The Woman in the Yard: A Novel

The Woman in the Yard: A Novel

by Stephen E. Miller

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Set in the Deep South in 1954, this is a gripping literary tour de force, in the tradition of Montana 1948 and Peter Dexter's Paris Trout about a series of murders in a small town that reveals the tidal wave of social change sweeping over America at the time of integration

"He stopped at the first good place he found. After all, he had just killed someone. He was scared. He wanted to get rid of the evidence. He parked the truck with its back to the river and sat there for a second. No traffic. If it was night he'd be invisible back in the tangle of scrub. He went to the edge of the bank and tried to imagine throwing Cora Snow into the high water of the Cape Fear."

Acting Sheriff Q.P. Waldeau has returned from his tour of duty in Korea to the small coastal town of Wilmington, North Carolina. Eager to build a career in law enforcement, Waldeau confronts the challenge of a lifetime when the body of a black prostitute washes up out of Cape Fear. When the first suspect must be released for lack of evidence, Waldeau vows to pursue the case in the face of his colleagues' willful disinterest in the fate of a poor black woman. But when the killer strikes again and one of his victims is a white woman, racial tensions -- exacerbated by the passage of "Brown vs. the Board of Education" -- explode. As the trail begins to lead to several well-to-do white men, Waldeau finds his life -- and that of the woman he has come to love -- in serious jeopardy. The violent and surprising conclusion rends forever the social fabric of a small North Carolina town and foreshadows the coming of the New South.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466893269
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 63,819
File size: 415 KB

About the Author

Stephen Miller was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. He conducted extensive research for The Woman in the Yard in Wilmington, N.C. and still visits family in Durham. He lives with his wife and son in Vancouver.

Stephen Miller was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. He conducted extensive research for The Woman in the Yard in Wilmington, N.C. and still visits family in Durham. He lives with his wife and son in Vancouver.

Read an Excerpt

The Woman in the Yard

By Stephen E. Miller


Copyright © 1999 Stephen E. Miller
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9326-9


She was a tramp.

Trash. That's all.

He could see it. See it in every movement that she made. Hear it in the ring of her voice. Feel it in the way other men turned their heads when she went by.

He watched her, too. That was his sin and he only noticed it too late. He tried not to think of her and he only thought about her more. He'd lie there in bed and think about nothing else. Miserable.

His own misery fascinated him. He never thought a human being could feel like this for another human being, that much pain. He'd just stare up at the ceiling, writhing away like a man in some fever until he exhausted himself and settled on the puzzle of trying to remember the first time he had seen her, really seen her.

And realized what she was. Why she was.

In a way, latching on to her like that made her his own. He was possessed by her long before he developed the ability to have her anytime he wanted. That's how much he was thinking about her that fall. Just lie back and bingo.

So what was stopping him? Finally, he decided that nothing was. Just go get her, he was thinking. Get her. Buy her? Why not? It was obvious that she didn't care who it was that came along.

He thought he might do that. Maybe he would. He thought about it, dreamed how it would go.

He'd get her, since it was either that or go crazy. And that way at least she'd be happy. She'd win that way.

And he would lie there and think about falling that low and how much it had cost him already.

He tried to stop. It wasn't that he didn't try.

But it had become an addiction by then. He had made a mistake once, he had seen another woman. Her, he thought, but when he got closer it was just another girl that looked like her. He just stood there laughing.

"What do you want?" she'd said to him, scared and angry, as he walked away.

He tried transferring it all to some other woman. It wasn't that they weren't available. But all he was doing was cutting off her head and putting on their bodies. That didn't work out so well.

He was lost, he finally decided. And he gave up for a while. He accepted that she'd won. She was going to be his first. He was an addict, helpless. She'd won already and at that moment he'd made up his mind.

He watched her. He might as well be invisible, she was so far off on her own. She didn't listen to anybody's rules at all.

She'd listen to him, he thought. She'd do that.

She liked men and music and money and power. All women liked that, he thought. No matter what they might say, they all went for it. He could see that clearly enough. It was like she was made of chrome and neon, like an advertisement. She was saying it, broadcasting it as loudly as possible. She admitted to what she was. Admitted it freely.

