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The Coldest Fear
By RICK REED
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2011 Rick Reed
All rights reserved.
Snow hung heavy in the branches of Scotch pine and cedar trees, and where it hadn't turned to slush, the land was covered in a foot of snow. The storm had surprised everyone, and as the tall, dark-haired young man stepped off the bus in the town's center he could hear generators humming in every direction.
The town hadn't changed much, and even with snow, all the old landmarks were still there. Bertha's Diner was still on the corner, across the street from Rambo's, a redneck tavern where violent brawls broke out over imagined remarks or innocent looks. Next to Rambo's was the old five-and-dime where he used to look through the plate-glass windows at the toys and candy and wonder what it would be like to have a whole dollar to spend.
The five-and-dime was now a Dollar General, but the displays in the window could have been from fifteen years ago, as if time had somehow shifted backwards. But it hadn't. He had traveled a great distance to get here. And he was here with a purpose.
The judge had sentenced him to the asylum until such time he was declared fit to stand trial, but that day had never come. He had spent fifteen years inside. Fifteen years of watching, listening, learning what to say and how to say it. Learning how to convince the doctors that he was cured.
Before he had gone to the asylum he had hidden something in this town. Hidden it in the only place that, as an eight-year-old, he knew it would be safe. For fifteen years he had dreamed of this day, when he would finally reclaim what was rightfully his.
He half expected that when he returned to Shawneetown, Illinois, everyone would cast curious looks at him. Would wonder what he was doing home. What he was doing "out." But the town that had seemed so bustling to him as an eight-year-old only looked tired and depleted to him at age twenty-three.
There were just a handful of people on the streets. Like the snow, they looked washed of color, drained of life. He crossed the street, stepping into the ruts left behind by cars, and walked into the narrow gangway between Rambo's and the Dollar General store. The odor in the narrow alleyway reminded him of the burnt-grease smell on his father's clothing when he would come home from a night of drinking and gambling in the back room at the tavern. He remembered his mother being unable to buy food or clothing for them because of his father's affection for blackjack and poker.
The alleyway emptied out into a field behind the buildings and led into the woods. The State Highway Department used the field behind Rambo's to store crushed cinders and bricks for when the roads iced over. The huge pile of grit was gone, but even after fifteen years the cinders crunched under the smooth soles of his brand-new dress shoes. The asylum had given him shoes, slacks, a button-down shirt, and a recycled sport coat whose sleeves were several inches too short. They were his only possessions.
At the edge of the field was a small cut-through that the kids had used to get into the woods. A few hundred yards through the woods to the south were railroad tracks. And less than a mile on the other side of the tracks was the tiny house where he had once lived with his mother, father, and sister.
The house was gone now. The bus had driven past the lot on the way into town. A row of cheap duplexes had been built over his old stomping grounds. He had stared at the wide expanses of snow behind the duplexes and remembered the night he had run out the back of his house, through the fields and into the woods, covered in blood and weaving between the big wild blackberry bushes, which tore at his bare arms and chest. It had been snowing that night, too.
He made his way down the path behind Rambo's, and emerged from the woods into a small clearing where an old cabin stood. Its wood was blackened with age, and the handmade shutters were lying on the ground, smashed into pieces by vandals, everything covered in pristine white snow, but it was still there. When he was a kid, the cabin was rumored to be haunted. The truth was that it was a historical landmark. A Civil War general had lived there.
He didn't care about the historical significance of the cabin. He only wanted the item he had hidden there that night when he had run from the back door of his home covered in blood, some his own, some his father's. He had run in a daze, but with enough sense to know he had to hide it. The bone axe was what had finally set him free and he couldn't let anyone get it. It belonged to him and he to it.
He stopped just inside the sagging doorway of the cabin and closed his eyes to re-create that night. Three steps ahead he heard the floorboard creak. He knelt and found the loose floorboard and pulled at it with his fingers until it came free. Reaching into the small opening, roughly four inches by six inches, his hand closed on what he wanted. The bone axe was much bigger than the opening, but when his hand came back out it was closed around the short wooden handle of the weapon. The blade was handmade, forged from heavy iron, covered in years of rust. It was crafted to slaughter cattle, the blade sharpened and heavy enough to cut through bones.
He hefted the weight in his hand. It had seemed much larger and heavier when he was eight years old.
