The bomb squad parked on the asphalt and suited up. Lilly stood on the porch and waited for them to disengage the jerry-rigged shotgun. From the second floor of a ramshackle barn down the road, Jackson Titus watched the going ons. The long shadows cast by the ceiling hid him, as well did the rotten hay bales and a straw-colored tarp.
He dropped the crosshair of his scope upon the chest of Konan and flicked off the safety of his rifle. A cold smile crossed his face as his finger caressed the trigger.
“It would be so simple to kill him now,” Titus muttered.
Jackson Titus flicked the safety back on and withdrew from his sniping nest. There would be time enough to kill him later. For now, he needed to evade the authorities and complete his task.
After disengaging the booby-trapped door, the bomb technicians cleared the house. It was slow going, but they managed to clear the house with zero casualties. One walked out on the back porch and whistled. My leg had begun to ache, and my foot felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds.
“I wouldn’t drop that foot, boss man.”
“Oh yeah,” I growled at the tech. “You wanna take my spot for a while?”
“No thanks,” she responded.
“How much longer before I can get up from my knees?”
She gave me a smile and walked to the edge of the porch. A giggle escaped her, and she covered her mouth with her hand. My leg seemed to grow heavier with every passing second.
“Um, you can put your foot down.”
“There’s nothing behind you. Put it down.”
As I eased my foot down, I closed my eyes. Whatever happened, I wanted to be oblivious to it. The technician watched me, and when nothing happened, I let out a heavy sigh. I could hear her giggling.
“You can unclench your sphincter now,” she said laughing.
It took several hours for the bomb squad to clear the back yard. After I took several minutes to compose myself, I went to help Lilly. The forensic team swept the entire house, dusting for prints, gathering evidence. Lilly watched me as I walked in. She gave me a smile and motioned for me to join her in the hallway.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, Lilly. Considering I almost became red mist, I am fine.”
“The first victim is Jackson’s father. It looks like he sealed himself in, and someone shot him.”
“I didn’t notice any broken glass.”
“Yeah. There is, you missed it because you leaned against it to push the door open.”
I walked over to the window and looked at it. The window itself was nothing special, but it was broken into squares. There were 16 individual squares, and the last square in the middle row-all the way to the right-was the only one broken.
“The forensic team thinks he approached from the left. When the old man walked into the room, the killer fired three rounds. One to break the glass, followed by two more rounds that killed him.”
“Yeah. Stand there where the old man fell. I want to check something.”
I walked out to the end of the driveway and moved to the left. As I crept up, I held my arms out like I held a weapon. At the porch, I stepped onto it. Lilly saw me, and I stopped. She frowned, her eyebrows furrowed, and she waited for me to say something.
“He saw him, Lilly.”
“How do you know that?”
“How could he not? You looked at me as soon as I stepped onto the porch.”
“Yeah, but if he did it at night…”
“When was the old man killed?”
“Um, hold on,” Lilly said flipping her notebook open. “Ashley called time of death 7.5 hours ago.”
“It’s 1430. So, he was killed after daybreak.”
“What are you saying, Konan?”
“Dad saw his killer. He recognized him, and then the killer shot him. When the techs finish with the backyard we can check the bodies back there, and we will have a complete picture then.”
“You think Jackson Titus did his whole family in? Is that what you’re thinking?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a cold bit of business if you think he did that to his own flesh and blood.”
“Killing is a cold business, Lilly. Bloodlines have nothing to do with it.”
Even as I said it, I knew it to be false. Sometimes blood had everything to do with it.
The bomb squad parked on the asphalt and suited up. Lilly stood on the porch and waited for them to disengage the jerry-rigged shotgun. From the second floor of a ramshackle barn down the road, Jackson Titus watched the going ons. The long shadows cast by the ceiling hid him, as well did the rotten hay bales and a straw-colored tarp.
The problem with rattling bushes is that you never expect what falls into your lap. Or at least that’s what my mother said to me. “If you go looking for trouble, you’re bound to find it.” Mad Michael wasn’t much of a father, but even he knew you don’t hunt trouble.
You let it come to you.
As Lilly and I drove to the address provided to us by Paddy, I thought about the man I had seen last night. Lilly drove, so I had time to think of other things. Mostly because her ability to avoid collisions, and the high probability she’d cause one, had taught me the value of turning my attention elsewhere while she drove.
My partner was an expert behind the wheel, according to her, but my stress level would hit all-time heights if I didn’t avoid looking at the road. Lilly had her right hand on the wheel, her left hand held her phone, and she was trying to talk to me. All while driving.
“What are you thinking about, Konan?”
“There was a guy sitting on the bench last night when I boarded the bus. I’m trying to picture his face.”
“What did he look like?”
“He had a beard, like a blonde Viking would have.”
“So, he was a blonde?”
“What else do you remember about him?”
“Not much. It was dark.”
I put my left hand against the roof of the car and held onto to the bar above the door with my right. Lilly sighed, took a sip of coffee, and said, “I’ve got it, Konan. Sheesh. You worry more than an old woman.”
Lilly avoided the car, the owner of the Buick SUV jammed on the horn, and I leaned back against the seat. It was totally within the realm of possibility that one day I would file a disability claim for a bad back.
“Do you think the guy has something to do with our case? Was it Titus?”
“I don’t know. It didn’t look like Titus, but if he’s back he’s bound to change his appearance.”
