Branson county sheriff Hank Worth struggles to uncover the truth behind a fatal car crash in this absorbing mystery.
Hank Worth thinks he’s performed a good deed when he pulls over the car of six teens caught speeding on a Saturday night and lets them off with a warning and instructions to go home. When he responds to an urgent call minutes later, he realises he made a fatal error of judgement – every teen is dead.
About the Author
Formerly a crime reporter for daily newspapers such as the Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer, Claire Booth has used this experience to write three mystery novels based on small-town US life. She is also the author of one non-fiction book, The False Prophet: Conspiracy, Extortion and Murder in the Name of God.
Read an Excerpt
He walked casually up to the car. They'd been going twenty-five miles an hour over the limit. It was a warm night, and all their windows were rolled down. He knew because he could hear the laughter as they sailed by his cruiser, which was hidden behind the newly installed billboard on Highway 248, a few minutes south of the Ozark Mountain Highroad.
He reached the back of the brown sedan and put on his best stern sheriff face as he took the last steps to the driver's door. There were six teenagers – two in the front and four wedged in the back. They all stared at him with the panicked look of good kids who had no experience getting into trouble.
He bent down to get a better look at the driver and did a double take.
The kid in the front passenger seat froze.
'Hi, Mr Worth.' He swallowed nervously.
He was a quiet teen who sometimes caught a ride home with his aunt, a secretary in the county government offices next door to the sheriff's department. Hank had run into him a few times as he practiced his soccer skills in the parking lot.
Hank gave Gabe a disappointed half-smile and asked to see the license and registration of the driver. That teen dug his wallet out of his back pocket with shaking fingers, and Gabe rooted frantically through the glove box until he found the correct paper. Hank calmly took both documents. And then frowned.
The address of the sixteen-year-old driver didn't match the address on the registration. He bent down again so everyone could clearly see his face.
'Whose car is this?'
A boy in a red-checked flannel shirt sitting directly behind the driver slowly raised his hand.
'My-my mom's,' he stuttered.
And everybody was taking turns at the wheel, Hank figured. He collected all the driver's licenses and took the stack back to his patrol car. He got in and looked at his watch. He'd give them five minutes to sweat before he went back. He had run the plates before pulling them over, and that data matched the registration paperwork. The car wasn't stolen, the kids hadn't been called in as runaways, and no other vehicles were affected. The whole thing was nothing more than a little Saturday night joyriding.
He made a show of pretending to tap on the laptop and then talk into the mic for a bit. That terrified the girl peeking at him through the back window. He decided to start with her as he walked back to the sedan.
A petite strawberry blonde, she got her license back and a stern lecture about seatbelts. Then Hank watched as she buckled herself to the much taller brunette also wedged in the middle seat. They were bookended by the car owner's son and another boy. Since those two actually were using their seatbelts, they got Hank's responsible-citizens-don't-go-along-with-law-breaking-activities speech instead.
Then Hank returned his attention to the front seat. The driver, a kid with bright blue eyes and a crisp barbershop haircut, looked ready to pass out. Gabe looked ready to vomit. Hank had a feeling that Backseat Boy's mom wouldn't appreciate that. He told Gabe to put his head between his knees, and then he opened the driver's door. He had the driver step out and told backseat boy to do the same.
'I think,' Hank said, looking at the registered owner's son, 'that your mom loaned you her car so you could drive it – not your friends. Right?'
The kid nodded.
'So should we call her to come out here and straighten things out?'
The kid let out a strangled groan. It was echoed by the girls in the backseat. Everyone in the car stared at him with a mixture of horror and pleading. Good.
He switched the two boys' seats, putting the car owner's son behind the wheel. He thought for a minute, took another look at Gabe – who still looked sick – and decided to cut them a break.
'You will all go straight home. Right now,' he said. 'And if I ever run into any of you again, for any reason, I will be talking to your parents – while you sit in a jail cell.'
They all gave jerky, frightened nods, and the sedan pulled away with the speed of a tired tortoise. Hank followed them for a mile, slowly dropping back until he was satisfied they would get to the Highroad without incident and continue to obey traffic laws even without his squad car behind them.
He swung the cruiser into a three-point turn and headed back toward his patrol route, chuckling at the blithe recklessness of the young. He'd done the same thing as a teenager on the dusty country roads of his hometown. In the back of a pickup truck, no less. Lucky he'd lived to reach adulthood, he thought. These kids would, too. Hopefully a little wiser than they were before they borrowed that car.
He made his way south, turning up the volume on the scanner even though it was silent. Not much going on for a weekend night. He cruised along for several more miles before a call finally came in. Vehicle accident. He read back the location and headed toward it.
It was a twisted crush of metal and plastic that had rained bits and pieces all over the roadway. Twenty minutes ago, it had been a brown sedan.
It looked like it had rolled at least once. The roof was caved in and the supports had buckled outward. The impact had bent the hood back and through the windshield.
Hank ran toward it, his whole body shaking. The driver's-side doors were wedged shut. He bent down, but couldn't see through the shattered windows. He hurried to the other side, his boots scrabbling on pebbles of safety glass and shards of hard plastic as he slipped and slid on the dirt slope.
