This chapter is an excerpt from The Book of Secrets, Part I, by Faith Mitchell, a, provocative narrative about temptation, corruption, and the ghosts of our slavery past.
Elizabeth June 14
This afternoon, I dropped Russell and Finch off near one of the backwoods communities and told them I was going to follow up with the local magistrate about Sierra’s death. It was one of those sections of St. Pierre that don’t seem to have changed since the nineteenth century—it’s amazing. Anyway, I knew they’d be busy for several hours, which would give me time to conduct some private business with Sam. I certainly never imagined they’d find out about the rest of Big Jack’s song that day.
Sam knows that Big Jack’s book of secrets is rightfully mine! It was my idea from the beginning to look for it, ever since I pieced together the verses of Big Jack’s song during my first trips to St. Pierre. I’d been hoping to find it for years. Then Sam offered to help me and told me to bring a team of students on my next research trip. I could tell them the song was about treasure; there was no need for them to know the full story. Okay, I went along with his plan. But then, God damn him, he betrayed me. I thought I could trust him, and he took the book—my book!
Prepared to do whatever was necessary to get it back, I drove to the graveyard, parked on the road, and followed one of the paths through the gravestones to Sam’s house. At night, I would need his protection from the spirits that lived here, but in the daytime I felt safe.
Sam’s house was an old one built of wood and oyster shells. It resembled Big Jack’s cabin and might have been almost as old. The windows were cloudy with age, and strips of peeling blue paint dangled from the shutters and wood trimming. He must have seen me coming through one of those cloudy windows, because he opened the door before I’d even knocked.
He greeted me with “To what do I owe the pleasure, Elizabeth?” as if he didn’t know.
“I just want to talk about the book of secrets,” I replied. “Can’t we be reasonable, Sam? You know it was my idea to look for it, and now you’re keeping it from me.”
“Keeping it from you?” he said with a sly smile. “Aren’t you being a little paranoid, babe? Don’t you trust me? You know I’m as interested in the book of secrets as you are. I just need some time to study it.”
I wasn’t buying that story, and he knew it. I walked past him into the house and paced nervously around his small, dimly lit front room.
“How do you see in here?” I complained. “It’s so dark I can barely see.”
“I have all the light I need,” he laughed. “You’re so anxious, Elizabeth. Can I get you a beer?”
While he was in the kitchen, I perused a number of faded photographs that were lined up on his mantel in gilt frames. One showed what looked like Sam as a small boy. Dressed in a smart little shorts suit and wearing a small cap, he was seated on the knee of a slim, dark-skinned man in a suit with an old-fashioned cut. Next to them stood a lighter complexioned woman who wore a beautifully ruffled dress in the style of the early nineteen hundreds. Her long dark hair was gathered under an enormous feathered hat.
“Sam,” I called out, “is the little boy in this photograph your father?”
“The one of the fashionable little boy with the two adults.”
“Ha,” he laughed. “No, that’s me.”
“You’re joking, right?” I said incredulously. “That’s impossible! Based on how the people are dressed, that picture is at least a hundred years old. That would make you how old?”
Sam walked in the room with our beers, winked by way of a response, and said, “It’s a mystery, isn’t it? But you like a mystery.” He had always been secretive about his background, and I hated it. But I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere by asking questions—I’d tried that before—so I dropped the subject.
Ironically, as secretive as he was about himself, he’d also been helpful with my research. We’d first met when he overheard me at Mrs. Taylor’s store asking questions about local folklore. He’d followed me out to my car and said reassuringly, “Don’t take it personally if you don’t get far with your questions. Folks on St. Pierre can be pretty suspicious of outsiders. Maybe I can help. I was once an outsider here myself.”
And now here we were. We’d found what we’d been looking for, but now he didn’t want to play fair.
I stared at him across my beer and frowned. He smoothed my forehead with his finger. “Don’t look so worried, Elizabeth. You’ll see the book, I promise.”
“When?” I urged.
“Always so impatient!” he replied. He leaned across the table where we were sitting and kissed me. One thing led to another and, like so many times before, we ended up on his old, velvet couch, where we had the slow, intense sex that I enjoyed so much with him.
He was slim, muscular, well endowed, and not afraid to take his time. He had the energy of a young man and the lovemaking skills of a mature one. It was delightful, and I never wanted it to end.
By the time we finished, I was covered with perspiration from the hot air of the room and the body heat we’d generated.
“Look at me,” I murmured into Sam’s ear. “Do I look like someone who’s been talking to a magistrate?”
“You can just tell the kids it was a heated discussion,” Sam laughed, leaning down to kiss one of my breasts.
When we came up for air again, it was so dark that I thought it was actually night.
“What time is it?” I asked Sam sleepily.
He looked at his watch and said, “It’s a little after three.”
“Good; that means we still have time. But why is it so dark outside?”
“There must be a storm coming.” He walked to the window, which gave me a chance to admire the lines of his fine body.
“Yes, it’s going to be a bad one,” he said, looking at me over his shoulder. He headed back toward the couch. “Are you worried about the kids?”
I pulled him down on top of me. “They’ll be okay,” I assured him.
The storm arrived minutes later and crashed around us. Thunder occasionally shook the house, and rain pelted the ancient windows so hard that some of it came inside. It splashed refreshingly against my skin as I straddled Sam and felt him deep inside me.
Just after he climaxed with a loud groan, I started my campaign. We were lying together, damp and lazy, our hearts thumping.
“Sam,” I whispered, “can I see the book before I leave?”
“You never give up, do you?”
“No, I never do.”
Without answering my question, he got up and walked into the bathroom where—unlike our house—there was running water. “Isn’t it time for you to go?” he called out.
I looked at my watch. “Shit! I’m late.”
I washed up quickly and pulled my clothes back on. Outdoors, the air was refreshing, although branches were scattered everywhere from the storm. I retraced my steps to my car, glad that it wasn’t dark yet.
The engine didn’t respond. I tried again, listening to it grind over and over without catching. Finally, I gave up and walked back down the path to Sam’s. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something moving under the trees, so I hurried.
“Well, if it isn’t you again,” he greeted me. “You couldn’t get enough?”
I laughed. “My car won’t start. I need a ride from you so that I can pick up the kids.”
“That’s no problem,” he said agreeably, and I wondered if maybe I was making progress.
The question was: Was he playing into my hands or was I playing into his?