“We ran him out of town, and he never showed to any of the usual ports. Do you think he survived?”
“I’d put money on it.”
“Survivors are fighters, Lilly. Titus didn’t give up when Bronowski got pinched. He didn’t turn himself in when his other cohort killed herself on the church steps. Titus continued to fight to not only exist but to escape.”
“You admire him? Do I need to remind you of what they did to Bradley Freeman?”
“Nope. I don’t need reminding. Drop me off about a mile from our destination. You continue going to the home. I want to check something out.”
“Just drop me out. Don’t get out of the car until I peck on your window.”
“Konan, what is going on?”
“Glance out your side mirror. Do you notice that black truck three cars back?”
“It’s been with us the whole way.”
“Do you think it’s Titus?”
“I don’t know. Speed up and pull off somewhere. Let it pass us.”
Lilly sped up and raced toward a small community. A bridge crossed a small creek prior to entering the community. She pulled the car off the right side of the road and popped the hood. I got out and lifted it. The black truck passed us, and I tried to get a peek at the driver, to no avail.
The windows were pitch black. It continued into the community, and I pushed the hood down. I climbed into the car, and Lilly proceeded to the address. There was no black truck in sight.
“Where did it go?”
“I don’t know, Lilly, but I don’t like it. Something isn’t right.”
Seventeen names were on the paper, each name typed in black ink and beside each name was their address, place of employment, job title, and family members.
Everything an assassin needed to plot a plan to excise the target, or to provide options should the mission go bad.
For an average assassin, this was a treasure trove of information, but I found it excessive.
“I do not target family members,” was another of my rules. If the target had done something to get on a client’s bad side, I had no problem ending them. But that’s where I drew the line. Too much attention got drawn on the client and his hire when things got personal.
I’d plot for every eventuality, plot a back-up plan, and then execute my mission. In and out, no muss-no fuss.
Of the names on the list, I chose Harry Boatswain.
My first priority though was to get Janice settled. After meeting with Sanderson and our return home, I had shown her around my small cabin, and told her to use the second guestroom.
I whipped up an ice pack and handed it to her. She applied gingerly to her face and leaned back against the pillows. Under the bed was a heating pad, and I plugged it in and pushed it under her lower back and ribs.
Janice groaned and closed her eyes. I turned off the lights and shut the door. She would need time to heal from her injuries, and I needed to pick a target.
First though, I needed to report in.
I waited until Janice was snoring softly before I walked into my room. Underneath the desk was a trapdoor that led into the tunnels that ran under my house. My office was down one-third of the tunnel. A small circular mirror sat on the desk, along with a shortwave radio, a laptop, and a laser printer.
Judging from what was in the office, one would assume I used the shortwave to contact my superiors. They were wrong. I tapped the base of the mirror, and a figure wearing a dark robe appeared.
The Voiceless did not speak. I explained what had occurred, detailed my meeting with General Sanderson and Colonel Brander. The figure nodded and the mirror clicked off.
I followed the tunnel out and came out above the river that ran below my cabin. Then, I walked seven miles in the opposite direction, then returned to my cabin.
You could never be too careful these days.
After taking the long way home, I checked on Janice. She still snored, so I let her rest. It would take a day or two for me to hear from The Voiceless. Or so I thought.
I did some digging into Harry Boatswain. He was a former soldier and had earned many awards during his time in the military. He retired, and then became an arms dealer. Both he and Sanderson served together, with Sanderson the higher ranking.
Some opined that Boatswain was part of the dirty money that kept Sanderson in power. Others said he retired so that he and Sanderson could carry out a private war on those who dared cross Sanderson.
Whatever the case, Sanderson wanted Boatswain gone. Boatswain was a good place to start.
The next morning, I woke to find Janice cooking breakfast and an unopened package on the counter.
“That was on the porch. Do you like scrambled eggs?”
“I do my own cooking. Thanks though.”
“You think I’m trying to kill you.”
“No. I think I do my own cooking. Don’t bring anymore packages in the house.”
I took the package into my room and opened it. Inside was a black card with white lettering. It read: Do the mission. Add Sanderson and Brander to the list.
Inside the box was a thin veil that covered the card, besides that there was nothing else in it. I tore the box in shreds, put the card in my drawer, and threw my trash away.
Janice sat at the counter eating her breakfast. She cut her eyes to me, and watched me cook bacon, eggs, and a small piece of toast.
“Why did you save me?”
I salted my food, pulled up a chair to the counter and sat across from Janice.
“Eat your food. I don’t like to waste it.”
We ate in silence. While we ate, I looked at Janice’s bruised cheeks. The bruising had turned a yellowish purple. I pointed at her bruise and said, “you need to keep ice on that. It’s gonna hurt.”
“Okay,” said Janice.
Eating seemed to pain her, and I ate the remaining piece of my toast. “Give me your plate,” I said, extending my hand toward it. She shook her head no.
“I’ll eat it. You don’t like to waste food.”
“You look like you are in pain. Give me the plate.”
She pushed it to me. I wrapped it with saran wrap and put it in the fridge.
“If you get hungry you know where it is.”
She nodded her head but said nothing. I put on a light coat that would conceal my sidearm and KA-BAR fighting knife. Janice still sat at the counter, so I walked back in front of her.
“Let me explain something to you, Janice. I freed you last night. If you decide to run away from here, I’m not coming for you. Sanderson will kill you. Brander will kill you. Just like they killed your sister. You understand.”
