BREAKING SILENCE. (CHAPTER 1)
The rain started at midnight. The wind began a short time later, yanking the last of the leaves from the maple and sycamore trees and sending them skittering along Main Street like dry, frightened crustaceans. With the temperature dropping five degrees an hour and a cold front barreling in from the north, it would be snowing by morning.
“Fuckin’ weather.” Roland “Pickles” Shumaker folded his seventy-four-year-old frame into the Crown Vic cruiser and slammed the door just a little too hard. He’d known better than to let himself get sucked into an all-nighter. It wasn’t like he was getting any younger, after all. But his counterpart—that frickin’ Skidmore—had called in sick, and the chief asked Pickles to fill in. At the time, cruising around Painters Mill at four o’clock in the morning had sounded like a fine idea. Now he wondered what the hell he’d been thinking.
It hadn’t always been that way. Back in the day, the night shift had been his salvation. The troublemakers came out after dark, like vampires looking for blood. For fifty years, Pickles had cruised these not-so-mean streets, hoping with all of his cop’s heart that some dipshit would put his toe over the line so Pickles could see some anxiously awaited action.
Lately, however, Pickles could barely make it through an eight-hour shift without some physical ailment reminding him he was no longer twenty-four years old. If it wasn’t his back, it was his neck or his damn legs. Christ, it was a bitch getting old.
When he looked in the mirror, some wrinkled old man with a stupid expression on his face stared back. Every single time, Pickles stared at that stranger and thought, How the hell did that happen? He didn’t have the slightest idea. The one thing he did subscribe to was the notion that Father Time was a sneaky bastard.
Pickles had just pulled onto Dogleg Road when his radio crackled to life. “You there, Pickles?”
The night dispatcher, Mona Kurtz, was a lively young woman with wild red ringlets, a wardrobe that was probably a nightmare for the chief, and a personality as vivacious as a juiced-up coke freak. To top it off, the girl wanted to be a cop. He’d never seen a cop wear black tights and high heels. Well, unless some female was working undercover, anyway. Pickles didn’t think she was cut out for it. Maybe because she was too young, just a little bit wild, and her head wasn’t quite settled on her shoulders. He had his opinion about female cops, too, but since it wasn’t a popular view, he kept his mouth shut.
Of course, he’d never had a problem working for the chief. At first, he’d had his doubts—a female and formerly Amish to boot—but over the last three years, Kate Burkholder had proven herself pretty damn capable. His respect for her went a long way toward changing his mind about the female role in law enforcement.
He picked up his mike. “Don’t know where the hell else I’d be,” he muttered.
“Skid’s going to owe you big-time after this.”
“You got that right. Sumbitch is probably out boozing it up.”
For the last two nights, he and Mona had fallen to using the radio for small talk, mainly to break up the monotony of small-town police work. Tonight, however, she was reticent, and Pickles figured she had something on her mind. Knowing it never took her long to get to the point, he waited.
“I talked to the chief,” she said after a moment.
Pickles grimaced. He felt bad for her, because there was no way the chief was going promote her to full-time officer. “What’d she say?”
“She’s going to think about it.”
“I don’t think she likes me.”
“Aw, she likes you just fine.”
“I’ve been stuck on dispatch for three years now.”
“It’s good experience.”
“I think she’s going to bring someone in from outside the department.”
Pickles thought so, too, but he didn’t say it. You never knew when a woman was going to go off on a tangent. The night was going to be long enough without having his dispatcher pissed off at him, too. “Hang in there, kid. She’ll come around.”
Relief skittered through him when he heard beeping on the other end of the line.
“I got a 911,” she said, and disconnected.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Pickles racked the mike and hoped the call kept her busy for a while—and didn’t include him. He used to believe that as he got older, women would become less of a mystery. Just went to show you how wrong a man could be. Women were even more of an enigma now than when he was young. Hell, he didn’t even get his wife 90 percent of the time, and he’d been married to Clarice for going on thirty years.
Rain mixed with snow splattered against the windshield, so he turned the wipers up a notch. His right leg was asleep. He wanted a cigarette. His ass hurt from sitting.
“I’m too old for this crap,” he growled.
