here. I will leave you this time.” Her azure eyes flashed in her elliptical face, broken only by her small pointed chin.
“I’m calling Dan right this moment,” Eppie said. Dan was his brother, who worked with the BPD, the Bucksnort Police Department. He walked back into the kitchen, lost in thought. How could he not get involved? A body right on his doorstep, with such an expression of terror. He grabbed the phone.
Susan would just have to understand, he thought. It was a part of who he was, solving mysteries. In his daily occupation as a postman, several mysteries had come his way. A good puzzle always made his s-shaped nose, result of an untimely meeting with a baseball, twitch.
“You reckon Dan said anything about coming to dinner with Emma tonight?” Susan said.
“No, we just discussed business.”
“As long as you bear in mind this ain’t your business.” She flipped through the substantial Sunday paper.
Eppie heard the howl of approaching sirens, which cut off suddenly in front of his small, A-frame house. He slid sideways back out the door. Dan’s tall, thin self was approaching.
“So, Eppie, what you got here?” Dan asked, his unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. As he drew closer, Eppie smelled the powerful stench of nicotine that preceded him.
“I’m not rightly sure,” Eppie responded. He pointed. “Look at his left hand, though. That there’s a bottle of Afrin, I’d know it anywhere. Used to be addicted to it.”
Dan snapped on a pair of gloves and picked up the small plastic container. “Let’s see what we got.” He held it to his nose and sniffed. “That ain’t Afrin. Reeks of PGA.”
“Now why in the Sam Hell would anyone put pure grain alcohol in an Afrin bottle?” Eppie asked, frowning.
“Got me.” Dan was going through the body’s pockets. “Oh here we go. License. Arnold Brady, 2001 East Main Drive. That’s damn funny.”
“That was those apartments across the river what got torn down six months ago by the State. They’re building new right now. Ain’t nobody lives there.” Dan said. “Going to take some tracking down, find out where Arnold here is from.”
When Dan called Eppie later that afternoon, he told him how simple it had been to find Arnold Brady. Arnold had been arrested for DUI for the fourth time, and had done a year in jail. Then he was released to the Bucksnort Halfway House, where he’d been living for the past three months.
The rest of Eppie’s afternoon mail rounds went quickly for him, as he drove a bit faster than normal and ran instead of walked to the mailboxes. He wanted some time to himself without Susan’s knowledge.
He’d met Susan at a Harry Potter movie, where they’d both elected to sit in the back away from the raucous kids down front. She looked like an older version of Hermione, which made her laugh when he informed her. He’d been immediately attracted to that deep, free laugh and had asked her out for a glass of wine after the movie.
She had definite thoughts on his ‘detective stuff’, as she called it. She couldn’t see why it even interested him, and wasn’t interested in his explanations. It was dangerous, and that was that. After a year together, Eppie loved her, knew she worried about him; but he felt she should appreciate his right to have his own hobby. It was simpler to just keep quiet than to engage in confrontations, which Eppie fled, like a dog running from a cold hose.
As he drove to the Halfway House, he kept a careful eye on his rearview mirror. The driveway to the Halfway House was lined with stately old magnolias in full bloom. Eppie rolled down his window and inhaled; he’d always loved the scent of magnolias.
When he sauntered in, four people were watching TV in a large room. The furniture was old and well-used. There was a dusty potted palm tree in one corner. Next to it sat an older man in a plaid bathrobe. Eppie approached him.
“Excuse me, did you know Arnold Brady?”
“Not well, I didn’t. You might ask Melanie. She’s right over there on the couch.”
Eppie thanked him, and turned to the flower-covered couch. There sat a pretty woman, probably in her fifties, Eppie estimated. She had iron-grey hair tied back in a ponytail, held by a red bandana. She looked at him suspiciously when he approached.
“You a cop?”
“No, I’m the postman. My name is Eppie Griggs. I’d like to ask you some questions about Arnold, if you don’t mind.”
“Why should I speak to you?”
“I ain’t here to do any harm. I’d like to see right done by Arnold.”
“Let’s take us a walk,” she replied. She rose from the sofa and led him to the door.
They strolled out and down the scented driveway. Light fell between the waxy green leaves of the magnolias, pooling on the newly-poured black tar of the drive.
“So you knew Arnold well?” Eppie prompted her.
“For about three months. We got along pretty good. We went to dinner last night. I can’t believe he’s gone.” Tears flowed down her face, following the deep tracks from her nose to the edge of her mouth. She untied the red bandanna and dabbed at her eyes. Her hair fell around her face in foggy grey coils.
“I’m sorry. Did he seem worried or anxious?”
“No, he was just him. Cracking bad jokes and cutting up.”
“How late did you stay out?”
“We have to be back in at ten, it’s curfew.” They hit the end of the driveway and turned around.
Eppie passed her a card. “Please call me if you think of anything else I should know about Arnold.”
“There is one more thing,” she said. “At our usual Twelve Step meeting last night, the doctor told Arnold that if he had one more drink, he would die. Arnold was freaked out right badly.”
