Hartsville, North Carolina
The Confederate stood on the seventy-first of the one hundred and five concrete steps that led from Hartsville’s Main Street to the Pisgah County Courthouse. Rifle at his side, he’d kept a weatherbeaten watch for any encroaching Yankees for as long as Mary Crow could remember. Passing him on her fourth-grade civics field trip, she’d cowered at his towering bronze fierceness. Six years later, as she’d rushed past to apply for her driver’s license, she’d found him an embarrassing symbol of the unreconstructed South. Today, nearly twenty-five years after their first acquaintance, the old boy seemed as comforting as a childhood friend. Not much else about Pisgah County did.
“Hey, Johnny Reb.” She paused for a moment to look up at the carefully wrought figure of a young private in the Confederate Army. Having been erected in front of the courthouse, he truly faced east, but cut his eyes northward, ever vigilant for an enemy approach. Though birds had roosted on his shoulders and one long strand of spiderweb dangled from his rear, he still looked ready to face whatever challenge the blue bellies might throw at him. Mary wondered if she was in such good shape. Already she was breathing heavily from her climb, and she still had thirty-four steps to go. She’d forgotten how hot the early June sun could be in the Carolina mountains, and she’d foolishly worn Deathwrap, her prosecutorial black suit. Comfortable in the relentlessly air-conditioned courtrooms of Atlanta, here sleek Deathwrap felt like a portable sauna, too close, too heavy, too tight against her skin.
“Damn,” she grumbled, leaning against the base of the statue. Already she’d torn her hose and sweated through her underwear. Pretty soon she’d have big damp circles under her arms. In her business it was never good to be visibly nervous; to be both nervous and sweating like a pig did not bode well at all.
Nonetheless, she had an appointment with DA George Turpin in four minutes, and she intended to keep it. Squaring her shoulders, she resumed her ascent to the courthouse. As her high heels clicked on the steps, she gave a rueful smile at the irony of her undertaking. When she was eighteen, she’d ached to leave Pisgah County forever. Today, at thirty-five, she couldn’t wait to come back home.
The past twelve months had been her year of living dangerously. She’d left her ADA job in Atlanta to go to Peru with archaeologist Gabe Benge. Though it seemed like a wonderful chance for a whole new life, eight months into it she knew she’d made a mistake. One day she was taking a boat ride on Lake Titicaca. As she looked over into the water, a huge fish surfaced next to the boat. For a moment it swam along beside them, its scales flashing in the sun, then it returned to the depths of the lake, the beautiful silver body fading into the translucent green water. Instinctively, she turned to tell Jonathan, then she caught herself. Jonathan was not here. Jonathan was in another country, another hemisphere. Jonathan would never share that singular moment with the silvery fish and the blue sky and green Lake Titicaca. The realization struck her with such a yearning for home that it was all she could do to stay in the boat and not start swimming for shore. Why are you here, the lake seemed to whisper, among mountains you can’t name, Indians who will never regard you as anything more than a tourist? It was then that she knew she had to go home. Not home to Gabe or even home to Atlanta, but back to her true home in the North Carolina mountains, her true home with Jonathan Walkingstick. Somehow everything she didn’t need at eighteen, she needed quite desperately now.
But coming home to Pisgah County required money, and for that, she needed a job. She’d called George Turpin two weeks ago, as soon as she stepped off the plane in Atlanta. He’d sounded enthusiastic over the phone—Yes, I’d love to talk to you, love to have a woman of your experience on my staff. In fact, we have a man who’s taking early retirement. When could you come up for a talk? They’d made their arrangements, and settled upon today, here, in about three minutes. If she hurried, she would be on time.
She finally reached the hundred and fifth step, and strode into the vaulted lobby of the old courthouse. She passed a gaggle of secretaries clad in frothy print dresses, hurrying to begin their day’s work. Suddenly she felt even more out of place. Swathed in black among women clad in the colors of melting sherbet, she realized she must look like the grim reaper seeking her next victim. When she glanced over her shoulder and caught one of the secretaries casting a curious eye back at her, she knew without a doubt that she would be the courthouse’s gossip tidbit du jour. Did y’all see that girl dressed in that fancy black suit? Who was she? You don’t see clothes like that around here. She must be some hot shot, over from Raleigh. Don’t kid yourself, honey. Didn’t you see that hair? She was pure Cherokee. . . .