He’d just turned onto Township Road 3 when Mona’s voice cracked over the mike. “Pickles, I’ve got a possible ten-eleven at the Humerick place on Folkerth.”
He snatched up the mike. “What kind of animal trouble?”
“Old lady Humerick says something killed a bunch of her sheep. Says she’s got guts all over the place.”
“You gotta be shitting me.”
“She thinks it might be some kind of animal.”
“Bigfoot more than likely.” Muttering, Pickles made a U-turn and headed toward Folkerth. “What’s the address out there?”
Mona rattled off a number that told him the Humerick place wasn’t too far from Miller’s Pond and the greenbelt that ran parallel with Painters Creek.
“I’m ten-seventy-six,” he said, indicating he was en route, and he hit the emergency lights.
The Humerick farm was lit up like a football stadium when Pickles arrived a few minutes later. A mix of snow and rain sparked beneath a giant floodlight mounted on the barn facade. A widow for going on twenty years, June Humerick was the size of a linebacker and just as mean. She claimed to Amish, but she neither looked nor acted the part. A decade earlier, she’d thumbed her nose at the bishop and had electricity run to her farm. She drove an old Dodge pickup, dipped tobacco when it suited her, and cursed like a sailor when she was pissed. The Amish church district no longer claimed her as one of its own. The widow Humerick didn’t seem to mind.
She stood next to her old Dodge, wearing a flannel nightgown, knee-high muck boots, and a camo parka. She clutched her late husband’s double-barrel shotgun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. “I’m over here!” she bellowed.
Leaving the cruiser running and the headlights pointing toward the shadowy livestock pens on the backside of the barn, Pickles grabbed his Maglite and heaved his small frame from the car. “Evening, June,” he said as he started toward her.
She didn’t bother with a greeting, instead pointing toward the pens ten yards away. “Evenin’ hell. Somethin’ killed four of my sheep. Cut ’em to bits.”
He followed her point. “Lambs?”
“These was full-grown ewes.”
“You see or hear anything?”
“I heard ’em screamin’. Dogs were barkin’ loud enough to wake the dead. By the time I got out there, those sheep was dead. I got guts ever’where.”
“Could be coyotes,” Pickles conjectured. “I hear they’re making a comeback in this part of Ohio.”
“I ain’t never seen a coyote do anythin’ like this.” The widow looked at him as if he were dense. “I know who done it, and if you had half a brain, so would you.”
“I haven’t even seen the dead sheep yet, so how the hell could I know who done it?” he replied, indignant.
“Because this ain’t the first time somethin’ like this has happened.”
“You talking about them hate crimes against the Amish?”
“That’s exactly what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Killing a bunch of sheep is kind of a roundabout way to go about it, don’t you think?”
“The hell it is. Some folks just plain don’t like us, Pickles. Us Amish been prosecuted for damn near a hundred years.”
“Persecuted,” he said, correcting her.
The widow glared at him. “So what are you goin’ to do about it?”
Pickles was all too aware of the recent rash of crimes against the Amish. Most of the infractions were minor: a bashed-in mailbox, a broken window, eggs thrown at a buggy. In the past, the Painters Mill PD as well as the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office had considered such crimes harmless mischief. But in the last couple of months, the crimes had taken an ominous turn. Two weeks ago, someone had forced a buggy off the road, injuring a pregnant Amish woman. The chief and the Holmes County sheriff were working on getting a task force set up. The problem was, the Amish victims had unanimously refused to press charges, citing an all-too-familiar phrase: “God will take care of us.”
“Well, June, we ain’t been able to get anyone to file charges,” he said.
“Gawdamn pacifists,” she huffed. “I’ll do it.”
“Before we lynch anyone, why don’t we take a look at them sheep and make sure it wasn’t dogs or something.” Pickles sighed, thinking about his new Lucchese cowboy boots and the mud he would soon be introducing them to.
June’s nightgown swished around her legs as she took him over the gravel drive, toward the deep shadows of the pens. The steel gate groaned when she opened it. Pickles could smell the sheep now, that earthy mutton stench mixed with mud, compost, and manure. She had a couple dozen head, and they all chose that moment to bleat. He could hear them stirring around. Mud and sheep shit sucked at his boots as he and June traversed the pen. The skittish animals scattered as they passed.