“Okay. I have things to do, so I’ll see you later.”
Then, I walked out to my vehicle and drove into town. Prior to the end of the 21st Century, back when the world was still divided into countries, nation-states, continents, etc. America decided to lift all laws and established a citizen-enforced system of justice.
The politicians of the day modeled it based on a sense of family punishment utilized in more primal cultures. No formal military was used. War became a private industry and professional mercenaries fought for whomever had the most money.
Assassins, such as I, worked for the government and did the work that others refused to do, or in certain cases, when diplomacy failed.
Until The Voiceless retired us. Sure, we got called back into action from time to time, but it went undiscovered by the ‘government.’
Boatswain Enterprises, sat in the center of town on the edge of the main town square. People swarmed the area night or day. I chose a bench and sat down across from it.
I pulled out a book titled, Introductory Applied Physics and opened it. A middle-aged woman with a plump face and wild hair looked at me, while she smoked her cigarette.
“Are you a scientist, or an aspiring one?”
“Of a sort,” I responded.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that I sometimes use science in my job.”
“Ah. Well, your text is a bit outdated.”
“Yeah. Well, the old ways are sometimes better.”
She finished her smoke and walked away. From where I sat, I had an unhindered view of the door and front desk. I watched as the plump woman walked into the building and sat behind the front desk.
The day passed swiftly. At noon, Harry Boatswain walked out and got into an armored limo. Half an hour later, he returned.
While he was away, I walked into a hotel across from Boatswain Enterprises, climbed into an elevator, and rode it to the top floor of the hotel.
From there I got a good look of the surrounding area. It’s where I saw Harry Boatswain return.
I went home and considered what I had seen. Janice had cooked her dinner and was eating it, while watching some show about singers from the 21st Century.
“There were many talented people in the last century,” said Janice, spooning a piece of pork cutlet into her mouth. I nodded. “I would’ve made you dinner, but you don’t trust me.”
For dinner, I made a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato. Then, I sat down next to her and watched her program.
The textbook fell out, and Janice picked it up. She looked at it and opened it to where I had a bookmarker set. Then, she sniffed it.
“Mmm, I love that old book smell.”
“Do you read?”
“Of course. Jade had a library in her house. Did you know that?”
“When Brander and Sanderson found out what she was doing, they took me. Then, Sanderson sent Brander to kill her.”
I finished my sandwich and took my plate, plus Janice’s, into the kitchen. I washed them and put them away.
Then, I went into my room and shut my door. I could hear Janice sobbing in the living room, as I stretched out on my bed.
Chief Hathcock and Walter waited for her the following morning. As she walked in, Artemis gave her a small wave, and said, “they’re waiting for you in the chief’s office.”
She walked down the hall to the chief’s office, the door was wide open, and she walked in and sat next to Walter.
“Did you learn anything last night?”
“The woman was murdered according to the M.E. She had fractures in her ribs and face, and…”
“She was pregnant, and um, she gave birth after she passed away.”
Laughter broke out down the hall where Sara and Mary Ann sat at their desks.
“A dead body had a child,” one of them mocked.
Walter walked to the door and shut it. Janie blushed and said nothing else. Chief Hathcock watched his newest detective but said nothing.
“So, how did that happen?”
“Excuse me, Walter?”
“How did this woman give birth if she had no heartbeat?”
“Surely, you’re not buying this, Walter,” Chief Hathcock said quietly.
“Why would she make it up? Why would Tammy?”
“Fine. Tell us how this supposedly happened.”
“According to Tammy, gases built up in the intra-abdominal wall and forced the child out. It’s rare this happens. The baby must be positioned a certain way for this to occur.”
“So, where is this child? Was it stillborn? Is there any proof the child existed?”
“We don’t know where the child is. This is the first you guys are hearing of it. I don’t know if the child was stillborn, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but that. Proof is in the file,” Janie said putting the brown manila folder on the desk.
Hathcock picked up the file and opened it. As he read it, his brow furrowed and his mouth drew into a tight, hard line, any color he had in his face seemed to drain out, and the sparkle that shined in his eyes when he laughed died like a burnt-out sun in the solar system.
“Dear God,” he muttered. Walter said nothing, just sat there unmovable like a statue, waiting for someone to tell him what to do.
“Okay, detective, what’s next on your agenda?”
“I thought I’d visit some town folk and see if they remember a pregnant girl around here from 1985.”
“That’s a start, for sure,” said Chief Hathcock, “check with the schools and see if they kept any records concerning pregnant females.”
Walter stood, followed by Janie. He walked out of the office, but Chief Hathcock motioned for Janie to stay.
“You know how folks are around here, Janie. They ain’t going to appreciate you asking questions about no pregnant girls from the 1980s.”
“Why not, chief?”
“Time has moved on, but attitudes don’t change. You be careful out there. Don’t trust nobody.”
“Do you have a back-up piece? If not, you need to always keep one on you, Janie.”
Janie turned and looked at her superior. He was back in the file reading, and a cold shiver shot down her spine.
It felt as if the dead girl had stepped into the room and whispered her name. Janie fought to calm the butterflies in her stomach, but there was no calming them.
This case had just started, but Janie couldn’t stop feeling as if she was drowning.
It took the better part of an hour for Janie to drive to Sparky’s. She pulled into the parking lot and took an empty spot that gave her easy access to the highway. Plenty of cars provided cover for her to make it to her vehicle should something happen.
