Sunday, August 4, 2013

Chapter One

The editing and tweaking of the novel continues, slowly (because I'm very busy at work), but I think I have the first parts pretty much in final form.  So below is a somewhat lengthy excerpt.  If you missed the Prologue I posted last week, you can find it here.  Also below is latest iteration of the cover I've designed, which combines concepts from both pictures I had previously used.  Let me know what you think.

Chapter 1

The wooden deck would soon need a new coat of stain.  I thought this, as I did every time I was on it, and watched the fog rise out of my neighbor’s field and charge, in slow motion, up the hillside.  Sometimes the mist was peaceful, but this morning it reminded me of a wave of Confederates charging up to meet the Union soldiers on the ridge for some hand-to-hand.  Or was it Yankee forces rushing up to take the top from the Rebels?  No.  The fog was gray this Sunday morning and so it was Southern. 
The mug in my hand was warm.  It was not one of those with a silly saying on the side.  It did not proclaim me the “World’s greatest” anything.  It was a serious piece of pottery, midnight blue and earthy brown, filled with a serious amount of organic free-trade Columbian, lightened by organic half-and-half.     
My phone rang, vibrating on the metal table beside me.  It should have been dispatch, but instead it was a text from Officer Letty McCoy.  Two dead bodies and an address in town.  “On my way,” I texted back as the distant ridge disappeared in the charging vapor.
I went into the house through the French doors my father had installed when I was a kid.  It was hard to believe that I was back in this house that my grandfather had built.  Back in this living room that held so many memories from my youth.  So much time lost in front of a TV.  So much time reading books by the windows.  And the spot by the front door where I had spent several minutes on the floor examining carpet fiber as a teenager, amazed at the pain in my jaw and back.  I had thrown a punch at my old man in the heat of an argument.  I don’t remember what it was about.  I had been surprised to find my fist hitting nothing but air as he side stepped.  But that was nothing compared to the surprise when he then landed a chop to my kidney and carefully lined me up for the blow to my jaw.  I looked up at him in shock, the question obvious on my face.  How did an old fart like you just do that to me?
“Age and treachery,” my dad said, a crooked grin on his face.
On my way through the house, I paused for a half minute to stare at the picture of Liz and Elise on the ornately carved walnut mantle.  The most beautiful woman and child in the world.  They could not come with me to Prestonsburg and I had left them, maybe more like abandoned them, two hours away in Lexington.  
Bodies meant a trip to Frankfort for autopsies.  Not that I thought I wanted to sit in on the actual sawing and cutting and hacking.  But if one wants to hear the highlights of what has been dictated into the report by the Medical Examiner, rather that wait days or even weeks for the dictation to be transcribed into a report, one needs to be there to talk to them before the next autopsy begins and the details start running together in their heads.
Maybe I could stop by and visit my wife and daughter for a little while on the way back.  Because that is the way I thought of it.  Visiting.

