Under the Dog Star
A Rachel Goddard Mystery
By Sandra Parshall
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2011 Sandra Parshall
All right reserved.
In the silver moonlight, the dogs appeared as a dark mass moving down the hill and across the pasture. They headed straight toward three dozen sheep huddled on a carpet of autumn leaves under an oak.
Tom Bridger aimed his shotgun at the sky and fired.
The blast stopped the dogs for a second. The startled sheep jerked apart, turned and ran.
The largest dog broke from the pack and streaked after the sheep. The rest followed, yelping and baying.
Tom fired into the air again, and again. The dogs didn't stop until his fourth shot. They milled about in the pasture as if trying to make up their minds whether to stay or go.
Another shotgun blast decided the issue for them. They wheeled around and took off over the hill.
* * *
Lying in the dark, with Tom's space in the bed growing cold beside her, Rachel tensed at the sound of gunshots in the distance. She clutched the blanket, bunching it in both fists. She knew Tom wouldn't shoot to kill, but she also knew he was losing patience after going out night after night to protect his sheep from the feral dog pack.
At the third shot, Rachel's cat Frank stirred from his spot against her legs and dropped off the bed to hide underneath. From his bed near the door, Tom's bulldog Billy Bob gave a low growl.
Rachel sat up, hugging her knees. A fourth, then a fifth shot rang out. She waited, but heard no more.
The feral dogs weren't Rachel's problem, weren't her responsibility, but she was a veterinarian and couldn't be indifferent to their fate. Mason County, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, had become a dumping ground for pet dogs as unemployment soared in the state and many people lost their homes. They probably thought they'd done the dogs a favor by turning them loose in a rural area, but the animals were hungry and desperate. Struggling to survive, they had formed a pack, and for the last few months they'd roamed the county, stealing eggs and killing chickens in farmyards. Lately they'd attacked a couple of lambs and a calf. If left on their own, they would starve or the farmers would exterminate them.
The ringing telephone jolted Rachel. For a moment she hesitated. She'd moved into Tom's house a month ago, but the situation still felt tentative, and she was reluctant to answer his home telephone. She had no choice, though. A call at midnight was an emergency, usually a summons from the Sheriff's Department. As chief deputy and second in command, Tom had to respond. Nobody ever summoned the aging, frail sheriff anymore when trouble arose.
Stretching across the bed, Rachel switched on the lamp and grabbed the receiver.
"Hi, is this Dr. Goddard?" a young female voice asked. "I'm sorry if I woke you up. This is Gail, the dispatcher, calling for Captain Bridger."
Rachel knew she shouldn't be surprised that every employee at the department knew she and Tom were living together, but it still made her feel as if she were doing something disreputable in this small, conservative community. "Captain Bridger's outside right now." She caught sight of Tom's cell phone on the bedside table. "And he doesn't have his phone with him. I can run out and get him, but it'll take a few minutes. Can I tell him what it's about?"
"Well, I don't have a lot of information and I'm not real sure what happened, but Dr. Hall—you know, from the hospital?—he's dead. Somebody attacked him."
Rachel gasped when she heard the name. Dr. Gordon Hall, one of Mason County's most prominent citizens, owned Tri-County General Hospital. The family's German shepherd was one of Rachel's patients. "Dr. Hall was attacked? You're sure he's dead?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am, he's definitely dead. His wife called it in, and she doesn't know how it happened. Their kids went looking for him and found him laying in the yard. She's just about going crazy, screaming and crying. I already sent a couple of deputies to secure the scene, but Captain Bridger needs to get out there."
"I'll find him and tell him right away." Rachel hung up and rushed to get dressed, yanking on jeans, sweater, shoes, raking her thick auburn hair out of her eyes with her fingers. She could imagine Dr. Hall's wife waiting for the police, probably with her children around her yet feeling suddenly alone in the world.
Billy Bob trotted after Rachel down the stairs and along the hallway. "Sorry, boy," she said at the back door. "You can't go this time. Stay."
She snatched a flashlight from a hook by the door and ran out in search of Tom.
An hour later, dressed in his brown Sheriff's Department uniform, Tom leaned over the body of Dr. Gordon Hall and trained his Maglite on the man's ravaged throat. Dr. Gretchen Lauter, Mason County's medical examiner, crouched on the other side of the corpse. The victim, a tall man in his late fifties, sprawled on his back in deep shadow along the edge of the woods, several hundred feet down a slope from his house. Nothing remained of his throat but a bloody mess.
"What the hell did this?" Tom had come out here expecting to find evidence of a familiar means of murder, but now he wasn't sure he was looking at a murder at all. "An animal?"
"That's my first impression. Only an animal could cause this kind of wound. And that looks like animal hair." Dr. Lauter flicked her own flashlight to Hall's clenched right fist, resting on his chest. A few dark hairs stuck out between his fingers.
Dr. Lauter rose, the bones in her arthritic knees grinding together audibly as she struggled to straighten them. Tom held out a hand to steady her, and for once she accepted his offer of help instead of brushing it aside. Together they moved away from the body.