Her sense of hyper-vigilance was part of her time in the Air Force. Having served as an Security Forces sniper, she understood the importance of self-awareness and cover.
Although she hoped she’d not need any here at the restaurant.
Tammy Bowen sat in a booth halfway down the right side of the restaurant. The booth had an unhindered view of the only entrance and exit.
The Medical Examiner looked up from her menu and motioned for Janie to sit. Janie slid in.
“Can I get you something to drink,” a small waiter asked, as he ran a hand over a thin mustache.
“Sweet tea, please.”
Tammy waited until he walked away before speaking. She put down the menu, a look of disgust crossing her face, and took a sip of her drink.
“Tammy,” she said, extending her hand to Janie,” you must be Janie.”
“Nice to meet you detective.”
“You’re upset I didn’t wait for you.”
“A little bit, yeah.”
“I apologize. My duties are extensive, and I’ve got more than one detective wanting results.”
“Yeah,” Janie said slurping some tea, “my boss mentioned Thermopolis Konan and Lilly Thompson.”
“It’s not just them. I work with detectives across the state. You do have an interesting case though.”
“You’re aware that just because your heart stops beating, you’re dead, but certain things still happen, right?”
“Um., like what exactly.”
“Well, in your case, there should have been another body.”
Janie looked at Tammy Bowen. The waiter cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows. Both women ordered catfish filets, hushpuppies, and fries.
“She gave birth.”
“I don’t understand. How does a dead body give birth?”
“It’s called postmortem fetal extrusion. Intra-abdominal gases build up and force the baby out. It’s a rare occurrence.”
“So, there’s another skeleton out there in the swamp?”
“Or in the belly of a gator.”
“Oh my God. The poor woman., who would do such a thing to her?”
“Yeah. She didn’t go easy. As to who did it, I don’t know. There are plenty of mean people out there.”
“Did you find out anything else?”
“Judging from the breaks in her ribs and face, she was beaten viciously. She was 17, maybe 18 at the time of her death. And there were a few scraps of clothing attached to the skeleton. She was dressed for the prom.”
“How do you know that?”
“I had a dress like the one she was wearing. It was a big hit for the wannabe fashion icons of the local high schools.”
“Okay. Thanks for the information, Tammy. I’m not hungry right now.”
“I’m starved,” Tammy said, as the waiter put down their plates, “it’s been a long day, and I still have a long drive ahead of me.”
“How can you eat after laying out what you found? There was a child out there, a child we didn’t find.”
“You think I’m calloused,” Tammy said around a mouthful of fish. “I understand. Maybe I am but I’ve done my job. I did the tests, gave you the results, and now it’s on you to hunt down the mean SOB who did this to her and make them pay.”
“Yeah,” Janie said, suddenly feeling underqualified to handle such a case.
Tammy took a sip of her drink and stared at the young detective; a small smile crossed her face as she speared another piece of fried fish.
“What do you know of Thermopolis Konan?”
“Besides he’s a great detective?”
“I was the M.E. when he and Lilly first teamed up. He came to us with a bad rep, but I knew the minute I saw him he wasn’t the type to back down. No matter how tough it got, he would find justice for the victim. You have that same tenacity, Detective Temple.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Just take the case one step at a time. Look at the pieces and put it together. You got this. Eat up.”
The kind words seemed to do the trick because Janie cleared her plate. After thanking Tammy Bowen for the meal and information, she walked out of the restaurant to her car, no hidden assassins waited to ambush her, and she began the drive home.
On the way back to Angie, she considered what the medical examiner told her, and her thoughts turned to the baby they hadn’t found.
The child born in the swamp to a dead mother, pushed out by a mass of bloated intestinal gases, unwanted and doomed to be lunch for an apex predator.
Jackson Titus sat under an emerald, green umbrella and sipped coffee from a teal-colored cup that had a clay stripe that wound its way around it. Steam rose from it, and he blew on the hot liquid. People rushed by their heads buried in the happenings, and non-happenings, of social media.
No one paid any attention to him. He counted on their disinterest in reality and knew people would rather watch a video showcasing the stupidity of modern man over an actual conversation with another human being.
Besides, the last time he was here, he served as a police officer. He’d kept his sandy-brown hair cut close to the scalp, was clean-shaven, and his mannerism was curt but professional.
Now, his hair was long and flowing, much like his beard, and dark sunglasses hid his eyes. Even if someone sat next to him on the bus or even at his table, no one would recognize him.
“Would you like some more coffee, sir?”
“No, thank you. Please bring my check.”
The waitress, a blonde named Alice, tried to meet his eyes, but Jackson ignored her. Alice, only days away from her nineteenth birthday, had a perky attitude, pale blue eyes, and full lips, and had never known a man she could not entice. She could not understand why this man resisted her charms. She slinked away and returned with his check.
“Have a nice day,” she said coldly.
Jackson gave her a smile and said, “you too.”
As he crossed the main square, he stopped by a paper stand and purchased one. The headline read: “Local police baffled by murders: Has Thermopolis Konan met his match?”
Yes, he has, he thought, as he shoved the newspaper under his left armpit. And this time, I won’t run away like a chased rat. Thermopolis Konan will pay with his life. He glanced at his watch; the digital numbers read 1530.
Phase two will soon commence, but first comes the orders.
As I drove Lilly and I back to the precinct, Lilly’s phone dinged. She checked it, smiled, and glanced over at me.
