The More They Disappear

The More They Disappear

by Jesse Donaldson


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The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson

"The More They Disappear delivers everything a reader could want. On one hand a compelling literary thriller, on the other a deep and generous meditation on life in a small town torn by addiction, poverty, and corruption." —Philipp Meyer, author of The Son

When long-serving Kentucky sheriff Lew Mattock is murdered by a confused, drug-addicted teenager, chief deputy Harlan Dupee is tasked with solving the crime. But as Harlan soon discovers, his former boss wasn't exactly innocent.

The investigation throws Harlan headlong into the burgeoning OxyContin trade, from the slanted steps of trailer parks to the manicured porches of prominent citizens, from ATV trails and tobacco farms to riverboat casinos and country clubs.

As the evidence draws him closer to an unlikely suspect, Harlan comes to question whether the law can even right a wrong during the corrupt and violent years that followed the release of OxyContin.

The More They Disappear takes us to the front lines of the battle against small-town drug abuse in an unnerving tale of addiction, loss, and the battle to overcome the darkest parts of ourselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250050229
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,113,422
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Jesse Donaldson was born and raised in Kentucky, attended Kenyon College and Oregon State University, and was a fellow at The Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. His writing has appeared in The Oxford American, Little Star, and Crazyhorse. Among other things, he's worked as a gardener, copywriter, teacher, and maintenance man. He currently lives in Oregon with his wife and daughter. The More They Disappear is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt

The More They Disappear

By Jesse Donaldson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Jesse Donaldson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-05022-9


Mary Jane Finley was late. She'd changed her outfit three times but nothing seemed to fit. It was the mirror's fault, the way it reflected her body lumpen and plain. She had new curves, new skin — had for a while now — and no amount of makeup could bring back the face that had twice been Finley County's Junior Miss Harvest. Those years, from twelve to fourteen, had been her best. After that her body ran its own course, and no diet, fast, or finger down the throat could help her regain the promise she'd shown. There always remained twenty pounds she couldn't shed. After futilely changing her clothes one last time, Mary Jane scowled at the mirror and said, "Fuck you."

She drove her red coupe past the house where her boyfriend, Mark, had lived before he left for college. She knew Mark was back in town, waiting by the window for that moment she drove by, and she resisted the urge to honk hello. The finished homes started to thin out as she rolled down the street at a steady twenty-five. In countless plots there lay only the expectation of a house — floor plans staked with wooden boards, electric boxes rising from the emptiness, scraggly seedlings of trees. Mary Jane parked in a deserted cul-de-sac next to the bones of a two-story and slipped on a backpack before hiking into the woods.

It was bow season but the trails were quiet. Most hunters waited for gun season to bag their bucks. The occasional bird flitted from branch to branch and called out, but Mary Jane paid them no mind. She adjusted the backpack, which held a broken-down rifle that weighted itself awkwardly against her shoulders. Her impulse was to step into the thickest woods and move under the cover of brush, but she knew her feet would kick up leaves that way and a stray limb might scratch her face. No. It was better to stay on the worn paths.

She moved with a certain grace through the woods, though that grace wasn't the result of years spent hiking so much as years spent walking down the hallway in heels. "Down and back," her mother would say until blisters formed on Mary Jane's feet, Mary Jane refusing to show pain. Down and back. Mary Jane a plaything to order around. Down and back. A mindless animal.

She was not a born killer, nor an experienced one, but she'd prepared. If she was in over her head, she didn't realize it, and if she had doubts, they didn't show. She was buoyed by thoughts of her and Mark together. She thought of this act as not altogether different from a marriage — something that would bind them.

In many ways she was the perfect criminal. She came from a respectable family — her father was an investor, her mother a socialite. She descended from the Revolutionary War general who at one time owned all the land in the county that still bore his name. No one in Finley County would ever believe Mary Jane Finley had committed a crime. No one knew about her sadness, her addictions, or her faith that Mark Gaines would carry her away to a better place.

