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Shallow Graves

Jeffery Deaver

  Shallow Graves

  Jeffery Deaver

  John Pellam had been in the trenches of filmmaking, with a promising Hollywood career – until tragedy sidetracked him. Now he's a location scout, travelling the country in search of shooting sites for films. When he rides down Main Street, locals usually clamour for their chance at fifteen minutes of fame. But in a small town in upstate New York, Pellam experiences a very different reception. His illusionary world is shattered by a savage murder, and Pellam is suddenly centre stage in an unfolding drama of violence, lust and conspiracy in this less-than-picture-perfect locale.

  Jeffery Deaver

  Shallow Graves

  The first book in the John Pellam series, 1992

  "A man should keep his word."

  – James Stewart as Rupert Cadell in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope


  "I heard this scary story about you one time," Marty said, "and I didn't know whether it was true or not."

  Pellam didn't look over. He was driving the Winnebago Chieftain 43 back into town. They'd just found an old farmhouse a mile up the road and had offered the astonished owner thirteen hundred dollars to shoot two scenes on his front porch, provided he didn't mind if a combine replaced his rusting orange Nissan in the driveway for a couple of days. For that kind of money, the farmer said, he'd eat the car if that was what they wanted.

  Pellam had told him that wouldn't be necessary.

  "You used to do stunt work?" Marty asked. His voice was high and Midwest-inflected.

  "Some stunts, yeah. Just for a year or so."

  "About this film you did?"

  "Uh." Pellam pulled off his black 1950s Hugh Hefner sunglasses. The autumn day had dawned bright as blue ice. A half hour ago it had turned dark and now the early afternoon seemed like a winter dusk.

  "It was a Spielberg film," Marty said. "Never worked for Spielberg."

  Marty considered. "No? Well, I heard it was a Spielberg film. Anyway, there was this scene where the guy, the star, you know, was supposed to drive a motorcycle over this bridge and these bombs or something were blowing up behind him and he was driving like a son of a bitch, just ahead of these shells. Only then one hits under him and he goes flying through the air just as the bridge collapses… Okay? And they were supposed to rig a dummy because the stunt supervisor wouldn't let any of his guys do it but you just got on the bike and told the second unit director to roll the cameras. And you just, like, did it."


  Marty looked at Pellam. He waited. He laughed. "What do you mean, 'uh-huh'? Did you do it?"

  "Yeah, I remember that one."

  Marty rolled his eyes and looked out the window at a distant speck of bird. "He remembers it…" He looked back at Pellam. "And I heard that the thing was you didn't get blown clear but you had to hang on to this cable while the bridge collapsed."


  Marty kept waiting. It was no fun telling war stories to people who should be telling them to you. "Well?"

  "That's pretty much what happened."

  "Weren't you scared?"

  "Sure was."

  "Why'd you do it?"

  Pellam reached down and picked up a Molson bottle wedged between his scuffed brown Nokona boots. He glanced around the red and yellow autumn countryside for New York state troopers then lifted the bottle and drained it. "I don't know. I did crazy things then. Stupid of me. The unit director fired me."

  "But they used the footage?"

  "Had to. They'd run out of bridges."

  Pellam floored the worn accelerator pedal to take a grade. The engine didn't respond well. They heard the tapping of whatever taps in an old engine when it struggles to push a heavy camper uphill.

  Marty was twenty-nine, skinny, and had a small gold hoop in his left ear. His face was round and smooth and he had eyelids connected directly to his heart; they opened wide whenever his pulse picked up. Pellam was older. He was thin too, though more sinewy than skinny, and dark complected. He had a scrawny, salt-and-pepper beard that he'd started last week and he was already tired of. The lids over his gray-green eyes never lifted very far. Both men wore denim-blue jeans and jackets. Marty wore a black T-shirt. Pellam, a blue work shirt. In clothes like these, with his pointy-toed boots, Pellam looked a lot like a cowboy and if anyone-a woman anyway-would comment on it, he'd tell her that he was related to Wild Bill Hickok. This was true though it was true in some complicated way he'd distorted so often that he couldn't now remember exactly where the gunfighter had figured into his ancestry.

