Alby Truitt didn't relish the idea of eating dinner at Ella Alden's house at the east end of Statlers Cross. For starters, the place was too full of dead things -- dead fish, dead crows, dead snakes -- all God's smaller creatures caught and made arty to fill in the white spaces of the Alden clan's peculiar enclave. It was also, Alby knew, too full of more ambiguous deaths, both of others and himself, but that was a thought he pushed to the back of his mind as he trundled his truck over the railroad tracks and up Ella's gravel drive. No, it was neither taxidermy nor memories that pissed him off: Ella Alden's house disturbed him because it was too damn full of Ella Alden.
The truck's headlights settled on a stretch of barbed wire fence as he pulled to a stop. As he stepped into the cool evening air, a pecan branch, overladen and much too long for health, slapped his face, and the bitter smell of pecan grime filled his nostrils. He wiped his face and came away with a smear of blood on his knuckle. Crap. The only reason he had agreed to come tonight was because Ella's granddaughter, Gale, had issued the invitation, and he owed her. He started for the entrance, down a row of worn stepping-stones barely visible in the faint glow of the front-door light.
"Alby?" The voice came from the rear of the house. "Alby Truitt? We're around here."
He left the stones and waded through calf-high weeds to the back porch. It was late October, and the first crispness of fall had finally come to the Georgia night; nevertheless, the overhead back porch light was on and the fan spun slowly. Behind the mesh screens he could make out the figures of two men seated in rocking chairs.
The man on the left rose and unlatched the screen door. "I took a chance you were Alby." The accent was British. "Don't tell me I'm wrong."
"No, sir, you're not wrong." The handshake was firm, welcoming, as Truitt mounted the porch steps. Alby lifted his head to look the Englishman in the eye. "You must be Daniel. An honor to meet you in person. We talked once over the phone ... awhile back...."
"I remember. It's good to have a face with the voice. Gale speaks highly of you."She rarely talks of you,
Truitt thought, although, interestingly enough, this English visitor was exactly as he had imagined him -- soft-voiced, dark, with a hint of humor behind his eyes. So while Gale might have spoken of him infrequently, she must have done so vividly. He shook his head. "Gale never mentioned you were so tall. You didn't sound tall over the phone."
Daniel Halford's laugh was deep. "You don't exactly fit my idea of a Georgia sheriff, either. No sunglasses and no paunch. A business suit, no less, but there you are."
"Better keep an eye on the movies you watch. They'll give you all sorts of bad impressions." Truitt let the door swing closed behind him. "Seriously, it's good to finally meet you, Daniel. Hope the trip over was a good one."
Alby Truitt pushed aside the questions he wanted to ask, the questions that had pestered him since he first heard that Chief Inspector Daniel Halford, a respected homicide detective with New Scotland Yard, was visiting Gale Grayson in the U.S. He liked Gale, but she came bundled with troubles, not the least of which was her own complicated past with New Scotland Yard. What claim did Truitt have to ask any questions? Besides, the evening promised to be long and if he wanted to wear thin his stay, he could always bring them out.
He turned his attention to the second man, slightly built, blond-headed, still seated in his rocker. "Dr. Goddard, I presume?"
Goddard rose, his full height a good six inches shorter than Halford's and a few inches shy of Truitt's own. "I'd rather you call me Ron." This man's accent, too, was British. "I find 'Doctor' just gets me invitations to look in people's mouths."
"I can imagine. Not many doctors in these parts unless they're the type that can tell angina from heartburn." Truitt nodded toward the closed door that led to the Alden kitchen. "So what, have we men been relegated to the back porch? Should I check in with Ella and Gale and let them know I'm here?"
"Actually," Halford said, "we're supposed to take care of you while dinner is finishing. Care for a drink? Ella said if you wanted a shot of something we could drive to the liquor store outside of town as long as we didn't tell her about it."
"I bet that's exactly what she said. Naw, I'll wait." Truitt took a seat on a wooden bench shoved against the wall of the house; the sharp edge of a clapboard pressed into his shoulder blades and he shifted until he was more comfortable. Halford swung his rocker around to face him. Damn, the man was tall -- his long legs stretched out until they came within a couple of feet of Truitt's on the opposite side of the porch. He was one of those men -- and Truitt knew others like him -- who absorbed all the ease in a room. Some would take it in and not give any back; those were men Truitt had learned not to trust. But this man cast the ease back, and the sheriff found himself relaxing. He caught Halford's eye and the detective gave him a brief smile. Well, well. They were each sizing the other up.
"So," Truitt said cheerfully to Goddard, "I hear you're a linguist. Afraid I don't know what that means exactly, unless you're like Henry Higgins, trying to teach other folks how to talk."
