In a mesmerizing debut, cop-turned-author Donald Harstad uses real-life events to paint a jarring picture of crime in America's heartlandwhere two-stoplight towns no longer offer refuge from modern-day brutality.
Life in Maitland, Iowa, is usually predictable, even for a cop. But all that changes the day Deputy Sheriff Carl Houseman's dispatcher receives the terrifying 911 call. The day cops find the mutilated bodies at a remote farmhouse. The first of eleven days Carl will never forget.
As hotshot investigators fly in from New York, Carl and his fellow cops use old-fashioned detective work to piece together clues. But to turn suspicions into suspects, Carl must search among his closest friends to find a killer who has shocked and bewildered cops who'd thought they'd seen it all. And before it's over, Carl will be forced into an unrelenting spiral of chaos, coming face-to-face with evil he never dreamed could exist in Maitland...or anywhere else.
About the Author
Donald Harstad is a twenty-six-year veteran of the Clayton County Sheriff's Department in northeastern Iowa. A former deputy sheriff, Harstad lives with his wife, Mary, in Elkader, Iowa. Eleven Days is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Friday, April 19, 1996
The call came into County Communications from an unidentified source, believed female, possibly under fifty. No callback number was given and no further contact was noted.
"My God, my God, help us here, help us here, please . . ."
"Who is calling and what is wrong?" The dispatcher was Sally Wellsno extra chatter at all and very calm. She was new and part-time, but she learned fast.
"Help us, they're killing everybody! Help!"
"Where are you and who is calling?"
"Just get help"indecipherable"killed Francis, he killed him, help us here!"
"Where are you?"
"The Francis McGuire farm! Help!"
"Where is the farm?"
"Jesus Christ, help us up"indecipherable"didn't mean it. Oh God, oh God, I don't know, please help. Please . . ."
"Stay on the line!" Sally held fast and with the phone to her ear contacted the available patrol cars.
"Comm, three and five . . . 10-33 . . . Possible homicide. Francis McGuire, I think that's the farm near William's Hollow. I, uh, think it's in progress, subject on line. Repeat, this is a 10-33."
"Comm. Three. Which side of the hollow, north or south?" I said in as soothing a voice as I could manage.
"Three, stand by," Sally said with relief. "Ma'am, are you north or south of the Hollow?"
"Jesus God, I don't know. I don't know! Help!"
"One moment. Hold tight. Three. Unable to advise."
Five, Mike Conners, came on. "I think they're on the south side, just before the bridgeabout five miles out of Maitland, second or third gravel to the right."
"10-4, five. Comm, check the caller." I made the turn to take me to the Hollow.
Sally went back to the phone, and it became apparent that the complainant had heard the radio traffic.
"It's the second turn, the second turn, oh God, hurry!"
"She says the second turn, three."
"Tell 'em to hurry!" (Indecipherable) "told me"indecipherable"again! He's just dead. Can't" With that, the line went dead. I was only about ten miles from William's Hollow, while Mike was about twenty-six miles out. Unfortunately I was north, and the directions were from the south.
"Comm, three. I'm in from the north. Find out from what location is the second or third gravel, or which gravel after I cross the bridge going south."
"And look the farm up in the phone book and call it back."
"I'm doing that," Sally snapped.
While she got better directions from Mike in car five, I continued south on the county paving. The roads in our part of Iowa are only twenty feet wide and are exceptionally curvy and hilly. They've managed to pack about 1,300-odd miles of them into the county's 750-square-mile border, and with no sign of a spring thaw, I could count on slipping and sliding the whole way.
"Comm, three. Get 10-78 going." 10-78 was the backup code. If we had a multiple homicide in progress, two duty officers on highway patrol could only do so much.
"10-4, three. For your 10-43, I'm getting no answer at the McGuire residence."
Mike was going to have to travel about nine miles on gravel roads that had the consistency of crushed ice before he would even hit the frozen paved ones. I would beat him to the scene by fifteen minutes or more. The backup in this case meant the one city officer on duty in Maitland, who was between Mike and me. I figured another fifteen minutes response on his side. Anybody else was going to be in bed. I hoped we didn't need them.
Mike and I were both running with lights at full beam and with sirens blaring, both to alert anyone on the scene that we were on the way and to frighten away any deer on the road in front of us. Hitting a two-hundred-pound deer at over a hundred miles per hour might not kill you, but you would be wasted at the point of impact. The manual says to go to a serious crime "as fast as possible, considering the conditions." Which meanst hat if you wreck the car, it's your butt, buddy, not the county's. If I went by the book on this one, I'd hit the McGuire farm a week from Thursday. I made the first nine miles in just under six minutes.
"Comm, three's at the bridge. Confirm that it will be the third gravel on my left."