Okay. Okay, then, he thought.

Now he let himself think about her, let himself get hard thinking about the way her legs were, how her back curved, her breasts. He saw her smile at what she was doing to him. And he smiled back.

She still thought it was all a joke. She thought he was on her side. He might as well be invisible.

But she'd see him, he knew that now.

She'd smile like that again for him. He'd be her friend, someone she felt safe with, just another man for her to fool. That's what she'd think. If she thought about him at all.

She'd think of him. She'd think of him a lot. He'd fix it so that she thought of him just as much as he was thinking about her. She'd be amazed and dazzled by how much she found herself thinking about him.

She'd do things for him she'd never dreamed of.


Q.P. flinched. Curled back his arm suddenly and twisted around in his bed.

And then fell asleep again having got himself into an impossible pose, passed out from drinking too much New Year's eggnog. His head like a stone from the bourbon.

Not a drunk. Not falling down and slobbery. He didn't do that anymore, the price being too high, but yes, he could put it away. It was a real accomplishment, he sometimes thought. Late at night and all alone, still kicking himself over Marie, he'd put on a sweater and drink out on the porch and watch the stars and then he'd pass out in bed.

So that was Q.P., unconscious and dreaming, until the banging on his screen door finally woke him. Wind, he thought at first, but then he heard Nokes calling out for him to open up.

"'Scuse me, Sheriff, but you got to rise and shine ..."

As the banging continued he managed some basic thoughts—was he awake or asleep? Who's that knocking on the screen? Is it a dream? And then he fell back into his war. It was Korea, but it could have been anywhere. He twisted into the covers, frightened. Scared in the dream-war and scared that when he woke people would say he was just another crazy veteran.

Shards of his past were mixed all through the dream. Flickerings of the woman he imagined becoming his wife not so long ago. Flickerings of his life stateside. And then the dream of Marie got mixed up with the gunfire and he jerked up in bed and snapped into reality as his deputy, Donald Nokes, jimmied the lock and let himself in.

"Goddamn, I sure hope you don't keep nothin' of value in here, Kewpie, I sure do ... How come your phone's off the hook? Where is the phone?" Nokes was kicking his way through the place, rearranging things with his boots, stumbling around in the dark. He would be bringing news, always bringing news. Always something important. Always something bad. The door kept banging. Just wind, he tried to believe.

"It's a woman they found. Washed up down at the radar base," Nokes said.

Q.P. managed to sit up on the bed and get himself dressed, grabbed his revolver, and took it with him to put on later. He took his time down the steps, still shaky and chilled from his bourbon nightmares.

"You gonna be all right, Kewpie?" Nokes reached out but was a little shy of actually helping him down the stairs.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Q.P. said firmly, meaning Just shut up. The wind was pounding against the side of the house, coming from the northeast. Nokes got him outside to the car. It was going to be a long drive across town and then all the way down to Fort Fisher.

Quentin Payne Waldeau, the "Acting Sheriff" of New Hanover County, North Carolina, wedged himself into the corner of the seat, put his temple against the cold metal of the Chevy's window, braced one shoe against the base of the radio, and tried to go back to sleep and get back to Marie.

Before Nokes got to the end of Orange Street, he made it as far as Korea. Endless frozen mud; endless cold. So cold that everything hurt, so cold his .45 froze solid once and to thaw it out he put it deep inside his jacket. He walked around like that, with this heavy freezing hunk of metal stuck in his belt. What good would it do him in there? Too cold to care about killing Commies.

Q.P. jounced in and out of consciousness as Nokes drove down the peninsula. He kept trying to float back to the place where Marie was dressed in blue. And laughing. No guilt, no resentment. And happy. Happy with him, happy with everything. Nokes turned on the radio. The only thing on was some kind of bluegrass. He'd turned it on on purpose and Q.P. sighed and straightened in the seat and blinked himself awake. Nokes looked over. "I think this is going to blow right over us, you know?"

"Yeah. Might do that," he said.

