Last night, I had a great time reading at an event called LIT: Readings and Libations, in lovely downtown Portland, Maine. This is the excerpt I chose to read, from SOUTHERN CROSS — the third novel in my Erin Solomon pentalogy. In this scene, told from reporter Daniel Diggins’ (“Diggs”) perspective, Diggs has returned to his old stomping grounds in rural Kentucky to attend his childhood best friends’ funeral. As is typical with my novels, madness ensues.
“So, next thing I hear on the police scanner,” George said, in fine form between half a jug of his best moonshine and the captive audience of me, Buddy Holloway, and especially Solomon, “Sheriff Jennings has Diggs’ motel room surrounded, and the police are ordering him out of there with his hands up…”
“Which he does.” Buddy picked up the story while Solomon followed along, rapt. I grimaced, knowing all too well what came next. “But when he comes out, it’s without so much as a stitch on—naked as the day he come into this world. And of course we all know the sheriff’s wife’s in there, too, but there ain’t no way old Harvey Jennings is gonna be humiliated by risking Mrs. Jennings comin’ out in her altogethers, too.”
We’d been through a few of these stories by now. Bringing Solomon along for this trip down amnesia alley didn’t seem nearly as good an idea as it had when it first occurred to me.
She shook her head at me. “I can’t believe you slept with the sheriff’s wife. You’re such a tool.”
“In my defense,” I said, “my marriage had just broken up, I’d finished off two pints of Jameson’s on my own that morning, and—while I don’t have a clear picture of exactly what happened in that motel room—I’m pretty sure it didn’t involve much sleeping.”
“Besides that,” George interrupted, “if anybody deserved it, it was the sheriff. Harvey Jennings is a bully, and an ass to boot.”
Buddy nodded. “You got a point there. If I remember right, Sarah Jennings paid through the nose for that night.”
“The sheriff went after her?” Solomon asked, no longer so amused.
“’Bout near killed her,” George said. I remained quiet, my gaze on the floor, thinking back to days I’d been trying to put behind me for awhile now.
“’Course, that meant Diggs here went after Harvey the next day,” George continued. “Put him in the hospital for a good spell. Likely would’a killed him, if Wyatt hadn’t gotten there.”
“He deserved it,” I said numbly. “Sarah was a good woman. He treated her like shit.”
“Was?” Solomon asked. “What happened to her?”
“She left town after that,” Buddy said. “Not more’n a week after Diggs, if I recall correctly. Took her little girl, and nobody never heard from either of ‘em again. ‘Course, you walk out on a man like Harvey Jennings, you don’t exactly leave a forwarding address.” He looked at me. “I’d bet tomorrow’s lunch ol’ Diggs knows where she is, though.”
Solomon took another slug of whiskey and set it down, eyes on me. “I wouldn’t take that bet,” she said.
Our gazes locked. Her eyes had the kind of feverish intensity Solomon only gets when she’s drinking—which is rare. The air between us caught fire. She cleared her throat.
“Well, I hope you at least showed her a good time,” she said to me.
I held her eye. “I’ve never gotten any complaints, darlin’.”
I never tire of making Solomon blush. She looked away first, cheeks burning, and rolled her eyes. She was notably lacking a comeback.
Another few seconds of charged silence ensued before Buddy spoke up. “Well, believe it or not, the sheriff’s a changed man these days. He just might surprise you, if you two do cross paths.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll believe that when I see it. Nothing short of a lobotomy changes a man like Harvey Jennings.”
“Buddy’s right,” George said, though his tone belied his skepticism. “He’s gotten pretty deep into the word, goin’ on about a year now. Follows Jesup Barnel’s church.”
“There’s a terrifying combination if I ever heard one,” I said.
“Nothing worse I can think of,” George agreed.
“Okay, that’s the third time that name’s come up today,” Solomon interrupted. “This is the preacher with the big billboard in town, right? What’s his story?”
