In his long career as a private eye, John Marshall Tanner has stared down a great many evils, but even he cringes at the thought of turning fifty. So when the invitation arrives for his twenty-five-year college reunion, Tanner bites at the chance to feel young again. He expects a weekend of nostalgia, but he will be lucky to get out alive.
At the reunion, Tanner reconnects with an old college buddy, Seth Hartman, now a civil rights lawyer in Charleston, a city more divided by racial intolerance than any in the country. After two decades protecting the rights of the black citizens of South Carolina, Hartman has made his share of enemies, and now they want him dead. To assuage his own guilt over sitting out the fight for civil rights, Tanner journeys to Charleston to do battle with men for whom fear is a weapon and hate is a way of life.
Southern Cross is the 9th book in the John Marshall Tanner Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A John Marshall Tanner Mystery
By Stephen Greenleaf
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1993 Stephen Greenleaf
All rights reserved.
Maybe it was because it was one of those foggy San Francisco summer days that suggest the sun will forever shun us. Or maybe it was because I'd earned less than a thousand dollars the previous month and my banker had giggled like a geisha when I hinted I might need a loan to tide me over the rest of the recession. Or maybe it was because my banker was thirty-six and gorgeous, I was forty-eight and overweight, and she didn't even bother to blush when I flirted with her. Whatever the reason, I rejected the idea from the moment I learned of it.
After the mail deposited the first of what would become a dozen increasingly brash and artlessly imploring announcements on my desk, my primary reaction was dismay — that so much time had passed; that such a dread and distant milestone was suddenly upon me; that I had actually become one of those persons I'd formerly regarded, from within the brassy shell of youth, as comically obsolete and borderline pathetic; that I had truly toppled, suddenly and definitively, onto the dismal side of middle age. As with most idylls of introspection, the more I thought about it, the worse it got.
A more reasoned response, formulated that evening during a silent soliloquy at Guido's, was to shun the event on more exalted grounds: that the underlying sentiment was immature, reactionary, and possibly injurious in some gerontologic aspect; that at my age the only worthy focus was prospective — nostalgia was a crutch for the developmentally arrested or professionally unaccomplished, and I of course was neither; that memory was too perverse to mess with — the good times hadn't been that good, and the bad ones had been worse. All of which was reason enough to let bygones stay long gone and the dead stay deeply buried.
But philosophizing only maps your options; at some point you have to act, and then it's pretty much a dice roll. In this case, the fact that seemed determinative was that in my current fiscal state I couldn't afford to make the trip even if I wanted to. So I checked the box marked "Do Not Plan to Attend," and refrained from supplying biographical data beyond my name, address, and, after an interesting internal debate and a review of appropriate euphemisms, my current occupation. When I turned away an unctuous emissary, who materialized in my office to dun me for an absurdly monumental contribution to the development fund with far less tact than his mission warranted, I figured the issue was closed.
Yet somehow, six months after my last best pledge of noninvolvement, here I was, two thousand miles from home, lolling in line in an inadequately lit gymnasium on the campus of a diminutive liberal-arts college in the heart of the Upper Midwest, waiting to receive my name tag and T-shirt and schedule of weekend activities, poised to dive headlong into the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of my graduation from that selfsame institution. If I had to pick a reason for my change of heart, I'd say part of it had to do with wondering how a bunch of doctors and lawyers and insurance executives would react when confronted by a real live private eye.
But a more essential impulse had to do with age. Fifty loomed before me like the Matterhorn; I would need a boost to get beyond it. If I could recharge my psychological batteries, replenish my store of hope, find further reason to keep doing what I did, then the reunion would serve its purpose. But I wasn't optimistic.
As the registration line shortened imperceptibly, my heart was as aflutter as if someone held a gun on me, my nerves as frayed as if drunken revelations and compulsive camaraderie lay behind me instead of dead ahead. My eyes were as skittish as sparrows — I didn't want to seem aloof, but I didn't want to come face-to-face with someone I didn't recognize but should have, either. The stance I finally seized upon was to pretend I didn't know what the commotion was about; I was just there to read the meter. That bit of burlesque only got me through the next three minutes.
Such real and imagined dilemmas were tumbling through my mind like socks in a dryer when a hand landed on my shoulder with the subtlety of a sack of cement. "Tanner, you asshole. How come you never answered my letter?"
"The one I got back in '72? That said you'd be in San Francisco for a day and wanted to get together? The one that came a week after you were supposed to arrive? Because you didn't include a return address, you moron."
I had finished most of my declamation before I turned to greet the object of the exercise, to wit: Gilbert Huxley Hayward, one of my best friends in those years, at once the most endearing and maddening man I've ever known.
Although I was prepared to greet him warmly, when he was fully focused in my bifocals, I was afraid I'd been mistaken. The white hair, the bloated body, the jowls overgrown with Santa's beard, all suggested my radar had misfired.
