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Authors: Robert E. Dunn

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BOOK: A Living Grave
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I felt a little hope and then I felt a little shame. Story of my life, really. Suddenly I thought of the night before, with my uncle, and regretted telling him about Nelson. It was a mixture of wishful thinking on my part and the desire to seem normal to my family. Uncle Orson would tell my father. For a while Dad would be hopeful that his daughter had finally walked away from the damage in her life. I looked away from the rearview mirror and tucked it all away. I had work to do.
My official day began when I called in and let Darlene know I would take my own vehicle to make a couple of calls following up on the murder of Angela Briscoe.
First, I went to the murder scene. I stopped at the convenience store for a soda. Thirty-two ounces was 99 cents and twice that much was $1.19. I got the giant size. It was an offering of thanks for a long, boring job. I passed it through the window on the cruiser posted on the road where I had first met Clare. The deputy was William Blevins by his nameplate, but everyone called him Billy. It wasn't just an affectionate nickname; it was because he looked to be twelve years old. He was short and pudgy with wire glasses and a kid's haircut. The hair came courtesy of a barber named Finas Gold who was half blind and, it's said, learned his trade snipping hair under bowls before sending boys off to Korea. Billy was one of those people who you never imagined in uniform. Funny and nerdy looking, it was easy to imagine him being bully bait in school until you met him. After knowing him for a few minutes everyone liked him. Even bullies. I don't know how he became a deputy, but he was always doing the work no one else wanted. Honestly, I think it was to be sure he was kept safe and out of harm's way. But he did his jobs well and without complaint.
“How'd you know?” he asked me with a grateful smile as he took the soda. He took a big drink with his eyes closed. “Thanks. I really needed that.”
“Your vices are open secrets, Billy. They aren't really vices, either.”
“Caffeine.”
I watched him take another long drink. “Anything happen overnight?”
“News trucks all left by eleven. I heard some noise out that way.” He pointed north with the soda cup. “And probably a truck driving around. It was up the road a ways. I called it in, then went to keep an eye on the scene just in case someone was trying to get around me.”
I was impressed. Any other deputy would have been bored and happy to go check on the noise. When I said that to Billy, he shrugged and said, “I wasn't told to check out noises or cars. I was told to make sure no one went past that tape.”
It was good to know there was still someone who did his job, even a small one, with respect and pride. Someday he'd probably be the sheriff, and I would be working for him.
“Did they find anything?”
“It was quiet by the time anyone got here. I called it in at . . .” he checked a notebook even though it should have been recorded at the station. “Four-twenty-eight.”
“Okay. I'm going to have a look around. What time are you being relieved?”
“Don't know that I am.” He read the look on my face. “Something wrong?”
“Probably nothing,” I told him. “This killing is going to get a lot of attention. I'm afraid our scene will get a lot as well.”
“Kind you want it to get or the kind you
don't
want it to get?”
“What are you asking, Billy?”
“If you just want the scene kept clean, I can hang around and make myself obvious. Looky-loos won't stop if cops are here. If you want to see who comes in for a closer look . . . well, I can bring a pole and a book. There's a nice spot close by.”
I never said I was above taking advantage of someone's good nature. Billy had to return the cruiser and pick up his truck, but he'd be back within the hour to set up his off-the-clock surveillance. Until he was back I planned to stick around and check some things out.
The field and trail showed new wear from all the activity of the previous day. In the wooded area the ground was pinned in places by wires with little plastic flags. They marked where evidence had been taken. In a wide, rough circle crime-scene tape was strung from tree to tree centered on a blank spot where Angela had died. The only remaining evidence of her presence was blood spatter that haloed a void where her face had been crushed.
There was no new evidence and no startling revelations waiting. That was for television. Real police work was based on logging hours of repetitive tasks and questions. Very often the job isn't finding out who did the crime. It's more about proving the case against the person you already know to be guilty. Most murders are committed by someone known to the victim. That only holds truer with the murder of a child.
Along the stream bank there were a few more flags where rocks had been moved and the one marking where a roundish stone had been found with blood and hair on it. Beyond that I headed north, the opposite direction I had taken with Clare the day before.
Everything yesterday had been about the girl and my supposition that Clare and his whiskey were only coincidentally involved. The biker—make it
bikers
now—had taken a run right up to the top of the suspect ladder. That meant their interests had to be examined. One was seen here near the murder scene. The day of or day after the murder, he was kicking an artist around. That same day, another one was seen close to the dead girl's home.