"10-4, three. Third left past the bridge. Also, three, the hospital received a call like ours and they've dispatched an ambulance."
"10-4, comm. Be sure to tell the paramedics to wait to come in until we've cleared them."
"10-4, three. As soon as they're in the unit."
I was going to acknowledge, but I was skidding past the third left turn. I softly nudged a snowbank, backed up about twenty yards, and made the turn onto the slushy gravel road.
"Comm, how far down this road?"
There are 2,200 farms in the county. I couldn't possibly know where they all were.
"Three, this is five, second farm on the right, it's down a long lane. I don't think there's a name on the mailbox, and you have to go over a little hill before you can see the farm from the road. I've been there about, uh, three times . . . think the house is on the right of the drive, bunch of other buildings on the left, and they're pretty close together."
My "10-4" was a little strained. I was just going over the knoll that cut the view from the roadway.
"Comm, three is 10-23." I was actually still about a hundred yards from the house, but didn't know if I'd have time to say anything from there on in. In those last hundred yards, I reached down and turned on my walkie-talkie, turned off my siren, unbuckled my seat belt and cleared it from interfering with my personal gear, and unsnapped my holster. By that time I was skidding to a stop. I grabbed my flashlight and got out of the car as quickly as I could. The house was on my right.
It was a frame house. Two stories. Needed paint pretty bad. It had a front porch and what appeared to be a back porch and just about every light in the house was on. No sign of movement inside.
They tell you at the academy that if you'll need it, the only place for your weapon is in your hand. I drew my revolver, a .44 magnum, and pointed it down and to my right as I approached the house. There was a bluish yard light, similar to a streetlight, illuminating the yard in a roughly circular pattern. My car was behind me, and without remembering doing it, I had correctly pointed the headlights toward the scene. The beams cast my shadow on the front porch, distracting my attention from cataloging what I was up against. My heart leapt every time I picked up my own movement, so I started with the left, at the barn and a couple of outbuildings. Interior light in the barn. The others were dark. No movement. Neither good nor bad. If there's nobody there, there's no movement. If somebody is aiming a shotgun at you from concealment, they probably won't move, either. I put that possibility out of my mind and proceeded toward the house, careful not to slip on the uneven sheets of ice that led to the front porch.
On my walkie-talkie. It scared the crap out of me, as the speaker was just by my left ear. I turned it off. Twenty-five was the Maitland backup officer, Dan Smith, and since I could hear him on my portable, he was probably within two miles of my position.
I made it to the landing of the screened porch and was able to see into the kitchen at about chest level for anyone standing in there. Nobody was. I would have to go onto the porch to look into the house. I didn't really want to do that. But I did. I stepped up onto the second of four steps and opened the screen door. The interior of the porch was a real mess, cluttered to the point that I was not sure I could negotiate a path. Garbageempty boxes, broken glass, tools, tires, a chain sawsurrounded a small dog to my left who just sat there staring. He didn't move or make a sound. It was the first thing that really worried me.
"Police officer. Anybody in there?"
No response. I said it as loudly as I could without yelling. Tried again. Nothing. I approached the door, stepping as carefully as I could over the mess. I could see through the right-hand window, into the kitchen. Also a wreck, with a table tossed in a corner, its broken leg doubled back underneath. Several chairs were overturned, the refrigerator was dented and at an angle and the top freezer door was open. But no people.
I stood to the side of the front door, put my flashlight in my belt, and knocked as hard as I could.
"Police officer! Is anybody home?"
Again, no answer and then headlights coming down the lane. Twenty-five. I had to turn my portable back on and use my left hand to key the mike.
"Twenty-five, that you?"
"Okay, I'm on the porch. Park behind my car, and stay back until I can get in the house."
Dan Smith was an experienced officer. I felt a lot better. A few seconds later, I heard him jack a round into his shotgun and I didn't feel quite as confident. I hoped he kept the safety on.
I navigated across the porch and tried the kitchen door. It opened about an inch and then hung up. I pushed it harder and it gave a little with a gentle scraping sound from inside, and then a fairly loud thump, like it was blocked by a hundred-pound sack of potatoes. I pushed a little harder, and it opened about two feet to reveal the open mouth and staring eyes of a man who was obviously dead. I stepped back.
"Twenty-five, I'm going to have to try another entrancethis one is blocked by a body."
10-9 means you should repeat your traffic, as the message was not understood. Or, in this case, believed.
"I've got a body blocking this door. I'm gonna work my way around the house to the left, here."
Mike was close. Even better.
"Wanna wait till I get there? Only a minute or so."
It was tempting, but I was too exposed to stand still.
"No, just cover the right side of the house when you get here. I'll be around the left and coming right unless I can find a way in."