“What did he say?” Eppie’s nose twitched.
“He said he never intended to touch the stuff again, with the grace of God. I’m gonna miss him.”
Eppie thought about that, on the way home. PGA in the Afrin bottle. Was it possible that Eppie had snorted it, tasted the alcohol, dropped it like a live copperhead, and had a heart attack from sheer fright? It only remained to find out who loaded the bottle and the autopsy report, he thought. He caught a glimpse of a white Prius in his rear view window and stiffened with dread, hands clamping on the wheel.
And what excuse could he give for being in this section of Bucksnort? They lived clear across town. Eppie’s postal route didn’t even run this far. He frowned down at his steering wheel.
If only he didn’t love the damn woman. At thirty-nine, with sixty pounds hanging on him like sacks of grain, he knew himself fortunate to have such an exceptional woman. Even if she did have some bizarre habits, such as her addiction to sunflower seeds. She’d split them with her strong white teeth, and spit the shells out on the deck. If she caught him investigating Arnold’s death, she’d spit him out too, he had no doubt.
Eppie downshifted his Toyota, screamed around a corner, mashed the accelerator, and straightened out. When he looked back, the Prius was gone.
Twenty minutes afterward he arrived home, and ambled up on the deck, kicking aside the sunflower shells. Susan nailed him the moment he walked in the door.
“What were you doing on the east side? I saw you on my way to the mall.” Her eyes narrowed to slits. She crunched down hard on a sunflower seed.
“I checked into a couple of old folks I met along the route. They moved over yonder some years ago.”
“Eppie, I know this whole business fascinates you, but you got to see it from my standpoint. You associate with criminals and bring the danger home. My husband was killed by a drunk driver, you know that. And he didn’t even get into mysteries. I know that shit happens, but you don’t have to go looking for it.”
“Don’t I have a point of view also, woman? This poor man died on my front doorstep. It ain’t just ‘shit happens.’”
“I’m warning you, Eppie…” her voice trailed off, while she stared him right in the eyes.
Eppie didn’t respond, just turned the page in his newspaper. If Susan knew he was dealing with a house full of ex-cons, she’d lose it for sure. At all costs he had to keep his business private. She meant a lot to him. His heart lifted when he came home to her smiling face.
The phone rang. Eppie got up and went into the kitchen to answer it. It was Melanie Hiller, and she had thought of one small thing, she told him. There was a man named John Graves at the Halfway House, she said. He’d shown some interest in her, had asked her out several times. Being he was bald, fat, happened to fart a lot and had a beard that was as tangled as a bird’s nest, she had rejected him. He was not happy when she went out with Arnold, she told Eppie. And John Graves never made it home in time for curfew last night. She hadn’t seen him all day. He’d missed the Ten Step meeting, which he never did, as it was an opportunity to sit next to her.
Eppie asked her where she thought John Graves could be, keeping a careful eye out for Susan, who was sitting on the deck, swinging a leg in her chair. Melanie responded that John Graves had been a street person before he’d decided to clean his act up, and his normal sleeping spot was under the Eighth Avenue bridge, near the Albemarle River.
Eppie glanced at his watch. Nearly nine. Susan went to sleep at ten every night. All he’d have to do is wait.
His computer dinged. He had email. The aged machine took several minutes to download it, but Eppie was delighted to see a copy of Arnold Brady’s autopsy report. He scanned it quickly, before Susan could enter and read over his shoulder. Arnold had died from a massive heart attack. His system was clean: no drugs, and an infinitely small quantity of alcohol which could be explained by bodily processes at death.
An hour later he felt like a kid, lying next to her with his eyes wide open, imitating a snore every now and then. When he heard her begin to breathe deeply, he made his move. He climbed silently out of the old four-poster, picked up his clothes off the chair, and went to the kitchen. He dressed in the blackness, lit only by the green clock on the microwave. Then he went out the kitchen door, so he wouldn’t have to walk over the squeaky spot in the living room hardwood floor.
He let the Toyota coast down the gentle hill before he started it. Ten minutes brought him to Eighth Avenue, and the bridge across the Albemarle River. He pulled off the road and parked.
There was a half moon out, and he could distinguish the light of a fire just beyond the concrete of the bridge. He nearly tumbled over a broken pallet as he made his way toward the fire. There was a veritable junkyard of several old cars, boxes, and a three-legged desk he stumbled against. All of it reeked of refuse and ordure.
There was a fire in a circle of stones. Beyond it a woman perched on an old car seat. She had a jug of wine in one hand and a cigar in the other. An old sheet, with grass and leaves stuck to it, was wrapped around her. He asked her if she knew where John Graves was. She didn’t answer, just hooked a thumb toward the river.
Eppie made his way to the pitch darkness of the river. It smelled of good times; canoe fishing trips he’d taken with his dad. He inhaled deeply, and thought he saw a bent-over shape at the edge. He took one more step, and something hit him over the head with such force that he was knocked senseless.