Connections.
Upstream and on a bend where the bank was shallow I found what I was looking for. Across the water, around a black burn mark, was a pile of cinder blocks, a pile of firewood, and a few old pallets tucked within a copse of trees. I crossed the stream for a closer look. The ground was clean, surprisingly so. There were parallel lines where a rake had been dragged through the grass and bare dirt. Even so, whomever had tidied up had left behind several bits of broken glass from canning jars and tatters of brown paper. The paper was the same tough, thick stuff feed sacks are made from. It wasn't until I saw the paper that I noticed the kernels of corn scattered around.
There was still a surprise waiting and I found it by smell, not by sight. It was a rich, yeasty smell but sweet as well, like a bakery gone bad. I followed my nose outside the main circle and, under an old hedge apple tree, found a compost bin cobbled from the wood of more pallets. It looked like Clarence Bolin was a green bootlegger. Inside the bin were the solid sediment of the missing still along with food scraps, hedge apples dropped from the tree, and a dead armadillo. I had no idea if you could compost the leavings of your still, but I had to give the guy points for trying.
For a while I poked around, partially just killing time. I found fresh tire tracks in a rutted path where the still had been carried out the night before. How long did it take to set up in a new spot and begin a new batch? How long did a batch take from start to finish? I didn't know anything about moonshine. I decided to make Clare my personal mentor on the subject as soon as I got hold of him.
Billy came back in less than an hour. Even at that he'd already drained and refilled his soda cup.
Chapter 5
T
he home of Nelson Solomon was one of those best-of-both-worlds places only the wealthy ever seem to manage. It was close to town, in this case Branson. And it was still secluded, tucked into a cliff top lot with a view of the lake. It was my second stop of the morning. Solomon's assault looked even less random now that I knew Cotton Lambert had been at both crime scenes. That raised questions, serious questions that needed better answers than I'd gotten yesterday.
The only approach to the house was a meandering gravel drive that switched back on itself a couple of times before dumping out on a large, paved parking area. As soon as I pulled onto the concrete pad I heard a motorcycle start. It was a big Harley V-twin with loud pipes that roared as the engine revved up. A familiar sound. When it ran by me like a scalded cat it carried the smell of hot exhaust. Even over that, I swear I could smell the rider, a raw mix of sweat, grease, old beer, and tobacco. He was a big man with long, ratty hair and a beard to match. His head was bare but his eyes were covered by dark sunglasses.
He was not Lambert, the man whose picture I carried in my pocket. It was the one Carrie had identified as Leech. He was the same type, though. And I was willing to bet the pair of them belonged to the same club. This time I got a look at the patch.
When I saw Lambert running from the scene of Solomon's beating he was wearing a leather vest with his colors. This guy, Leech, was wearing a cut, the traditional denim jacket with sleeves sliced off, but the patches on the back were the same. This time I was close enough to see them clearly. There was a center image of a masked Bald Knobber, with a rocker patch above that read
Ozarks Nightriders
, and one below that read
Missouri
. To the side was a smaller white patch that had the
MC
for “motorcycle club.” I had heard of them; nothing good. Missouri had been open ground for a while and several clubs had formed or chapters of established clubs moved in. They were all tangling over turf and trade. From what we'd been hearing, these guys were big into meth.
They had to be local. No one else would use a Bald Knobber mask in their colors. Bald Knobbers were a violent vigilante group in the Ozarks, mostly in the late 1800s. In night rides, they ran off blacks or burned out white farmers they didn't like, using the whip and the torch to enforce their will on the region. Like the Klan would wear peaked hoods and white robes to hide their identity, the Bald Knobbers wore masks made from flour sacks with embroidered eye-holes and tasseled horns. They took their name from the bare tops of hills called
bald knobs
where they held their secret meetings. There was a time in these hills when night riders inspired a level of dread to which their modern imitators could never aspire. That, I think, is because of the collusion of the citizenry. Bikers wallow in the idea of being outsiders living apart from society. The Bald Knobbers, and all of the other various night-riding groups that our nation spawned between the Civil War and the First World War, were not outsiders. They were what masks allowed citizens to become.
There was no damage to the house that I could see. I had either caught the biker just as he arrived or he was waiting for someone. Nelson, I would guess. I would guess also that he hadn't been there to have a quiet chat about art. Nelson Solomon was a target of some nasty people. The questions were why and did he know more than he claimed?