As far back as Q.P. could remember he'd wanted to be a cop. Not a flatfoot or a motorcycle cop but a detective. A detective in the hard-boiled sense. As a job he'd figured it would be exciting and he'd met a few cops by way of his aunt. So when he had a chance to decide, he thought getting into the military police would be a good start in this career direction. But it turned out that in Korea it was the officers who did all the detecting. Being a policeman in the army equated to two years of rounding up drunk servicemen out of the bars and whorehouses, and endless patrolling of rows of identical Quonset huts in a fruitless attempt to scare the looters away.

There had been no unusual crimes to solve, no intricate mysteries. Nothing interesting to do when he was off duty, and as it turned out, nothing that qualified him for police work back in the States. All through the first year after he got back he tried to get into police departments; in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, and in Washington, D.C. Nothing. It was simple. They liked him. On paper he was great, but there were no vacancies and the guys who had come back from Europe or the Pacific were already there ahead of him. He was one war too late, they said.

So he drifted around Baltimore, sponging off old friends, fell hard for Marie, and got shit for his trouble, then he got depressed and got to drinking too much. Heading for the skids, his aunt Yvonne said. Well, she would know, having been there herself.

He'd finally lucked into a place as a deputy to the sheriff of New Hanover County, North Carolina. The contact had been made for him by a cop on the Baltimore force, a friend of his aunt's who'd liked him and had helped him through the job-seeking labyrinth.

When it came Q.P. had to read the letter through a couple of times before he realized it was a real job offer. New Hanover County? North Carolina? He'd scrounged up a greasy road map of the Eastern seaboard and found New Hanover County down at the bottom corner of the state. Down on the beach. Shaped into a triangle with its point teased into a long sandbar tail by the converging forces of the Cape Fear and the Atlantic. County seat was Wilmington, he read. From the size of the circle on the map, it was almost a city. Fifty thousand people.

"A job at the beach" was the first thing he thought. Why not?

They had given him two weeks to get down there, but he had left early after giving Marie a call that he really handled badly, saying too much. Words he couldn't ever take back. Well, she wasn't going to change any, was she?

He woke up as Nokes bumped over pavement that had buckled along the coast road. So here he was.

Hell with Marie, he thought.

"Why are we going down to the radar base anyway?" he called over to Nokes. His voice was hoarse, clogged up from sleeping. He coughed and rolled his head around trying to wake up.

"Well, Kewpie, you know that 'drifted down' is what they're going to say."

"Yeah ... drifted down. Shit ..." It was about what Q.P. had been thinking, too. Was the victim killed down on the base or somewhere upriver and then did the body float down onto federal property from the county? Jurisdiction. That's what being a sheriff was all about, he was beginning to realize, how to seize or avoid jurisdiction. Not so much power but the limits of power. Where your authority stopped and someone else's took over.

He hadn't realized any of these peculiar occupational intricacies when he had taken the train down to Wilmington and settled into being a deputy.

It turned out that Wilmington's population was around thirty-five thousand, having dropped more or less steadily since V-J day. But if it wasn't exactly bustling, it was still an active port city and it got its healthy share of crime. Right off he got along well with Sheriff Franklin, who had known the cop in Baltimore who had set him up. Mary Helen, the department secretary, knew a place up at the end of Orange Street that was for rent at something she figured he could afford. So he took it and installed himself out on the porch and sat there and watched the sunset and made up his mind to be careful about the bourbon and do a good job.

It didn't take long to realize that he was a member of a lackluster department. In Wilmington it was the police who were supposed to be the hard-boiled detectives. But over the next year, Franklin took him under his wing, introduced him to all the important people, and began delegating more and more responsibility his way. It was as if the old man knew what was coming. And when it did, when Franklin suffered a series of strokes, the county commissioners met and, complying with his wishes, voted Q.P. "Acting Sheriff." The job came with a thirty percent raise, a commitment to serving out Franklin's term, and the almost certain obligation of running for Franklin's position in the upcoming elections.

He reached over and adjusted the heat in the car and jammed his hands deeper into his jacket and tried to go back to sleep.

He should be counting his blessings, he thought.

He did actually manage to conk out until Nokes turned off the pavement and bumped onto the potholed Davis Beach Road, just inside the boundaries of the air force radar station.

