Katrina Williams left the army ten years ago, disillusioned and damaged. Now a sheriff’s detective at home in the Missouri Ozarks, Williams is living her life one case at a time—between mandated therapy sessions—until she learns that she’s a suspect in a military investigation with ties to her painful past.
Then the corpse of a local girl is found by a bootlegger, whose information leads Williams into a tangled web of teenagers, moonshiners, motorcycle clubs, and a fellow veteran battling illness and his own personal demons. Unraveling each thread will take time that Katrina might not have—as the army investigator turns his searchlight on the devastating incident that ended her military career. Now Katrina will need to dig deep for the truth—before she’s buried herself.
“A gifted writer.” —Mystery Scene
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A Living Grave
A Katrina Williams Novel
By Robert E. Dunn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Robert E. Dunn
All rights reserved.
Therapy is not for the weak. It is spine-ripping, devastatingly hard work that shines a light on all the secret parts of your soul. We are all vampires at the center of ourselves, I think. Those bits of ourselves, the secrets that are protected by ego and self-delusion, burn like phosphorus flames when the light finally pins them down.
I didn't choose therapy. The sessions were a requirement of keeping my job with the Taney County Sheriff's Department. I'm the only female detective in the department and the only one required to attend counseling.
There had been an incident —
There had been incidents —
I guess the final straw that I had tossed onto the sheriff's back was what I called a "justified adjustment of attitude." It wasn't that I minded so much the trouble setting the wife-beater straight got me into. What really got to me was that the wife, with her two raccoon eyes and broken nose, picked him up at the hospital and took him right back to the familial double-wide. Some things no amount of adjustment can fix.
My therapist said that I was violent toward the man but exhibited more anger at the woman. Those were the kinds of things she said and I had to listen to. That was easy to blow off, but sometimes she said something that stuck like a bit of glass in my eye. That morning she had mentioned my clothes in the way only a woman in pencil skirts and strappy shoes can bring up another woman's choice of jeans and boots. I work for a living and being pretty isn't part of the job. Sometimes her questions and observations made me want to grab a fistful of perfect hair and adjust her attitude a little.
I didn't, though, because sometimes — just sometimes — she shines a light that I guess I really need to see. Maybe I need the burning away.
Sessions were over at ten, but I took the mornings off until noon. The doctor was in Springfield and the Taney County seat was Forsyth. It was close to an hour drive each way the best of times. Post-session was never the best of times, so I usually went through home. Nixa, Missouri has little to distinguish itself to the rest of the world, but it was my hometown. It was where I went after the Army, and it's where I return every few days just to touch something that was gone. There really aren't words for what was gone. I didn't know the thing, just the absence of it. That's the kind of crap you learn in therapy. Home didn't fill the hole, it just let me walk the edges without falling in. I learned that on my own. Something else it did for me — it let me eat without feeling like a complete carb whore. Sometimes I would pick up Dad and take him to the Drop Inn Café for a late breakfast of biscuits and gravy. If it was a bad day, I had the big plate of eggs, runny over medium, with sides of grits and bacon and toast. Therapy to get over therapy. That morning Dad was gone, off again to D.C., where he still did consulting work for the government twenty years after retiring from the Army. He never told me anything but happy stories about his time in the service and I never told him anything but happy stories about mine. My therapist says we're both lying to ourselves and each other, but honestly I think I'm the only one with lies to tell. I missed him as I sat alone in the café and had the eggs and bacon with extra grits.
Missouri roads are some of the worst in the country but have some of the best curves. There is so much up-thrust sandstone and limestone karst topography that straight lines had been impossible for anything but federal road projects. I would have made better time on Highway 65. It was a bland seam of government concrete, no joy at all. But I wasn't looking for progress. I was looking to grind time under my wheels and kill it with horsepower and dangerous turns. Going through Nixa kept me on 160 the whole way. The long way back to Forsyth, but even in a truck, the curved path is more fun.
Already the sun was high and burning languid heat into the day. I like to drive with the windows down on the pickup. Nixa is my hometown, but the entire Ozarks region is home. And I like the feel of home on my skin as I drive. The moving air smelled of cut grass and horse manure. Despite the heat, it was heavy with humidity.
When the cell phone vibrated on the console I stared at it hard, hoping it might back down. It didn't. I put the windows up and turned on the air before answering. I needed to hear clearly. The only calls I ever got were from the office and never casual.
"Yeah," I answered. I wanted her to know how I felt about the intrusion. Not that it would do any good.
"Hurricane. It's Darlene."
I gritted my teeth at the sound of the nickname and took my calming breath. I always imagined every woman named Katrina picked up the same extra baggage after 2005. It sounded kind of action-movie lame to me, but I knew a lot of male cops who would love to be tagged with it. Just another of the things that make me different.