“Paddy sent us and address for the Titus family. They live out in the sticks. We should go out there tomorrow and rattle the bushes.”
“We can. You know he’s not going to look the same, right? He wouldn’t chance it. We should speak to a profiler and have them do a workup of his psych profile.”
“Do you know where we can find a profiler? Because the last time I checked, the Fredericksburg Police Department doesn’t have employ one.”
“The State Police may have one, if not there’s always the FBI.”
“I’d check with Janko before I called in the Feds.”
“I’m not going to call in the Feds, Lilly. I’ll call the staties in the morning.”
“I was just sayin’ before you call the Feds, talk to Janko. He deserves a heads up.”
“Okay. I got it, mom.”
Lilly laughed and smacked me in the chest. She wrinkled up her nose at me until I gave her a grin.
“It was good to see Paddy and Esther, eh?”
“Yeah. It was a nice visit.”
“Paddy seemed upset when we first got there, and he really didn’t seem to happy when you walked in.”
“Yeah. Apparently, it’s not good to disappear for whatever reason. Who knew people wanted to know you cared about them, even when bodies are piling up, the city is being burnt down, and racist cops are on the loose?”
“You could’ve called, Konan. That’s why you have a cell phone.”
“I don’t like cell phones, Lilly. The only reason I have one is because the job required me to carry one.”
“You’re a fossil, Konan. A cell phone is necessary in today’s life, it’s a staple of our society for God’s sake.”
“No, it’s not. While everyone is busy figuring out what kind of potato they are, the art of conversation is dying. While you murder your brain cells watching videos of stupid people doing stupid crap, actual knowledge is perishing.”
“You’re a fossil. What would you have us do? Burn our television sets? Go back to teletype? Or maybe do away with all new-fangled DNA crap?”
“I’m not saying good things didn’t happen, Lilly. DNA is a godsend, and it’s helped get innocent people out of jail, and the right ones put in it. Because of DNA testing, rape victims have a good chance of receiving justice. But the point remains, for every good thing, piles upon piles of bad has infiltrated our society. All you must do to educate yourself on this is look at issues facing our society today.”
“What? Like climate change? Abortion rights?”
“No. Look at the graduation rates, the murder rates in the 18–25-year-old bracket, the literacy rate, look at the power held by the teacher unions and academic strongholds, then look at how little power the parents have in shaping their own children’s lives.”
“Then take your college degree and compare it to a similar degree that came from any Asian country. You’ll see why our society is sinking underneath the self-inflicted wounds we imposed on ourselves to make us seem like everyone else.”
“Jesus, you’re such a sour puss, Konan. You’re a clean-shaven gloom and doom prophet.”
“The battle lines are drawn, Lilly. To withdraw now is cowardice.”
Lilly and I escorted Jane Franks and Destiny to a holding cell, which would serve as their new home for the next 24-hours. Both women seemed relieved to be behind bars.
A young, black officer stood behind the counter and gazed curiously at Destiny. She met his gaze but said nothing to him. On our way out, the young officer met us at the door.
“Detectives, why is Destiny in holding?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Because she’s my sister, Detective Thompson. Destiny’s never been in trouble before. I didn’t even know she was home…”
“What’s your name officer?”
“Samuels. Timothy Michael Samuels.”
“Did you have a falling out, Samuels?”
“I, um,” Samuels took a deep breath and let it out slowly, “she went off to college, and we never heard a peep from her. Now, she’s back.”
“Maybe, you two should patch things up.”
“Maybe. I should at least know what’s brought her back to Fredericksburg.”
Lilly took Officer Samuels free hand and squeezed it and gave him a warm smile.
“She’s your family, Samuels. Family is important.”
I cleared my throat, nodded at Samuels, and started for the door. Lilly said goodbye and followed after me. When she caught up to me, she looked over and said, “sad, isn’t it?”
“How families drift apart.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Sure, you would, Thermopolis. You haven’t been out to see Esther or Paddy since before the riots. When is the last time you went by Mad Michael’s grave?”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Un-huh. Now, you’re being short with me, because you know I’m right.”
I frowned at Lilly, and she returned my frown with one of her own. God, I thought to myself, I hate it when she gets like this.
“No, I haven’t.”
“Haven’t what, Konan?”
“Got short with you, nor have I gone to visit my father’s grave.”
“Because there is nothing to say, Lilly. What’s done is done.”
“You’re afraid, Konan.”
“I don’t know, Konan. You tell me.”
“Let’s go see Esther and Paddy. I’m hungry. Lunch is on me.”
“We can go somewhere else, Lilly.”
“No. I want Paddy to cook me a steak.”
I followed Lilly out, but unlike my partner, I wasn’t worried about drifting away from my family. When it came to family, I was okay with staying a long distance from them.
No one stood outside of O’Shea’s when we pulled up. Lilly and I walked up the stairs to the restaurant, and Lilly pulled the door open and stepped inside. Paddy looked up from the bar and gave her a warm smile.
He walked over and gave her a hug, and said, “How ya doin’, darling.”
“Good, Paddy. How are you doing?”
“Doing fine, darling. Follow me.”
We followed him to a table in the back of the restaurant, far away from prying eyes. My Aunt Esther watched us approach. Her cold, lifeless eyes seemed to bore into me. She lit her cigarette and sucked smoke into her lungs via the black cigarette holder.
“What do you need help with now, Konan?”
