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"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph."
The air left his chest with a mighty whoosh. All sounds ceased to exist as blood pounded mercilessly in his ears. My God, he could not believe his eyes as sun poured through the leaves. Tiny rays created a ring of light.
There certainly was no other way to describe it. A hazy illumination lit the victim's head, big as Christ. But this was no Christ, nor was His hand at work here. No--Satan had lent his touch to this one.
Deputy Detective KC Tanner stayed the urge to wretch as he stared upon the figure nailed to the make-shift wooden cross, green flies buzzing the head; maggots crawled about the nose, eyes, and ears. The stench sent two accompanying deputies to their knees, emptying whatever remained of lunch behind a tall evergreen.
Fixed lividity darkened the victim's mangled legs, obviously broken, and the body hung limp from the cross, held fast by three square-headed nails: one through each wrist and one through the arch of the feet as the left foot overlapped the right.
Big gaping holes remained, stretched grotesquely from the weight of the body as gravity pulled it steadily downward, but the ropes binding his wrists and feet held him to the cross. Dried brownish-crimson trails lined the feet and hands as though pointing toward the pool now soaked into the rich soil at his feet.
Duct tape had been used to silence his screams--though none would have been heard, not this far from civilization.
His crime had been nailed behind his head; one word, painted in bold black letters across a white cardboard: ADULTERY.
Mike MacArthur, Mac to his friends, stood beside KC,hands deep in his pockets, rocking back on the heels of his worn boots, an ever-present wad of chewing tobacco stuck in his left cheek. He spit a stream of brown goo just beyond where they stood.
Mac had been Sheriff of McCreary County going on seven years. He and KC had worked side by side for fifteen, first as partners. Now Mac's title made him KC's boss, while KC was McCreary County's only homicide detective.
"Well, what do you think?" Mac finally asked, his eyes still fixated on the cross, though his gaze seemed more to go right through the hideous sight and land some twenty yards beyond.
A chill settled. KC knew it was not about to abate, not until they found the cold-hearted bastard capable of crucifying a man. A shiver shook his spine. He could not begin to imagine what poor George Stanton--bloated and vaguely recognizable due to the decomposition that had already set in--had gone through before he finally died. Of course, the standard DNA and dental records would be done to prove the victim's identity, but KC was pretty certain who hung before him.
The man had been missing for seven days. His small Stop 'n' Shop in the center of Pine Knot had been closed since Friday, when he had last been spotted locking up. Since then, no one had seen George and the sheriff's office had little luck in locating him--until now.
KC rubbed a cold hand down his coarse whiskered cheek as he stared at what remained of the man's eyes. Eye sockets. Good Lord, the birds had had their feast.
"I think it's safe to say somebody was mighty pissed off at ol' George." KC's chuckle rang hollow.
Mac turned his gaze on KC, narrowing it. "You think this is the work of one person?"
KC shrugged as he watched the deputies, now back on their feet, wrap yellow crime-scene tape around the surrounding area. Neither of the deputies' complexion looked too healthy at the moment as though the slightest provocation would send them back to their knees.
KC pointed to the rope secured at the top of the cross and slung over a low branch. Its untied end lay coiled atop a soft bed of pine needles like the shed skin of a snake.
"It's possible that end was tied to something, maybe the bumper of a truck. If the cross lay on the ground with George attached--a vehicle could have easily lifted it with that rope slung over the branch and dropped it in a pre-dug hole."
Mac nodded slowly. "Then one person could have certainly done the job. But the question is, how do you get a grown man to lie still while you bind him and drive huge nails through his wrists? A man of George Stanton's size--it would take several to hold him down."
Running a hand through his hair, KC wondered the same thing. Ol' George wouldn't have gone easily. And even someone the size of Mac at six-foot-three, weighing in at two-forty, could not possibly hold George still while he wrapped each wrist with rope and drove a nine-inch nail through it.
"I don't know what to think," KC answered truthfully, with a shake of his head. "In all my years, I've never seen anything like it."
"Down here in McCreary County, you ain't likely to see it again."
"How long you think he's been hanging there?"
"By the smell of him--at least a week."
"And if it wasn't for Alice Hughes hiking through the woods and wandering off the trail, he might have hung here a while longer."