Shrugging off the imaginary wags, Mary checked the building directory beside the elevator. Turpin’s office was on the third floor. She rode with two men in seersucker suits, one of whom looked like someone she might have gone to high school with. She considered introducing herself, but both hurried out when they reached the second floor. She rode on, alone, to the next floor, where at the end of the hall stood a frosted glass door with “George H. Turpin, District Attorney” lettered in gold.
She entered to find an older woman seated behind a desk. Gray hair curled on her head like steel wool, and unlike the younger women downstairs, she wore a more decorous linen suit with a simple white blouse. When the woman looked up at Mary, her mouth drew down in a thin line.
“May I help you?”
“I have an appointment with Mr. Turpin at nine o’clock,” Mary answered. “My name is Mary Crow.”
Her words seemed to frost the woman further. Mary knew her name was not altogether unknown here. She had, three years ago, broken up a conspiracy that had put Pisgah County Sheriff Stump Logan on the FBI’s most wanted list. Then, a year later, she had killed that same sheriff near Devil’s Fork Gap in Madison County. Though Logan had been found to be a kidnapper, rapist, and murderer, he had also headed a powerful political machine and was still fondly remembered by a number of people on the county payroll. Mary knew that she would have to tread carefully in this courthouse.
Turpin’s secretary began writing in some kind of logbook. “Mary C-r-o-w-e,” she spelled aloud, using the traditional Cherokee spelling of the name.
“Just C-r-o-w,” Mary corrected.
“Really? Most people around here spell it the other way.” The woman looked at her with eyes like chips of dark stone.
Mary shrugged. She’d dropped the e on the end of her name back when she’d gone to college and simultaneously dropped most all of her Cherokee past. She wasn’t sure there was any point in adding it now.
“Have a seat,” the secretary said, not bothering to correct her misspelling. “Mr. Turpin’ll see you in a moment.”
Mary crossed the room and sat by a window that afforded her a view of Johnny Reb’s backside, with Hartsville stretched out beyond him. A town of storefronts and sidewalks, Hartsville stood wedged in between a line of the Southern Railroad and the looming Plott Balsam Mountains. It had changed a lot in her seventeen-year absence. Though the west end of Main Street was still somberly comprised of law offices, banks, a motel, and Morehouse’s funeral home, trendier, more lighthearted businesses had opened up on east Main. On her way to the courthouse Mary had passed a travel agency, a yoga studio, a massage and nail salon, and a restaurant that proudly displayed its rave review in Southern Living magazine. Who would have thought that? Mary wondered, remembering when Hartsville’s most exotic restaurant was the Fish Camp Grill, a shack on the river that would fry, for a small fee, whatever you managed to catch off their back deck, hush puppies and coleslaw compliments of the house.
A deep voice interrupted her drift into the past. She turned to face a heavyset, balding man dressed in the summer uniform of all Southern attorneys—khaki trousers, navy blazer, striped regimental tie. “George Turpin.” He extended his hand, his smile revealing a chipped front tooth that gave him a boyish look that belied his middle age. “I’ve heard so much about you. It’s a real pleasure to meet you.”
She rose and shook his hand.
“Come on back to my office,” he said. “Would you like some coffee? A Coke?”
“No, thank you,” she replied, glancing at the secretary, who again frowned at her over her glasses.
Turpin led her to a corner office that boasted a now-empty fireplace. Where her former boss in Atlanta had decked his walls with basketball memorabilia, George Turpin splattered his personal space with photographs of himself with the prominent and powerful. Turpin golfing with the governor of North Carolina, Turpin hewing down a tree with the local congressman, Turpin shaking hands with the chairman of the new Cherokee gaming commission. Interspersed among the photos were a dozen shadow-box frames displaying the kind of rosette ribbons awarded at county fairs and horse shows. Blues, mostly, with a few reds and yellows thrown in for a touch of humility.
