I turned into the entrance of the Charlotte Metro Nature Preserve and followed the twisting gravel road toward Copperhead Cove. The wedding I would conduct on the banks of Lake Wylie was two hours off, so I had plenty of time to prepare. Maybe take a quick nap. Maybe even forget my anger.
At a sharp bend in the road, I passed a man and woman nestled in cheap folding chairs, both illuminated in a shaft of silver-white sunlight that pierced the oak canopy. Homeless, judging by the looks of them, with their possessions piled nearby in black plastic bags. The man lay twisted on his side, his head in the woman’s lap. Ragged flannel hung from the woman’s thin arms, which were wrapped around the man. Despite the warmth of early September, both wore long-sleeved shirts and blue jeans.
I drove on and found Copperhead Cove on the tip of a mossy peninsula, where I set up my portable altar and lectern on the creek bank. Once everything was in place, I stepped away and faced the lectern. This was a good place for a wedding, with shade from tall trees and cool air full of honeysuckle. The bride and groom would have a clear view of the sprawling lake and a wide blue sky as they stood before me and spoke their vows.
That is, if they showed up.
With an hour and a half before the ceremony, I decided to nap in my car. I set the alarm on my phone and shut my eyes.
A sharp tapping woke me. Outside, a man peered into my car, his fingernails plinking against the glass.
The screen on my phone showed the alarm would go off in two minutes. I canceled the alarm, opened the door, and slid out.
He stepped back. “You the preacher, right?”
“I’m the officiant.”
“You here for the Travis-López wedding?”
“So where is everybody?”
My groggy brain finally registered the expensive camera dangling from his neck. A tall man, with a flat belly and coffee-brown skin.
I said, “You must be the photographer.”
“Yeah. DeShawn Baker.”
We shook hands. “I’m Alan McCrae. The wedding’s in a half hour.”
“Yeah, but they were supposed to meet me here twenty minutes ago for pictures.”
My heart dropped into my gut. “Have you called them?”
DeShawn shook his head. “Left my phone back at the camp site. I got my two boys this weekend, so we’re roughing it on the other side of the park. Told ‘em to behave while I took care of this gig. I hope they do. You know how teenage boys are.”
“Only because I have a teenage girl.”
He flashed a wide, knowing smile. “Right.”
I stretched my arm into my car and retrieved my phone. “I’ll call and see if there’s a problem. I already had one no-show today.”
“Groom got cold feet. They still owe me for my time, but I’ll never collect. I never do when they walk out.”
“Damn. Remember when people were serious about marriage? Hard to find folks like that nowadays.”
I held up my left hand to show off my ring.
“Seven happy years.”
“Seven … wait, and you got a teenage girl?”
“Yeah. Third time lucky, I suppose.”
“I hear that.”
I had a text from the bride. It took me a few moments to realize my mouth gaped as I read it. I sent my response, leaned into my car, and pressed the button to open the rear hatch.
“DeShawn, the park rangers won’t let our party in. There’s an active investigation in the park. We’re going to meet everyone at a church down the road and decide what to do. I’ll drive.”
DeShawn helped me load the altar and lectern, and I steered my car back onto the gravel road. At the sharp bend, a Charlotte police officer waved us on as we approached. In the grass beside him, the lawn chairs I’d spotted earlier sat in their original spot, now empty. Behind them, sunlight glistened on a pair of white tarpaulins with large bulges.
DeShawn twisted in his seat as we crept by. “There’s your investigation. Bet someone got shot.”
“But there are no news teams. More likely a drug overdose.”
“Yeah.” DeShawn stared ahead, his face a blank. “Damn. How did we get on the road we’re on?”
M. C. Tuggle lives and writes in Charlotte, North Carolina. His fantasy, science fiction, and literary short stories have been featured in several publications, including Mystery Weekly, Space Squid, and Metaphorosis. The Novel Fox released his novella Aztec Midnight in March, 2016. He blogs on all things literary at https://mctuggle.com/