Mac pursed his lips and sighed. "Poor girl. She's likely to have nightmares for months over this, maybe years. She's damn lucky she didn't get lost wandering around out here."
"I don't think she was out here alone."
Mac, his prominent brows knit closely together, looked at KC adding nothing, just waiting for him to continue. He shifted the pinch of tobacco from one side of his mouth to the other before spitting again.
"Come on, Mac," KC said, his normal deep tone rising a notch, "you think a sixteen-year-old would be wandering in the forest alone? She was probably with someone she had no business being with...possibly out having a little poke in the woods. Obviously, she wouldn't be too hip on the idea of telling the County Deputies what she was really up to out here."
"Either way, she needs to be bent over someone's knee, by George," Mac said, which had both their gazes flitting back to the man on the cross.
Mac quickly crossed himself. "Maybe we ought to call a priest or something."
"More like a coroner," KC said. "It's not like any minister's going to be of any help to him now."
"I already radioed Doc Johnson. Someone's bringing him out in a four-by-four. Should be here any minute."
KC absently fingered the slender scar beside his left eye, a reminder of how lucky he was to be alive. If it had not been for Mac, he probably wouldn't be.
"Well, I guess I'll get to work."
Leaving Mac standing at the base of the cross, KC trekked back to his black Blazer, emblazoned with the Sheriff's shield on the front doors. In this county, most back roads required four-wheel-drives to get through them.
He lifted the window on the back and extracted several kits, placing them on the ground behind the SUV. Taking a black notepad and pencil from one of the boxes, he walked back to the scene, ducking beneath the yellow "POLICE LINE--DO NOT CROSS" tape.
Mac scanned the cordoned area, gently moving the weeds and pine needles with the toe of his boot as KC made a sketch of the scene, measuring and triangulating the position of the cross and the body. Deputy Bob Miller, wielding a .35-millimeter camera, snapped pictures. He took most of the crime-scene photos for the county, since one of his minors in college and his passions in life was photography.
KC had to admit, the man had talent. Some of his photos had taken first place in area county fairs. KC couldn't help wondering how Bob's crime-scene photos might do at those competitions. Probably scare the dickens out of the average citizen, he thought with a chuckle. McCreary County wasn't ready for an art exhibit of that kind; not with ol' George as the main attraction.
Finished with his sketches, KC returned to the Blazer for a bucket, distilled water, and a white milk carton containing dental mold. Noting deeply embedded tire tracks on the other side of the cross, KC would bet his earlier assessment correct--a truck had been used to hoist the cross.
He walked to the spot and set up a special camera on a base that took photos of tireprints and shoeprints from directly overhead. KC grabbed a twelve-inch ruler and laid it beside the tire print, then snapped the shot. Picture taken, he knelt beside the disturbed pine needles, then added the water to the dental mold powder. Using hair spray as a fixative in the indentation, KC then poured the thin compound into the track, using the stir stick as a diffuser so as not to disturb the marks left behind. Finished, KC cut a length of screening and added it to the top to strengthen the cast. He then placed small samples of soil in a paper envelope and tagged it as evidence.
Mac caught his attention as he bent to extract something from beneath the cover of dry needles and weeds. A silver chain glinted in the meager sunlight, filtering through the branches. A small oval medallion suspended from it.
"A medal of some sort?" KC asked, his nerve endings raw with excitement.
Mac jumped, clearly oblivious to KC's approach. The chain with its ornament swung like a pendulum and almost fell to the ground.
"Looks like a St. Christopher," Mac replied.
"Think it belongs to whoever did this?"
Mac shrugged as he removed a plastic Ziploc from his pocket and dropped the necklace inside. KC reached for the bag as a blue pickup pulled into the clearing beside the deputies' SUV. Mac placed the bag in his pocket and headed for the vehicle, leaving KC behind.
Doc Johnson leapt from the cab, like someone more in his thirties than late fifties. Like part of a morning ritual, KC, headed into Whitley City on his way to the sheriff's office, always passed Doc in a pair of sweats and Nikes, running his usual ten miles.
Mac extended his hand, which the coroner shook cordially.
"What we got here, Mac?" he asked, pulling his black bag from the seat of the truck.
"It ain't pretty. Look's like we found ol' George Stanton. He was hanging out all right, just like we figured. Problem is, don't look like he's gonna be opening the ol' Stop 'n' Shop any time soon."