He'd have to find a place to stay, at least for the night. Somewhere out of town. He'd take the axe with him to give it a proper going-over. The bone axe still had a lot of work to do. Killing his father was only the beginning.CHAPTER 2
Five years later, Evansville, Indiana
Jack Murphy stood six foot, with a solid build, and a shock of dark hair he had taken to wearing spiked in the front. His gray eyes could turn dark when he was angry or threatened, or soft as a cloud when he was happy. They were soft gray now as he stood on the front porch of the river cabin he called home and gazed across the Ohio to the Kentucky side.
It was late fall; the trees that lined both shores had already lost most of their color. The early sun cast dizzying lights across the swift-moving water. Less than two hundred yards from his door a small spit of sand protruded from the river that was a favorite party site for the younger boaters. He'd spent many a lazy summer day watching bronzed bikini-clad bodies applying suntan lotion.
Unconsciously he rubbed at the thick white scar that ran from below his right ear, down his jaw and across his chest, ending above the left nipple. The scalding hot shower had started an itch that wouldn't end.
"You want freshened up?" Susan asked from the doorway.
Jack turned and found her holding the coffee decanter and wearing nothing but one of his white dress shirts that she had left unbuttoned. Her long blond hair framed her face, and not for the first time, the sight of her made breathing a conscious effort. The steam that rose from the open decanter could not match the steam he felt rising from within.
As the chief parole officer for the southern region of Indiana, Susan had seen and done things that would make strong men run in panic. Jack had never been able to understand why a woman so smart and beautiful had picked such a dangerous career.
"You must have been reading my mind," he said, and held out his mug for a refill.
"If I was reading your mind we'd be back in the bedroom and you would be late for work, Mr. Detective," she said with a giggle.
"Well, you have the day off for a change and I have at least ..." he looked at his watch and said, "ten more minutes before I have to leave."
"Behave!" she said, and put her arms around his neck, her face mere inches from his.
Just as their lips touched the police radio that lay on the porch railing beside him crackled to life.
"All available units. One William Four is in foot pursuit of an armed suspect at Southeast Fourth and Main Street."
"Hold that thought," he said and headed for his car.
Seven o' clock in the morning, downtown traffic in Evansville was at its usual frantic pace when Jack Murphy drove his unmarked police car, a silver Crown Vic, up on the curb alongside the tall buildings, stopped at the mouth of the alleyway, rolled the windows down, and then turned off the ignition to listen. The other drivers apparently didn't seem to think this was odd behavior and continued in their dronelike traffic patterns on their way to and from their jobs.
The sound of footfalls was getting closer, the slap-slap-slapping of shoe leather on asphalt. He listened to the quick succession of steps and began counting to himself, one, two, three ...
Jack simultaneously cranked the ignition and stomped the accelerator. The car lurched across the mouth of the alley, blocking it entirely as he slammed on the brakes. The runner, unable to stop in time, struck the side of the car and splayed across the hood, smashing his face on the windshield. From inside the car the man looked like a squashed bug.
Jack Murphy jumped from the Crown Vic, dragged the groaning man onto the ground, and handcuffed him. The Evansville Police Department motto is In Connection With the Community. This was as fine a connection as Jack had ever made.
Two uniformed officers — one a rookie who Jack didn't recognize and the other an older cop named Wilson — came running up the alley. Wilson, half a block behind the youngster, was winded and gasping for air. He looked down at the man lying at Jack's feet.
"That's him. He just robbed the pharmacy with a knife," he said.
"He's fast," the younger cop said. He was at least as tall as Jack at around six foot, but was much more lean and baby faced. The younger cop added, "I would've caught him."
Jack and the older cop exchanged a look. They both knew that one day this youngster would be puking his guts up after a foot pursuit and would learn to take his time.
"Well, he's all yours," Jack said. "Just trade my cuffs off and you can have him."
The younger cop's name tag read OFFICER BLOOMBERG. Jack watched as Bloomberg expertly patted the suspect down, put his own handcuffs on him, and took Jack's off.
"Thanks, Detective Murphy," Bloomberg said, handing the cuffs over.
"I need to go to the hospital," the man said from the ground.
* * *
Detective Liddell Blanchard presented an imposing figure in any setting. At a little over six-foot-five and weighing in at "full-grown Yeti," he was the biggest man on the Evansville Police Department. When Jack arrived in the small parking lot behind police headquarters, he spotted Liddell leaning impatiently against the metal railing at the back entrance to the detective's office.
Jack squinted into the sun and glanced at the big man. He and Liddell had been partners for almost six years. Liddell's nickname on the police department was "Cajun" because of his Louisiana upbringing, and his addiction to Cajun cooking. Jack called him Bigfoot for obvious reasons.
"You're late, pod'na," Liddell said. "Sergeant Mattingly's gonna have your butt."