“Diggs and Wyatt never would’ve met if it weren’t for Reverend Barnel,” George said before I could field the question myself. Or deflect it. “You was, what…? Twelve years old at the time?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Here we go—this is the story you and Wyatt would never tell me,” Solomon said. “Let’s hear it.”
“Diggs and Wyatt met at Jesup Barnel’s church camp,” George began. He’d never been a fan of Barnel’s. It was clear from his tone that that hadn’t changed in my absence. “ ’Course, Wyatt never would’a been there in the first place, but Retta—my late wife—took it into her head that the boy needed straightenin’ out. The reverend runs this camp for boys havin’ more than your usual problems in the world—you know what I mean?”
“I think I get the idea,” she said.
“Reverend Barnel has some… odd ideas about the ways of the Lord,” Buddy said. “He does a big ol’ ceremony, legendary ‘round these parts, to cast out demons makin’ youngsters act out.”
“And that’s how you and Wyatt met?” Solomon asked me.
“After that, they was thick as thieves,” George said. “Diggs would come for summers, vacations—anytime he could convince his daddy to send him down, this is where he’d be. I got pictures of the two of them out here on the farm, back when Diggs had his hair like that fella—” He looked at me. “Who was it, now?”
There was no way this could end well. “Yeah… Sorry, I don’t remember,” I said.
“Vanilla Ice,” Buddy said, nodding. “Thought he was God’s gift, this one.”
“Listen, we really should be going,” I said to Solomon. “It’s been a long day.”
“Are you nuts?” she asked. “I’ve never seen a single picture of you besides class photos at Littlehope Middle School. If there are candids of you as the Ice Man, you can bet your sweet ass I’m gonna see them.”
“They’re in the shed out back,” George said. “Hang on, let me get ‘em.” He started to haul himself out of his chair, but I shook my head.
“Stay where you are, George. I’ll get them. Just tell me where.”
Two minutes later, I was outside in the fresh air again, grateful for the reprieve. It was almost midnight, the woods an eerie cobalt blue under a clouded sky. When I was with Ashley, I used to sit on the front porch out here with George, drinking until we were blurry with the booze, talking life, philosophy, music, women… Anything I could come up with to avoid going home. Whatever George might have to say about his daughter, she sure as hell had deserved better than I’d ever given her.
I hoped she had that now.
I could hear them laughing inside the cabin. Solomon wasn’t much of a drinker usually, and George’s homemade whiskey wasn’t the best time to make an exception to that rule. She’d stood by and watched me get blackout drunk enough times that I wasn’t about to tell her when to quit, though. She—
I stopped, caught by a sound I couldn’t identify behind me. The ground was too soft for footsteps, but there was… something. Movement. Or I thought there was. I flashed back to the summer before with Solomon and fought the urge to run back inside. There were a whole host of night creatures that could be moving out here about now. I wasn’t being hunted anymore.
George’s shed was behind the cabin, sheltered by a grove of trees and all but invisible to the outside world. I slipped the latch and opened the door, shining a flashlight George had given me. The shed was maybe 12×18, barely big enough to walk around in, with tools hung neatly on pegboard on one wall and shelving built along the others. A single, rectangular window was positioned on the opposite wall, about six feet up—too high to see anything, but adequate if you needed a little light. When there was light to be had, of course.
I spotted a dozen photo albums lined up on one of the shelves, and stepped inside. It smelled of sawdust and cigar smoke, two of George’s favorite things. I grabbed a couple of the photo albums without checking the dates on the spines and strode back across the shed toward freedom. Since the caves and tunnels of the previous summer, enclosed spaces weren’t a favorite of mine. Something clattered against the outside wall. I whirled toward the sound, heart racing.
“Solomon? Is that you?”
I turned back around just in time to watch the door swing shut.
“Buddy? All right… Good one, guys. You’re friggin’ hilarious.” I reached for the door and tried to push it open. It didn’t budge.
Something scratched against the outside of the shed, just below the window—like someone was scaling the wall. The clattering could have been a ladder, I realized. And this was George’s idea of a practical joke: his way of welcoming me back to the fold. I wet my lips and reminded myself that panicking at this point was exactly the kind of story that would follow me to my grave, once the lights came on and the idiots pulling the prank were revealed.