  Marty said, "I'd like to do stunt work."

  "I don't think so," Pellam told him.

  "No, it'd be fun."

  "No, it'd be painful."

  After a few minutes Pellam said, "So we got a cemetery, we got a town square, two barns and a farmhouse. We got a ton of roads. What else do we need?"

  Marty flipped through a large notebook. "One big, big, big field, I'm talking sonuvabitch big, a funeral home, a Victorian house overlooking a yard big enough for a wedding, a hardware P store, a mess of interiors… Goddamn, I ain't gonna get to Manhattan for two weeks. I'm tired of cows, Pellam. I'm so damned tired of cows."

  Pellam asked, "You ever tip cows?"

  "I'm from the Midwest. Everybody there tips cows."

  "I've never done it. I'd like to, though."

  "Pellam, you never tipped a cow?"


  Marty shook his head with what seemed like genuine dismay. "Man…"

  It had been three days since they'd pulled off the Interstate here in Cleary, New York. The Winnebago had clocked two hundred miles, roaming through knobby pine hills and tired farms and small, simple pastel cubes of houses decorated with pickups in the driveway, cars on blocks, and stiff laundry pinned and drying on long lines.

  Three days, driving through mist and fog and yellow storms of September leaves and plenty of outright rain.

  Marty looked out the window. He didn't speak for five minutes. Pellam, thinking: Silence is platinum.

  Marty said, "Know what this reminds me of?"

  The boy had a mind that ranged like a hungry crow; Pellam couldn't even guess.

  "I was an assistant on Echoes of War," he continued.

  This was a sixty-three-million-dollar Vietnam War movie that Pellam had no desire to scout for, now had no desire to see in the theaters, and knew he wouldn't rent when it came to Tower Video in L.A.

  Marty said, "For some reason they didn't shoot in Asia?"

  "That's a question?"

  "No. I'm telling you."

  Pellam said, "It sounded like you were asking me."

  "No. They decided not to shoot in Asia."

  "Why not?"

  "It's not important. They just didn't."

  "Got it," Pellam said.

  "They shot it in England, in Cornwall." Marty's head swung sideways, the grin spreading into his big, oval face. Pellam liked enthusiasm. But enthusiasm went with people that talked a lot. You can't have everything. "Man, did you know they have palm trees in England? I couldn't believe it. Palm trees… Anyway, the set designer made this totally incredible Army base, mortar holes and everything. And we'd get up at five a.m. to shoot and I'd get this weird feeling. I mean, I knew I was in England, and I knew it was just a movie. But all the actors were in costume-uniforms-sleeping in foxholes and eating rations. That's what the director wanted. I tell you, man, standing around, I felt totally… queasy." He considered if this was the right word. He decided it was and repeated it. "Queasy. That's what I feel like now."

  He fell silent.

  Pellam had worked on several war movies but at this moment, none of those came to mind. What he was thinking of now was rosettes of broken glass on the side window of the camper, a day after t
hey'd arrived in the area here. Winnebago makes strong windows and it had taken a real good throw to get the bottle through the glass. The note inside had read: "Goodbye" The camper'd been subjected to all kinds of creative destruction over the years but nothing so ambiguously disturbing. Pellam noticed the vandals had had the foresight not to pitch the message through the windshield; they wanted to make sure the Winnebago would have an unobstructed view when it drove out of town.

  He also noticed the missile had been a bottle, not a rock, and could as easily have held gasoline as a carefully lettered note.

  That's what John Pellam was thinking of now. Not stunts, not war movies, not ominous dawns in tropical England.

  "Getting cold," Marty said.

  Pellam reached for the heater on the dash and turned it up two notches. They smelled the wet, rubbery scent of the warm air filling the cab.

  On the floor Pellam's boot crunched several pieces of shattered window glass. He kicked them aside.


  Downtown Cleary wasn't much.

