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Authors: Robert E. Dunn

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BOOK: A Living Grave
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“Yeah,” I said. “I know what you mean.”
Nelson Solomon, the famous painter, looked back at me then. He pursed his lips and looked like a schoolboy caught checking out the new teacher. I thought I should keep things on track, so I said, “Things don't usually happen that way.”
“What do you mean?”
“People, even asshole bikers, don't usually start in with random strangers. Especially not when they have to get off their bike, climb a fence, and cross a field to do it. Must have been some reason.”
“Maybe he doesn't like art?”
“Do all your critics work so hard to make their point?”
“Sometimes it feels like it,” he said, smiling again.
“Could this have been his property?”
“No,” Nelson said, and it was the first time he sounded absolutely certain. “Bank owns it.”
“Did the bank give you permission to be here?” I asked as I put a foot on the center strand of wire and pulled up on the top strand.
Just before ducking through he nodded again. Once back on the road side of the fence he said, “I'm a good customer.”
I didn't doubt that.
“So, you don't know what the guy wanted?”
“He wanted to kick my ass and he mostly did.” He said that with a self-deprecating smile that, if I'm honest with myself, I enjoyed. Then he added, “I think he wanted me to be scared a little bit too.” That was the truest thing he'd said to me about the fight.
“But you didn't just leave and call the sheriff's department?”
“I've had enough scares in my life.”
That's when I looked at his eyes and saw the kind of resolve that can make a cop's life both easier and more difficult. You want to root for the good people who stand up for themselves, but at the same time you see the consequences of that every day.
“You decided you just had to fight him, then?”
That grin again.
“There was no fight. Mostly it was just me getting beat up. I was already finished up and packed, but I learned a long time ago, if you let the bastards take, they never stop. He started pushing me around when I told him to kiss my ass. Then he took hold of my painting and said he was keeping it, and I was leaving. That's when I swung the field kit at him.”
I looked again out to the trees he had pointed to earlier. “Out there?” I asked. “Then how did all the mess get strewn around up here?”
I looked away and watched the big cube-shaped ambulance pull up behind my SUV.
“No,” he said. “That was where he left me on the ground. There, where everything spilled out, was where I caught up to him.”
“And I found you
here
because . . .”
“I caught up to him again at his bike. He must have gotten a good one in to my ribs, because I went down. Then the kicking started. That's why I thought maybe there were more of them. It felt like I was being trampled.”
One of the EMT's, an older man named Lawrence trotted up to me at the fence with his big kit.
“What's up, Hurricane?” he asked.
I pointed over to Solomon.
“I don't need an ambulance,” he said, waving both hands in front of himself.
“Go with Lawrence,” I told him. “If nothing else, he'll wipe some of that blood off your face.”
Solomon hit me with a look that said something there were no words for, but women always recognize. The surprising thing about it was that I didn't mind. Then the look blossomed into that grin again. “Pretty delicate for a hurricane, aren't you?” he asked and it wasn't just teasing, it was flirting. Real flirting, not just banter. It had been a long time, but not so long that I completely missed it.
I smiled. I couldn't help it; the expression took over my face so quickly I was unprepared. Then I touched the scar beside my eye and let the smile fall off my face before I said, “Believe me, Mr. Solomon, delicate is not one of my stronger qualities.”
Who knows what thoughts that put into his head, but he was smiling like he had just caught me naked and liked what he saw, before hefting the painting kit into the bed of his truck. Something happened then and Solomon fell against the truck, coughing deeply. When he turned back around there was fresh blood spattered his lips and on the back of his hand. None of it killed the gleam in his eyes.
As he let Lawrence take him to the back of the ambulance I heard Solomon say, “I think she likes me, don't you?” Lawrence laughed and muttered something I couldn't hear, but Solomon laughed until he was coughing again. I went through the fence to see what was in the trees, but I'll admit I was smiling.
It was an amazing view, but not what I had expected. From what I had seen of the guy's paintings, Solomon painted landscapes that were more natural than nature. He was famous for capturing scenes of light and shadow crafted by sun and mountains. Like Ansel Adams in color. I had never seen one that had man-made features in it. The view from the tree-lined bluff showed the lake with part of the town of Forsyth and the serpentine asphalt wending through canyons of cut-away stone. In the faces of the rock cuts were still the precise vertical lines put there by steam drills two generations ago. Over everything were dancing shades of green, billions upon billions of leaves topping a million trees.