Even in the tricky glow of the porch light Truitt could tell Goddard was blushing. Or growing flush -- the two indicated different emotional reactions. He grinned. "Understand that if I don't see it in movies or read it in a book, I don't know much about it. This is a pretty quiet part of the world."
"Not to worry. I'm afraid old G.B. Shaw did a bit of damage to people's perception of the field. No, Sheriff--"
"Sorry. No, I'd be a pitiful scholar if my goal was to 'teach' people to talk. What does that mean, anyway? Actually, I'm a historical linguist -- I trace the development of dialects."
"No joke. I heard you've rented the Greene place next door. So you've decided to become part of this little community here? We must have some pretty intriguing dialects for you to have left the comfort of the University of Leeds to come so far."
Again the blush. Goddard gave a short laugh. "Somehow, I thought I'd be able to slip in quietly, be the good social scientist and observe without making much of a mark at all. Judging by what you just said, it seems that I underestimated the local grapevine."
"Folks usually do. I've noticed that if you're born and raised here, you could murder people and dry their hides on the roof of your house and people might decide to look the other way. But if you're from out of town..."
"And I'm a little more than from out of town."
"I'll say. Old Mrs. Daily, just last week, said, 'You know we have a British linguist living in Statlers Cross. I hear he's such a nice man. And he pays to keep the grass at the Greene house mowed.' So you're off on the right foot. Take care of the house and you'll be everybody's favorite outsider."
Goddard smiled. "I'll have to remember that. It's never a good idea to offend your study group."
Truitt rested his head against the clapboard siding, enjoying his role as storyteller and, he admitted it, mild provocateur. He glanced at Halford and saw that he was watching him, reared back in his chair, his legs casually crossed.
"Ron and I were just discussing his study when you came, Alby," Halford said. "Interesting stuff. He believes that maybe some of the people in Statlers Cross have dialects closer to native English than Brits do themselves."
"Really? I've heard that in parts of Appalachia they still speak Elizabethan -- or they did before cable. But nothing like that around here. We all sound pretty Southern to me."
"Yes, you do," Goddard agreed. "But there's this idea in historical linguistics that says the mother tongue of a language keeps evolving while the offshoots -- the dialects that developed when speakers moved to other parts of the world -- contain purer elements."
"So we talk more like your great-grandfather talked than you do?" Truitt asked, intrigued.
"Perhaps. That's along the lines of what I want to find out. You have several families here in Statlers Cross who immigrated from the coast of Cornwall in the mid-1800's. They originally came for the Dahlonega gold rush, then settled here in Calwyn County to farm. I'm trying to interview them and see if the theory holds true."
"Huh. Which families?"
"The Keasts. The Craddicks. A few others, but those are the ones I'm focusing on."
"So have you met 'em all yet?"
"Some. You know I've been here almost two months. Met James Craddick. Several of the Keasts -- Stuart and his grandmother Rosen. She's very promising. I've had a couple of taping sessions with her."
"I tape the interviews to have a record of the speech. Always audio, sometimes video to get the facial movements."
"So even linguistics has gone high-tech. No more scribbling on pads with pencils?"
"Well, I do that, too."
"I have to say I'm surprised you've talked with Rosen," Truitt said. "The Keasts are fairly close -- and closed."
"I noticed. Darrell Murphy, the mayor's son, introduced me to Stuart. I think that helped clear the way."
Truitt shook his head and waved at a moth that darted past. "Darrell must be a persuasive fellow to get Stuart Keast to let you talk to his grandmama. There are a number of tight clans in Calwyn County, but in my experience the Keasts are the tightest. They don't like friends, much less strangers."
"I'm willing to wager that's why Rosen has such a wonderful sound to her. No television in her house, no radio or telephone, although I noticed a cell phone in Stuart's truck, the sly puss. Her house is quite isolated -- on a hill at the top of an overgrown drive. Passed several houses that were abandoned and covered with vines before I reached her place."
"That would be the Keast homestead, all right. They've let that road go. But I'll let you in on a little secret -- they got a back road they keep cleared and graveled. I think they were probably sending you a message. You can get close, but not too close."
"Ah. That actually makes me feel better. They'll be happy to know I have no intention of getting too close. Not good science. All I want to do is listen a bit. I just want my recordings and my notes, then I'll quietly leave."
"And return to the relative hustle and bustle of Leeds," Halford offered.
Overhead, the fan pumped the air; Truitt rubbed his arms. "October's an iffy time of year around here. Some days are still hot enough for the air-conditioning, then the nights'll be cold enough for blankets." He stood. "Don't suppose Ella would mind too much if we hollered uncle and went inside where it's not as chilly."
Excerpted from The Mother Tongue by Teri Holbrook. Copyright © 2001 by Teri Holbrook. Excerpted by permission of Crimeline, 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.