This is one that I started years ago and have yet to finish. It’s definitely a draft revision, rough and cringeworthy in parts. I’ve recently given thought to rewriting it (and finishing it) from a different viewpoint—largely because of my vast ignorance in the hows and whys a State Police Detective would actually get about in a story like this.
Current running word count is about 7,288.
As usual, this is freely available and copyrighted under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.
With a clatter, Roberta Marvis picked up the used dishes from the table and began scraping the scraps of food into the grimy steel sink. Bits of corn, chicken bones, crumbs of bread splattered into the stained basin with tiny splashes into what brackish water there was. The chicken bones floated, small chunks of torn flesh still attached. Muttering under her breath, Roberta flipped a limp strand of mousy hair back out of her eyes and stacked the plates and soiled silverware on the counter. She could clean it up later; right now she drifted from the drab yellow trailer kitchen toward the minuscule living room and her husband and daughter, from where sounds of "Wheel of Fortune" were emanating.
Four hours later the drab yellow was a dull grayish in the lack of light when Roberta went back to clean up the dishes. The corn scraps’ heady aroma wafted up from the sink, but Roberta scarcely noticed as she cleaned the dishes with a lot of clattering and went to bed. Only later did she remember that the chicken bones that had been floating in the sink water had disappeared.
* * * * *
Henry Silvetti was tossing the last of a lukewarm TV dinner into the trash when the dog began whining and scraping at the door. The tray still contained ample remains of a Salisbury Steak dinner, dripping slightly. Henry snorted. The dog whined again.
"Freakin’ dog," Henry grumbled, and went to the door. The dog was large with patchy brown speckles over a gray-black wiry body. It bounded off into the darkness broken by the ghostly glow of the rickety street lamp, tail wagging happily. Henry watched it go for a moment, then closed the door and reached for the can of beer at the arm of his chair.
Suddenly from the kitchen there came a terrific crashing of metal-on-wood, startling Henry so that he dropped his beer. "Aw shit," he said, then hurried into the kitchen in as long a stride as age would allow to discover that the trash was wildly strewn across the floor, and there were even a few gooey clots hanging thickly on the refrigerator. "God damn it! Shitball dogs!" He turned to the basement steps at the far end of the kitchen. He almost fell down them into the musty dark of the basement, and stumbled his way to the hanging light bulb, twisting it on. He blinked in the sickly white light, and went to the window looking out onto the yard.
It was locked, from the inside. What the hell? Henry wondered as he peered around in the sparse clutter of the crude basement. There was nothing there, just his own shadow peering darkly back at him and the sound of his own breathing.
He slowly made his way up the planked stairs, extinguishing the light as he did so. When he reached the kitchen again he stared bleary-eyed at the trash, and noticed that the TV dinner tray he had tossed earlier was gone, along with all of the leftovers that had been on it.
Henry headed for the front door, grabbing his old coat from the rack. His little four-room house suddenly seemed too small and too dark for him.
* * * * *
From the Grouse Weekly Examiner, July 17:
"Patti’s Grille & Cafe was apparently the source of vandalism last night, local authorities say.
"The morning shift arrived early and discovered the trash had been scattered around and picked through, and on the door to the meat freezer there were large scratch marks along the edges. Apparently all of the waste meats and fat that was dumped in the garbage had disappeared, as well.
"Authorities have no comments about the strange vandalism, and no suspects were listed."
* * * * *
From the Grouse Weekly Examiner, following week:
"BREAK-IN AND ROBBERY
"A bizarre incident of robbery was perpetuated at the Main Street Market Wednesday night. The incident, which was at first overlooked by the morning crew Thursday morning as merchandise misplacement, was reported to the authorities by afternoon.
"Apparently the thieves stole 14 pounds of raw beef and three pounds of pork from the meat department and a bin of chicken giblets from the deli. Oddly, no other part of the market was bothered…."
"Phil and Nancy Boardman reported the death of several sheep on their ranch east of Grouse….
"The three dead sheep were badly mutilated when they were found Saturday morning. The Boardmans said they had heard a commotion the night before, but they could not attribute it to anything distressing the sheep….
"Although the mutilations are unusual, the Boardmans suspect a pack of coyotes or possibly a mountain lion to be responsible, and warn their neighbors to be alert."
* * * * *
From the Burns Times-Herald, July 30:
"The ranch community of Grouse, 40 miles southeast of Burns, is experiencing a drastic rise in the number of livestock deaths accompanied by mutilation, but authorities are troubled as to the source.
"The maimings cannot be attributed to a rise in the number of predators, such as coyotes or wildcats. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the population of livestock predators has remained stable and if anything, is possibly decreasing….
"Authorities are concerned that humans may be the problem, and fear that Satanism or some other ritualistic activities are moving into the area and are the source of the mutilations, but there have as yet been no indications as such…the strange maimings continue to be a mystery."
* * * * *
The house belonging to Marjorie Steward was oddly dark and silent. Patricia McKinley stood at the end of the weedy cobblestone walk, feeling a peculiar tingling at the base of her skull, and her stomach churned.
This isn’t right. This isn’t Marj.
In her hands Patricia held a paper grocery sack, with handles. The sack was bulging and the aroma of freshly baked bread wafted up to tickle Patricia’s nose, combining with the tangy scent of sagebrush. It was a beautiful day out, clear of clouds, already getting hot. The sun’s glare reflected brightly from the sand and sage, and occasional lizards scurried from bush to bush. There was no reason the house should not be dark, on a day like this. But…
But. Patricia shook her head. Marjorie may be out back, tending the small dry garden and not inside at all. Patricia shifted the bag in her hands.