Doc glanced past Mac's shoulder, to a spot just beyond KC. His eyes widened when his gaze landed on the object of their conversation.
"For the love of Mike," he muttered. "What the hell happened?"
Mac placed a hand on Doc's shoulder and led him to the base of the cross. Doc's nose twitched at the smell. His body quivered.
Doc was the coroner all right, used to examining the dead. But in McCreary County, he had limited experience in finding week-long deceased bodies. Doc looked ready to add to the mess left behind the evergreen by the two deputies.
"Well, that's the thing, Doc," Mac said, heartily patting him on the back, "we're hoping you could tell us."
Doc vigorously scratched the area of his throat, just below the ear. "He's dead all right. What else do you want to know?"
KC walked to the two, placing a fist on each hip. "How about starting with time of death."
"Well"--Doc made a sound of disgust--"get someone to cut him down and haul him to the morgue. I should be able to give you a pretty good estimate. But there sure isn't a whole hell of a lot I can do with him on that cross."
Doc Johnson took some photos, then gathered vegetation from the base of the cross and placed it in a paper envelope. Without another word, the coroner gave his back and returned from where he came, muttering something about morals or the lack thereof.
Mac turned to KC and shrugged. "Well, you heard the man. Let's get someone out here to cut him down."
• • •
Sharalee MacArthur sauntered into the sheriff's office, the heels of her red pumps clicking off the highly polished marble floor. She straightened the front of her red linen suit and slipped a button free on her white blouse, adding a little more view of her cleavage.
For the past year, since her graduation from college, she had been serving McCreary County as a victim's advocate. And she was damn good at it.
So why hadn't KC ever looked at her as anything other than the child he had watched grow up? Shar had carried a torch for KC Tanner for as long as she could remember. Probably since the first time KC strolled across her and her father's threshold fifteen years ago. She was all but nine and he twenty-three. But what did age really matter to a nine-year-old?
She swore, one day KC would exclusively be hers, and that he would never want to look at another woman. But to her dismay that day still hadn't come to pass, no matter how provocative the clothes she wore, on which her father never ceased to comment, or how flirtatious her nature became.
KC always seemed to tousle the top of her hair, or good-heartedly slap her on the back. He treated her like one of the ball players from the basketball team he coached, although, he had not yet taken to slapping her soundly on the derrière...not that she would mind.
The door to her father's office stood open, and by the sound, both Mac and KC were in attendance. With not as much as a knock to announce her arrival, she strolled into the office, a large saucy smile pasted on her face. As always, her father's face lit up when she entered. With her mother being gone some twenty years, Shar had become his whole life.
KC, however, barely glanced at her before returning to whatever uninteresting paper he clutched in his hands. For crying out loud, what did it take to get the man's attention?
Obviously, whatever Kate Kershaw had, and Shar didn't. But Shar intended on finding out--even if it meant befriending the ice princess from Williamsburg. KC and the prima donna had been an item for more than six years. Shar thought Kate wouldn't stand a chance once KC realized she had grown up. But that day hadn't happened--and Shar was beginning to think it never would.
Her shoulders slumped in defeat.
Mac stood behind his desk, grasped and hugged her. "Hi, sweetheart," he said as he kissed her cheek.
Shar couldn't help stealing another glance at KC, who continued to be completely unaffected by her presence. His nearly black hair, combed back from his forehead and accenting straight brows that shot upward at an odd angle, gave his warm brown eyes a devilish appearance. But the most sensuous part of him, the part that never failed to draw her attention, was his full lips. Lips she could only imagine on every part of her body.
"I really think you ought to dress a little more appropriately for the office, dear," her father said, drawing her out of her reverie. He refastened the button she had just undone. "Don't you think, KC?"
KC mumbled a noncommittal reply and continued to read the report. If not for Kate, Shar might be tempted to think the man gay.
Shar turned to her father. "So what did you need?"
Mac indicated that she take the seat beside KC, then took his own behind the desk. Shar sat, inhaling deeply of KC's scent. He smelled of woods and musk: the great outdoors.
Finally KC glanced her way and slapped her on the nylon-covered knee in a brotherly form of affection. "So, how's your day?"
The heat from the brief touch of his palm traveled clear up her thigh, making her wonder at her decision to hold out for KC. At this rate, she might very well die a virgin.