She reached a clearing along the ridge overlooking the river and the wind died down. Months before, the hike would have left her breathless, but no longer. To the west a few abandoned trailers hunkered along the river road and to the east Mary Jane could make out downtown. In the distance lay Josephine Entwhistle's house and behind stood only the skeletons of unfinished homes.

By the time Mary Jane arrived, the party was in full swing. She briefly considered turning back, but there were expectations, a plan to follow through with, and if it worked, Mary Jane would no longer she be trapped in Marathon, would no longer feel so damn alone.

She pulled a Ziploc of pill dust from her backpack — a mix of Xanax and Adderall that she snorted in bumps off her car key. She'd learned there was a pill for every need and Mark fed each one of hers. Afterward she took out the stock and barreled action of a .308 Winchester. The smell of gun oil calmed her. Her grandfather had taught Mary Jane to shoot when she was just a girl, the lessons his way of stemming her mother's influence, of showing Mary Jane there was more to life than beauty pageants. They'd gone hunting every deer season until he passed away, and when it wasn't deer season, there'd been wild turkey and dove. Somewhere in the basement the mounted head of Mary Jane's first buck — a four pointer — gathered dust. In a strange way she'd discovered that shooting a rifle wasn't altogether different from walking down the runway. Both required great balance, great composure.

She attached the stock and barreled action, tightened the action screws, and checked that the chamber was empty, then wrapped her index and middle fingers around the trigger, and pulled. A smooth click. The action was sound. She'd started to develop a kinship with the Winchester and regretted she'd have to get rid of it. The .308 was right on the edge of kicking too hard and she liked that about it, too.

She attached the scope, cradled the barrel in a tripod, and looked down the sight. Partygoers mingled. The mayor, the judge, and other politicians stood around laughing at one another's stale jokes — men with names that went as far back as Finley, names like Craycraft and January and Estill. Mary Jane could wipe the whole town clean if only she had the bullets. A .308 with a good scope: that's all it took. She moved the gun from face to face — a god above them. She wished Mark was there with her — to feel this, to see her as no one else could. She wanted Mark's hand over hers as she cupped the trigger — Mark caressing her, her caressing the gun — the power all theirs. She chambered a round and set the butt of the rifle against her shoulder. Theirs was a fated love. A sacrificial love.

The last of the pill dust went up her nose and her thoughts about the future dissolved and turned to smoke. Her fears drifted away and fell into an abyss. She was patiently numb to consequences — her mind focused by one pill, her doubts erased by the other. The shot was a touch under two hundred yards and it was quiet along the Ohio.

She peered through the scope and found Lew. Oblivious. Flipping meat at the grill. She drew a deep breath and aimed the rifle at his chest, let the world come into focus and thought of nothing but the pressure against two tips of fingers. When she exhaled, she drew those fingers toward her heart and the rifle kicked.

The smell of gunpowder floated in the air. Mary Jane felt the warmth of the barrel and looked back through the scope. Lew fell forward onto the grill. For a moment nothing else changed. Then came the distant sound of screams. Mary Jane watched the crowd scurry like ants as smoke rose from the grill. Her body convulsed and knocked the rifle from its cradle. Then she vomited a thin, weak stream onto the ground. She cursed and struggled to regain composure, started humming "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" — an old runway trick to calm the nerves. In less than a minute her body steadied and her stomach settled. She kicked dirt over the vomit, loosened the action screws to break down the rifle, and placed it in the backpack along with the casing before she headed back in the direction from which she'd come.

* * *

It may have been the music blaring from the speakers of a souped-up Mustang or the noise of the crowd or the fact that people had become accustomed to cars backfiring; whatever the reason, no one connected the boom from the hills to Lew Mattock's collapse. The spatula slipped from Lew's hand and spun to the ground, where dirt clung to its greasy edges. Harlan Dupee watched him double onto the grill and assumed heart attack, though he couldn't seem to move his legs and help.