His smile was as big as his belly, which he patted like a pumpkin at the point where his belt was eclipsed by his bulge. "At your service."
"What the hell happened?"
To his credit, his ego was still intact and his laugh was unrestrained. "The same thing that happened to you, douche bag. I guess you don't have mirrors in your house, so you didn't notice you look more like Tom Foley than Tom Cruise these days. I hate like hell to be the one to break the news."
I laughed to cover my boorishness. "Good to see you, Gil."
"Yeah. Been a long time and all that shit. Assume the appropriate clichés have been exhausted." He looked around the gym with more revulsion than reverence. "Remember when I passed out behind the wrestling mats and got locked in all night, and Dean Antley called the cops 'cause he thought I'd been abducted?"
"Remember when you put Man Tan in my shaving lotion and I thought I had the pox?"
"Remember filling Janson's shoes with glue?"
"Remember the detergent in the pool?"
"Remember Susan Willoughby's tits?"
I remembered all of that and more, and Gil did, too, and we took a moment to take pleasure in the exercise. The swelling in my chest surprised me.
"So what keeps you busy these days?" I asked when the memories dimmed.
"Same as always — getting rich and getting laid. Not that tough to do either in New Jersey."
I detoured around his sex life. "What are you doing for a living?"
He disdained an answer more elaborate than a shrug. "Whatever."
"Bring the wife and kids?"
Gil shook his head. "Claimed they'd never heard anything about the joint that made them want to see it, plus the youngest had tickets to Kris Kross. Whatever that is." He looked at me more closely, as though he'd heard a nasty rumor but couldn't quite remember what it was. "How about you? Got family milling around somewhere?"
"Not here; not anywhere."
"You telling me you never married?"
"But you've lived with someone, right?"
"No longer than a three-day weekend."
Gil shook his head. "Jesus. I know you're not queer, not unless they got something in the water out there that turns the sex thing inside out, which come to think of it they should probably check out if they haven't already." Gil's look turned crafty; the elbow in my rib was sharp. "I know someone who'll be glad to learn you're still roaming the range, cowboy."
My stomach fluttered, then folded, then soared. "Not Libby, I hope."
His grin turned demented. "Looks good enough to eat, too. It's worth money if I can watch the good parts."
I tried to calm him down, although calm and Gil Hayward had ever been strangers. "I'm sure she brought a spouse along; she got married the year after we graduated."
Gil shook his head. "She's between husbands two and three, and number three hasn't put in an appearance yet. Her words exactly — you're free to take your shot."
"Great." My stomach opted for a second loop.
"Come on," Gil urged, slapping my back again. "Get the paperwork taken care of and follow me. We're over in Milton, same floor as freshman year. Hartman is already there, trying to figure out how to open his suitcase. Got a car?"
I nodded. "Rental."
"Good. We can cruise the strip if our classmates are as boring as they used to be. Remember the townies we picked up at the pizza place that time?"
"I try not to."
"Come on, Tanner; they were good sports."
"They were pitiful; if it happened today, they'd call it date rape."
Gil clouded over the way Texas clouds over — with mounds of black and rumbles of thunder. Sudden violence had always been one of his trademarks, and I thought for a moment he was going to slug me. But the fists at his side soon melted and he settled for a dismissive epithet. "Just because they didn't issue an invitation doesn't mean they didn't want it. Townies lived to fuck college guys."
"I seem to remember it took a long time to get yours to stop crying," I said stiffly, then regretted it. That I hadn't had sex with the girl I'd inherited that evening had more to do with being too drunk than too noble, and anyway the past was ineradicably past. Still, even if our behavior had been less unilateral than I'd suggested, the episode had been one of those excesses of youth that leave a splinter in your mind, something you hope never happens again, something you can't believe you did.
Something you need to atone for.
"It seems weird to have a car up here," I said on the way to the parking lot, referring to one of the numberless rules that, along with compulsory church on Sundays and coats and ties at dinner, had made the institution a comforting shawl of in loco parentis to the parents and a prickly anachronism to their children.
"Yeah," Gil groused, his enthusiasm already on the wane. "It would have almost been tolerable if we'd had wheels."
I opened the car for Gil, then tossed my jacket in the back and got in the driver's side. Before starting the engine, I opened my packet of reunion materials and glanced through the schedule for the day. Although my perusal was only cursory, the entertainments seemed to begin with a sing-along in the new theater and climax with a dance in the old gym and conclude with a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in the basement of the school chapel.
I had a feeling things were going to stay at least that weird through the weekend.CHAPTER 2
The drive to the dormitory was brief — a drive to anyplace on campus was necessarily brief — but it took long enough to confirm an enduring impression: The grounds of my alma mater were among the loveliest spots on earth. Broad swaths of grass; mammoth oaks and elms and maples; majestic buildings; blooming gardens; hills and vales and lakes and streams. Inspiring, all of it, then and now, yet at the same time deceptive and perhaps beside the point.