Somehow I didn't think the biker was possessive of his favorite view. Still, the only thing that seemed even remotely odd about the scene to me was a single wisp of white smoke curling up from the trees below.
Backtracking the trail, I stopped to pick up a rolled-up, half-empty tube of paint from the field grass. Cobalt green. When I looked up I saw the light bar on the ambulance flash. It whooped once and U-turned into the road going the way it had come. The driver kept the light bar spinning. Solomon was being taken to the hospital.
Damn it.
I was kicking myself for being caught up in the man's charm. He must have been hurt more than he seemed and I should have made sure he stayed down until help got there. For a moment I stood in the middle of the empty field. Inside my gut there was a weird twinge, like a small slip in a tight knot.
How bad was he? And how much was my fault?
It was just for a moment, though. You can't last long as any kind of cop dwelling on the things that you have no control over and anything past is completely out of your control. I could best help Mr. Solomon by catching the guy who gave him the beating. And just maybe finding out the truth behind it.
Once my feet started moving again a deputy's car pulled up with his lights on. I let him call a tow truck for Solomon's vehicle and wait for it.
I got back on the road to my original destination, wishing the drive was longer. My head needed a little clearing.
Chapter 3
B
ecause the day was already wearing thin, I kept my mind in one place and focused on the road in front of me. I wanted to watch the steady whip of the yellow line as it passed under the SUV and think of other things. There was work to do and my thoughts were needed there. Besides, there was something else....
I touched at the scar and, despite my resolve, wondered about the man. Nelson Solomon was different from anyone I had met in a long time. Different was good. But thinking about him made me feel guilty, both because I thought I should have been firmer about his waiting for the ambulance and because a girl was dead. Each time I caught myself thinking about anything other than her I felt like a failure.
While I was thinking about what I should or should not be thinking about, the twisting miles disappeared. I was at Angela's home. The sheriff's car was parked outside and I felt pride in the man. No one likes family notification visits, least of all someone who relies on elections for his job. The fact that Sheriff Benson made it a personal responsibility told all of us just what kind of man we were working for.
I didn't stop at the house. I went to the end of the street, where it dead-ended in a steel barrier and bare dirt. Parked there was a twenty-year-old Chevy Beretta. The old car looked burdened by the mass of kids sitting in and on it. Behind the wheel was a pockmarked boy with a sneer and a bad haircut smoking like he was the first person to come up with the idea of cigarettes. All the other kids looked younger. One girl, probably fifteen or sixteen, baby-fat pretty with straight hair and bangs dyed blue-black, had the look of queen to the pimply-faced king. Kids always run in groups and someone is always the first among equals.
I pulled up and parked. Immediately the grumbling started. The half-loud smart remarks of kids showing off but not brave enough to go all the way. A couple of them faded back and started wandering off toward sagging homes with trash and toys littering the lawns.
The girl stayed put on the car's fender, her short skirt showing far too much leg for her age. Probably for any age, I thought, and wondered when I had become my mother. She didn't say anything, but she didn't look away, either.
“Hi,” I said.
Suddenly she changed and it was the second time that day I was struck by a smile. She had dimples and blue eyes that looked icy under all the black hair.
“Hi,” she said right back, like she was actually glad to talk. Her eyes drifted from my face down to my hips and I knew what she was looking for, but my weapon was holstered at my back just so it wouldn't be that obvious.
“I bet you guys knew Angela, didn't you?”
All the other kids looked at the ground. The girl looked back at my face. She let go of the smile, but something of it remained in her eyes. It was a strange look.
“She was our friend,” she said. “That's why we're here.”
The kid behind the wheel leaned out the window, whispering something to another boy. They both covered their mouths and snorted behind their hands. They bobbed their heads like something was amazingly funny and the best secret in the world. Even before that I was ready to dislike them. It's good to have an excuse, though.
“You boys have something to say?”
They straightened up but didn't bother to look contrite. Obviously they spent time in front of mirrors mastering their smug looks.
“Are you really a cop?” the girl asked.
I dropped my glare and nodded at her. “Detective,” I told her. “Detective Williams, with the sheriff's department. What's your name?”
Pimple Face behind the wheel stuck his head out the window again and said, “Hey. Aren't you supposed to show your badge or something?”
I looked over my shoulder at the departmental SUV with the star on the side and
Sheriff Taney County
, in big, reflective letters. Then I turned back to him. “You think I drive that thing because I like the style?”