It was Lewis Mattock who ran to his father's side, pulled him to the ground, and yelled, "Shooter!" The crowd scattered. Some ran for water, others the woods. Most ran in circles to nowhere particular. Harlan dropped to the ground and watched Lew's legs jangle until his massive belly — a mound rising from the cracked clay of a dry October — stilled. Lewis Mattock slumped back on his knees, a look of horror across his face. Time must have passed. When Trip Gaines, a local doctor, checked for a pulse and shook his head, Lewis wrapped one burly arm around his wife and the other around his twin daughters before shouldering them into the safety of Josephine Entwhistle's house. Dr. Gaines laid his suit jacket over Lew's wounded face. The smell of burnt flesh hung in the air.

The crowd waited for someone to give the all clear, and even though no more bullets rained down, Harlan lay on the ground a long while before getting to his feet and asking people to please seek shelter inside the house and stay there until told otherwise. Most rubbernecked glances at Lew's body as they passed. A couple retched. More than a few sobbed in fits and starts. Two other deputies, Del Parker and Frank Pryor, joined Harlan around the body. Blood had begun to pool through the weave of the doctor's jacket, which Harlan lifted. Lew's right eye was gone and his face had become a pulp of meat and bone and yellow flesh. The earth swallowed what blood coursed from the hollow in his skull. Harlan dropped the jacket back in place and started giving orders. He did his best to sound confident, but it had been years since he'd asked the deputies to do anything other than what Lew told him to pass along. He had Del radio Paige Lucas, the rookie out patrolling roads, and tell her to stop any suspicious vehicles. After that Del was to get the neighboring county's dogs and search for evidence. This left Harlan with Frank, an overweight deputy with a ruddy face and a chip on his shoulder. "Head inside and get the contact information of everyone here. See if anyone noticed something unusual." Frank shrugged before spitting on the ground and joining the crowd as they herded themselves into Josephine's.

Harlan marked off the area around Lew with caution tape and radioed Holly from the sheriff's cruiser, explained to her what had happened, and asked her to send someone out from the state police, the crime lab in Frankfort, and the coroner's office. Then he pulled out a textbook on criminal investigations from the toolbox of his truck. He hadn't worked but a couple of murders, and Lew had always been there to guide him. The textbook was left over from a correspondence course he'd taken years before, and the mere fact that he kept it made him the best deputy in an otherwise apathetic department. He flipped to the chapter on murder investigations, found the gunshot section, and started making checkmarks as he completed each step. He started by removing the blazer from Lew's face and snapping photographs with a point-and-click. Then he drew badly scaled sketches of the scene with a shaky hand and redrew them to keep from examining Lew up close. He wrote his account of the murder, trying to recall the details. He waited for help.

The witnesses came out of Josephine's one by one, hurried to their cars, and sped away, as if putting distance between themselves and Lew's corpse would help them forget. But it wouldn't. They would talk about it at dinner and dream about it at night and even people who hadn't been there would claim to be haunted by the sight of Lew Mattock's dead body.

Harlan stared at Lew as if he might provide some guidance, and when a burly hand touched down on his shoulder, he jumped. "Jesus," Frank said. "Relax."

"What are you doing?"

Frank pinched a load of snuff and showed his bean teeth. "I'm finished."


Frank tapped his notebook. "I talked to every last person." A thin man wearing a fleece jacket stood behind Frank with a pen and paper. Harlan looked to Frank for an explanation. "This guy's with the newspaper," Frank explained. "I told him you're in charge."

"Stuart Simon," the man said. "I edit the Registrar."

Harlan shook his head. "Not now."

"Just a couple questions, Deputy. ... It's Dupee, isn't it?"

"Frank, can you escort Mr. Simon to his vehicle?"

"I just want to know —"

"Now," Harlan yelled.