I stepped carefully inside the narrow entry and closed the door, more to protect the body from public view than to drown out the noise from outside.  Sprawled before me was Ryan Williams, freshly graduated from high school, an open green eye staring in surprise at the concrete and at the small pool of browning blood beneath his face.  His legs were splayed across the first few steps of the stairway, his jeans pulled improbably high.  The right sneaker was still on; the left off and a couple of stairs up.  Voices mingled and swirled from the open door above.
“Sorry I’m late for the party,” I announced loudly as I entered the room.  Silence and glances from those gathered.
“Where have you been, Detective Justice?” Police Captain Gomer Smith asked, making no attempt to hide his irritation.  Not one for irony was he.  Nor one for acknowledging that my proper title was Chief Detective. Nor that I should have been the first one called.
I surveyed the living room.  White walls, tan carpet, a cheap framed landscape photograph of a sunset at a beach on one wall, another wall opened at the far end of the room with a counter, a small kitchen beyond.  And a crowd.  In addition to Captain Smith, those assembled included the captain’s older brother, Chief of Prestonsburg Police Sam Smith, the county sheriff, one deputy sheriff, a state police officer, two EMTs and the county coroner.
“Where’s Detective Estep?”
“Lee, I guess you already saw the body of Mr. Williams at the bottom of the steps,” Chief Smith stated the obvious before answering the question.  “Bill is in the bedroom with the body of the other victim.”
I nodded.  “And I suppose he is the one that put the tape around this footprint?”
All eyes went to the shoe shaped indention in the carpet.
“That’s right,” Detective Bill Estep said, appearing in the doorway before me. 
“Are they both dead?” I asked Albert Baker, the county coroner, and perhaps not coincidentally, the owner of the most successful funeral home in the county.
“Regrettably, yes.”  Grave funeral director face.  “Mr. Williams from blunt force trauma to his head and a broken neck, believed to have been caused by striking the floor at the bottom of the stairs.  And Ms. Mullins from asphyxiation caused by strangulation.  I did retrieve some fibers from her and from her bed.  Also, there were traces of material under her fingernails which may well be skin from her assailant, which I am noting so the Medical Examiner can get that analyzed.  Also, I compared the air temperature to the temperature of the bodies.  I  would estimate that they both died within a few minutes of each other - anywhere from the same time to thirty minutes apart, sometime around three am, give or take thirty minutes.  He was lying on concrete by a door in a tee shirt and she was found covered in a bed so that could account for some of the difference in the cool down rates which makes it a bit tricky to tell how close in time to each other they passed away.”
“Thank you, Mr. Baker.”  His analysis was always a mix of terms that sounded semi-scientific and funeral directer-ese.  I have never been fully convinced that the former hasn’t come from reading magazine articles instead of formal training.  The office of Coroner is an elected one.
“Anybody have any more information to share before Detective Estep and I continue our work?”
“Ryan Williams is a darn good quarterback.”  This from Captain Smith.  “Or was.  Good parents too.  I’ve worshiped with them.”
Captain Gomer Smith was the shorter and wider version of his older brother, Police Chief Sam Smith.  He did have innate talent at stretching the paper thin budget of the Prestonsburg City Police Department and making out work schedules for its precious few officers, but practically no personality.  Winter or summer, rain or shine, in calm and in rage, his face was always some shade of red.
“And the girl?”
“She was a cheerleader or something like that, I think,” a flushed Captain Gomer finally allowed.
“Thank you all for your most valuable help.”  My voice sounded a bit condescending, even to my own ears. “Detective Estep and I will take the examination from here.”
“We are all here to help,” Captain Gomer said, his face flushing redder.
“What is that in your hand?” I couldn’t believe it.
Captain Gomer looked at the small fish of blue glass in his hand.  His head coming back up slowly, anger in his eyes but no embarrassment.  Other eyes looked, saw it, and turned away. 
“It’s nothing.  Just a do-dad from the the shelf.”
“Please replace it.  And please, everyone, take your fingerprints and your big-ass boots and your DNA and leave my crime scene.  Try to not step on the outlined shoe print or the blood at the bottom of the steps.”
“Your crime scene, Detective?” Gomer couldn’t leave it alone.
 “Chief Detective,” I corrected, “and since I am here now it is my crime scene.”
The Chief’s firm hand on his brother’s shoulder cut off whatever he was getting ready to say.
“He’s right, Gomer.  It’s his crime scene.  Let’s go.”
The rest were already sidling towards the doorway.  Captain Gomer’s thin lips were together so tight I wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to pry them apart.  He joined the parade of those making their way toward the stairs, his brother behind him, hand still clenched on his shoulder, blue eyes boring into me, demanding a conciliatory gesture, however small.
He stopped, turned towards me, his brother the Chief smiling slightly from behind him.
“The ‘do-dad.’  Could you put it back on the shelf?”