Jack strode up to the door. "He's already got mine and yours, too." Sergeant Mattingly was a short man with a very wide build. He resembled an old Volkswagen van with a bad hairpiece, and had a temperament to match.
Liddell nodded. "You're still late though."
"I ran into someone on the way here," Jack said.
"Yeah, I heard. And I heard the guy's threatening to sue you and the department. I think Internal Affairs was mentioned as well."
"Internal Affairs keeps a seat warm for me," Jack said. "In fact, I think they might give me my own parking spot."
Jack started toward the door, and Liddell stopped him, saying, "We just got a run."
"Can I go to the men's room?"
"Sure. But if you go in there you'll get yelled at," Liddell reminded him.
Jack muttered something, and they headed for the car.CHAPTER 3
The call reporting the murder had come from the Marriott on the highway near the airport. The caller had requested that police keep the response to a bare minimum, stating "this sort of thing just doesn't happen at the Marriott."
The police dispatcher didn't like the caller's tone of voice, so she sent four uniform cars, detectives, crime scene, fire and rescue squads, and the coroner. By the time Jack and Liddell arrived, the front entrance of the hotel was blocked with police and emergency vehicles including the coroner's black Suburban. Surprisingly, there were no television crews.
Jack and Liddell nodded at the uniformed officer standing guard at the front entrance and walked past the check-in counter, where a harried-looking woman was talking to an older officer.
They rode the elevator to the third floor. The room they wanted was near the end of the hallway, where five black Pelican hard-side cases lay open in the hallway near the door of the room. Arranged neatly inside the cases were cameras, fingerprinting equipment, and other tools.
"Look at all the goodies," Liddell said, eyeing all the cameras and technical equipment. "Marcie wants me to buy a new camera."
"You mean she doesn't like your state-of-the-art Polaroid ?"
The sergeant in charge of the Crime Scene Unit, Tony Walker, stepped out of the room and motioned for Jack and Liddell to come in. "Stay with me," he said.
Sergeant Tony Walker was fifty years old with the physique of a thirty-year-old, and except for his salt-and-pepper hair you would easily mistake him for the latter. They followed Walker into the room and stopped just outside the bathroom door, where Jack could see two crime scene techs in white Tyvek clothing, booties, and hoods. One was taking digital photos. The other was busy taking notes and making a pencil sketch that was better than a computer-generated drawing.
"So what have the techs come up with?" Jack asked. Their backs blocked most of his view of the bathtub, but he could see one slender arm draped over the side of the tub. The arm ended at a bloody wrist. No hand.
Walker shrugged. "She's in pretty bad condition." He tapped the shoulder of the nearest tech. "Give us a minute, guys."
Darkish water trickled over the edge of the tub, running down the side and flooding the tiled floor of the small room. Inside the tub was the body of a white female, submerged, with only the top of her head and right arm above water. Her red hair floated like the bloody spokes of a wheel, radiating away from her skull. Her right arm was draped over the side of the tub. The skin near the wrist glistened with droplets of blood. A little blood had gathered where the arm made contact with the side of the tub, but Jack guessed that most of it had washed away with the water that spilled over the side of the tub.
The red hair floated away from the front enough for Jack to see that her face had been destroyed. He hoped they would find some identification in the hotel room because there would be no easy way to identify this woman. Whoever had killed her had removed her face and her right hand. The left arm was down in the water beneath her.
"The killer smashed her teeth out," Walker commented.
"The other hand?" Jack asked.
Walker shook his head. "We won't know until we move her."
Jack looked more closely at the wounds on top of the victim's head. The red hair was thick, even though it was now soaked with blood where it was pasted against the top of the woman's skull. Several deep gashes crisscrossed the scalp. Maybe she put up a fight and was struck on top of the head with something, but she wasn't killed in this room, Jack thought.
The body was turned slightly away from the threshold of the doorway where Jack stood, but he was able to see that the wound to her face started at the top of the forehead and moved downward, slicing through meat, skin, and sinewy muscle. The killer had cut away most of the face, including the nose and lips. It looked as if he had hacked downward with something wide and sharp. Where there should have been a face, only a skeletal mask remained. The eyes were missing, leaving bloody chasms in the orbital sockets.
"Is it okay if I get closer?" Jack asked. Walker nodded.
Jack stepped into the room and felt the water soak into his loafers. He stood directly above the corpse's head and looked down, then quickly retreated out of the room.
"Any weapons yet?" he asked Walker.
Excerpted from The Coldest Fear by RICK REED. Copyright © 2011 Rick Reed. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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