  Two laundromats, a Chase branch, a local bank. Two bars outfitted by the same prop department. A dozen antique stores, their windows crammed with tea tables, presidential campaign buttons, sconces, trivets, tinware, scraps of faded rugs, elegant Victorian tools. There were two real estate brokerage storefronts, a music store specializing in marching-band instruments, a hardware store. The tea shop-a little, hobbity place-did a bang-up business selling muffins laced with fiber and granola and honey.

  An old wood-floored five-and-dime. A couple of drugstores, one with a lunch counter right out of the fifties, so authentic a set designer couldn't have done better. Several houses had been turned into small businesses. Crystalmere-Original Jewelry Designs by Janine. Scotch Imports, Shetland Wool Our Speciality.

  Two teenage boys, large, with scrubbed faces and pick-a-fight grins, stood outside the hardware store, under an awning, shirts open over their beefy chests, acting like the brisk wind was nothing. One of them lifted his middle finger to the passing camper.

  "Assholes," Marty said.

  (The locals were friendlier in Mexico, where Marty and Pellam had been last month, though that may have had something to do with the exchange rate; U.S. currency makes for a great deal of international brotherhood and understanding.)

  Pellam shrugged.

  Marty's eyes remained outside the camper, looking at the sidewalks. He said, "They don't have many women in this town." He was frowning, as if he were disappointed he couldn't find any young ladies in store windows wearing Sports Illustrated swimsuits.

  "Sent 'em all to the hills when they heard you were coming." Pellam looked for a place to park.

  "I haven't seen a movie theater, either."

  "You better hope they've got one of those, boy," Pellam told him. "You're gonna have more luck with a movie than with women."

  Marty ignored this and asked, almost reverently, "Man, isn't it the best to make love to country girls in strange hotel rooms?"

  "Instead of normal hotel rooms?" In fact, Pellam thought that it was good, though probably not the best, and he didn't call it making love. He also didn't get all adolescently lustful like Marty. Pellam had to keep an eye on the boy. He tended to lose control and flirt relentlessly with blondes in small-town cocktail lounges-women light-years tougher than the most steely-eyed sleek Manhattanite or Los Angelina.

  They hit the middle of town just as the rain had congregated all it could in the thick clouds overhead and poured down, slashing streets and slapping leaves to the ground. Visibility dropped to zero and the camper swayed like a boat in a squall.

  "Whoa," Marty said. "I'd say it's 'bout time for us to get drunk."

  Pellam pulled into a parking place. In the torrent of rain he missed the curb and rode over it with a grind of metal. He couldn't remember if there were parking meters in downtown Cleary but if so there was one less now.

  The rain fell and fell. It pounded like a dozen break-dancers, spinning and tramping and moonwalking across the roof of the Winnebago. It slid in thick sheets down the windshield and windows.

  Pellam climbed out of his seat and looked at Marty. "On three."

  "Oh, hell, Pellam, no, it's wet out there."

  "You wanted a drink."

  "Wait till it-"

  Pellam opened the door. He jumped out. "Three."

  "-lets up."

  In the eight leaping steps it took them to find refuge they were completely drenched.

  They swung through the door with a hollow ringing of cowbell. Marty stopped short. "This's the diner, Pellam."

  "Close the door, boy!"

  "It's the diner."

  Pellam said, "Too early to drink. Besides, I feel like some cake."

  "Cake, Pellam? Damn."

  Marge's Cafe was all turquoise and plasticky and unhomey. The fluorescent was green-the light that took you right back to every high school corridor you'd ever walked down.

  They sat at the counter and pulled napkins out of a metal holder to wipe their faces and arms.

  Two scruffy men in their fifties, maybe grain elevator operators or farmers, stocky, with black grit seated in their pores, sat hunched over bulletproof white coffee mugs. They kept their conversation going, not missing a word, though their eyes followed Pellam and Marty like retrievers sighting birds.

  "Yep, had his Massey near upside down."

  "On the interstate? I'da paid to see that."

  "Addled a whole mess of drivers… I ever tell you 'bout the time I took my Harvester over the crick?"