“Can I see it?” the girl asked excitedly. I couldn't tell if she was ignoring the boy's rudeness or was just oblivious to it.
“You want to see my badge?”
She nodded with a smile, then said, “I'm Carrie Owens.” As I pulled my badge she leaned closer and whispered, “Just ignore Danny. He's mad because he got a ticket yesterday.”
“Danny?”
“Uh-huh. Danny Barnes.” She reached out to touch my star without asking and ran her fingertip over each point. “He lives over there.” She nodded over at a mobile home on blocks with no skirting that sat centered on a thickly treed, acre-sized lot.
“And where do you live?”
Carrie pulled her fingers off the badge and looked at me. She wanted to lie. I could see that. She decided not to, either because she didn't have one ready or just decided it wasn't worth the effort. “Over there, the big one.”
The big one was a white, vinyl-clad two-story with a deep portico and four vinyl-wrapped columns. It was also sitting on the largest lot in the division and right across the street from Angela Briscoe's home.
Tucking away my badge, I said, “Tell me about Angela.”
“She was okay,” Carrie said quickly. She leaned again as if offering a confidence. “Not very mature.”
“She was a couple of years younger than you?”
“No. I just turned fourteen. Angela's birthday was next month.”
I felt a little sick.
Looking around, I noticed for the first time the kids around the car were all boys, except Carrie. The skirt that I had thought too short for a girl of sixteen seemed suddenly less like a skirt and more like a terrible mistake. I pictured the girl in the woods with her skirt discreetly covering her knees. I had the feeling Angela and Carrie were two very different girls. This one was pushing at maturity, trying so hard to make herself a woman. I imagined Angela Briscoe had not been in such a hurry.
“Were you with Angela at all yesterday?”
“Sure,” Carrie answered. Before she could say more, the engine of the car started up.
“Come on, Carrie,” Danny shouted out the window. When I gave him a look, he tried to stare me down through his dirty window, but gave up after a second and lit a fresh cigarette.
“Maybe you would like to come talk at the sheriff's office,” I said to Carrie.
“Could I?” She surprised me again with her enthusiasm for the idea.
“I'll talk to your parents. Maybe you can ride down with me. We'll put the lights on and drive fast.”
That was the first time she looked uncomfortable. “Do you have to ask her?” She didn't wait for an answer. Her feet kicked out and she hopped off the fender, circling behind me to go for the passenger door. “I have to go.”
“Hang on,” I told her as I pulled a card from my pocket. “You can call me if you want. About anything.”
Carrie reached for the card, but as soon as her fingers touched it her eyes flicked toward home. “I guess,” she said.
“One other thing. Have you ever heard of anything or anyone called Leech?”
Her eyes widened. This time I had surprised her. When her eyes looked away they went to Danny, gripping the wheel of the car.
“No.”
It was a lie. A bad one. Danny honked the car horn. At the sound Carrie jumped, then darted for the door. At the same time, the other kids, the lingering boys, all bolted. Rather than trying to catch anyone, I turned and put my hands on the car's hood. Danny revved the engine and tried again to look like the tough guy, but I looked right back.
“Shut it off!” I shouted at him.
He did, twisting the key, then looking away, trying to show contempt even in his compliance. I stepped around to his window and looked in. Up close, Danny wouldn't meet my eyes at all. He kept staring at some point past my shoulder.
“Leech,” I said, taking both of them into my view. Danny kept staring off and Carrie looked at her feet. “Tell me who it is.”
From behind me came a popping roar, the sound of open pipes winding down. Carrie looked up and Danny's eyes widened. All of his tough pretense was gone.
I turned to look at what they were seeing. It was another biker, not the same one I had seen rushing off from assaulting Nelson Solomon. This one was bigger, but lean. Tough and wiry-looking with greasy hair and no helmet. His bike was an old Sportster that looked to be as greasy as the rider. It was now idling up to a stop in the middle of the street. The rider was watching me just as much as I was watching him.
“Who's this?” I asked the question to myself, expecting no answer, but I got one.
“That's him,” Carrie said. Then, louder, she added, “Leech. That's him.”
The biker twisted the throttle and turned the bike as soon as I stood and stepped in his direction.
When I ran for my vehicle, Danny started his engine again. As soon as it caught, he spun his tires in the dirt and bumped the car up onto the road just as a news van showed up from the other direction.
I didn't catch the biker.
