excerpt

Murder at Spouters Point

A Miranda Lewis Mystery

Leslie Wheeler

Chapter 1

“. . . Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts
Indians, now extinct as the ancient Medes.”
      Moby-Dick


flower “Sure you don’t want to part with your hard-earned change, Miranda?” Nate asked, as the Clambanks casino complex came into view. White, multi-storied with turreted gold roofs, it rose out of the surrounding woods like a fairytale castle, beckoning with the promise of instant wealth. Nate glanced at me from behind his trademark reflector sunglasses, which he wore even though it was starting to get dark.

When I’d first met him, nearly a year ago, those glasses had made him appear sinister. Not anymore. I knew Nate wore them to protect eyes he’d damaged with chemicals to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. I also knew the tenderness that could be in his brown-black gaze when he removed them.

“Not tonight.” I laughed, half wishing I hadn’t told him about my longstanding abhorrence of gambling. This abhorrence—probably the result of my Puritan ancestry—made me save the nickels our father had given my brother and me to play the slots on family trips through Nevada.

“Last chance,” Nate said as we approached the entrance to Clambanks. We stopped at a light while departing traffic flowed past.

“If there were a race track nearby I might be tempted.”

The light changed and Nate stepped on the gas. So did the driver of an exiting white stretch limo. The limo ran the red and hung a left in front of us. Nate slammed on the Jeep’s brakes and wrenched the steering wheel to the right, just missing the limo. Nate’s curse was lost in the blare of the Jeep’s horn, but not the threat that followed: “Teach the bastard a lesson!”

 

The Jeep rocketed after the speeding limo. I gripped the door handle, stomach knotting as the speedometer shot upward. “Don’t!”

This time Nate listened. He slowed and pulled to the side of the road while he cooled off.

“Thanks.” I stroked his arm, feeling the tension in his muscles. A volatile man, given to sudden bursts of anger, Nate didn’t suffer fools or reckless drivers gladly. His confrontational style had gotten him into trouble in the past. In his work with the American Indian Movement, he’d earned the dubious distinction of being “first to be arrested and last to be released.” But lately, in response to my complaints about his road rage and abrasiveness in other situations, he’d been trying hard to curb his temper.

I was trying hard, too. This meant controlling my workaholism—the thing that bugged Nate most about me. He groused that whenever I had a deadline looming, I cut short our time together or canceled outright. Now, although I was behind on the chapter I was writing for the textbook, America: the Republic’s Glory and Greatness (ARGG when I was annoyed or frustrated), I’d agreed to make this weekend trip with him. At the thought of my unfinished chapter, I felt a guilty twinge. Maybe we were trying too hard to make our relationship work.

“How much farther to Jimmy’s?” I asked.

Nate’s old friend, Jimmy Swift, was the main reason we’d come to this part of coastal Rhode Island. A member of the Dottaguck Nation, Jimmy worked in grounds maintenance at Clambanks. In his other life, he was a champion Fancy Dancer. He was competing in this weekend’s powwow, Seguan, the Dottaguck-sponsored late summer festival of song and dance.

“It’s just up the road.” Nate’s scowl changed to a grin. “What’s this about you and the race track?”

When we arrived at the modest, one-story house, the front and back yards were filled with people come for the “feed” Jimmy and his family were hosting after the evening’s events. Like Nate and me, many of the guests were dressed for the muggy late August weather in shorts and t-shirts. Others still wore their powwow outfits. They presented a colorful array of beadwork, feathers, and fringe. I hesitated before leaving the car.

With my fair skin and curly red hair, I felt out of place in this almost exclusively Native gathering. That wasn’t the only reason for my bout of butterflies. I was meeting Jimmy and his family for the first time. I wanted things to go well¾unlike get-togethers with some of Nate’s other friends, especially the activist ones. Then, I felt like The Other, and sometimes even The Oppressor. I glanced at Nate, hoping for a few reassuring words. He frowned at two Indians in powwow outfits who stood on the edge of the crowd, having a heated exchange.

Nate left the car and hurried over to them. I trailed uncertainly after him. By the time I got there, one of the Indians had stalked off. Nate spoke with the Indian who remained, a lean, wiry man of medium height, wearing a beaded headband with dangling eagle feathers, a shell necklace over his bare chest, and a buckskin loincloth over leggings and moccasins. The man’s shaved head threw into sharp relief well-formed features that, like his body, seemed in constant motion. His eyes darted here and there, his forehead furrowed and smoothed, as he gestured excitedly at the other man’s departing figure.