Frank took Simon's arm. "Come on, Stu," he said.

Simon started to wage a halfhearted protest but stopped as the dispatch from Lew's cruiser crackled with Holly's voice. Harlan couldn't make out what she said and asked her to repeat herself. "Fire," she said. "Over at the Spanish Manor. The volunteers are on their way. Want me to do anything else?"

Harlan looked at Frank. "Head over there, but on your way pull over every car with a busted taillight or expired registration. Look for guns."

"I don't think hoping the shooter has a busted taillight is much of a plan," Frank said.

The editor slipped Frank's grasp and started writing in his notebook.

"Just do it," Harlan snapped. He radioed back to Holly that Frank was on his way. He was thankful the textbook had been safely hidden in the cab of his truck. He didn't need Frank or the other deputies doubting him. And he definitely didn't need some reporter doing the same. Harlan had grown soft since he joined the department. They all had. You kept your job by avoiding any police work that might cause extra paperwork. Harlan had been promoted because of those through-the-mail criminology courses, but whatever policing knowledge he'd learned was rarely put to use. Now was his chance to prove himself. He'd always wanted the sheriff's badge on his chest — not like this, of course — but you didn't get to choose what life threw your way. Or when.

Along the river road an ambulance-style hearse pulled up with the coroner who serviced Finley and the neighboring counties. Behind him came a state police cruiser with lights flashing. The state policeman came down first, took a look around, and said, "Damn shame." He put out a thick hand and introduced himself. His eyes were almost all pupils and he wore a gray-flecked mustache. "You want me to take samples from the body?" he asked. "I didn't know the man, so it won't affect me the same."

"I'd appreciate that," Harlan replied.

The coroner joined them a minute later. He was new — a kid with a two-year degree, fresh pimples, and a talkative manner. The sun started to set as they worked and the sound of crickets chirping rose from the woods. Harlan held a flashlight while the coroner labeled plastic bags the Statie handed him. At some point, he looked up to watch a sports car speeding along the river road before it disappeared into the coming dark. He realized, perhaps for the first time, that his life of writing traffic tickets was over.

"I can't believe someone shot Lew," the kid coroner said, trying to sound like some wizened old-timer. "He seemed invincible."

"No one's invincible," the Statie replied.

The crime lab investigator from Frankfort showed up just in time to say "nice work" and collect the samples. He told Harlan to develop and send him the pictures. The sooner the better. They bagged Lew and the Statie helped lift him onto a gurney while the kid coroner struggled with his end; meanwhile, the investigator and Harlan loaded the grill into a van. Harlan closed the lid so as to not see the burnt flesh along the grates.

He examined the crime scene one last time, and just as he was ready to call it, he noticed a small depression that had been beneath the body. It led to a fragment of bullet buried four inches into hardpack.

"That's good police work," the Statie said as Harlan sealed and marked the evidence.

"More like good luck."

The kid coroner had lit a cigarette by the side of the road, and Harlan walked up to join him, rolled a smoke of his own, and listened to the Ohio murmur its song — a gurgling chorus of choking mud.

* * *

Mary Jane chewed her last bite of Big Mac and searched along the bag's bottom for stray fries. Tara Koehler had been working the drive-thru, and as she handed the order over, Mary Jane mentioned she was going to see a movie to set up an alibi. Tara had added a fried apple pie on the house, so Mary Jane finished off her meal with dessert, licking the last bits of sugary glaze from her fingers.

It had been a long time since she'd seen another car, which should have been comforting, but the emptiness made her nervous. She kept checking the rearview mirror expecting to see flashing lights where there was only blackness. After her dinner, she lit a Marlboro Light and one cigarette turned into two turned into a quarter pack and soon enough she felt nauseous again. The burger and fries sat heavy in her stomach and Mary Jane stifled the urge to pull over and jam a finger down her throat.


Excerpted from The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson. Copyright © 2016 Jesse Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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