* * *
They say that epileptics feel an aura of impending seizure. I've read descriptions of a lightness, both in sensation and vision that surrounds them, or of an embrace that is more known than felt, which signals to them an event is coming. People like me, survivors whose experience of trauma never really leaves, are hung with the diagnosis of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. We can feel an aura too, although it is different and our events are much different.
An event for me is an actual transportation back to a time and place that I've never actually left. Ghosts of a terrible moment continue to live in my mind. Most days I go on with them haunting from the edges of my thoughts. Some days I feel my own aura—a dark sense of impending transition, like a series of small black stones dropped on me until their weight drags me to that other place.
As I drove, at first chasing the biker—then, once I admitted that I'd lost him, chasing the hope—I felt the weight settling. Anyone that tells you a child's death doesn't put a weight on a cop, on every cop, doesn't know us. I'd called in, asking for assistance from any units in the area. But it's a big area with lots of twisting roads and crossing dirt tracks to get lost in. Telling yourself, or anyone else, that you did it right, did everything you could, feels as much a failure as the failure itself. Another weight.
Along with it came the usual craving to drink. There's a strange illusion in the mind of someone like me—something else you learn in therapy—the belief that being drunk will blunt the pain of that moment you're running from. Maybe it does in a way, but it's like digging a grave and crawling inside because the sun is too bright. Nothing is easy about any of it. There is just the unending pain and fear and the whisper of the alcohol, saying it can help. I can't explain it well enough to find an answer. I've never met anyone who could. You just have to know it's a lie.
There have been many times I've given in to it. But never while working. I can say that with a little pride. But the black pressure makes for a black mood. I was feeling them both and sinking even deeper into it when I pulled up outside the sheriff's office. News vans were packing the street. Law enforcement and journalists, we're the carrion eaters cleaning the bad meat of death from the nation. Sanitizing.
I need a drink
.
Inside, I ended what had turned into a long day by leaving a few messages and checking on my own. Routine and work are the best things to lift the weight. I asked the deputy on the desk to find out for me who had written Danny Barnes a ticket. On a yellow legal pad I wrote a long note filling the sheriff in on my investigation. He would be sure to read a handwritten note on his desk. From experience, I knew an e-mail would just be skimmed and he would come ask questions I'd already answered.
On my desk was a note telling me Clarence Bolin had come in and identified the man he had seen in the area where Angela Briscoe was found. It was written on the back of a photocopy. When I turned it over I got my first really good look at Cotton James Lambert. My first look at him had been when he sped away after leaving Nelson Solomon in the dirt by the side of the road.
At least we had a string to begin pulling, but not much of one. Lambert's rap sheet had his affiliations, but nothing about being part of an organized gang. He could have been recruited since he was last arrested or during his last stay in jail. There wasn't any doubt in my mind that he ran with the same group as the guy I'd seen on Angela Briscoe's street. I searched the system for a name on anyone using the alias Leech. Nothing.
I hadn't heard anything on that BOLO, so I left myself a reminder to check on it in the morning. After that I went through voice mail. I should have been more careful.
The first message was from Major John Reach. I didn't catch what he was saying; in fact I hit the
delete
button as quickly as I could. It didn't matter. His voice fell over me, a heavy blanket of darkness that brought the fear with it. I had to get out of there.
As I went for my truck, I folded up and tucked the photocopy of Cotton Lambert's intake photos in my pocket. I felt like I was dragging a train of fear behind me. Searching my mind for a handle that offered a little control, I found instead a bright smile and shining eyes: Nelson Solomon. It was a surprise, but a nice one and I held it as I drove out of Forsyth to Rockaway Beach.
My eggs and grits seemed like a million years ago and I hadn't eaten anything since. I lied to myself that I would feel better if I ate something. It was an easy lie because I would feel better seeing Uncle Orson and he had the food.
There was a military tradition in my family. It went beyond the Army into which I had been born. On my father's side, his father and uncles had all served in World War II. They had been Army, Army Air Corps, regular Navy, and the Seabees. My father followed his father into the Army, but Uncle Orson, a man who said he wanted nothing to do with following, chose to enlist in the Marines in 1964. He was on the northern perimeter when the NVA hit Con Thien. Every sunrise after that night of flamethrowers and knife fighting was a gift he made the most of. Orson retired as a master gunnery sergeant and never put the uniform on again. Every year, though, he has his dress uniform cleaned and altered if needed. It's always ready for a call to duty or his funeral. He won't be buried in anything else.
BOOK: A Living Grave
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