A case from the past sparks a nightmare for Detective Leah Teal in Michael Hiebert’s masterful new novel of suspense.
Fifteen years ago, a serial killer tagged by the media as the Stickman spread terror throughout Alabama and became Alvin detective Joe Fowler’s obsession. After fifteen months and nine victims, Harry Stork was identified as the Stickman and Fowler shot him dead. The killings stopped. For a while.
Now, more bodies are turning up, each staked through the chest with a stick-figure drawing in the killer’s signature style. Detective Leah Teal—Joe Fowler’s daughter and Alvin’s sole detective—receives a letter before each victim is found, just like her late father did. The only people who knew about the letters were the cops on the taskforce back then—and the killer himself. Did Joe shoot the wrong man, or was one of the detectives he handpicked involved all along? As a single mother, Leah tries to balance an increasingly disturbing case and a new relationship with caring for her children—bright, perceptive Abe, and teenaged Caroline, who’s in the first flush of young love. But with each menacing communication, each gruesome discovery, Leah realizes just how personal, and how devastating, the truth may be.
Weaving lyrical prose and emotional richness into a taut, gripping mystery, Michael Hiebert creates a fascinating novel of life, love, and death in a small Southern town.
Praise for the novels of Michael Hiebert
Dream with Little Angels
"Hiebert's first novel courts comparison to the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but the book manages to soar as a moving achievement in its own right. In Hiebert's hands, psychological insight and restrained lyricism combine to create a coming-of-age tale as devastating as it is indelible. Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Readers who enjoy literary fiction depicting small-town life in the tradition of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird may want to try Hiebert's debut." Library Journal
"Michael Hiebert's debut delivers . . . a breathless, will-they-get-there-in-time affair, with a heartbreaking resolution." Mystery Scene
Close to the Broken Hearted
"Hiebert does a masterful job of building suspense." Publishers Weekly
"A very good, sometimes emotional, mystery that will stay with you long after it's over." Suspense Magazine
A Thorn Among the Lilies
"Engaging. . .Readers will keep guessing whodunit to the end." Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Fifteen Years Later
Summer came to Alabama the way it always did, like a twister out of the east. The heat from the early morning sun pounded down on the red maple and black gum trees out along Cottonwood Lane. Officer Leah Teal drove by these trees every day on her way to work, but this was the first day she could remember in a long time it being so hot at only half past seven.
Everything was alive in vivid colors. Alvin looked like a picture book filled with images of white clusters of berries bursting on the mayhaw, and yellow, green, and orange flowers popping out of the tulip trees, late bloomers. Even with her window rolled down, the air lay in the car like a dead animal, making the heat even more intolerable. As she came to her turn, the smell of sweet bay magnolias trying their best to bloom wafted inside. Drifts of cottonwood fluff fell like snow onto the brown hood of her Bonneville as she turned down the hill.
As she drove, Leah hummed a tune, unsure of what it was. She was in good spirits lately — ever since Christmastime, really, because of a man she was rapidly falling for: a detective out of Birmingham whom she'd met on her last big case, a case that started with a psychic — of all things — and ended with a serial killer.
Things were never dull for long around Alvin.
The detective's name was Dan Truitt and he was different from any man Leah had ever met. She hadn't dated a lot of men in her life. In fact, Dan was the first in over a dozen years since her husband, Billy, died in an automobile accident.
For too long she had let that accident spin her life out of her control. Now she felt like she was finally taking her life back. And Dan Truitt was helping her do it. No, more than that, he was making her want to do it. She was starting to admit to herself she was falling in love.
Pulling her sedan to a stop at the curb outside the Alvin Police Station, Leah exited the vehicle and was immediately overwhelmed again by the melting, stagnant heat. Honeybees buzzed around the red buds on the sweetshrubs planted in front of the station's windows.
She picked up the Alvin Examiner from in front of the station door on her way inside. The station was locked, which meant she'd beaten Officer Chris Jackson to work. Officer Jackson was the only other cop at the Alvin Police Station apart from the chief, Ethan Montgomery. Jackson was also black, which caused quite a stir in this little community when he first came on the force, but that quickly faded. Now he was respected as much as Leah or Ethan.