I gingerly backed down the steps and went to the left, toward the back of the house, to what appeared to be the back porch. The dog still hadn't stirred. Keeping my head below window level, I made my way to find that the back porch was actually an addition to the house with a separate entrance. The upper half of the door was glass.
The door was locked, but I could see through to the body in the kitchen. There was something sticking out of his chest or abdomen, but I couldn't make out what it was. The broken table was obstructing the full view. Then a noise.
"Three has movement inside!"
No reply. I heard running footsteps coming up from my right. Mike ran past me to the other side of the doorwell and put his back against the wall. We were both very quiet for a moment and heard the sound again. Like something dragging and then a bump. We looked at each other and nodded at the same time.
I kicked the door. It didn't move. I kicked again and the panel cracked. The third kick slammed the door back where it hit the interior wall and broke the glass, causing one hell of a racket. Mike flew by me into the house and stopped just as he hit the entrance to the living room. I moved behind him, but he was frozen, so I nudged him and stuck my gun around the corner of the door frame and pointed it to where he was looking.
There was a German shepherd crawling across the floor toward us, dragging his hind legs. His mouth was bleeding, and he had a bloody wound on his head. His eyes were glazed. To the left, the TV was on, but no sound, playing a rerun of Ensign O'Toole. There were, as they say, signs of a strugglemagazines all over, overturned lamps, one stereo speaker knocked over, a houseplant in a broken pot lying on the floor.
"I don't want to kill him." Mike said what I was thinking.
"We have to."
"Who would leave an innocent animal like that?" Mike mumbled.
"Twenty-five," I said over my portable. "There will be a shot fired. We have to shoot a dog."
I aimed as carefully as I could, cocked the hammer back, and very gently squeezed the trigger. We waited a few seconds, our ears ringing, stunned by the shot and the strangeness of the situation. Then we slowly made our way to the kitchen.
"Copy you in the house?"
"Yeah. Both of us."
"Okay. Two's on the way."
"Good." Two was the county's chief deputy. Although he was in charge of the night shift, he'd had the evening off. Sally must have called him in when Dan reported the body. I had my portable on single-channel mode and wasn't able to hear the other radio traffic, but Dan was still by his car and would relay our reports to those on the way.
We looked carefully around the kitchen. The body by the door was supine, his legs bent at not quite right angles. The object in his chest was a knife with an ornate handle, made of silver or stainless steel. His right hand was gone, the stump pointing toward the tilted refrigerator. But there was very little blood. He was nude, except for a pair of white socks with yellow toes. They were half on, half off his feet, and dirty. I turned to Mike.
"Didn't dispatch say that a female called?"
"Yeah." We'd been at death scenes before, but there was something about this one that had us both spooked.
"Well, let's look."
I hated to go stomping around a crime scene, but we had to see if the woman or the killer was still in the house. We crossed to the bedroom, the only other room on the ground floor. Nobody there. It was a mess, but it looked to me like from being lived in, not from a struggle or burglary. The lights were on and there was a fairly large painting above the bed, not framed. It was a star, point down, in a circle, with red eyes near the center. Not well done. Primitive.
I looked at Mike. "Let's do upstairs first, then the basement. Anybody gets out from the basement, twenty-five has a good chance of picking them up as they come out."
Mike headed for the stairs. I let him go up about five steps, then followed. The stairwell was only about thirty-six inches across, and the steps were so narrow that I had to put my feet down sideways. They creaked, adding to our tension, which in my case was at critical mass. I figured we'd find the caller, but that she would be dead or dying. I also thought we had a chance of finding the perpetrator, or of him finding us. On those stairs, he could have got both of us with a pellet gun.
Mike hit the top stair and started moving to his left. "Okay, Carl, we got doors both sides, all open," he whispered.
"Right." I took the right side of the narrow hallway as I topped the stairsthree small rooms, two left, one right. No one in any of them. Each room seemed messier than the one before it. Each one was dusty, dirty, and cold and piled high and deep with boxes of junk. I was amazed at how much garbage this guy held on to.
Then we carefully moved to the basement, down another set of small, rickety steps. I went first this time, exposing my body to whoever might be waiting. The basement was as dilapidated as the rest of the house, but I noticed a small, partitioned corner with a blanket tacked up that separated it from the rest of the mess. I cautiously pushed the blanket aside with my magnum while Mike covered me.
Nobody there. But four knives similar to the one stuck in the body upstairs were hanging on the wall. Next to the knives was a painting of Jesus on the cross that was desecrated with a happy-face sticker placed on his face. On the other side was an ink drawing of a small heart that appeared anatomically correct with a dagger in it. Below was a small workbench with several burned-down black candles. There was also a calendar and a rather seedy black robe hanging against the sidewall. We turned to find an inverted cross hung opposite the crucifixion painting.
"What in the hell is going on, Carl?"
"I don't know," is all I could come up with.