Billy stands in the stern, chin tilted upward and twenty-gauge at his feet, dipping that pole into the night water like a gondolier and pulling us along in rhythm. My arm muscles are getting sore as I steady the sides so that the boat doesn’t tip us over into the swamp like it did last week; my legs stretch out and brace the gunwales, my feet lie in the caked mud that crumbles off Billy’s boots. When the sun’s out the mud dyes everything the color of old blood. After dark, though, even under the little kerosene lamp we’ve got in the canoe, it’s a color I don’t know how to name, the same shade as the little gaps of sky in between the twigs and branches of the oaks where the kingfishers perch during the day. From above the thickets bending down toward the water, a faint ladder of smoke climbs to the sky, but we aren’t looking for stills tonight since there’s a dead man somewhere out in the middle of Breck’s Swamp.
Half an hour ago me and Billy were playing checkers in the office and I’d stumped him on a move so he just sat there silently, eyes fixed on the array of red-and-black as though the checkers might start sailing around the board on their own, while the old metal fan in the window just made its clicking noise over and over again. The high sheriff came in around eight-thirty, told us that Jack Slater and his albino brother had been out in Breck’s Swamp (with a couple bottles, he reckons) trying to find that big barn owl so they could shoot it and put it up in their front yard, but instead they knocked their canoe into a dead man on the banks by Jacobson’s property. I said, hell, anybody who’s read Peterson’s Field Guide knows that barn owls don’t go anywhere near swamps. Billy said that this ain’t no time for all my stupid bird science, and I didn’t correct him and say ‘ornithology’ as he reached for his hat and badge and twenty-gauge.
When he’s not talking all I can hear are the crickets around us and the slow dragging of the pole like a giant finger through the water. Lord only knows what it hits at the bottom. I ask Billy why everyone was all so keen on naming these swamps, since Breck’s only covers eighteen and a half acres and it’d be a lot easier for everyone if they just had one big name for one big swamp. Billy says he figures that some folks just want their names on something besides tombstones, but that it sure wouldn’t be much of an honor to have your name marking a measly stretch of bulrushes and red muck that doesn’t even have any alligators in it.
Maybe there’s a dead man out here and maybe there isn’t. Maybe Jack Slater and his albino brother were fooling us, or maybe they’re on a train to Indiana by now, cleaning off their bowie knives and dying their hair with shoe polish in the lavatory. Even though this’ll be the first homicide investigation in the county since I was appointed, and my little sister’s always asking me when I’ll get to see a dead body, I hope we never find it. I don’t know how the hell we’d prove it was a murder, or a suicide, or if one dreamy June evening some fellow was just standing on the edge of Breck’s Swamp, gray water cooling the ends of his shoes, and he tipped over where nobody could hear him fall.