“Do you show horses?” Mary stepped over to get a closer look at one ribbon.
“Honey, any horse I got on would keel over from my excess avoirdupois.” Turpin patted his rotund middle. “No, all those ribbons are for barbecue.”
“Barbecue?” Mary frowned. Since when had they made barbecue a contact sport?
“Pisgah County DA’s office has won the North Carolina Barbecue Championship for the past five years,” Turpin explained proudly. “We compete in the vinegar-and-pepper category and the tomato-based group. Best durn stuff you’ll ever put in your mouth. Here.” Turpin sat down behind his desk and pulled a bottle of dark orange liquid from a drawer. “Take this home with you. Put it on anything—pork, chicken, ribs. Tofu, if you’re a tree-hugger. You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven.”
“Thanks.” Mary took the jar the man offered and sat down across from him. “It looks wonderful.”
“It is. I tell you, when I retire, I’m gonna open me up a little barbecue shack on 441. Catch all them tourists goin’ into the casino before they lose all their money.” Turpin laughed heartily, amused by his own future, then he returned to the present, pulling her resume from his drawer.
“Let me say right off it’s a real honor to have you in my office. I regarded your mentor, Judge Irene Hannah, as a great legal mind and a true friend.” He tapped Mary’s resume. “Your record does her proud.”
“Thank you.” Mary smiled at the memory of the woman in whose footsteps she’d followed, in whose house she now lived. “Irene was a wonderful person.”
“She was indeed. Even though that Logan business caught us all with our pants down, we owe you a debt of gratitude for bringing him to justice.”
Mary didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t intended to embarrass Pisgah County law, she’d simply killed a corrupt county sheriff who was trying to kill her. “Who’s sheriff here now?” she asked, curious about who might have dared take Logan’s place.
“A young man named Jerry Cochran,” said Turpin. “Went to high school here—you may know him.”
“Actually, I do. We were lab partners in biology.” Mary almost laughed. Though she had liked the bookish boy who nearly fainted when they dissected their frog, she couldn’t imagine him donning a badge and sidearm to fight crime in Pisgah County.
“I wouldn’t have given him a chance in hell to get elected, but the voters seemed to like him. Real high-tech, low-key kind of guy.” Turpin shrugged, then turned his attention to her file. “Let’s talk a little bit about this, now. Tell me why somebody with this record would want to work here?” His chair squeaked as he leaned back, waiting for her reply.
Mary’s tongue felt stuck to the roof of her mouth. What should she say? That in the middle of Lake Titicaca she’d gotten so homesick, she almost cried? That as sweet as the jasmine-scented nights of Miraflores had been, she longed for the smell of pine, the touch of Jonathan Walkingstick instead of Gabe Benge? Why not, she decided. It made as much sense as any other reason.
“I want to come back home,” she said simply. “To do that, I need a job. Criminal prosecution is what I do.”
Turpin smiled. “You’re Cherokee, aren’t you?”
“Half,” said Mary. “My mother grew up in Snowbird. My father was from Atlanta.”
“And you’ve lived away from here for how long?”
“Seventeen years. I went to live with my grandmother shortly after my mother died.” Mary shifted in her chair. She never told new acquaintances that her mother had been murdered; she couldn’t bear the cheap sympathy that such a remark evoked.
“Well, I don’t know how well you’ve kept up with things here, but this is about as far from Hot-lanta as you can get. We have one, maybe two murders a year, and most of those are somebody getting drunk and shooting whatever significant other gets on the wrong end of their deer rifles.” Turpin sighed. “A trained monkey could get a conviction on most of ’em.”
“That’s okay,” said Mary. “There’s more to law than just convicting murderers.”
