Spending Sunday afternoon watching the police drag a body from a river was not what Annie had planned for the day. She was kicking a soccer ball around in the backyard with her boys when she was called away.
She took a deep breath as she walked through the crowd and over the yellow tape, which roped off the section to the river where the police and paramedics had gathered. Red and orange lights circled and flashed. Ducks swam in the river. A comforting arm slid around a woman standing in the crowd. A group of Mennonites stood from the bench they were sitting on and lowered their heads. What were the Mennonites doing at the park on a Sunday?
Across the river, where the park was more populated, Annie saw children playing on the swings and bars on the playground. Also, a rowdy game of basketball was taking place in another corner of the blacktopped surface. In the grassy area, a Frisbee was being thrown between three friends. Groups of mothers had gathered on the benches, trying not to alert their children or to look too closely at what was happening across the rushing Cumberland Creek River.
A hush came over the crowd on this side of the river as the nude body of a small red-haired woman emerged from the water in a torn sack, her hair dangling over the side, along with a foot. The body, mostly shrouded by the shredded sack, was placed on the ground. Cameras flashed—again.
Every time Annie viewed a dead person, she silently thanked one of her old journalism professors, who had insisted all his students witness autopsies. “If you’re going to get sick, it’s better here than in front of a cop. He’ll lose all respect for you.”
“Hello, Annie,” said Jesse, one of the uniformed police officers she had come to know over the past year of reporting about Maggie Rae and her family. Now Annie found herself under contract with a publisher to write a book about the case, which she was just finishing up. But she was still freelancing for the
from time to time and was called in this morning to check this out. Was this incident another murder in the small town of Cumberland Creek?
“Hi, Jesse. Where’s your boss?”
“Behind you,” came his voice. Then Detective Bryant walked by her to look over the body more closely. His eyebrows knit, and he leaned in even closer, sliding gloves on his hands. “What the hell is this?”
“Scratches?” Jesse said, looking closer.
Annie was hoping to avoid looking closely at the actual body. Although she’d seen way too many dead bodies during her tenure as a reporter, it never was any easier. And she thought she’d left this behind her when she left Washington. She’d gotten sucked back into reporting during the Maggie Rae case. She was just beginning to get some breathing space—her book sent off to the publisher, nothing much else to report on in Cumberland Creek—and now this. She hoped it was an accident and not a murder.
“No,” Detective Bryant said. “Look closer. They are little markings of some kind. I can’t quite make them out. Where’s the coroner?”
Annie forced herself to look at the gray-blue arm the detective was holding gingerly in his hand.
Okay, it’s just an arm,
she told herself. But she could see the markings.
“It looks like Hebrew,” she blurted.
“Really?” Jesse said.
“Look again. That’s not Hebrew,” Detective Bryant said.
Annie leaned in closer. She had to admit, now that she was looking closer at it, that it didn’t look like Hebrew at all.
The detective turned to the coroner as he walked closer to the group. “I want close-up photos of these markings. Photos from all angles.”
“Must be a recent drowning,” the coroner said. “If that’s the cause of death.”
“What makes you say that?” Annie asked.
“You can still recognize the body as a person. If it goes too long, it’s difficult.”
Annie’s stomach twisted.
As Detective Bryant dropped the arm, she viewed the face of the victim between the clusters of shoulders of the police as they backed away. Young. Blue eyes staring blankly. Tangled red hair. Her face showed no sign of struggle—like a grimace or a look of anger or regret. The woman looked like a gray-blue rubber doll. Of course, what expression would a dead person have but none?
“Who found her?” Annie asked.
“It was a runner this morning, a Josh Brandt,” Detective Bryant answered. “He’s home now. I’d appreciate it if you’d give him some time before you zoom in for the kill,” he said and grinned, his blue eyes sparkling.
Annie refused to engage with his taunting. She watched as he brushed away a strand of red hair from the young woman’s face. It was the most gentle gesture she’d ever seen him make.
“So what do you think the markings are?” Annie asked the detective.
“I’ve no idea,” he said. “But I’m going to find out. I have a friend that specializes in symbols—if that is what these markings are.”
“Will you let me know?”
“Sure. I’ve got nothing better to do,” he said and smirked.
“Any idea who she is?”
“None,” he said. “Check back with us tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” she said and walked away.
It was a beautiful fall day—so much color—golds, reds, crimson, orange, yellow. Fall in Cumberland Creek was as colorful as any painting or photo. It could be an advertisement for the way fall should look, with its mountains, colors, and crisp blue skies.
Annie looked off into the distance at the mountains. Bryant would probably not let her know about those symbols, Annie decided. She would have to research them herself. She was sure of it. She stood on the dirt path and quickly sketched some of the symbols—if that was indeed what they were, and not odd scratches from a struggle with rocks or the limb of a tree. If they were simply scratches, though, the markings were weirdly smooth. Her stomach twisted again. Another murder. They just needed to confirm the cause of death and call it one—but Annie felt that it was. That the body was in a sack made her more certain, and she wondered if the sack had been weighted before the river’s rocks and current slashed it to pieces.
She walked along the riverside path toward Cumberland Creek proper, where she lived. She walked right past Vera’s dancing school, closed, as were all the town businesses, because today was Sunday. It wouldn’t do anybody any good to open on Sunday. There would be no customers. Most of the population in Cumberland Creek spent Sundays in church and at home—except for Annie, Vera, and their friends, who were usually nursing mild hangovers from the Saturday night crop, when they gathered to scrapbook in Sheila’s basement.
Annie reached the sidewalk, which veered toward Vera’s house. When she’d talked with Vera this morning, she’d said Cookie was coming over and was planning to watch Vera’s daughter, Elizabeth, and make her special pumpkin soup, while Vera went to the grocer’s. Annie’s mouth began to water. The woman could cook.
She could also do some yoga, twisting her body into all sorts of poses as if it were nothing at all. Annie loved Cookie’s Friday evening class. She had taken classes when she lived in the D.C. area, but none were like this. Cookie created a safe environment in which you could explore and reach out for new poses—she was not a teacher who pushed you to do anything painful.
Cookie explained to them one evening how she kept a yoga journal as a beginner and how it helped for her to see how much she’d progressed. Now Annie was working on something similar, a combination scrapbook or dream book of sorts—mundane, with ordinary beginning techniques interspersed with writing about a pose or thought. She was using self-portraits. This was a different kind of scrapbooking than what Annie had first learned from the Cumberland Creek crop; it was more like art journaling.
Annie thought about stopping by for a few minutes before heading home, but she should be getting home to Mike and the boys. But it would be nice to see her friends after witnessing the disturbing events at the park. Of course, she’d have to fill them all in.
“Oh God, there you are!” Sheila came around the corner, nearly knocking Annie over. Her hair needed brushing, her glasses looked crooked, and her T-shirt was a wrinkled mess.
“What’s going on?” Annie said, steadying herself. Why was she so tired today?
“Did you hear? They found a dead body in the river,” Sheila said, panting.
“Man, this place is amazing,” Annie said. “News travels so fast.”
“What?” Sheila said.
“I was just there,” Annie said.
“Well, for heaven’s sake,” Sheila said, taking her by the other arm. “Are you heading to Vera’s place?”
Annie nodded. Okay, so she wouldn’t stay long.
When Vera opened the door, smiling, the smell of pumpkin, cinnamon, and cumin, with its promise of warmth, met Annie, the image of a drowned young woman fresh on her mind.