“Nothing,” I muttered.
“Then, why are you here?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, as I turned to leave.
Paddy snickered and said, “You hear that, Esther? He’s sorry. We haven’t heard not hide-nor-hair from him in months, but he’s sorry.”
I turned to Paddy, ready to knuckle up with my uncle-Esther too if she wanted some-but Lilly stepped between us.
“Easy, Paddy. Konan, sit down. We’re here to eat lunch and catch up with you two. Things have been hectic for a while now.”
“I always liked you, Lilly.”
“And I like you too, Esther.”
“What can I get you, darling?”
“A steak and fries, if you don’t mind Paddy.”
“Don’t mind at all, darling.”
“You’ll have whatever I bloody well bring you,” Paddy snapped, as he walked back towards the kitchen.
It’s true what they say, you know. You can’t go home again.
We walked out of the swamp and past Traylor. He glared at me and Tiny and said, “How about it, little piggy? Did you enjoy returning to your roots?”
I said nothing and continued past him. Tiny didn’t say anything until we got in my truck.
“Is it me, or is Traylor always angry, and if he is, does it have anything to do with him barely scratching four feet in the ole height department?”
“I imagine he’s had a hard go at it, Tiny. Being that short is sure to limit his capacity on how much cheer he can hold, and his perspective is probably limited by his lack of vision.”
Tiny laughed, as I fired up my truck and we headed into town. We stayed quiet for a while, but then Tiny began to hum a few lines of “Lie To Me” to break up the silence. He couldn’t stand silence, and I found calm in it. Still, I enjoyed listening to Tiny’s deep, smoky blues voice over the new-fangled lyrical butchering they called modern music.
“What do you think was in those other barrels, Abe?”
“Um, I’d assume the remaining digits, organs, and limbs of the victims, Tiny.”
“What kind of sicko chops up people and shoves them in barrels, and then tosses ‘em out in the swamp?”
“I don’t know, brother. It could have something to do with the black market. People pay a lot of money for healthy organs.”
“Yeah, I know that,” Buster said, as he stared out my window. “But that usually has to do with internal organs. You know, the heart, liver, in some cases lungs, kidneys, and even the eyes.”
“What do you mean, and?”
“Whoever killed these victims kept everything.”
“I know, man. That’s what isn’t making sense to me. If it was only the organs, we’d go bang on some doors. But who strips everything off the skeleton?”
“Well, I don’t know. It won’t do us any good to guess and make assumptions. When Abby knows, we’ll know.”
“Yeah. Mama June might be up,” Tiny said, changing the subject. “You wanna grab a bite to eat?”
“Sure. I could use more coffee.”
Tiny stared at me, and I raised my eyebrows at him and said, “what?”
“How’s therapy going, Abe?”
“Oh, is it that time again?”
“Time for you to begin worrying about my mental health.”
“You’re my partner, bro. I worry about you, and you don’t make it easy for people to care about you.”
“Tiny, it’s a Depersonalization Disorder, okay? I get detached from things, that’s all it means.”
“Yeah, plus you struggle with depression, anxiety, and now this. Tell me what it’s like, this disorder.”
“I detach myself from my emotions, have a hard time tying to keep an even keel. Sometimes, it’s like I am on the outside looking in, or when something happens it feels like it’s happening to someone else.”
“Like in a movie?”
“Is that why you cold-cocked Traylor a while back? Did you think it was someone else punching him in his bearded, round face?”
“No. I knew what I was doing.”
“So, why did you punch him?”
“Because he is annoying, Tiny. He feels like he must overcompensate for his lack of height by bullying everyone around him. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with it.”
“Dude, you got on your knees and said you wanted to look him in the eyes, and then you punched him while shouting, I smite thee with the Dwarven Hammer of Ponderance, over and over again.”
“Yeah. Good times.”
Tiny laughed, as I pulled up close to the entrance of Mama June’s House of Food. The lights were on in the back of the restaurant, and Tiny rapped on the glass door. Mama June unlocked the door and let us in. She stared at Tiny, then peeked around him and gave me a smile.
“Good morning, Abe.”
“Hey, Mama June. How you doing?”
“I’m okay, baby. You taking care of Buster, here?”
“I’m trying. He doesn’t make it easy.”
“He never did. Come on in the back, baby. I got some cold biscuits and hot coffee for y’all this morning. Buster said y’all caught a bad one.”
“It looks that way,” I said, as I pulled out a chair.
Mama June was in her early sixties, stood 5’10, and didn’t look a day over thirty. Her dark skin was flawless, her eyes a deep black, and she claimed she inherited her beauty from ‘living a clean life.’
I remembered thinking, “I don’t know how much clean living a voodoo priestess could do,” but in time I came to know Mama June as a protector, and a boon to her community. She helped the poor, provided medicine to the sick, and served as an listening ear to the unheard. You didn’t have to look far to know where Tiny got his personality from.
“Help yourself, Abe. You know where everything is.”
“Thank you,” I said taking two biscuits and putting them on my plate. Tiny joined me. Mama June came by and pushed a bony finger into Tiny’s side.
“You need to lose some weight, baby. You ain’t never gonna find a woman if you don’t.”
“Come on, Mama. Don’t say that.”
“Tell him the truth, Abe.”
“My name’s Bennett and I ain’t in it,” I said around a mouthful of biscuit. “Besides, my momma always said there’s someone out there for all of us.”