Detective Bill Estep was shaking his head, like he had just watched someone pull a pin on a grenade and then throw themselves on it.  The look on his face was one of both pity and satisfaction.  This had been his crime scene until I showed up, and someone had wanted it to be his crime scene.  Red-faced Captain Gomer, no doubt.
“Detective, you should never have let that army in here.  The coroner was the only one with any business here.”
“I value my job.  Don’t you, Chief Detective?”
“Where’s the girl?” was my only answer.
He swung his head toward the first bedroom in the hallway behind the living room.  There were no pictures on the walls, but there were three more doorways down the corridor.  “Where’s your gun?”
“It’s in a safe place.”
“It should be on you at all times.”
“Everybody here is already dead,” I pointed out, not wanting to have this conversation.  Again.  Then, to change the subject: “What are those doors?”
“Two more bedrooms and a bath.”
“Room mates?”
“Two.  They discovered her.  They are at the station now.”
The dead girl was lying on her bed, covers pulled up to her chin.  Brown eyes, blood-shot, bulging and vacant, stared at the still ceiling fan above her.  Her full lips were opened in a silent question.  Her blond hair was long with gentle waves, tousled, and with bare traces of brown at the roots.  The window on the far side of the bed had no curtains but cheap plastic blinds that were pulled all the way up.  In the early morning light, her face was a bloated, red and purple mask of confusion and terror.
“You already take photos?”  There was a camera dangling from Estep’s neck.
“Yes. Her name is Kayla Mullins.  Graduated from South Floyd High last month.  Planning on going to the community college here this fall.  Was working as a waitress at Loretta’s.  Victim at the bottom of the stairs is Ryan Williams.  Also graduated from South Floyd last month.  Quarterback.  They dated in high school but Kayla apparently broke up with him right after graduation.  He works for Rebel Coal.  Just started.”
I pulled the covers down with gloved hands.  Her hands, hidden inside paper bags placed on them by the Coroner, were crossed on her chest, just like my parents’ had been in their caskets so many years ago.  She was wearing a black t-shirt with the “Friends of Coal” emblem on it - the oval design was ubiquitous here in the land of the ebony ore.  She had on a short black skirt, with long tan legs below.  Obviously the coroner had already pulled the covers back to do his exam so I wasn’t sure why he had pulled the covers back up.  Too much skin for dignity?
The girl’s neck was swollen and bruised and deformed like none I had ever seen before.  There was a crazy assortment of red and blue and purple and green in spots and splotches, all over the place on her throat.  I tilted her head gently to the side, her chin cool through the thin latex of my glove, and saw there was more bruising on the back of her neck, and a couple of deep red crescents and scratches.  There were tiny empty holes in her earlobes.
The room was barely big enough for the twin bed, the chest of drawers in one corner, the dresser with mirror and the night stand beside the bed.  On the nightstand, already in a plastic evidence bag, was a cell phone.
There are few things in investigations that make me more uncomfortable than what I did next.  Lifting her short skirt revealed that she had on no underwear.  Between her legs was a dark wet spot on the cream sheet, stained a little bit yellow and a little bit pink.  As gently as I could, I spread her thighs, just enough to see the darker, redder center of the puddle.
“Picture,” I said, and averted my eyes as Detective Estep, pale and tentative, snapped the shot, the sounds of the autofocus lens and the shutter in my ear.
Nothing is private when you die.
After that I moved to the cell phone.  No missed calls.  I looked through the list of recent calls.  Nothing leaped out at me.  Looked like the last person she ever called was “Mams.”  I switched over to text messages.  The first one, which is to say the last one she ever received, was from Ryan Williams.  It read, “Miss this bitch?”  A tiny picture was attached.  I opened it.  It was a penis, flacid but impressive.  I showed it to Estep, who shook his head sadly.  “Kids today.”
“Speaking of Mr. Williams, let’s take a look at him.”