"Yes, Darlene. It's always you," I said back into the phone. Darlene was the most professional dispatcher on the planet. Nothing much seemed to ruffle her panties, which means people like me feel almost all right dumping our moods on her. "What have you got for me?"
She gave the location of a call out to a farm road south of Walnut Shade and on the south side of Bear Creek.
"What's the call?" I asked.
"Just see-the-man. No name. No complaint. He said it was an emergency but didn't need EMTs."
"Did his information show up on the computer?"
"He didn't call 9-1-1. Used the office number."
That told me he was one of the longtime residents. A lot of people around here remembered party lines and there were more than a few left who could tell you what it was like to walk miles to the only phone that you had to crank. They were the ones who remembered the sheriff's department office number but never seemed to get comfortable with 9-1-1.
"I'm on one-sixty coming up on the Reeds Spring cutoff," I told Darlene. I had passed the cutoff at least a mile back. "Don't you have anyone closer?"
"Closer but not available. Almost everyone else is up at Walnut Shade looking for that Briscoe girl."
"Thirteen years old, reported missing when she didn't come home for dinner last night. Sheriff has everyone not already tied up and about forty volunteers checking the dirt roads and late night dirty-tango spots."
"I've got it then. It gives me an excuse to drive fast."
"You need an excuse?" Darlene asked before hanging up.
Walnut Shade was one of those towns that had been something less than a town for a hundred years until the lake region exploded along with Branson in the 1990s. Now it was what we called an unincorporated community, subdivided and paved, but remaining something less than a town. The old-timers don't want change and the new-timers want the illusion of rural life. What that means for us is the sheriff's office getting called every time a mobile home with a leaking septic system floods the yard of the McMansion next door. Still, a call is a call and I had a job to do.
There was no direct route to where I needed to be. If I stayed on 160 it would take me right into Walnut Shade. But since I needed to be below there and on the far side of Bear Creek, I had to take 65 where the two highways crossed. After that, it was mostly hunt through the unmarked farm tracks and fishing paths until I found someone who looked like they'd been waiting an hour.
It didn't take an hour; it only took about forty minutes. The old guy was sitting on the open tailgate of an early-sixties GMC pickup that looked like it had once been painted Forest Service green. When I pulled up and parked he waved a fishing pole in greeting. He was polite but unenthusiastic about dealing with the cops. We get that a lot.
When I introduced myself, he looked me up and down without trying to hide the appraisal. Since he didn't leer, it wasn't clear if he was checking me out as a woman or as a cop. He was pretty old and since he didn't make any comment, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was cop first, female second.
"You want to let me in on why you called?" I asked him.
He looked at his feet and spit a stream of tobacco into the weeds. It wasn't me bothering him. You get to know, as a cop, when you're the problem with someone. When you're a woman cop you get to know a few extra problems.
"I'll show you," he said before dropping off the tailgate. His name was Clarence Bolin. Everyone called him Clare, he told me as we walked. He was the kind of old-timer who the Ozarks had been both commercializing and trying to live down for a generation. Hillbilly. Of course, nowadays that was an epithet to be avoided. Like being drunk and slovenly was the role an oppressive government forced on him. He wore a T-shirt that had once been white under overalls that were unbuttoned at the side to provide room for his huge belly. If it weren't for the belly anyone would have thought the man had no weight on him at all. He had thin arms and legs that flapped like wings in the big legs of the overalls when he walked.
Clare led the way as we tromped over the fallow field. When we got to the border of overgrowth that bounded the cultivated land and separated it from the creek, he held back and waited for me to take the lead.
He walked behind me on the narrow path of crushed foliage for a few yards before he said, "You're the one they call Hurricane, ain't you?"
"Why do you say that?" I asked without looking at him. I was curious to see where this would go.
"People talk about the big-ass female deputy."
I turned around then and gave him a look with crosshairs in it.
"I don't mean to say you got a big ass ... I mean — it's just a way of talking ... Oh hell, you know what I mean — there just aren't that many six-foot-tall women that pile on boots with a cowboy heel."
Just to keep him squirming, I kept the look locked on the old man for a long time, then I said, "Detective."
"Detective. Not Deputy." Clare relaxed a bit, his shoulders coming down to their usual slump. "Are you sure you don't want to make a comment about my boobs now?" I asked.
His shoulders tensed again and his eyes remained aimed exactly at mine. He didn't answer. It was obviously all he could do to keep his eyes off my chest.
"Good man, Clare. There might be hope for you yet," I told him and then turned away, not caring where his look wandered.
From behind me I heard him say, quietly, "No need to bite a man's head off." Then Clare started walking. He kept muttering to himself and it was like Popeye in the old cartoons; you knew he was saying something — you just couldn't understand it. I stopped and in the quiet I heard him say, "... not like I had a very good day myself."