“Said I couldn’t keep the beat tonight, that I’m gonna lose points. Even had the nerve to suggest I’d be better off in the Golden Age category. Just because I can’t afford to travel the circuit like him.”

“Calm down, bro,” Nate said. “You know Russell’s a jerk, so don’t let him get to you.”

“I’ll show him I can still turn on the moves.”

“ ’Course you will. Hell, if I were a betting man, I’d put good money on your winning.”

“Too bad you’re not,” the other man muttered, “’cuz—” Noticing me, he broke off and said, “Oh, hi.
You’re . . .?”

“Jimmy, this is Miranda,” Nate introduced us. “’Member I said I was bringing someone?”

“Right. So you’re Nate’s girlfriend. Pleased to meet you.” We shook hands, then he looked around. “Where’s Sammy?”

“It’s his weekend with his mother,” Nate fibbed. In fact, I’d asked him to switch weekends with his ex-wife so we could have some time alone.

“Too bad. We were all looking forward to seeing him again,” Jimmy said. As the person responsible for Sam’s absence, I felt a prick of guilt. “Reba! Patty!” Jimmy yelled. “C’mon over and say hello to Nate and his girlfriend. Bring Kyle, too.”

A teenage girl, wearing a dress covered with what looked like silver bells, left a long table piled with food and walked toward us. She was joined by an older woman pushing a wheelchair that contained a boy’s twisted figure. The boy wore an outfit like his father’s, but his head was tipped oddly to one side, his shoulders hunched almost to his ears, and his spindly legs turned in the opposite direction from his head. He peered at us through thick glasses.

Nate had prepared me for the fact that Kyle suffered from multiple disabilities—he couldn’t walk or talk. Still, I was taken aback by the sight of the boy, the contrast between him and his athletic father was so marked. I worried my dismay showed on my face—that I was staring too much. Nate had advised me to look at Kyle directly and, above all, not avert my eyes.

As they approached, Kyle made short, barking noises, and held out spidery arms. Nate bent and gave him a big hug. “This is Miranda, Kyle,” Nate said when the boy finally let go. Kyle made more noises and fastened his arms around my neck. He clung to me until I began to feel uncomfortable.

Finally his mother said, “That’s enough, sweetie. Hi, I’m Reba. ” A big woman with a friendly smile, Reba had darker skin and broader features than her husband. A fringe of black, curly hair broke like a wave over her forehead, extending almost to the rim of her black-framed glasses. After we shook hands, she asked the same question as her husband: “Where’s Sammy?”

“With his mother,” Jimmy answered for Nate.

Reba looked disappointed, and I felt another prick of guilt. “Well, it’s good you two could make it,” she said. “Is this your first powwow, Miranda?”

“I went to one in Harvard Yard a while ago.”

“They have powwows at Harvard?” Jimmy sounded skeptical.

“It was very small.”

“Seguan’s big,” Reba said. “It’s one of the largest powwows east of the Mississippi.”

“One of the richest, too, with over a million in prize money,” Jimmy added proudly, “thanks to the new buffalo.”

I knew he meant casino gambling. I glanced at Nate, wondering if he envied the Dottagucks their success after all the years his tribe, the Wampanoags, had tried unsuccessfully to get their own casino. But his expression remained unchanged.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Reba said.

“You and the Assawogs,” I remarked. “I saw signs for their casino as we were driving here.”

Nate’s cough and the strained silence that followed told me I’d committed a blunder. “Did I say something wrong?” I asked when nobody volunteered to enlighten me.

“The Dottagucks and the Assawogs aren’t exactly friends,” Nate said.

“Friends!” Jimmy roared. “After what they did to us, they’re among our worst enemies.”

“What did they do?” I thought he must be referring to some recent trouble.

“Oh, nothing much. Just burned down our stronghold at Mawnaucoi and massacred five hundred innocent women, children and old people. Then they hunted down the survivors and either killed them or sold them into slavery. With a lot of help from the English, of course.”

I felt the jab at my ancestors, but my historian’s curiosity made me press for details. “When did this happen?”

“Almost four hundred years ago. 1643, to be exact,” Reba said. “There’s much more about our history at the Dottaguck Museum of History and Culture. I work there, and I’d be happy to give you a private tour.”