“Did she also tell you that you aren’t the dumbest guy on the planet, but you better pray he didn’t die?”
“Dang, mama,” Tiny said as he spread strawberry jam on his biscuit. “Why you so cold this morning?”
“Cause I ain’t got no grandchildren, Buster! What are you waitin’ on, the Lord to return?”
I sucked down the rest of my coffee, put a twenty on the table, and headed for the truck. Buster followed me out, Mama June was hot on his trail. Tiny leapt into the truck, and I fired it up. Mama wasn’t deterred. She opened the door and leaned in.
“Talk to him, Abe. He won’t listen to me none.”
“You two be careful out there. Evil is roaming them hills, and it’s only gettin’ worse.”
I don’t know how I knew her words to be true, but I did. Goosebumps raced up and down my spine, and I wondered what kind of evil hid body parts in 55-gallon drums in the middle of a black watered swamp.
The streets were deserted, if you didn’t count the burnt-out husks of vehicles, abandoned buildings, and pigeon poop everywhere. Wild dogs patrolled the street in packs. Ted led us around the beasts and motioned for us to move toward a bakery with a broken window. Me and Ted covered Emily as she crawled inside. An alleyway ran on both sides of the building, so I motioned to the one I’d clear, and Ted took the other.
A rusty blue trash bin was pushed against the wall. At the back of the bin the earth had been disturbed. I stopped, my heart in my throat. “Improvised Explosive Device,” my mind shouted at me. “Do not move.” I dropped to one knee and pulled my binoculars to my eyes. Further on in the alley, a dead donkey lay upon the road it’s back to me.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes and looked through the glass again. A cooper wire ran from the rectum of the donkey, and I began to back up. Moans rose into the air. From the corner of the broken window, Emily saw me. Her green eyes darted back and forth furtively; they were the size of half dollars.
“Jake,” she whispered. “Hey, Jake.”
“Sssh,” I whispered back. “Lurkers,” my mind screamed at me. I took four quick breaths and held the last one.
“Is it the Lurkers?”
“I sure hope not,” I muttered to myself.
Ted had backtracked out of his alley as well. He met my eyes, pointed at his, and then motioned toward the alley. I nodded and flipped my selector switch from safe to fire, as the sound of running feet approached us. A scream came from the alley, followed by, “Oh God, no!”
“FIRE,” Ted shouted.
Then, all hell broke loose.
“Emily, run,” I shouted, as I lifted my rifle. Emily rushed past me, and I squeezed the bang-button. The rifle ripped off multiple three-round burst, recoiling into my shoulder, as bodies dropped like flies.
“Moving,” Ted shouted.
“Firing,” I shouted back. Swarms of people rushed toward us, not caring how many lives we ended in their charge.
Ted took up a defensible position and laid down a heavy volume of fire. I ran backwards toward him, firing as I moved. We’d thinned out some of the swarm, but they kept coming. I looked over at my friend, and he had this crazy grin on his face. It’d been years since I had seen him this happy.
“Come and take it, you bloody heathens!”
“Reloading,” I shouted.
“Firing” Ted yelled. I brought the weapon to bear and blasted a three-round burst into the face of a young woman.
“We’ve gotta get them off of us, Ted!”
“Roger,” he yelled, as he pulled the pin on a hand grenade. “Willy Pete,” he shouted as he tossed the phosphorous grenade in the midst of the swarm. Both of us hightailed it to an empty building as the grenade went off.
The guttural moans of the swarm metamorphosed into the shriek of the damned. As the phosphorous ate through the flesh of the swarm, Ted and I checked our gear. He lifted his hand to receive my high-five and said, “that’s what I call giving it to ‘em.”
From out in the darkness, a 2×4 with rusty nails driven through it collided with Ted’s unprotected head. He fell to the ground, blood spewing from his mouth.
“Home Run,” Alf shouted.
I drew my sidearm and pumped two rounds into the bloody midget’s face. Alf’s head exploded backwards, blowing chunks of his brain matter into the face of Emily. Her green eyes filled with fright. She went to scream, but I slapped a gloved hand over her mouth and shoved her into a darkened closet.
“Ssh,” I whispered, pointing at the door.
Moans filled the street, and in the alley outside of our building, Blondie and his gang of rapists argued.
“Blondie, what are we waiting for?”
“We’re waiting for Alf…”
Another voice chimed in, “those things are gonna find us and kill us…”
“Not if you shut up,” Blondie snapped.
“Do you really want to risk it, boss man?”
Finally, Blondie relented. “We’ll come back in the morning and look for Alf,” Blondie growled at the men, “but Alf gets first taste of the brood sow.”
Quiet murmurs filled the air, but the men agreed to Blondie’s terms. Their heavy footfalls were replaced by the shuffling footsteps and deep, guttural moans of the swarm.
Emily and I stayed hidden in the dark closet. From where we sat, we watched as Ted gurgled and spit out his last breath in a shower of crimson phlegm. I felt something wet touch my hand. It was the tears of my favorite actress. Darkness fell upon the town, the night filled with the damned walking to-and -fro, but I couldn’t care less about them.
My friend lay dead in front of me, and I was pissed.
Sheriff Roscoe Leroy Wilkins sat on a tree stump and watched the forensic techs go about their work. He gave Janie a nod as she approached.
“You that new detective, huh.”
“Yes, Sheriff. I’m Janie Temple.”