I understood why. There was a girl on the ground in front of me. She was dead. I looked at Clare and he wasn't looking. Not at the girl, not at me. He had turned to look into the high branches of the covering trees, but I got the feeling he wasn't seeing leaves.
There wasn't any doubt in my mind who she was. It had to be the Briscoe girl. Death — this kind of death — just wasn't common here. The chances we would have one missing girl and one, unrelated dead girl within a few miles were nonexistent.
I took another look at her but didn't linger. Something that felt like fear, a hot wave of nausea, and a pounding drumbeat signal to run boiled from my stomach into my throat. It lingered as a flush on my face, but made my feet feel as though they were growing roots into cold ground. This was the abyss the philosopher Nietzsche talked about. The one that stares back if you stare too long into it. A girl left dead and alone. For an instant, the forest floor was desert dust and the girl was me. Just for an instant. Then I regained control.
This is my job. I can do this.
She was flat on her back with her hands up and to the side. Down below her legs were together and her feet splayed. Death was always pigeon-toed. Her shoes were well-worn flats and her skirt a medium-length denim that covered her knees. The knees were scratched and scraped with old injuries and new wounds. Those that looked old also looked normal, benign. One expects kids to have scrapes on knees and elbows. Scabs are the hard-earned badges of youth. Those other marks, though — the ones on the lower part of the knees — were ripped skin with the ground-in detritus of the woods. Black soil and flecks of bark were embedded in the wounds. Bits of leaves glued with the girl's blood were clinging to her limbs. I checked her hands. They were scratched and caked with black soil as well. She had crawled before she was put on her back.
I tried. I worked very hard to focus on her knees. It was important to see those wounds and keep them in my mind. I needed to remember those knees because if I didn't, the image I would always recall was that of her face. It was all but gone.
"Stay here with her," I told Clare. "But stay back where you are. And don't touch anything. I have to make a call."
Making a call required walking back to the high ground at the edge of the woods and fishing the air for a signal. I was glad for the distance. I needed it to pull myself back into myself and focus on the job. As soon as I got a couple of bars, I called Darlene for a description of the girl. She read what she had and told me the name was Angela Briscoe. Then I told her Angela was here, and dead. I asked her to call the sheriff to get help out to me. After hanging up, I stood there for a few moments and waited for the tears that, as always, hit a roadblock and piled up just behind my eyes.
At that point I was mostly waiting for the system to get in motion. It's like a living thing: Something lumbering and brutish that has to unlimber itself, have coffee, and work its way up to a task. You needed to overcome its inertia, get it moving with enough energy to carry it to the end. The sheriff would make calls, talk with the family, the press. Deputies would secure the scene. Investigators would help collect evidence and the ME team would collect the body. I was part of the system too. Because I was first on scene and had awakened the death system, I would be responsible for finding who did this. The trick with this system was to move it without getting it stuck on the wrong paths. There were always more wrong paths than right ones.
How many paths were there that lead to murdered little girls?
I sucked it up. There had been more than a few dead bodies in my life. Some even children. I had been on the investigative team in Iraq when those soldiers — Americans — had killed a family, then raped, killed, and burned the body of a fourteen-year-old girl. People talk about the stress of war driving good soldiers to do bad things. It's crap. It drives bad soldiers to do terrible things. That's what happened to this girl, Angela Briscoe. Someone bad did something horrible to her. I could make it stop.
A few minutes later I was standing over her body again. This time I looked at her, really looked. I had no camera with me so I pulled out my pad and pen and started writing and making a diagram. Photos fix things in the mind; the notes and drawings I make for myself keep things more fluid. They let me recall what I felt at the time, the truth of the moment more than the truth of the scene.
I had noted before that her legs were together, but this time I took note there were no clothes separate from the body. Specifically underclothes.
"Look away," I told Clare. He did, and I noticed he turned completely away without making any attempt to see what I was doing.
What I did was to grab a fallen branch and break off the smaller twigs and leaves until I had a long, crooked stick. I used the stick so I could stay back from the body and lift the girl's skirt. Her panties were where they should be. She probably hadn't been raped. She was wearing a white T-shirt printed with the phrase All Girl All Awesome. The blood covering the top half of the shirt showed clearly the outline of a bra that was in place.
I wrote in my book some more, telling myself all the whys about my belief that there was no sexual assault. Scribbling quickly, I drew out her hand and noted where something had been chewing at her fingers. There were tracks of bird's feet on the arm too. Probably a crow had walked through her blood and then perched on the arm to peck at the fingers.
Excerpted from A Living Grave by Robert E. Dunn. Copyright © 2016 Robert E. Dunn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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