Stacey returned, accompanied by the tall woman Martha had glimpsed on the street earlier. It was Lydia Dussault, who had interviewed her by phone. She looked older than Martha expected—at least mid-sixties, maybe even seventy, and she looked formidable. Her white hair was drawn back into a bun and secured with a porcelain stick.
“Hello, Mrs. Dussault.”
“Call me Lydia. Welcome to Amberleen. It’s wonderful to have you here.” Lydia clasped Martha’s hand in both of hers, smiling warmly. Her eyes glistened, and Martha caught a whiff of Chanel No. 5. A large pearl graced her index finger.
“Stacey will have you fill out some paperwork, but first let me show you around and introduce you to our other staff members.”
She led Martha into a long, open room. Wooden tables ran the length of it, and one wall was covered with shelves and cubbyholes containing books and artifacts. Some shelves sagged from the weight. Tall metal filing cabinets lined the opposite wall. Cardboard boxes, stacks of old newspapers, and files with documents spilling out covered the floor and chairs.
“As you can see, we have a long way to go before we’ll have everything cataloged and organized. We may not have a lot of space, but we have an extensive collection of documents on the county’s history. We have letters written by plantation owners in the eighteen hundreds, Civil War correspondence, over five hundred historical photographs, as well as old maps and architectural drawings.”
Lydia picked up a pocket folder from the table and pulled out a yellowed ledger, each line crammed with elegant scribbles. “We just received this item today from a family on DuPont Road. It belonged to one of the local plantation owners. It has every transaction for a full year. See that?”
Martha squinted at an entry: Slave shoes, 12 pair, 50 cents.
“Now I’d like you to meet our other full-time staffer.” Lydia guided Martha across the room.
They stepped into a small office with only one window, obscured by a metal bookcase. Its occupant, a squat, balding man who looked to be in his early thirties, cleaned a camera lens.
“Nick, I’d like you to meet our new summer intern, Martha Covington.”
Nick stood and offered his hand. “Nick Loomis.”
“Nick is our chief photographer.”
“The only photographer.” Nick tapped his front tooth with a fingernail. “Pleased to meet you, Martha Covington. Welcome to the asylum.”
Martha took a step back. Her hands grew clammy.
“Martha is going to give us some much-needed help with the oral history project,” Lydia said.
“Fresh melons today?” Nick blurted, tapping his tooth again.
Martha took another step backward. “I beg your pardon?”
“Nick is also curator of the collection,” Lydia continued. “Things may look a mess around here, but Nick always remembers exactly where every item is located.”
“If you need it quick, just ask Nick,” he said, winking four times.
As they left the office, Lydia lowered her voice. “Don’t worry about Nick. He’s harmless. He just has no control over what he says. Tourette’s, you know. But he’s an excellent photographer. We located him through the same agency where we found you.”
Martha felt a sinking sensation, wondered what she had gotten herself into. She focused her attention on a series of antique photos along the wall—flaking portraits from another era.
“Now, let me show you where you’ll be working,” Lydia said.
Martha’s office at the other end of the room was a mirror image of Nick’s—metal desk, boxy monitor, filing cabinet, and a single window. On the desktop, a cassette recorder poked out from under a sprawl of audio cables.
“Well, we’re not exactly the Smithsonian Institution, are we? But there’s some important work going on here, I can tell you that. Now, let me fill you in on our big summer project.”
Lydia pulled a rolled-up map from a cubbyhole and spread it on the center table.
“This is our town, Amberleen, population seventeen thousand.” She tapped her finger on a landmass shaped like a leg of mutton. “Over here, across the sound, is Shell Heap Island. One of the last unspoiled gems of the Georgia coast.”
Martha leaned forward. Serpentine creeks and rivers surrounded the island except for one side, which faced the Atlantic. A lighthouse icon marked the northeastern point.
“The windward side has some of the most pristine beachfront property you’ll find in this part of the country. The developers have been circling over it like vultures in recent years, but so far we’ve managed to hold them back. And that’s how it should be. That island belongs to the Geechees.”
“The Geechees?” Martha pulled out her notebook and pen.
“They’re direct descendants of slaves who were freed after the Civil War. Let me show you. . . .” She opened a cabinet on the wall and pulled out a black-and-white photograph. It showed a group of people standing under the bough of a gnarled oak. A man with a bushy beard and cane sat in a ladder-back chair. A heavyset woman stood next to him—flowing dress, a scarf around her head. An older gentleman cradled a drum. Two young women gazed at the camera, wide-eyed, enigmatic.
“They’re the direct descendants of slaves. Like the Gullah, in South Carolina, only . . . now where did we put those—” She opened a shoe box, glanced inside, replaced the top. “They’ve lived in isolation, maintaining a truly distinct culture and system of beliefs.”
“What kind of beliefs?”
“They still believe in magic, ghosts, those kinds of things.”
Martha felt a chill run down her back. She wrote the word in her notebook. Ghosts?
“Don’t worry; they’re beautiful, gracious people. The elders hand down traditions to their children, traditions they brought from places like Sierra Leone and Liberia. It’s a wonderful culture, but it’s dying, you see.”
Martha nodded, jotting down the information.