After putting on a pot of coffee, Leah took the newspaper she had tucked beneath her arm, pulled the elastic off it, and unrolled it.
She read the front page and her happy demeanor immediately changed.
The headline read: 15 Years Later, Stickman Strikes Again.
The photograph beneath the headline could've been a lot more gruesome than it was. It was taken some distance from the crime scene, which left out a lot of the details described in the article. It didn't matter; Leah knew immediately what the actual scene would've looked like. The victim, unnamed in the paper, would've been shirtless with her ankles and wrists bound together behind her back. Her body would be staked to the ground, through the chest, and attached to that stake would be a piece of paper with a stickwoman drawn on it. But that's not what would've killed her. A gunshot wound to the back of the skull would've done that job. Leah didn't have to see it all in a picture; she could imagine it pretty well. She'd lived it.
Scanning the photo, Leah made out strangler fig and cypress trees. The dirt looked soft. She guessed the body was found near water. Indeed, the article confirmed it had turned up on the bank of Leeland Swamp, an area surrounded by forest just outside of the ranch lands in the northwestern corner of Alvin.
And then the rest of the train caught up with her thoughts and she realized what this really meant. It made her breath catch and her heart tumble into her stomach.
She had lived the case vicariously through her pa, Joe Fowler, fifteen years ago when he spent a year and a half hunting down a serial killer. But —
Her pulse quickened.
Heat rose to her face.
This, all because there was one thing Leah knew with absolute dead fact: But ... what I'm looking at, it's ... it's impossible.
Her pa killed Harry Stork, the man who earned the nickname "Stickman" in papers from one side of Alabama to another. Shot him through the heart. The Birmingham News had called it "The Shot Heard 'Round the World." It made the front page. Suddenly everyone knew about Alvin, a town with a population of just over six thousand people almost nobody in Alabama had ever heard of.
She glanced up to the newspaper's date, hoping for some bizarre reason to find the paperboy had accidentally delivered a paper from 1974, but today's date stared back at her under the black script headlining the Alvin Examiner. She hadn't really expected to see anything else.
But how ...? The more she thought of it, the more impossible it was.
The door opened and she jumped. It was Chris. He took one look at her sitting on the edge of her desk, paper in one hand, forgotten coffee mug steaming in the other, and closed the door quietly behind him. "How you doing?" he asked in his low-timbered voice. Chris spoke slowly, and with near on perfect enunciation. It made him sound as though he was a man who chose his words carefully and said them with reverence. "I see you got the coffee started." He smiled, wiping his brow with his uniform sleeve. "Man, is it hot."
Leah said nothing back, and he realized she was reading the paper.
"Oh," he said, with a big sigh. His smile faded quickly as he plunked into his chair. "So you know." He ran his dark fingers through his cropped black hair. Sweat, even at this early hour, popped over his hand. He looked like he wished he would've called in sick.
Leah snapped the front page of the paper toward him. "This can't be the Stickman," she said. "The Stickman was Harry Stork and my pa killed Harry Stork fifteen years ago."
"Yeah, I know," Chris said, "but he shows every sign of having come back to life."
Leah bit her lower lip. It couldn't be Harry Stork. She remembered her pa on that case like it was yesterday. He would come home physically exhausted most nights, but mentally he stayed on the job twenty-four/seven. His brain never stopped trying to solve it. It took him near on a year and a half to finally do it, and, near the back side of it all, Leah and her ma both thought he would be needing intense therapy. It all tied up because of a lucky break, an anonymous tip called in to the station — although he would never use the word lucky. Leah could hear him in her mind. "No," he'd say, "lucky would've been catching him 'fore anybody had to die. This ain't luck, Leah, after all this time, this is God throwing down justice." Back then, he had told her she was too young to understand, but one day it would all make sense.
He lived long enough to get her on the force after he left, but not long enough to find out exactly how much sense his words would one day make.