We went down the stairs.  Kneeling beside the body, it looked like maybe there was a foot or so of swipe marks through the dirt on the floor, leading to the face.  And maybe the skin on the left cheek was bunched up just a bit. I opened the door and heard questions yelled.  There was a crowd, mics, cameras, rubberneckers with shocked looks on their faces, staring at the fallen hero.  Six foot Letty McCoy was standing a couple of feet away.  Ignoring the incoming questions I said, “You are doing a hell of job keeping folk out of my way, Officer McCoy.  Please keep up the good work.”  She smiled a little, her cheeks dimpling deeply, and shot me a wink.
As I thought, the swipe mark began just outside the doorway. 
“You the first officer here?”
“Yes sir.  I told them to call you.  I don’t know why it took so long.”
I waved it off.  “Yes you do.  When you first got here, was this body in exactly the same place as it is now.”
“RYAN!”  Some hysterical female voice from the crowd.
I nodded.  “Detective Estep, can you get pictures of these marks in the dirt here and some showing his face where it meets the floor?”  He complied, checking the results on the screen before moving methodically from shot to shot, setting the base of the camera down on the concrete floor for the close ups of the face.
Ignoring completely the shouts and questions from the crowd I closed the door.  Picking up the shoe from the step with my pen, I carried it up and set it beside the print in the carpet.  It was at least a size and a half smaller.  My shoe, on the other side of the print, was by comparison almost as big as the print.
“What do you think?”
Detective Estep looked a little startled that I had deigned to ask his opinion, but after a moment he straightened his back and gave me his thoughts.
“At first it seemed open and shut.  Jealous ex boyfriend came in and strangled the girl that ditched him.  The message on the phone would tend to support that.  Then, pumped on adrenaline, or scared he would get caught, he darted past her friends sleeping on the couch, tripped and fell down the steps.”
“Yeah, I always like karma. But?”
“I don’t believe in karma.”  He said the word as if he were saying “child sacrifice” or “infallibility of the Pope” or something.  “But,” picking up on answering my question, “how did they sleep through all of that?  And then there is the footprint that is bigger than his shoe, although that may be an incidental finding.  But somebody moved the body it seems - pulled it back inside and closed the door.”
“The door was closed when the room mates woke up?
“Yes, so they say.”  They didn’t even know Ryan’s body was there - they found Kayla’s body and called 911.  Officer McCoy said the door was closed when she arrived.  She is the one that found the Williams body.”
I nodded. 
“What do you think?”
“The same,” I said. I think we were both surprised that we agreed. “Hopefully that is skin under the victim’s nails and we will get DNA from that.  Or from the sexual assault.  Or both.  But that’ll be icing on the cake.  We can’t wait for those results.   And that lone footprint may be from the force of someone pushing young Master Williams down the steps.”
I noticed that Detective Estep was better dressed than usual.  Wearing a yellow, short sleeved permanent press shirt with a clip-on tie of sky blue and lemon stripes and navy pants.  He even had on brown shoes instead of his usual shiny black ones.  Of course, everyone had been dressed up.  It was Sunday morning. I looked down at my green polo shirt and jeans.
“Look, Bill, if you want to go to church…”
“Nah.  God will understand.” He smiled.
“You’ve done good work here.”  I was peering out the windows located at the front of the living room.  Across the street was an abandoned building.  Built in 1909, according to the stone declaring it “The Lloyd Building.”  I remembered shopping there as a kid, buying candy after school.  But the store had been only on the first floor, and that had closed probably fifteen years ago or more.  Until that moment, I had never wondered what was behind the dark and dirty windows of the second floor.
“This town sure isn’t the way I remember it,” I said, mostly to myself.
“The town hasn’t changed, you have.”
I nodded slowly.  Detective Bill Estep, who had graduated from high school here the same year that I did, was no doubt right.
“I want to go talk to the room mates and let them go,” I said. “And meet with the parents.  Can you finish up here?”
“So it’s my crime scene again?”

I took that as a yes.

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