  Marty said he'd love a beer and the country girl, pretty face, huge hips, thirty-three-ish, said she'd love to serve him one but too bad they didn't have a license. "Too bad, too bad," she repeated, trying fiercely to think of something to add. She decided on: "What else kin I gitcha?" She asked the question adoringly. Marty shot a black glance at Pellam then smiled at the girl and settled for a bowl of chili and a Coke. Pellam ordered coffee and a piece of chocolate cake.

  "That really homemade?" he asked.

  "You'd call A &P a home then you bet."

  She added some infatuation to the adoration and said to Marty, "Onions?"


  "Nope," Pellam told her. It was a small camper.

  Marty sighed. She looked at him and he shook his head no.

  She asked Pellam, "You be wanting that a la mode?"


  She glanced around. "With ice cream, you know."

  "Oh. No. Just the cake."

  "That's an all-right camper you boys got yourself." She wasn't moving. "My daddy had us a Travel-All one time but he backed it up the wrong way-we was going to Lake Webster-and cracked the yoke."

  Pellam said, "You've got to be careful."

  "She never welded proper either."

  "There you go."

  After a moment she waddled into action. The spherical thighs swung as she stepped to a counter.

  Marty was excited. "That five and dime, Pellam? Across the street?" He was looking out the window. "I was in there yesterday. It is a totally excellent place. I mean, they sell wigs there. A couple rows of them. What other store in the world can you walk into, pay nineteen ninety nine and walk out with a wig? I ask you? Can you do that on Rodeo Drive, can you do that on Michigan Avenue?"

  "You are getting a bit thin on top."

  The rain hit the large plate-glass window with a slap and there were several huge claps of thunder. As Pellam turned toward the noise he saw a woman running into the diner, the door flying open, the cowbell dinging. She pulled off a green cape. She was about his age, a year or two more maybe, wearing a faded purple dress, the waist high, just under her ample breasts. A granny dress, he remembered they were called. Her long hair-brown with a silver sheen to it-was parted in the center.

  She scanned both Pellam and Marty. To Pellam she gave what could have been a smile then turned back to the counter, wiping the rain from her face.

  Pellam and Marty turned back to the coun
ter. They took the Polaroids out of their pockets, lined them up on the counter and started talking about camera angles.

  The woman in the granny dress glanced over at them, casually. Then she looked back to the counter girl and ordered herbal tea and a bran muffin. She glanced again at the two men, then away.

  The waitress set the coffee and Coke in front of the men and lifted a piece of frothy cake out of a cello-window carton. She disappeared into the back to collect the chili.

  She delivered the food-adoringly in Marty's case. They ate. The granny-dress woman ignored them-even when Pellam said, "Hollywood," twice in one sentence.

  "How's the cake?" Marty asked.

  Pellam had three bites and couldn't take any more. He pushed the plate toward Marty, who dug into it with a spoon still containing a helping of greasy chili.

  More thunder, shaking the windows. Huge detonations.

  Pellam said, "What else is Lefkowitz doing now?"

  Marty thought. "That European thing?"

  Pellam shook his head.

  Marty said, "Oh, I know. The Western?"

  Pellam smiled. He stood and walked to the telephone. He called to Marty, "Look at this." He was genuinely surprised. "Still costs a dime to make a phone call." The granny-dress woman was looking at him now. Smiling. He smiled her way. She turned back to her tea.

  Pellam punched in the number and was put on hold, the first of several times.

  Finally, the assistant producer came on the line and said, "Johnny, my boy, where you been?"

  Pellam knew he was a young man but he couldn't picture him. "Around."

  "Ha, 'around,'" he said. "Ha."

  "So," Pellam said lazily. "How's the weather in Tinsel Town? Damn hot out here. Close to a hundred."

  "Johnny, how's it going?"

  "It's going."

  "I'm not kiddin' you, friend, the man's got a righteous hard-on for this project and we don't get the locations buttoned up soon all God's chilluns gonna be in serious trouble. Where the hell are you?"

  "Think I've got just the spot for you."