She was more like her pa than she ever cared to admit, but Police Chief Ethan Montgomery constantly reminded her. Like her pa, she took full responsibility for everything that happened during any of her cases. Any blood spilled was spilled on her own hands. She took everything personally, same way he had. And, like him, it wore on her. She wondered how much of the stress contributed to the cancer that finally took him.
Leah's son, Abe, had been six when his grandpa died. Leah always consoled herself with the fact that he at least got to know his grandpa those half-dozen years. Not like Abe's own pa, Leah's husband, Billy, who died in an early morning head-on collision that took him out of not only her life, but Abe's, and her daughter, Caroline's, life, too. Billy left them all far too early. Leah doubted, if not for the shoe box full of photos she had given him, that her little Abe even remembered what his pa looked like. He was only two when Billy passed.
Now Abe was thirteen and Caroline turned sixteen this past Christmas, and Leah wondered how different things would be for them if they hadn't lost their pa twelve years ago — if Billy hadn't decided to pass that eighteen- wheeler in front of him.
But there was no point in thinking about it, some mistakes you just can't come back from. Billy's decision to pass that truck that fatal morning was one of those mistakes.
She still missed Billy and her pa, but her pa was different. Somehow, she still felt him with her some days. She even found herself talking to him during those times when she could badly use his sage advice. Of course, he never answered, but it still usually helped to ask the questions.
Ethan Montgomery had hired Leah's pa and he'd also agreed to bring Leah on when her pa suggested it. And after all this time, he was still working at the station, although every year he seemed to come in later and later. These days, he rarely arrived before eleven. Leah expected he would just keep being later until there was no time left in the day and that would be when he retired. Until then, he spent most of his time behind a ridiculously large desk in a squeaky chair watching the Crimson Tide stop the Auburn Tigers from making any yardage.
Because of the connection her pa had to Ethan, Leah knew she was treated differently than Chris. She was made "detective" not just to walk in her pa's footsteps, but also to allow Ethan to pay her a higher wage. She and her two kids needed all the help they could get. This was something Ethan and her pa arranged without her even knowing, but now it was pretty much common knowledge. At least Chris didn't seem to hold any animosity toward her because of it. She wondered sometimes, though. Especially on those days when Chris sat at his desk doing nothing but crossword puzzles his entire shift. Even if the phone rang, there were days he'd wait for her to take the call.
She didn't mind so much. Chris was more of a desk cop anyway. That's how he was cut. According to Ethan, Leah was different. Chris did have some special talents, though, like his uncanny ability to unearth the details of juvenile records.
"I see your mind moving," Chris said to her. His regulation boots were up on his desk and the coffee he'd fetched for himself was sitting beside his hat. Leaning back in his chair, he put his arms behind his head. "What I don't see are the details moving around. Care to let me in?" He spoke tentatively, almost like he was scared.
Leah looked back at the paper. "This is impossible."
Chris just shrugged.
"It's a copycat. It's gotta be. But why would someone copycat a case they had to dredge up from fifteen years —"
Chris cut her off. "I know what you're thinking, but it's not a copycat. It can't be."
"Yes, it can, Chris. Remember, the holdback about the stakes with the drawings was leaked. That's how Harry Stork became the Stickman."
"I know," he said. "But the staked stickman page wasn't the only holdback. There was another. A big one. And it wasn't leaked."
A thought suddenly came to Leah, one that probably should've come long before now. "Wait a minute. Why am I just reading about this now? Which police department was on the scene last night? Last time I checked, Leeland Swamp was in Alvin."
"Yeah," Chris stumbled. "That ... I ... we ..." He glanced at the door to Ethan Montgomery's office. It was mainly glass, like the walls, but brown blinds hung down that Leah couldn't remember ever seeing open. She could only imagine how much dust was collecting inside them. Of course, now the door would be locked. Leah glanced at the white clock hanging in front of her desk on the wall between the door and the window. It was twenty past eight. They wouldn't see Ethan for another two or three hours.