When he came to, he was tied to a large tree. His arms were bound over his head to a branch. His legs were encased in mud, and the river lapped at his feet. Someone smacked him in the face. He groaned.
“Wake up, dammit,” Susan said. “You alright?”
“My head feels fair to falling off, but reckon I’ll live. How did you happen to be here?” He was glad to see her, smell her perfume, there in the dark. Knew he was in trouble.
“I can be sneaky, too. Heard you leave and followed you. Like to had a heart attack when I heard you get hit. Sounded like someone dropped a watermelon.”
“You think you can get me out of these ropes?”
“Should ought to leave you be. This is what happens when you lie and sneak out of the house at night,” she said. She reached up and shook the ropes. The motion sent waves of agony through Eppie’s head.
“God, that hurts, woman. Be as gentle as you can.”
“Gentle’s ass,” she said. She pulled and tugged at the ropes until his arms suddenly came loose and fell.
He immediately clasped his head, feeling the enormous bulge on the back of it. “You see anyone as you came down here?”
“Yeah, this guy ran by me as I parked. Bald with a beard like a thicket. Long gone now.”
“That would be John Graves,” Eppie said. “He’s the killer.”
“Almost got you too, didn’t he?”
“He sure didn’t want to talk. Listen, I need to get to the car. My cell phone is there. I want to get hold of Dan, pronto.”
“Before you go, I have something to say to you, and it might as well be now. I’m not going to put up with—”
“Don’t say it. You know I love you, and I’m right sorry, about this.” He rubbed the knot on his head. Lord, but it hurt, pounding through his head like twenty hammers in unison on a flat rock.
“You’re sorry, alright. Sneaking around in the dead of night, getting bashed over the head.” She was furious. In the dim light, her lips were a thin slash of anger.
“Didn’t do it on purpose. I had a good lead to come down here. Listen, we ain’t never going to see eye to eye on this. This is who I am, looking into things and maybe getting in trouble every now and then. You just want me to stay at home, curl up and die. Well, it ain’t going to happen.”
“Can’t you see I’m just worried about you? I don’t want to find your fool brains bashed out, tied to a damn tree—”
“It’s what makes life worth the living, for me. You’re gonna have to understand.”
Susan gasped. “Eppie Griggs, did you just give me an ultimatum?”
“I reckon that’s what it comes down to. I won’t be told what I can and cannot do. A man’s got to live, you know.”
“I’ll have my things out of the house by the time you come home tomorrow.” She stood and turned to walk away. He grabbed her arm.
“That ain’t what I want. We need to compromise, here. I’ll try and stay out of trouble, and I’ll tell you everything I’m doing.”
She tugged her arm loose. “I’ll consider it. No more sneaking around?”
His nose twitched. “You have my word.”
She made her way back to the bridge. He heard the Prius start, then screech out down Eighth Avenue. He stood, and the night whirled around him. Crickets sang. He heard a trout splash out of the water.
It seemed to take him forever to make it back to the Toyota. The woman near the fire was singing as he passed, a hymn he’d heard many years earlier in church, Amazing Grace. Her voice wasn’t half bad.
He picked up his phone and called Dan.
“Hey, I’m down here off Eighth, under the bridge. You better get down here, I’ve solved your murder. Bring some ice with you when you come.”
“What you talking about, ice? And how’d you solve the murder?”
“Bastard just coshed me over the head with a rock, I do believe. His name is John Graves. He wanted to date Melanie Hiller.”
“We’re aware Melanie and Arnold went to the Starbucks last night. After that, they attended a Ten Step meeting.”
“Yeah, that’s where it happened. The doctor at the meeting told Arnold he’d die if he had one more drink, and he took it to heart, you should excuse the pun.”
“How’d you find that out?”
“Melanie told me. She also said that John Graves kept asking her out. And that he wasn’t happy at-tall that she went out with Arnold last night. Not at-tall.”
“Melanie didn’t tell us squat.”
“Yeah, said she doesn’t like cops. So, John Graves filled that Afrin bottle with PGA. He probably figured that once Arnold took a good snort, the liquor would hit him hard. And he’d want more. No doubt he’d fall off the wagon. And Melanie wouldn’t want an alkie. I bet he never even thought the PGA would kill Arnold, but that’s exactly what happened. One thing I didn’t figure out, is what Arnold was doing on my doorstep.”
“Easy. Arnold’s sister lives two houses down from you, and the bus stop is just down the block on the other side of the street. He was walking there, and decided to clear his nose before he got there. Well, you better get home and have Susan put some ice on that noggin of yours.”
“She’d probably rather hit me on the other side.”
“That’s one fine woman, even if she does hate your mysteries. What did you do to her?”
“She’s the one untied me from the tree. Untied me and tried to tie me down, all in one night. It would near break my heart to lose her. But right is right, and what I did tonight was right.”
“Right for who, Eppie?”
“Me, for one. Arnold Brady for another. A puzzle is a learning experience. A man shouldn’t be stopped from trying to learn.”