For one thing, it was summer, so the flora was on its most verdant behavior rather than curled in the scruffy somnolence it suffered during most of the academic term. Tempers had flared and moods had plummeted during those dull gray months of winter — loves were lost, friendships severed, studies neglected, often irretrievably. The tardy lift of spring never quite made up for it, not even the year the baseball team went 26 and 5 and Gil and I were named all-league.
More troubling than the intemperate cycles of botany and meteorology was my sense — grounded in resentments I didn't know I had until I boarded the flight that morning — that the attentions lavished on the grounds and buildings, as well as on the pursuits that pulsed within them, contrasted markedly with the neglect of more essential needs. Lack of guidance, or even notable concern, on matters ranging from career choice to social deftness to symptoms of personal dysfunction had left many of my peers, including myself, in a fog that led us down wrong roads. On the day I graduated and went out into the world, I knew more about the Renaissance than I knew about myself.
But as part of me doled out blame, a larger part acknowledged that I wasn't being fair. My own experience wasn't the norm of the place, after all. Not a scholar, not possessed of a passion that provided clear direction in terms of career or avocation, not sure of who I was or what I wanted, I needed from external sources what most of my classmates found within. The urge to blame the college for the pedestrian course my life had taken was to credit it with more magic than it had or could possess. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but wonder how my peers felt about the contours of their lives after the send-off the school provided — whether they saw themselves as predestined champions of a grand design, or, like me, as the illegitimate offspring of a random chance. For the time being, it was enough to acknowledge that the school was a lovely place, whose surfaces made you proud. What lurked behind the heroic stone facades and the sad small smiles of the faculty and staff was far more problematic.
I parked the car and extracted my bag from the trunk and lugged it toward the check-in desk, with Gil leading the way like a tackle leading the fullback on a power sweep, which he had done for me in former times as well. Although most of the faces in the crowd were familiar in the sense the billboards along the freeway are familiar, I had trouble coming up with names to match. Scurrying like a squirrel, I made do with generic gestures of greeting that were reciprocated with equal languor. By the time I was in line for a key to my room, I decided my initial impulse had been apt — attendance was a big mistake that would only be compounded as the festivities began to snowball.
I was already formulating a retreat when Seth Hartman materialized at my side, looking miraculously identical to the day we'd met and immediately become fast friends, which was the second day of freshman orientation when we noticed we were each reading Goodbye, Columbus as we waited to be photographed for the zoo book. In a reversal of mood of an amplitude that had been endemic in my student days, I was glad to be where I was again.
"Hey, Marsh," Seth said, his grin at once crooked and timid and genuine.
I grinned a ton and shook his hand. "Whatever you're taking will make you a fortune if you can sell it through the mail."
His blue eyes sparked with pleasure. "If you're referring to my eternally youthful aspect, I ascribe it to a purity of heart and mind plus a jigger of Jack Daniel's of an evening, to ward off the chill."
"I didn't think it got below ninety in Charleston."
The grin made way for an aphorism. "Chills aren't exclusively external. As I believe you know."
I looked to see if there was a message in there someplace, but the result was inconclusive. To all intents and purposes, Seth Hartman seemed unstruck by the sniper fire of time. His body was as lithe and fluid as ever, his hair still clipped to prep-school perfection, albeit with an edge of gray. His jaw was defined and strong, his skin taut and Southern-fried, his attire a peerless blend of light linens and soft leathers. As I watched him accept the fellowship of others and dispense his easy and gracious responses, it was obvious that Seth remained fashionable and funny and bright and self-effacing, a star in spite of himself as he had been in the days when I'd basked unabashedly in his glory, which had been grounded not in what he had done but simply in who he was. It was not an exaggeration to say that my friendship with Seth Hartman was the most auspicious achievement of those four young years of my life.
"It's great to see you, Marsh," Seth was saying.
"I almost called when this reunion thing geared up. Got your number from Directory Assistance and everything, but couldn't bring myself to dial the phone."
"I know what you mean," I said, because I did. Seth and I had been pivotal to each other once, a reciprocal support system that boosted one and then the other over the bumps and thumps of maturation. I think one of the reasons we'd stayed apart ever since was the sense that whatever we became to each other now would only undermine that bond.
"You're still in San Francisco, right?"
"And still a ... whatever you call it? Private eye seems so film noir."
"Well, that's me. Noir to the core."
"We'll have to talk about that sometime, how you got from lawyering to sleuthing."
"After we talk about why you traded New England for South Carolina. I'm no expert, but your accent sounds straight off the plantation. I'll bet you named your firstborn Rhett."
A switch momentarily shut down the mechanics of his face — the light went out of his eyes, and his smile grew stiff with effort. But a second later the social systems were on-line again, and he bowed from the waist extravagantly. "I'm a Son of the South all right. You should see me stroll down Tradd Street of an evening in my white suit and walking stick."
Excerpted from Southern Cross by Stephen Greenleaf. Copyright © 1993 Stephen Greenleaf. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.