"Arterial spray everywhere." Tom swept his flashlight beam over the red-streaked autumn leaves on the ground. He'd arrived seconds before Dr. Lauter, and they'd come directly to the body without seeing the family first. Reaching Gordon Hall meant walking through his blood, and now they had to track through it again. Tom didn't want to carry any of it into the house when he went to talk to the widow.
They ducked under the crime scene tape and onto an expanse of well-tended grass. Dr. Lauter gestured toward the Hall family's imposing brick house, sitting at the peak of a gentle rise. Every window glowed with light. "Someone could have been looking out while it was happening," she said, "and they wouldn't have seen a thing down here."
Security floodlights attached to the house cast a yellowish tint over the patio and swimming pool, and moonlight brightened the lawn, but the illumination didn't reach the spot where Hall lay dead.
"You'd think they would have heard something, though," Tom said. "He must have been screaming, fighting—"
They stood in silence for a moment, and Tom stared down at the bright circle of his flashlight beam on the grass until the horror of Gordon Hall's last moments overwhelmed his imagination. He shoved the images to the back of his mind and asked, "Any idea what kind of animal?"
"Well, it doesn't look like a bear attack. Aside from the throat, I mean. If a bear had killed him, I'd expect to see deep claw marks on his torso, and his clothes would be ripped apart. He only has a few scratches on the front of his jacket, and they hardly even tore the fabric."
Reluctant to voice his own suspicion, Tom prodded, "So? What else could have done it?"
Dr. Lauter sighed. "I hope the autopsy proves me wrong, but right now, if I have to guess, I'd say a large dog killed him."
"Aw, god. This is what I've been afraid of, that wild pack hurting somebody." But something about this didn't seem right to Tom. "If I've got the timing of this attack on Hall figured correctly, the dogs were over on my property a few minutes later. That's five miles. They could have cut across land and jumped fences—"
"No." Dr. Lauter shook her head. "I don't think a whole pack of dogs attacked Gordon, for the same reason I don't think a bear did it. I'll have to examine him in good light, but it looks like the throat is the only severe wound. I'd guess it was a single dog—a big one, and mean as hell, but only one."
Tom's momentary relief that the feral pack wasn't responsible quickly gave way to a different kind of apprehension. "Don't the Halls have a big German shepherd? Where is it now? If it turned on its owner, it's dangerous."
"Gordon's old dog probably doesn't have enough teeth left to do this, even if he wanted to. And I can't imagine why he'd want to. Gordon doted on him as if he were a child."
"Then we're probably talking about a feral dog acting alone, maybe one that hasn't taken up with the pack," Tom said. "Or somebody's pit bull that's roaming around loose."
"Maybe those hairs in his hand can tell us what breed it was, and if there's DNA it can identify the specific animal."
"Yeah, right. Now all I have to do is search the countryside for one particular dog and do a DNA match." Tom blew out a breath. "Hell. This is going to cause a panic."
"You bet it will," Dr. Lauter said. "Well, I'll stay with the body until the techs get here and take their pictures, then I'll have him moved to the hospital morgue temporarily. Come on over after you talk to the family and we'll take a look at him together before he goes to Roanoke for autopsy."
What a way to end up, Tom thought. Dr. Hall's mutilated body would be combed over for evidence in the hospital he'd owned and run. "Try to get him moved in the next couple of hours, will you? His wife and kids don't need to have him lying dead in the yard all night."
As he climbed the slope to the house, Tom thought of Rachel, probably back in bed and asleep by now, her dark red hair splashed across her pillow. He wouldn't see her again tonight.
A couple of deputies stood on the patio, awaiting further orders after stringing up the crime scene tape. Tom scraped his boots on the grass to remove any blood he'd picked up, then nodded at Brandon Connolly, the sandy-haired young deputy who often acted as his partner. "Come on in with me, Bran."
Even before he opened the French doors from the patio to the living room, Tom could hear Vicky Hall's sobs. She sat on the couch, crying on her teenage daughter Beth's shoulder. When Tom entered, Beth looked up at him with tear-reddened eyes, a strand of her wavy brown hair stuck to one cheek. A child in need of comfort herself, she seemed helpless in the face of her mother's grief.
"Mrs. Hall, can I talk to you for a minute?" When Tom approached her, he caught the sharp odor coming from her body and breath. The smell of advanced kidney failure. While Brandon took up a position by the French doors, Tom sat in a club chair across the coffee table from the new widow. "Beth, would you get your mother a glass of water? You don't want her to get dehydrated."
"Yes, sir," the girl said in a near-whisper. She pulled away from her mother and rose, tall and slender in jeans and a sweater. Pushing her hair back behind her ears, she hurried from the room.