“I’d love that,” I gushed, eager to make amends for both the atrocity my ancestors had committed and my ignorance of it. “But I won’t have time this trip between the powwow, visiting my friends at the Spouters Point Maritime Museum, and—” I stopped at a cautionary signal from Nate. I was explaining too much. The Swifts didn’t need to know our entire weekend itinerary. And why had I said my friends, as if Nate’s friends and mine were mutually exclusive, though, in truth, they were.

“Another time,” Reba replied.

“Yes.” I’d struck out with Jimmy and Reba. In desperation, I turned to Patty. “That’s an interesting dress you’re wearing with all those silver bells.”

“We call them jingles, and they’re made out of old tin cans instead of silver,” Patty said. “But thanks, anyway.”

Another gaffe. I should’ve realized silver would’ve been much too expensive. “They’re lovely. And so is the beadwork on your dress, especially those white flowers with red centers. What kind of flowers are they?”

“Rhododendrons.”

“Really? I’ve never seen rhododendrons like that.”

Patty exchanged glances with her mother and father. “The wild rhododendrons in Big Otter Swamp look this way. During the Dottaguck War my dad was telling you about, the swamp was a place of refuge for our people. The flowers’ centers turned red with their blood.”

“Oh . . . I see.” And I did. I saw that for them the landscape was covered with blood, that even these beautiful beaded flowers served as a grim reminder of their past. I’d entered a world where I needed to tread carefully. Otherwise, I risked reopening old wounds and further alienating Nate’s friends. As I cast about for a safe topic, I felt something brush against the back of my bare arm.

Looking over my shoulder, I gasped. The Indian who’d been arguing with Jimmy earlier stood directly behind me. Seen from a distance, he’d cut an exotic figure with his painted face and powwow regalia. Up close, though, he was terrifying. His forehead, nose, and part of his cheeks and chin were painted a stark white, while his mouth and the rest of his face were a dark red. Black rectangles outlined his eyes, adding to his menacing appearance.

“What’s up now, Russell?” Jimmy demanded.

“Just wanted to say hello to Nate.” Russell stepped out from behind me.

“Hello, Russell,” Nate said tightly.

“She with you?” Russell jerked his head in my direction.

“That’s right. Miranda, this is Russell Long Knife.”

Russell’s red lips curled upward in a nasty smile. “Well, well. Never thought I’d see the day when a top activist would shack up with a white woman. But things change, I guess.”

My face went hot with anger and embarrassment. Nate squared his chest and rocked forward on the balls of his feet. “Get lost, Russell.”

“I’m going.” Russell waved a feathered stick at Nate. “But first a final word of advice for your friend.” He jabbed the stick at Jimmy. “You want that prize money bad, don’t you? Need it, too.” He stared pointedly at Kyle, who shrank deeper into his wheel chair. “So wise up and switch to the Golden Age category. Or compete in Traditional instead of Fancy dance. ’Cuz you haven’t got a prayer in hell of beating me.” He whirled around, executed a fast split, and disappeared into the crowd.

“Asshole!” Jimmy spun around and aimed a kick in Russell’s direction.

Reba and I exchanged glances. She heaved a sigh. Men and their macho posturing, she seemed to say. Aloud she said, “Now that’s over, maybe you and Nate would like something to eat?”

“Yes, yes,” Jimmy cried, grabbing Nate and me by the arm. “C’mon over to the food table and help yourselves. We’ve got burgers, fried chicken, green salad, potato salad, corn on the cob, beans, fry bread, berry soup, and plenty of cold beer.”

flower  flower  flower

The food and beer helped relieve the awkwardness of that first meeting with the Swifts. Still, as Nate and I drove toward the Native-owned inn where we were spending the night, I was glad I’d be with my friends for part of the weekend.

Erin Meloy and I had met several years ago at the Northeast Regional Social Studies Convention, where she was staffing the booth of the Spouters Point Maritime Museum which was laid out in the form of a nineteenth-century seaport village, complete with wharves, replica ships, and various buildings. We’d quickly become fast friends, and I’d been embraced by her close-knit family: two brothers and their wives and kids. In their company I could relax and be myself without having to think twice before I opened my mouth.

An ambulance shrieked toward us, jolting me from these musings. Nate pulled over to let it pass. In the flashing red light, he looked different—not terrifying like Russell Long Knife with his war paint—but alien all the same.


 
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