Turpin frowned. “That’s true, but I bet if I put you on staff you’d be looking for a new job in six months. I don’t mean to be discouraging, honey, but Pisgah County is for lawyers who want nice, quiet careers that allow them time to enter barbecue cook-offs or coach Little League.” Again he tapped her resume. “These pages tell me that you eat, breathe, and sleep felony prosecutions. Having you at Pisgah County would be like hitching Seabiscuit up to a plow.”
Mary was puzzled. Turpin seemed uncomfortable with the fact that she was good at what she did. “But I gave you my credentials when we talked on the phone. I thought you were excited about the possibility of my joining your staff.”
Turpin sighed. “To be honest, Ms. Crow, I’d love to put you in the office right next to mine. But the plain truth is, I don’t have an opening anymore.”
Mary sat there, stunned. Two weeks ago, Turpin had practically offered her a job over the phone. He explained further.
“When you first called I had Pete Nicholson’s resignation on my desk. Three days later, Pete came in and asked if he could stay on. His wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and they’ve still got a boy in college.”
“I see.” Mary wondered if Turpin’s colleague was indeed hanging on to his paycheck, or if Turpin was turning her down for some other reason. Again, she didn’t know what to say. She had depended upon getting this job. Irene’s little house needed a new well and a new roof and God knows what else. For the last three days, she’d had to haul water in with her car and take sponge baths in the sink. She tried another tack.
“I don’t suppose you could give me a trial run? See how I fit in after six months?”
Turpin closed the folder that held her resume. “I’m sorry. I just don’t have the budget for that.”
“I see,” Mary said quietly.
“Tell you what, though. Leave me a number where I can reach you. If and when I get a vacancy, I’ll call you right away. I owe Irene Hannah that much.”
Mary reached in her purse and handed him one of the business cards she’d made up last night, on her computer. Turpin’s brows lifted as he read it.
“This is a local number,” he said. “I thought you lived in Atlanta.”
“Not anymore. Irene Hannah left me her farm. I’m a full-time resident of Pisgah County, as of a week ago,” she replied, hoping that might make a difference.
A look of discomfit flitted across Turpin’s face, then vanished as he clipped Mary’s card to her folder. “Then welcome to the neighborhood. If anything opens up, I’ll be sure to give you a buzz.”
Mary gathered her bottle of barbecue sauce and the black leather briefcase she’d brought with her. I can’t believe this, she thought, trying to fight the blush of humiliation spreading across her cheeks. She, with her perfect record, turned down by a man who could probably count all his murder convictions on one barbecue-stained hand.
“Thanks for seeing me, Mr. Turpin.” She smiled through clenched teeth. “It’s been a pleasure.”
“Thank you for coming, dear.” Turpin took her hand in his. “I promise I’ll be in touch. It may be a while, but I won’t forget you.”
Enduring the openly snide smile of Turpin’s secretary, Mary hurried out of the office and into the waiting elevator. Moments later, she was trudging back down the hundred and five steps, dodging two starry-eyed teenagers who were holding hands and giggling. After they passed, she stopped once again by the ever-watchful Confederate.
“I crapped out, Johnny Reb,” she whispered, incredulous at Turpin’s complete about-face. “They don’t want me here.”
Swallowing hard, she fought a moment of panic. Two weeks ago she’d left a man who loved her and a potentially promising career in Atlanta for a rural mountain county where the chief legal officer seemed prouder of his barbecue sauce than his conviction rate. Had she totally lost her mind? Was she going through some premature midlife crisis?
She looked up at the statue’s face. The sun now cast the eyes in deep shadow, making the mouth a protuberant bulge. Where earlier the young soldier had looked vigilant, now he seemed to gaze at the mountains wistfully, as if longing to be reunited with the companions who’d marched off and left him here to stand watch, so long ago. Mary felt a sudden kinship with the young man. Though both were of Pisgah County, both were now also strangers to it. It occurred to her that what she sought might be just as elusive as the young soldier’s dreams.
“Maybe someday you’ll find what you’re looking for, Johnny Reb,” Mary murmured, turning her gaze from the statue to the little mountain town below. “And maybe someday I will, too.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Legacy of Masks by Sallie Bissell. Copyright © 2005 by Sallie Bissell. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.