"They don't hardly use this place anymore," Nokes said. "They used to have submarines down here. Submarine pens, yeah. Had 'em all down through here. Couldn't get up this road at all during the War. They had it locked up tight. We used to try to hunt down here and they'd get all over you ..."

The road to Davis Beach had existed long before the radar base, of course. It was the kind of road that couples liked to drive down, with room at the end for two or three cars to park with enough space to ensure a certain amount of discretion. But the war had eliminated the popular parking spot; now the only people who stopped there were air force sentries to run an occasional fisherman off the beach. Nokes pulled off the side and parked. They walked down to the river past a row of light gray Jeeps and an air force ambulance, a large red cross painted on its side.

If anything, the wind was strengthening and he pulled his collar tighter around his neck. How could the South be so cold? he wondered as they walked down the ruts to the beach. There were about a dozen air force types standing around at the top of the little bluff that ended Davis Beach Road. They all looked around when Q.P. and Nokes walked up. Behind them he could see the long darkness of the Cape Fear as it surged toward the ocean. The rain had started again and the flyboys were breaking out their slickers. Down on the sand at their feet was something covered up with a canvas tarp.

It's not too bad was the first thing he thought ...

In the early light of dawn she looked steel blue. Someone played a flashlight beam across her body and he saw that her arms were cruelly bound behind her back, pulled tight and tied in four places—shoulder, above and below the elbows, and at the wrists. Her legs had been pulled behind her and then her ankles knotted to her wrists. Hog-tied, they called it in the South. Now that the county cops were on the scene, the airmen were leaving in ones and twos. The rest stood around smoking and waiting for someone to decide what to do.

A flashbulb illuminated the body.

"She looks real young, to me," Nokes said quietly as they squatted there with the air force men standing around in a ring above them. "Just a little nigger girl ..."

Of course, nobody knew her.

The two sentries explained how they'd pulled up at the foot of Davis Beach Road and one man went down the slope to take a leak and saw her caught up in the dead branches of a live oak that had fallen into the river there. They'd called it in and waited for the O.C. to come and tell them what to do. The officer-in-charge was a tired lieutenant who was eager to get his men and himself out of the weather in time for the changing of the guard. He was the one who had made sure she was carried up to the road where the current wouldn't pull her off the branches and sweep her down to the ocean. The way he put it, it was pretty obvious that the woman had been dumped somewhere north of Davis Beach. "Our post boundary is just through those woods there, see, just right up there, only about a hundred yards upriver," he explained.

For a few moments Q.P. held on to the hope that the body had somehow drifted across the river, from Brunswick County, but he'd gone out fishing in the Cape Fear enough times to know that something like that was a long shot. Stupid idea to even think of it.

The lieutenant was looking down at him a little strangely, frowning, like he didn't believe that someone as young as Q.P. was actually who he said he was. "I'll have a detail take her to the hospital or wherever else you want, Sheriff," he said.

"Well, all right, then," he said as he got up and walked down to the bank and looked out at the water. The river widened out here; it was almost a mile across to Brunswick County. In this weather the current was too fast to idle along fishing; if you didn't watch, you'd run aground on one of the bars that were constantly forming and reforming along the banks.

He realized that all the men up at the road were waiting on him.

"All right, then," he said loudly to make himself heard over the wind. She'd almost certainly been killed within his jurisdiction. His case.

"Get your boys to take her in to Beverly's," Nokes told the lieutenant, who had wrapped himself inside his slicker and was already walking back to his Jeep and his early breakfast. There was a whine and a growl as someone started the big ambulance motor, and the road was flooded by diesel fumes until the wind shifted.

He managed get to sleep again in the car going back, and this time he didn't dream at all.


Excerpted from The Woman in the Yard by Stephen E. Miller. Copyright © 1999 Stephen E. Miller. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Jack Olsen

JackThe Woman in the Yard is a stunning first novel--richly textured, historically valid, accented by eye-popping explosive scenes and brilliant insights. Stephen Miller has raised the Southern cop genre to a new level.
—Jack Olsen, best-selling author of Salt of the Earth and Hastened to the Grave

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The Woman in the Yard 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Warning----- do not start this book unless you have several hours of spare time. It literally grabs you and does not let go until the last page is tuned. Highly recommend!!!!