"What time did you get the call?" Leah asked. She remembered Chris was still at his desk when she left. She doubted he would have stayed much longer than fifteen more minutes, and she had gotten home just after five.
"Whoever found the body. I'm guessing it must've been around five?"
Chris scratched the back of his head. "Ethan called me at home," he said.
Leah tried to process this. "Ethan was still here when it came in? That's" — a miracle — "unusual."
"Yeah, um, the body hadn't turned up yet."
Narrowing her eyes, Leah asked, "What do you mean? Wait, if this holdback you're talking about was so secret, how come you know about it?"
"Ethan told me about it yesterday. What matters is, it wasn't a copycat kill. It's more than that. Ethan was pretty clear."
Leah felt the heat rise in her skin. A trickle of sweat ran down the back of her blouse, tracing a line from the bottom of her bra strap, along her vertebrae, and right into her brown pants.
"Sure is hot out there," Chris said, looking out the window.
Leah snapped the paper at him. "What aren't you telling me? What do you mean 'the body hadn't turned up yet'? What's this super-secret holdback and why did Ethan tell you?"
Chris took a deep breath. "Leah, it was a long night. We searched that swamp for three hours before finding the body."
"What are you talking about?" The hair rose on the back of her neck. "I wasn't called in on any search last night."
"That's on account of we didn't know how you'd react to it. With what happened with your pa and the Stickman fifteen years ago and all ..."
Leah's stomach roiled. Anger swooped in like a hungry vulture. She did her best to hold it back, but heard the edge it put on her words when she spoke. "If you hadn't found a body, how would you know ... ? Wait, I am missing something here. What made you even know to look for a body? What aren't you telling me?"
Chris said nothing, just shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
"Someone had to call someone," Leah said. "I don't ..." No matter how much she tried to make sense of things, nothing worked.
Chris let out a big sigh. "Man, it's hot."
Leah's anger swelled. "I am getting mighty pissed off about talking about the goddamn weather, Chris. If there's something you're not tellin' me, I'd best be making your mouth start going sooner rather than later." Both Chris and Ethan knew Leah had a temper. Neither of them ever wanted to push the envelope and find out how bad it really was.
When she looked back at Chris, he had seemed to take a sudden interest in the floor.
"Okay, first things first," she said. "Tell me about the stuff."
"The super-secret stuff that actually was held back from the press throughout the Stickman murders."
Chris sighed again and took a big drink of coffee. He was running out of stall tactics. "Well, for every victim, this station — well, your pa — was given a letter."
Leah cocked her head. "Letter? How was it given? Who gave it?"
Chris shrugged. "Apparently it came from the Stickman. It would be left in an envelope with no postmark or address, simply your pa's name written across the front. Inside there was always a single piece of paper folded three times. It had a drawing of a stickman, a time, and a location."
"A time and location of the killing?"
"Sounds weird. Why didn't my pa just show up and arrest the Stickman then?"
"The locations were general. Like the one last night simply said Leeland Swamp, 8:30 P.M. That's a large area to search in two and a half hours. Not counting travel time. And we had to assume it could also mean somewhere in the surrounding forest."
"So the time in the letter designates when the body will be dumped at the secondary crime scene?"
"According to Ethan it's more like the maximum time in a range. So, when the letter comes in they knew they had from whenever it was opened until the time it said before the body was staked."
Leah thought this over. "If the staked drawings were leaked, this letter thing could easily have been, too."
Chris held up his palm. "I know what you're thinking, but listen. Not every cop on the task force knew about the letters. In fact, Ethan said other than him and your pa, there were four other detectives in the loop, each handpicked by Joe. After the first leak, he wasn't about to take any chances."
"And forensics said all the letters were written by the same person?" Leah asked.
"All except the last one. They had a weird slant to the left."
"And what was different with the last one?"
"The last one was the one that came the night your pa shot Stork. Mobile said the handwriting didn't match the rest. It could be the same person, but if so, he wanted it to seem like someone else."
"The night my pa shot Stork? There was no victim that night."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sticks and Stones"
Copyright © 2016 Michael Hiebert.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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