"It was going great until about four minutes ago," she mumbled. KC and Mac looked queerly at her. She continued, "So what's this about?"
KC gave Shar his full attention. "We found George Stanton dead this morning."
"Oh, my." Shar's eyes widened, her heart drummed in her chest. An odd, abysmal feeling fell over her. "The kind man that owns the Stop 'n' Shop?"
"One and the same," Mac replied. "I'm going to let KC fill in the sordid details. I need to run over to the morgue and see if the coroner can give us a time of death, maybe even sit in on the autopsy."
"Let me know what you find," KC replied as Mac left them.
Bad timing. George Stanton's family needed to be informed about his untimely death and all Shar could think about was closing the office door and showing KC what he was missing. Why did all sane thought seem to leave her in his presence? Maybe because she had waited too long for him to notice her as a woman. And by the looks of things, that situation wasn't about to rectify. "So how did George die?"
"I've never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again."
Shar shifted in her seat. Something did not feel right about this death. Why else would they need her--a Victim's Advocate?
"He was murdered?"
"I wish it were that simple, Shar--Ol' George was crucified."
Shar chuckled. "You're joking, right?"
KC's face hardened. "I wish I were. Someone nailed George to a big cross and I don't think he was dead when they did it."
She felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her light-headed and dizzy. KC grasped her free hand, his hand hot in contrast to her cold one.
"Are you going to be all right?"
Shar pulled her hand free and used it to smooth down her linen skirt. "I'm fine."
"I know we've all dealt with murder before, but in all my years on the force, I haven't seen anything like this."
"You need me to go with you to speak to his wife." It was more a statement than a question.
"You're better at these kinds of things."
"It's what I'm trained for."
She glanced away, trying desperately not to shed a tear. How could she possibly comfort George's wife when she was anything but herself? She couldn't begin to fathom the horrible death he must have endured.
KC grasped her chin and brought her gaze back to his. A tear slipped past her lash and he used the pad of his thumb to wipe it away. The single, kindest act KC had shown her to date and she couldn't even enjoy it.
"How well did you know the Stantons?"
"We all went to St. Mary's Cathedral. As a little girl, I played with his kids. Whenever I would go into the little carryout on Marsh Creek Road, Mr. Stanton would always hand me a string of rock candy, knowing how much I liked it. Why would anyone want to hurt such a good man?"
KC sighed as he sat back in his chair. "To tell you the truth, I don't have the foggiest idea. I'm not even sure how many people are involved. But it's hard for me to believe one person could have accomplished this on his or her own."
"So you think a woman might be involved?"
He chuckled. "Women usually aren't that cruel by nature. But, as a detective, I can't rule out the possibility."
KC stood and offered his hand to Shar, which she took. About half way out of the chair, not yet steady on her heels, a feminine throat cleared. KC dropped her hand like he would a poisonous rattler and Shar fell ungracefully back into her seat.
A disgruntled Kate Kershaw stood in the doorway, arms crossed over her small breasts, tapping the toe of a well-polished western boot.
Copyright © 2002 by Patricia A. Rasey
Posted November 25, 2003
Deputy Detective KC Tanner was the only homicide detective in the small town of Pine Knot. Nothing big ever happened in the tiny community. That was why KC had left the big city and returned to his hometown. Pine Knot's sheriff, Mike 'Mac' MacArthur, had once been KC's partner on the police force. The two had known each other for years. In fact, KC had watched Mac's little girl grown up into a lovely young woman. ........................ Sharalee 'Shar' MacArthur was the area's Victim's Advocate. Shar had a crush on KC since she was little. As she grew, the crush matured into love. Problem was that KC kept seeing her as a child and her father was keeping everyone away from her. It was up to her to show them both how wrong they were. ....................... When tortured bodies began showing up, KC was naturally the one assigned to the case. But the only solid link between them all were that all the victims had been attached, in some way, to Sheriff MacArthur's deceased wife. What was a man to do when it looked as though his ex-partner and close friend might be a murderer? ......................... **** Here is a wonderful detective thriller that will leave your head spinning. Every time I thought I knew who the killer was another twist came up that had me wondering all over again. There is even a surprise ending! Patricia A. Rasey is an author to keep your eye on. She gets better with each new story. Recommended reading. ****
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