Tom hadn't seen Vicky Hall up close in several years, and her appearance shocked him. Although she was no more than fifty-five, she looked like a wizened old woman, bone-thin inside a blue robe, her skin a sickly yellow. Tom remembered her as energetic, always smiling, not beautiful but pretty in a bubbly way that made men run to open doors and pull out chairs for her. Her brown hair had once fallen to her shoulders in shining dark waves. Now it hung lank and dull, not so much gray as colorless. She was losing her long battle with lupus.
"I'm sorry about your husband," Tom said.
Slumped against the sofa cushions, she dabbed at her eyes with a wad of soaked tissues. "I can't believe this is happening."
He averted his gaze from that heartbreaking ruin of a face. "I need to ask you some questions. I'll make it as brief as I can."
At her nod of agreement, Tom asked, "Who found Dr. Hall?"
She twisted the tissues between her fingers, shredding wet fragments onto her robe. "Beth and Marcy," she choked out. "They ran right out when they heard what was on the answering machine."
"The answering machine?" Tom reached inside his uniform jacket and pulled a notebook and pen from his shirt pocket. "What do you mean?"
"It's all there, the sounds—" She covered her face with both hands. "Oh, god, it's horrible."
"Mrs. Hall, please," Tom said. "I know this is hard, but I have to ask you to concentrate and explain what happened. Tell me everything."
Beth appeared in the doorway, a glass of water in one hand, and paused as if reluctant to interrupt. Beside her stood her younger sister, a beautiful dusky-skinned little girl in pajamas and robe. Dark red smears stained her pink slippers.
Tom waved a hand, urging Beth to go to her mother. The younger girl remained in the doorway, chewing on her bottom lip.
Beth held the glass while her mother sipped the water. When she was more composed, Vicky told Tom, "I was getting ready for bed, and Gordon went out to walk the dog. I was in the bathroom, and I heard the bedroom phone. The answering machine picked up. When I came out, I heard Gordon's voice. Then—" A shiver shook her body. "He screamed. I grabbed the phone, but he wasn't there anymore."
Good god, Tom thought. Did they have a recording of the attack? "Where's the answering machine? I need to hear the tape."
"It's on our phone in the bedroom. Beth, honey, go get it, would you?"
"Show Brandon where it is. Let him handle it." As they left the room, Tom called after the deputy, "Don't take the tape out. Unplug the phone and bring it down here."
While they waited, he asked Vicky, "You heard the message, then sent your daughters to look for your husband?" Hadn't she stopped to think the girls might be in danger out there in the dark?
"Beth was still up, and she ran into the bedroom when she heard me screaming. Then she ran out to look for Gordon. I didn't realize Marcy had gone with her until they came back in."
"What did they tell you when they came back?"
The younger girl, Tom noticed, had disappeared into the hall when Beth and Brandon passed, but now she crept back and stood just inside the door.
"They said he was hurt," Vicky told Tom, her voice thick with tears. "I called 911. I wanted to go to him, I'm a nurse, I thought I could help, but Beth wouldn't let me. She said it was too late." Vicky couldn't control the sobs that wracked her frail body.
Tom turned his attention to Marcy. He knew she was around eleven, but she looked a couple of years younger. She was one of the Halls' three adopted children, a mixed-race girl with brown skin and curly black hair. Tom, whose Melungeon heritage showed in his dark olive skin, coal-black hair, strong nose and cheekbones, couldn't help feeling a kind of kinship with her, but he doubted she saw him as anything but a frightening adult in a uniform.
"Marcy, would you come over here and talk to me for a minute?"
She shot a wide-eyed glance at him, ducked her head, didn't move. Her rigid posture made Tom think of a trapped animal steeling itself for an attack.
"It's okay," he said. "I just need to ask you a couple of questions."
"Marcy, for heaven's sake," Vicky Hall snapped. Regaining a degree of composure, she sniffed and swiped tears from her face. "Do as you're told. Come over here."
"Mrs. Hall—" Tom caught himself. Vicky Hall was distraught. She didn't know how she sounded. Right now she might not be capable of considering how Marcy felt after seeing her father lying dead with his throat torn open. Ignoring the mother, he spoke quietly to the daughter. "Marcy, can I ask you some questions?"
She nodded without looking at him.
"Answer Captain Bridger properly," Vicky told her. "Say Yes, sir."
"Yes, sir," the girl whispered.
"And speak up," Vicky said.
Tom kept his own voice gentle. "Did you see any animals down by the woods?"
Marcy started to shake her head, then glanced at her mother and murmured, "No, sir."
"Is your father's dog okay? Did he come back to the house with you?"
"Thor?" Vicky exclaimed. "Oh dear lord. I haven't even thought about him. Where is he? What happened to him? Marcy, answer me. Where is Thor?"
"I don't know."
"We'll find him," Tom said.
He heard Brandon clomping down the stairs, and he rose when the deputy returned to the living room with Beth trailing him. Brandon set the phone, the kind with a built-in answering machine, on a console table and plugged the line into a jack underneath that Beth pointed out.
Excerpted from Under the Dog Star by Sandra Parshall Copyright © 2011 by Sandra Parshall. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen 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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