“Heck of a night to be out,” Pickles said, wishing he were home in his warm, dry bed. He shone the flashlight beam along the perimeter of the pen. Midway to the wood-rail fence, he stumbled over something and nearly went down. Cursing, he shone the beam on the ground, only to realize he’d stumbled over the severed head of a sheep.
“Holy shit,” he said. “Where did that come from?”
“That’d be Bess.” June Humerick lowered her voice. “Poor old girl.”
The ewe’s head lay in a pool of muck and blood. The mouth was partially open, revealing a row of tiny white teeth. A pink tongue hung out like a deflated balloon. Pickles shifted the beam to study the throat area. He didn’t know how that head had been severed from the carcass, but it didn’t look like the work of some scrawny coyote. The flesh was cleanly cut. Red tissue and the pink bone of the spine jutted from the base.
“Don’t think a coyote did this.” Pickles stared, aware that the hairs on his neck were standing up like porcupine quills. “Looks more like a knife.”
“I coulda told you that.” She ran her beam along the periphery of the pen. “If I’da gotten out here faster, I’da plugged that sumbitch’s ass with lead.”
Stepping back from the severed head, Pickles swept the beam to a second carcass. He’d never been squeamish about blood, but a quivery wave of unease washed over his stomach when he saw pink entrails ripped from a belly that had been sliced open from end to end.
“What the fuck?” he said.
Taking his language in stride because she’d been known to use the same word herself on occasion, the widow Humerick walked to him and shone her light on the dead sheep. “This is just senseless.”
“If it wasn’t raining, we might have got some tracks.” Pickles swept his beam left and right. “You sure you didn’t see any lights out here?”
“I didn’t see nothin’.”
Pickles leveled his flashlight beam on the carcass. “Could be them devil worshipers down south.”
The big woman crossed to him, jabbed her thumb at the decapitated carcass. “They didn’t take nothin’ for sacrifice.”
He could tell by the widow’s expression that she wasn’t buying into the devil-worshiper theory. He wasn’t going to stand out here in the rain and snow and debate it. “Well, I’ll drive around back behind them woods and then get a report filed.”
She shot him an incredulous look. “What if they come back? What if they’re out in them woods waitin’ for you to leave so they can come hack up the rest of my sheep?”
“There ain’t no one here to arrest.”
“You could search the woods.”
“Too dark to be tromping around those woods, especially in this weather.”
“That’s just a crock of horseshit, Pickles.”
He sighed; twenty years ago, he’d have been chomping at the bit to get into those dark woods and snag him a couple of Amish-haters. The hunt would be on. Tonight, with his knees aching and a chill that went all the way to his bones, he was more than happy to wait until daylight and pass the buck to the next shift.
“I’ll talk to the chief first thing in the morning, get the ball rolling on that task force.” He started toward the gate that would take him back to the driveway and his nice warm cruiser. “You might lock them sheep in the shedrow the rest of the night.”
June held her ground. “Gonna take more than that rickety old shed to keep out whatever lunatics done this.”
“Have a nice evening.” Pickles was midway to his cruiser when his radio cracked to life. “What now?” he growled.
“Pickles, I got a ten-fifty-two out at the Slabaugh farm. David Troyer just called, said they got three people down in the manure pit.”
“Shit.” Pickles fumbled for his lapel mike. Back in the day, a cop had a radio in his cruiser. If he chose to ignore a call, he could. Now, you carried the damn thing around like some weird body part, one end clipped to your belt, one end stuck in your ear, and a microphone pinned to your chest like some damn medal. “You call EMS?”
“They’re en route. Thought you might want to get out there.”
Pickles heaved another sigh; he’d just about had all the mud and shit he could handle for one night. But he knew a manure pit could be a dangerous place. There were all sorts of nasty gases that would do you in faster than a gas chamber if you weren’t careful. “What’s the twenty on that?”
“Three six four Township Road Two.”
Pickles knew the area. It was a dirt track south of town that would be hell to traverse without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Figuring this was the end of his Lucchese boots, he cursed. “You might want to call the chief.”
“I’m ten-seventy-six,” he said, and forced his old legs into a run.
BREAKING SILENCE. Copyright 2011 by Linda Castillo.