Better to play it cool. Ride it out.
“All right, you got me,” I said. “I’m trapped in the shed. In the dark. You guys are comic geniuses.”
Something scratched against the windowpane. I trained my flashlight beam in that direction, but all that did was reflect the light back at me.
I realized then that there was no way Solomon was behind this—she knew too well what we’d gone through six months ago. And she wouldn’t let the others do anything like it, either. Sweat beaded on my forehead and the back of my neck. Just outside the window, I heard a faint rattling sound.
“Harvey?” I said quietly. If Sheriff Jennings had found out I was back in town, this might be the kind of thing he’d pull to welcome me back. “Is that you?”
The rattling got louder.
I pulled my cell phone from my jacket pocket and hit number one on speed dial. It went straight to Solomon’s voicemail. Perfect.
My pulse was racing.
The window opened, the sound of metal against wood like a scream in the stillness. I grabbed the closest thing I could find—a hammer hanging on the pegboard—and held it aloft, my back pressed to the far wall, waiting to see what would happen next.
Whoever was out there dropped something through the window, followed in quick succession by two more somethings. They fell too quickly for me to see what they were, but it was painfully obvious when I heard the wet thud and ensuing hiss as they hit the floor.
The rattling was deafening now.
The window slammed shut.
I stood very, very still.
There are non-poisonous gopher snakes that mimic the movement and sound of the common rattler. A once-over with the flashlight was all it took to tell me these were not gopher snakes. These were rattlers—three large ones, maybe six feet long, and they were pissed. The best move when encountering a pissed-off snake is a backward one: stay calm, back the hell up, and keep walking the other way.
Trapped in a locked shed, however, that wasn’t an option. I dialed 911. The dispatcher picked up after three rings and asked me my emergency. I told her I was trapped in a shed with three rattlesnakes.
There was a very long pause.
“Three live rattlesnakes, sir?” she asked.
“Yeah. Pretty live.”
“Maybe you should get on outta there,” she said. “Have you been bit?”
“Not yet, but I’m not loving my chances here. Listen, all I need you to do is call Buddy Holloway—he’s a deputy at the Justice Police Department. Tell him Diggs called.”
From the shed.
Because rattlesnakes were after him.
Yeah, this was gonna go well.
There was another long pause. The snakes slithered closer, the rattling like the sound of fat frying in a pan. The largest of the three hissed, head up. Preparing to strike.
“Sir, it’s a crime to prank an emergency line.”
“Please… I’m telling you, this isn’t a prank. Just call the deputy, all right?”
She assured me that she would, and I hung up. The rattlers weren’t looking any happier about our situation.
“Easy, guys,” I said quietly. “We can talk this over, right? You go your way, I’ll go mine.”
The other two advanced, all three hissing now. Shit.
I stepped backward and tried the door again: still jammed. I still held George’s hammer in one hand, but going on the defensive was out of the question unless I was feeling especially suicidal.
Tired of waiting me out, the largest rattler advanced again, focused on my pant leg. I had jeans and thin hiking boots on—not enough to keep me protected should he strike. The same noise I’d heard before clattered against the side of the shed again, making me jump. Unfortunately, it had the same effect on the snakes; already on edge, the sudden noise was all it took to push them over. A breadth of a second later, the first rattler struck.
He caught me in the calf and dug in deep. If I shouted, thrashed, or tried to fight the bastard, the others would come at me and I’d be done. All the same, the time to wait passively for someone to come to my rescue was clearly behind me. The snake snapped back after striking, still watching me anxiously. I started to creep along the wall toward the window. My leg was on fire, the pain searing. I fought to stay calm while the snakes slithered back and forth across the floor in a rhythmic dance.
The first three novels in the Erin Solomon pentalogy are now available on Amazon, with the fourth due out in August.
Book I: All the Blue-Eyed Angels
Book II: Sins of the Father
Book III: Southern Cross