The front passenger door had crumpled in a way that forced it ajar an inch or two. Hank wedged his hands into the gap and pulled. It didn't move. He braced a foot against the back door and tried again. The metal started to scream. Or maybe that was him.
He pulled harder. It started to give. He got it open about a foot before the bent framework made it impossible to go farther. He pulled the flashlight out of his duty belt and aimed the beam inside. Gabe was pinned to his seat by the air bag. It hadn't been enough to protect him from this kind of impact, though. His head tilted at an impossible angle, and his lifeless eyes stared straight ahead.
Hank couldn't make out much of the driver behind his inflated airbag, except for a swatch of red-checked flannel. He turned the flashlight as much toward the back as he could in the narrow door opening. The roof had collapsed so low, he couldn't see any bodies. Just blood.
There was no possibility any of them back there were still alive.
He stepped slowly away from the car. The only sounds were the fading hiss of the engine and his tortured breathing. His vision was turning red at the edges. How, how, how? How had this happened?
Hank stumbled back around the car. He had to try for the driver again. The kid might still be alive. He hadn't been able to tell from the other side, not for sure. But the driver's door still wouldn't budge. He'd have to get in through the window. He punched the already spider-webbed glass with the butt of his flashlight and was trying to clear it out when a strong hand grabbed his shoulder.
'Hank, come on. We'll do that. We have equipment.'
The hand forced Hank to turn away from the car. Larry Alcoate stood there. There were two fire engines and an ambulance behind him. Hank hadn't even heard the sirens.
His paramedic friend stared at Hank with a funny look on his face and then pointed off to the side. 'Go catch your breath. We'll take it from here.'
Hank walked until he was clear of the immediate scene. He turned back to see emergency personnel swarming the wreckage, preparing to rip it apart. One paramedic was unfolding body bags.
Oh, dear God.
He sank to his knees.
He should have given them a ticket.
He should have called their parents.
He should never have let them go.CHAPTER 2
He didn't know how long he knelt there before he forced himself to look up. It was so quiet. He was always amazed at how little sound the hydraulic jaws made. Larry wielded them with expert ease, snipping apart the car as if it were a tin can. Two other guys, communicating with only hand signals, started to peel back the roof. They concentrated on the section over the driver, who was the only one with even a remote chance of survival. Larry started on the door.
Within seconds, the red flannel shirt was visible and a gurney was wheeled close. Larry stepped back. Hank stopped breathing. The paramedics lifted slowly and carefully. But it didn't matter. They called it as soon as the kid was on the gurney. He was dead, too. All six, dead.
Hank gulped in air and dropped his head. He stared at the dirt and tried to control his breathing. Then two running shoes appeared in front of him. They were too small and too pink to be Sam's. Too small to be anybody's but ...
'What exactly are you doing?' said Sheila.
He looked up into the face of his chief deputy. Her jaw dropped and she took a step back.
'Jesus, Hank. What the hell happened? Are you hurt?'
He shook his head. Why would she ask that? There was a car full of dead kids, and she was asking about him? He raised his hand to wave her away and saw the blood. Oh.
'Stand up. Let me look at you.' She peered up at his face and then whipped out a tissue. 'Blow your nose,' she ordered.
He obeyed. She eyed him with a mix of puzzlement and concern. It was not like him to lose his composure over an accident scene. He knew that. He knew a lot of things at the moment, none of which were helping him get a grip on himself.
'I'm going to go check in with Larry,' she said, pivoting toward the car. 'See if he's figured out how many victims we've got.'
'There are six.'
She froze, then slowly turned back to him.
'How do you know that? The car is crushed.'
'Because I stopped them. Earlier. Gave them ... lectured them ... and told them to go straight home. They were just kids ... they ...' His voice stopped working.
All the starch went out of Sheila. 'Oh, sweet Lord,' she whispered.
They stared at each other. Behind Sheila, metal shrieked as more of the roof was peeled away. She thought for a moment and then drew herself up to her full five foot four.
'I'm going to talk to Larry and call in the Major Crash Investigation Unit from the Highway Patrol. You –' she pointed away from the crash site – 'are going to go over and take his statement.'
Hank looked over. He hadn't even noticed anyone there. A stubbled old man in a bathrobe and galoshes stood at the end of a driveway with a phone in one hand and a garden hose in the other. The man was an unexpected lifeline. Hank grabbed it.
'Sir, I need to ask you some questions.' He walked across the two-lane road, pulling himself together as he pulled his notebook out of the breast pocket of his uniform.
The man nodded. 'I expect you do. I was the one that called the 91-1.'
Hank had deduced that. There didn't appear to be anyone else around for miles.
'Where were you when it happened?' he asked, although he'd already guessed the answer.
'Inside. All tucked in for the night,' the man said, gesturing over his shoulder to a little house sitting on a slight hill about twenty yards off the road.