“Mmmhmm. Okay then. This is a shared case, little lady. That means you are working with us. Walter is gonna work with you. I expect daily briefings.”
“Fine. What happened here?”
“I dunno. These techies said the crime scene is old, but the expert on bones or some such has to travel from Jackson to look ‘em over.”
“So, why are we here?”
“To look at the crime scene, duh.”
Janie turned and faced the voice, a tall, burly deputy stood behind her, a chocolate covered donut hanging loosely from his left hand.
“Don’t they teach you nothing in your fancy-smancy classes?”
“Jake don’t do that,” Walter began but a look from Sheriff Wilkins silenced him.
Janie plastered a fake smile on her face and nodded. “Yes,” Janie said, “they taught us plenty. Things like bleached bones don’t happen overnight. Or that you shouldn’t bring foreign objects, like food as an example, into a secured crime scene. Basic stuff really, but important nonetheless.”
Walter turned his head and grinned. Sheriff Wilkins frowned and scowled at Jake. He motioned for Jake to remove himself from the crime scene. Jake glared at Janie, and she returned his glare with a sweet smile and a wink.
“Sheriff, where will the bones be transported to? Are they going to the morgue in Fredericksburg?”
“Yeah. The Medical Examiner there will hold the bones until the expert shows up.”
“Do you know the name of the expert?”
“Yeah. Tammy Bowen is the expert. She’s on her way now.”
“Okay. I need to get back to town and brief my superior.”
“Mmmhmm. Before Walter drives you back, I need a word with my deputy.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get out of your hair.”
Janie walked back to the truck. While she walked, she could hear Sheriff Wilkins voice raise.
“You don’t correct no one, Walter. You get that woman out of my scene, and you make sure she doesn’t interfere in this case overmuch. Do you understand?”
Walter’s answer died in the humid air. Janie grinned and sat in the truck with the door open. Jake sat on the hood of a patrol car eating another donut. He wolf-whistled at Janie. She ignored him.
In the distance, she could see Walter walking toward the vehicle. Jake snickered and pointed at him. Walter kept his head down and focused on the ground in front of him.
He climbed in and started the truck. Janie shut the door and leaned back into her seat. They rode in silence for a while, neither one wanting to broach the subject. Finally, Janie spoke.
“So, you’ve got your hands full over there, huh?”
“What do you mean, detective?”
“I mean the Sheriff seems lackadaisical, and Jake seems kind of dense.”
“Jake is dense. Sheriff Wilkins is worried about appearance, you know? He’s big on things looking right.”
“Ah, I see.”
“He’s not a bad man. This case could throw a monkey wrench into his re-election chances, you know?”
“Yeah, I get it. Tell me about yourself Walter.”
“There ain’t a whole lot to tell, detective.”
“Okay. First off, stop calling me detective. My name is Janie, and I’d appreciate it if you would use it. Second, if you will show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
“Fine, Janie. I was born and raised in South Mississippi, and then I graduated and went to work at a dairy. Several years passed before I decided to pursue a career in law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Department in Faulkner County hired me, and I’ve been here ever since.”
“Do you enjoy your job at least?”
“If you’re not happy, why don’t you quit?”
“And do what?”
Janie shrugged and grew quiet. Walter looked out the window for a bit. The silence between the two grew until Janie turned to him.
“Clearly, you’re not going to open up to me, so I’ll talk about myself. You just listen, okay?”
Walter blushed but didn’t say anything. He kept his eyes on the road, but Janie could tell her statement had embarrassed him.
“I’m from here, born and raised. I joined the Air Force for a time, and then came home. I like donuts and coffee, in case you decide to bring some, I like a lot of sugar in my coffee. I’m single, not by choice, but it is what it is. I’m not big into sports, but I do work out. I like to read and write. That’s about it for now.”
Walter nodded and cleared his throat. As they drew near to the police precinct he said, “you’re quite impressive.”
“Not even. If you’ll let me know when the bones leave for Fredericksburg, I’ll head that way.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“You don’t have to, I just want to meet this expert.”
Janie thanked Walter for the ride and walked into the police station. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why he wasn’t familiar with the kids make-out spot,” she thought as she walked in.
Artemis met her in the hallway. Janie winked at her; the old receptionist winked back. Janie continued down until she came to the Chief’s door. She knocked three times and waited.
Janie walked in, and the Chief looked up at his newest detective.
“What do you have for me, Detective Temple?”
“The skeleton will get transported to Fredericksburg, where an expert, Tammy Bowen is her name, will examine it. I’m expecting a call when the bones leave out.”
“Good. I know Tammy Bowen. She’s a good woman.”
“How do you know her, Chief?”
“Um, she’s helped Thermopolis Konan and Lilly Thompson put several bad guys behind bars.”
“She must be good to work with those two. I’ll go meet her when I get the call.”
“Okay. Before you go, did Sheriff Wilkins give you a hard time?”
“Not too bad, I suppose. He insisted on daily briefings and wanted me to work with his deputy.”
“I see. What’s the deputy’s name?”
“I know Walter. He’s a good man.”
“He’s skittish, chief.”
“Gun shy, skittish, whatever word you’d like to use. He acts like he hasn’t ever dealt with a woman before.”
Chief Hathcock chuckled and shook his head. Janie wondered what she’d said that was so funny.
“I assure you; Walter knows his way around women. He’s an odd duck, but he’s a good cop.”
“If you say so, chief.”
“I do, now get on out of here.”