“Only seventy-five are left on Shell Heap. Most of their other communities along the coast have been bought out. It’s happened on St. Simons, Daufuskie, and Hilton Head. They’ve been forced to sell, in some cases.” She moved away from the cabinet and began opening and closing file drawers. “Many of the island residents are quite elderly now. Most of the younger ones have fled. The whole culture has been preserved orally. It exists only in the words and memories of the elders. That’s where the society comes in. Last May, we received a grant from the Georgia Trust to capture that history—that’s what the book is about. I suppose we’ve recorded about five miles’ worth of tape already. That’s why we need . . . ah, here we are.”
Lydia slid open the cover of a rolltop desk, pulled out a shoe box, and handed it to Martha. The box bulged with cassette tapes, separated by labeled index cards.
“Sixteen tapes here already. We still have another thirty-three interviews to record. We want to get every surviving member of the community on tape if we can.”
“You want me to help transcribe these? All of them?” Martha felt a twinge of apprehension, mingled with excitement.
“More than that. Make sense of them. You know, clean them up. Make them sing. Your professors said you were good at that. And help with the rest of the interviews. For that, you’ll need some ‘people’ skills. A lot of these residents are shy. Some of the older ones are afraid of having their voices recorded.”
“They think it gives you a mystical power over them. Any other questions?”
Martha looked at the photo of the Geechees. She tried to think of a question, but drew a blank. She couldn’t take her eyes off the image of the two girls, the ones staring at the camera. Braided hair, like woven ropes. The gnarled and mossy oak . . . and then the room started to spin and the image was fading, going dark, as if someone were turning down the lights, twisting the dimmer switch. In the darkness, a vision flashed into Martha’s head. A cloth sack, hanging from a metal hook. Something alive inside, something squirming. . . .
Lydia’s voice broke through the cloak of darkness and Martha was back in the room. She clutched the edge of the table to steady herself.
“Miss Covington? Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine.” She fought to control her breathing. “I’m just a little tired. It must have been that ride on the bus, all day yesterday. I guess it sapped my energy.”
Lydia blew on her ring, rubbed the pearl against her dress. “Well, I hope you get your strength back by Wednesday. There’s going to be a special night meeting of the County Commission to discuss the Tidewater Project. Are you familiar with it?”
“Yes.” Martha clicked her pen. Focus. “Before I came here, I read some news articles about it online. I understand it’s going to bring new business to the county.”
Lydia slapped the map with the palm of her hand. The ring made a sharp bang. “Business? At what cost? The Tidewater Project is just the latest bid to grab Shell Heap Island and turn it into a cash cow. It’s got our town torn into pieces. They’ve already taken so much of our coastline and turned it into hotels and subdivisions and golf resorts—Disneylands for the plaid-pants crowd. But not Shell Heap. No, they won’t get it. Not as long as I’ve still got blood stirring in my veins.”
Lydia took a deep breath and exhaled. “I apologize. To think about those vultures, pecking over the remnants of our beautiful coast . . .” She began to roll up the map. “Questions?”
Martha shook her head.
“All right then. Stacey will help you with your paperwork, and she’ll also tell you where to go for Wednesday night’s meeting.”
Stacey brought over a note card with handwritten instructions. “Here you go, Martha. Be sure to get to the meeting early, if you want to find a seat.” She grinned ruefully. “And you might want to bring a football helmet.”
Title: The Girl in the Maze
Author: R.K. Jackson
Perfect for fans of Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and Tana French, R. K. Jackson’s lyrical, twisty psychological thriller debut follows an aspiring journalist as she uncovers dark truths in a seaswept Southern town—aided by a mysterious outcast and pursued by a ruthless killer.
When Martha Covington moves to Amberleen, Georgia, after her release from a psychiatric ward, she thinks her breakdown is behind her. A small town with a rich history, Amberleen feels like a fresh start. Taking a summer internship with the local historical society, Martha is tasked with gathering the stories of the Geechee residents of nearby Shell Heap Island, the descendants of slaves who have lived by their own traditions for the last three hundred years.
As Martha delves into her work, the voices she thought she left behind start whispering again, and she begins to doubt her recovery. When a grisly murder occurs, Martha finds herself at the center of a perfect storm—and she’s the perfect suspect. Without a soul to vouch for her innocence or her sanity, Martha disappears into the wilderness, battling the pull of madness and struggling to piece together a supernatural puzzle of age-old resentments, broken promises, and cold-blooded murder. She finds an unexpected ally in a handsome young man fighting his own battles. With his help, Martha journeys through a terrifying labyrinth—to find the truth and clear her name, if she can survive to tell the tale.
R.K. Jackson is an award-winning science writer and editor at NASA, and previously worked as a senior editor at CNN, where he helped launch the network’s Internet presence. He has attended the Advanced Novel Writing Workshop at UCLA as well as the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop.
Jackson’s debut novel, THE GIRL IN THE MAZE (available 9/8 from Random House Alibi), has been praised as “A twisty Southern gothic thriller with echoes of Tana French” (L.A. Times bestselling author Dianne Emley), “A terrific mystery” (The Book Lover’s Friend), and “A fast-paced psychological thriller that keeps you engaged from beginning to end” (Reading Femme).
Two of his plays have been staged professionally, and his short story, “All the Devils,” was featured in the Alfred Hitchcock-themed issue of Penumbra Magazine. He is currently consulting with Disney’s Imagineers on the forthcoming “Spaceship of the Imagination” attraction at EPCOT.
A Georgia native with roots in the state’s coastal low country, he now lives with his family in California’s Los Padres National Forest and is at work on a second Martha Covington thriller, THE KISS OF THE SUN.
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