Ralph Dindleton was a wiry six-footer, with a square jaw that made his skinny neck look even thinner. He'd lived here for round about fifty years now, and he'd just turned off the TV when he heard it. For the first second, he thought it was just another speeder who hadn't done the curve in the road right. Sometimes they hit the boulder he'd put there at the bend to keep folk from driving right on up into his vegetable garden. That made a noise when it happened, but most times there wasn't enough damage to stop 'em and they'd drove off by the time he got outside.
But this was different. Dindleton gestured helplessly at the wreck. Once his poor senses had caught up, he knew. Something awful. Too big a sound. He grabbed his cell phone and called as he run down the driveway. He ended up with the hose, too. Not sure why. He thought maybe it would help. But then he got to where he could see it. And he couldn't go no further.
'I never seen something so bad. I didn't know where to start. It's just ... just ... a disaster.'
He turned to Hank. 'And then you showed up. Right quick. But ...' Yeah, Hank thought. But it hadn't mattered.
He forced himself to focus on Dindleton. What exactly had the impact sounded like? The old man thought about it. Then he dropped the phone in his bathrobe pocket, rubbed the back of his neck, and thought some more. Hank waited patiently. He had a feeling this guy didn't do anything without a full dose of pondering.
'Well, now,' Dindleton said slowly, 'I'm going to hear that sound over and over until my dyin' day, I think. But that's not what you're asking. At first, I thought it was one long sound, but reflecting on it here right now, I'm pretty sure it was two.' He nodded decisively. 'Yep. Two sounds.'
The first crunch was more typical, Dindleton said, like what he was used to hearing. The two men stared at each other and then walked as one to the large rock set at the curve in the road. Beyond it was the last of Dindleton's fall corn crop. On it was a smear of brown paint and black rubber.
The second sound came so quick that it ran together with the first, Dindleton said, staring down at his boulder. But it was different. It was a crack and a boom and a skid all at once.
'Like the sky fell ... that's what it was,' Dindleton said. 'It fell, and I was too late to catch it.'
He looked at his lowly garden hose and swallowed hard. Hank got dizzy.
A scrape against the asphalt drew their attention to the wreck. The paramedics had brought up another gurney. They watched as Larry helped lift the front seat passenger into a body bag. His name was Gabriel Schattgen. He had been seventeen.CHAPTER 3
Dindleton gently steered him up the driveway, his knurled fingers on Hank's shoulder. He stopped about ten yards from the road.
'OK, son, let me see your hands. You're gettin' blood everywhere.'
Hank stared down at his hands in surprise. The right was covered in red scratches. The left had a gouge near his thumb and another one on the edge of his palm. He jumped back as Dindleton turned on the hose nozzle.
'Now hold still. You're bad as a newborn colt.'
Dindleton carefully flushed out the cuts. The cold water in the open wounds hurt and made him glad. It drew his attention away from the pain in his head, and his chest.
'There,' Dindleton said, turning off the hose. 'Feel better?' He gave Hank a keen look that seemed full of speculation, or of judgment. Hank fought the urge to hang his head and instead forced himself to turn back to the wreckage. He should at least face what he'd done. He saw Sheila striding toward him and walked over to meet her.
'MCIU is on its way,' she said, putting her cell back in the pocket of her windbreaker. She was in civilian clothes – T-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes. Apparently it had to be one in the morning before she would forego a uniform.
'They said they'd have a sergeant here within a half hour, so we need to leave everything as-is until he gets here,' she continued and then stopped at the look on his face.
'We can't leave those kids in there,' he said. 'We have to get them out. They can't stop.' He flung his arm toward the emergency workers, just in time to see them all step back from the twisted metal. 'They have to get those kids out of there.'
He realized his voice was rising, but he didn't care. Sheila did, though. She raised a calming hand. 'I think that —'
'Hey, it's OK,' Larry interrupted as he loped over to them. 'We can wait. The rest of the county's quiet. And I've alerted my off-duty guys that they might have to take a call if one comes in. So everything's fine.'
Everything was not fine.
Sheila's hand was on his chest. 'Calm. Down.'
Larry took a step back. 'Dude. You OK?'
Hank again stated that they couldn't leave the bodies in the wreckage for that long. Maybe too forcefully, seeing as Larry took another step back. Then his friend shot Sheila a what-the-hell look.
'I just think,' Hank said in what he thought was a deliberate tone, but to the others might've sounded angry, 'that we should get the victims out of the car. They need to be ... taken care of.'
Larry nodded. 'I get it. Especially if they end up being as young as those two in the front looked. But to get to them – and we don't even know how many there are – we have to completely tear the car apart. And that's not going to do the Major Crash folks much good when they try to reconstruct what happened. You know that.'
Sheila gave Hank the tiniest of shoves. She was communicating that he needed to say something – calmly.
'You're right ...' Hank said. 'I'm just a little wound up about it because ... because I pulled them over. That car. Earlier tonight. About twenty minutes before ...' All three turned to look at the bloody wreckage. 'And there were six of them. Four in the backseat. I made them buckle up and promise me they'd go straight home to their parents. And this ...' he searched for more words and came up empty.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Deadly Turn"
Copyright © 2018 Claire Booth.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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