I left the house under the care of a deputy named Calvin Walker.
“So you're gonna just stick me with babysitting a rich guy's house?” Calvin asked me after I explained the situation to him.
Calvin was not my best friend in the department. In fact, he didn't like me very much at all. I resisted the urge to tell him how useless he was. Something I didn't always do, to tell the truth. Another benefit of therapy.
“You're not babysitting the house,” I told him, quite patiently, again. “The man who lives here was assaulted by one of these bikers yesterday. I don't know where he is or why this is happening. You are here to make sure the bikers don't come back before he does so they can try again.”
“Babysitting,” he said.
“Call it what you want, Calvin. Just do it.”
“You know what your problem is, Hurricane?”
“I'm sure you're dying to tell me, but you need to know something first.” I looked him hard in the eyes and took a step closer. “If you even think the word—period—I swear to God it'll be the last thought you have.”
“You know, sexual harassment works both ways. You're making a very uncomfortable work environment for me.” He presented me with the kind of grin Uncle Orson always referred to as
shit-eating
.
That was the kind of thing I've had to deal with every day of my working life: Boys getting petty and wanting to test you every moment. There's no way to pass, but every failure is tallied up and held against you. If I don't play along, I'm a bitch. If I do, I'm a dyke. Go through channels and complain—well, that's just something I'll never do again.
After a few more words I left Calvin and headed back to Forsyth to check in with the notes and calls I left the day before. On 160 I had passed the water tower and was coming up on Forsyth Hardware when I saw a familiar car. The girl sitting on the hood was familiar as well. Carrie Owens.
I pulled in and parked alongside the same Chevy I had first seen her on.
When she saw me she smiled, but it was a cautious smile.
“Hi, Carrie,” I said through my open window.
She glanced at the storefront trying to see through the glass before she looked back at me and said, “Hello. I'm just waitin' on Danny.”
“That's fine,” I told her. “There's no law against waiting.”
Her smile eased up a bit and she said, “You're not in the cop car.”
“No, not today. Does that mean I should show you my badge?”
“No,” she laughed. “I'll trust you.”
“I'm glad to hear it. Trust is important.” Then in a quieter, conspiratorial tone I said, “Especially between us girls.”
She smiled again, but something about it was broken. Like she hadn't gotten that it was a joke. Her body tensed and her lips froze, but her eyes were someplace else. I had said something wrong but I had no idea what. The faraway look in her eyes, though—that I had ideas about.
“Are you all right, Carrie?” I asked her.
“Sure,” she said quickly. Her eyes came back with a new hardness to them. “Why wouldn't I be?”
“You kind of went away for a second, there. I wondered—”
“I should go inside. I need to see what's taking Danny so long.”
“Okay, Carrie. If you think you should. But I wanted to ask you something first.”
She had scooted down off the hood of the car and I noticed how low her jeans were riding on her bony little hips. The panties that peeked out of the waistband had cartoon bears on them. A little girl trying so hard to be a woman; or a girl, older than she should be, reaching back for childhood?
I stepped out of the truck to show I would follow her if she tried to go into the store. She got the message and stood beside the car.
“I need you to tell me about the man called Leech.”
“My mother told me not to talk to you about things. She said I didn't have to unless she was around.” She spit the words out quickly and without thought. She had practiced saying them, I was sure.
“It's true,” I told her. “You don't have to talk unless we make it all official and bring you in and call your parents.” I let that sink in a moment before continuing. “Is that what you want? Or would you like to help me find out what happened to your friend?”
Carrie crossed her arms and looked back at the storefront, then to the sky and back to the ground. “She wasn't my friend, okay?”
I wondered if her surliness was about guilt or fear. “Even if she wasn't, wouldn't you want to help find her killer?”
“What would I know about it?”
“I'm not saying you know anything about it. But you know something about that man, Leech.”
“So?”
“So it might help me to understand what happened if I knew something about him.”
Her arms were crossed over her chest and she kept looking off into the street or into the store window, avoiding me and the word. Afraid of being caught talking or hoping for rescue? “Carrie—”
“I don't know.”
“Remember what I said about trust, Carrie. You can trust me. I just want to help you.”
“No one helps anybody. I've got my own help and it's none of your business.”
