Chapter 1

I wasn’t there when they found Carney Alexander’s body, but my great-aunt Maggie was, and like many Southerners, she has a gift for storytelling. Between her description and my getting a chance to see the place later, I had no problem imagining it.

The Tight as a Tick Flea Market was busy that Sunday, Aunt Maggie said. There were lots of people coming by her booth to look at Carnival glass plates, Fenton vases, and Occupied Japan figurines. But it wasn’t too busy for Aunt Maggie to notice that Carney hadn’t shown up at the booth where he sold collector knives. That wasn’t like Carney. He usually got there at the crack of dawn, even earlier than Aunt Maggie.

Around ten-thirty, Bender Cawthorne came by to collect the day’s rent, which he was supposed to do first thing in the morning. But Aunt Maggie said that Bender usually drank so much on Saturday night that ten-thirty was first thing in the morning for him. Aunt Maggie asked him where Rusty was. The half-chow, half-German shepherd was the only creature on earth who could stand to live with Bender. Bender explained that Rusty was at Dr. Josie’s.

The people living near the flea market lot had been complaining that every puppy born for the past few years looked just like Rusty. Bender’s brother Evan, who actually owned the lot, didn’t like it when the neighbors complained, and he’d insisted that Bender get Rusty fixed. Bender had done what he was told, but he didn’t see what the fuss was about. Rusty was an awful good dog, and those lady dogs could have done a lot worse.

Aunt Maggie told Bender he was probably right. Rusty was the smartest dog she’d ever seen, except for his taste in human companions, but she didn’t tell Bender that. Anyway, after she paid her rent, Bender saw that Carney wasn’t there.

He asked Aunt Maggie if she knew where he was, but when she told him that she didn’t, he went to collect rent from the rest of the inside dealers. Aunt Maggie said he asked everybody near enough for her to hear if they’d talked to Carney, but neither China Upton, who sold country crafts, nor Obed the Donut Man had heard a word. Tattoo Bob said he’d been concentrating so hard on the dragon he was inking across a man’s shoulder that he hadn’t even noticed that Carney was missing.

In Aunt Maggie’s opinion, if Bender had had a lick of sense, he’d have known something was wrong. Carney had been a dealer at the flea market for four years, almost as long as Aunt Maggie, and in all that time, he’d never missed a weekend. But then again, if Bender had a lick of sense, he’d have been doing something with his life other than running a flea market on his brother’s property, and he’d be living someplace other than a beat-up house trailer in the back of the lot.

Bender didn’t even think to check around Carney’s booth to see if anything looked out of place, or to go get Carney’s phone number and call him. He just scratched his head and went to collect rent in the other buildings.

Aunt Maggie admitted that maybe she should have done something herself, but she didn’t even have a chance to take a bathroom break until nearly four o’clock. After that, there was a steady stream of business until Bender locked up at five. She didn’t think about Carney again until the end of the day.

Once the customers were out of the building, Aunt Maggie straightened up her tables and set out fresh stock to fill the gaps from where things had sold during the day. China was doing the same thing while Bob cleaned his needles and Obed washed his pans and utensils. China finished before anybody else, and when she walked by on her way out, Aunt Maggie asked her if she knew anything about Carney.

She said she didn’t, and when Bob and Obed joined them a minute or two later, they didn’t either. It was Aunt Maggie who suggested that they look around his booth to see if everything looked all right, and though the others agreed, they acted like they felt funny about it. So they let Aunt Maggie go back behind Carney’s table.

The sheet Carney used to cover up his display cases was still in place, and Aunt Maggie shook her head over its condition. Lots of dealers use old sheets to keep the dust off, but Carney’s sheet went beyond being old. It was nothing more than a rag, and filthy dirty to boot. It was so nasty that Aunt Maggie didn’t see the blood right away. There were dark brown stains along the edge touching the floor.

Aunt Maggie said that there was a smell, too, which she hadn’t noticed before. Of course, with donuts and pork skins frying all day, she wouldn’t have. Now that she did, she thought she knew what she was smelling. Anybody else would have left that sheet where it was, and called Bender or the police, but not Aunt Maggie. She just took a deep breath, grabbed hold of the sheet, and whipped it off. There was Carney, folded up under the table like a ventriloquist’s dummy in a suitcase. Aunt Maggie didn’t see the knife buried in his back, but she did see the blood. There was way too much of it for Carney to be alive.