“What help, Carrie?” No answer. “Can you tell me why you need help?” She looked ready to cry. “Does it have something to do with this Leech?”
Carrie reached down to the car hood and, with a finger, wrote the name in the grime. Leech. As soon as it was complete she swept away most of the word with the palm of her hand. “You don't understand anything,” she said.
“Help me to understand, Carrie. I've been looking for him. Can you tell me his real name?”
She grinned like she knew a secret but only for a second before she dropped it and said, “No.”
“Are you afraid of him?”
She nodded, then quickly said, “That's not why I can't tell you. I don't know.”
“Is Danny afraid of him too?”
Carrie nodded again.
“Has he threatened you?”
“Why can't you just catch him and put him in jail?”
“Because I need information. I don't know if he did anything. I don't even know his name.”
“He killed Angela.”
I looked at her and she turned away to look at the dirty car hood again.
“Do you know that for sure? Did you see it?”
Still looking down, she shook her head.
“Do you know anything I can use in court?” I asked.
“I know he's bad. I know he did it.”
“How?”
“I just do. Because I hate him.” Then she looked up and past me. Danny had just come out of the hardware store with a bag. She leaped at him.
“What's going on?” he asked. The question was quiet and addressed to Carrie, but he wasn't taking his gaze off of me. Carrie whispered something to him and his eyes turned down to look at the hood of his car. The L was still there with the lower point wiped away. “We have to go,” he said.
I didn't stop them.
* * *
Nelson Solomon was still in the hospital. A nurse at the third-floor desk pointed to an open door at the end of a long hall. As I approached I heard a raised voice coming from inside saying, “You act like everything's a big joke. I'm tellin' you this guy will gut you like a fish and smile the whole time.” The voice was thick with a meaty sound that matched the accent that sounded halfway between Brooklyn and New Orleans. I stopped in the hall and listened at the door.
“What?” Nelson asked. “Are you trying to do me a favor?”
“Someone needs to. But I ain't doin' it.”
“You aren't living up to your reputation,” Nelson said and I could hear the humor in his voice.
“That's business. This ain't.”
That's when I walked into the room expecting to see someone more in line with the biker look. I was surprised to see someone who looked like a fireplug with a gin-blossom nose and wearing an expensive suit.
“Hello,” I said, more as an announcement than a greeting.
Nelson smiled. The other guy looked like some men I had seen when something explodes nearby. Instantly ready to fight.
“Hurricane,” Nelson said. “I mean, Detective Williams.”
“Whatever,” the other guy said. Then he brushed past me leaving the room.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Nelson answered. “Some people want to buy something from me. I'm not in the mood to sell.”
“Not enough money?”
“More than enough money. But money isn't everything, is it?” He asked the question with the kind of tone that implied humor, but there was nothing funny about it.
He turned to look out the window. The view was mostly of a parking lot and traffic, but beyond that were trees whose green heads looked like a sea spreading out to the horizon. He was like a sailor watching the sea move, but caught between memories of journeys taken and dreams of those that would never be. “Mr. Interesting,” I said to his back.
He didn't turn right away, but in the faint reflection on the glass I saw him smile.
“I've been waiting for the nurse,” he said.
“Time for your sponge bath?” That time it was me trying to be funny and not quite getting it right. Hospitals always put me in a weird state of mind, but I was in a proper enough state to instantly regret the joke.
“Only if you're offering,” he answered and when he turned there was anything but regret on his face. “But mostly I was wanting to get out of here.”
“I just came from your house, Mr. Solomon,” I said, trying to bring it back to business. “There was another biker there.”
“Did you like it?”
“What?”
“The house. I had it built a couple of years ago. It's one of those semi-prefab things, a log cabin with all the logs cut in a factory and delivered on a truck. I don't know what I was thinking.”
“It's a beautiful home but I didn't go inside. There was no break-in. But it concerns me that two club bikers have turned up with you apparently in their sights.”
“You're bound and determined to make this official, aren't you?” He stepped away from the window and turned to face me. For the first time I noticed the pole and the bag it was holding that dripped clear fluid through a needle into his arm. Nelson saw me looking. “This,” he said, showing off the arm with the IV needle taped over his vein, “has nothing to do with yesterday.” The thought made him smile at something. I couldn't see what it was but I could see the way his gaze focused elsewhere. “But it seems to have everything to do with tomorrow.”
BOOK: A Living Grave
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