Never mind the fact that living in a small community such as Grouse allowed everyone to know when someone sneezed…never mind the usual buzzing and presence of the high desert seemed oddly silent…
The lights to the house should be on; they always were, and were always visible through the living room window. Marjorie at 87 years old never turned off her lights, even during the day and especially at night. Even on days like this one, as much as Patricia had tried to convince her otherwise, the lights stayed on—the electric bill bit deeply.
Patricia shifted from foot to foot. Oh, come on. She shook her head. Nothing’s wrong—maybe the bulb died. She’s probably waiting on me to fix it. She transferred the groceries to her other hand and began approaching the little green house, aware of the sack’s handles as they creased her palm under the weight of the food.
The doorknob was old, scratched and dented, and it felt rough and gummy under Patricia’s hand. Why haven’t I ever noticed that before? Her stomach lurched. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Patricia’s thin, reedy wail split the hot morning air as the sack full of groceries fell to the stones of the walkway and crumpled.
* * * * *
From the Grouse Weekly Examiner, August 7:
"COMMUNITY MOURNS LOSS
"The entire community of Grouse was shocked upon learning of the death of longtime resident, Marjorie Seward. Much to the concern of the authorities, Seward, who was 87 years old, did not die of natural causes. Although not commenting on the condition of the body, police are certain foul play was involved…however, no suspects have been listed and no arrests have been made. In fact, according to Oregon State police spokesman Burt Lancaster, authorities are at a loss as to the nature and motive of the crime…."
* * * * *
From the Burns Times-Herald and The Oregonian, August 27:
"DEATH STRIKES TWICE, SHATTERS GROUSE
"Just yesterday the second death in just over three weeks hit the community of Grouse, southeast of Burns. What’s more, both deaths appear to be identical in nature.
"The body of 83 year-old resident Joe Kempson was found at his home yesterday, apparently the victim of a violent death, although authorities are remaining tight-lipped about the evident murder….
"Lancaster did confirm that the death of Kempson was similar to that of Marjorie Seward, 87, suggesting a horrible, purposeful repeat of the crime, although police are admittedly stumped as to any possible motive or perpetrator, fearing the possible presence of a serial killer…."
"The incidents of livestock maimings in Grouse continue to increase drastically…and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed that the overall number of natural predators, such as coyotes, is also in a state of decline…."
* * * * *
The glossy color photograph showed a close-up of bloody folds of skin and flesh.
Sam Hadkins dropped the picture to the desk, swallowed with a dry throat and shifted his eyes to the window. He could see the two Oregon State Police vehicles lined up alongside the two County Police cars. The window was open, letting in the hot sandy air and buzzing of the desert among the smell of sage, juniper and cattle. On the desk before him were many more photographs, all glossy and color and depicting scenes of gore.
Hadkins shifted in the creaky wooden chair and considered having a cigarette.
Besides the photos, the desk was cluttered with file folders and papers, and a lamp and a telephone were isolated on a corner. The rest of the room was stark, with two more desks, one of which held radio equipment and a computer, two filing cabinets, and a sink on the far wall. Near the sink was a hardwood door that Hadkins knew led to a small bathroom. A coffee maker was on a table next to the sink, perking bubbly, and the aroma of very black, almost burnt, coffee assaulted Hadkins opposite the redolent waves of hot sand and sage.
His eyes wandered over the makeshift office, taking in the austere interior. Normally it served as a pit stop for the person who acted as town constable, and as a way station for the occasional County police officer passing through. Now, however, extreme and grisly circumstances had forced it to be otherwise.
Hadkins’ eyes flicked back to the photos. Yep, definitely need a smoke. He abruptly placed both hands on the desk and rose from the wooden chair. A pencil fell from his lap to clatter on the floor, but he ignored it.
The only other occupant of the room looked up in surprise; Carl Banks had been so quiet and self-possessed that Hadkins almost forgot he was there until he saw him looking his way. Hadkins grinned weakly.
"Break time," he said as he went over to the coffee maker and poured himself a Styrofoam cup full of black liquid. It looked thick. "These pictures really get to you."
Banks nodded, eyes flicking back to his own desk and his own pile of glossies. Hadkins shook his head and left the room, stepping into the hot air outside. He sipped at the coffee, them grimaced and poured it onto the ground. He crumpled the Styrofoam cup and wiped his hand on his pants. He exhaled slowly, craning his neck back in a crackling stretch, and fished around in his breast pocket for a cigarette. He found one and lit it, and surveyed what was the main street of Grouse.
It was like any other Eastern Oregon desert town he’d seen. The buildings were scattered irregularly along the main street, and two other streets ran parallel like an afterthought, cutting two sandy strips out of the desert. The structures were all gray or brown and looked sandblasted and windburned, with dusty windows surrounded by wood or brick. The majority of automobiles visible were the four police cruisers lined up in front of the makeshift way station, but an occasional pickup rattled by. Hadkins took a long drag on his cigarette.
"Gonna fry your brains standing out like this." Hadkins turned, a little startled, at the sound of the voice. Burt Lancaster was approaching, from where he had come Hadkins couldn’t tell. "Gettin’ to be too much for you?" There was the slightest, only the slightest, sneer in his voice.
Flicking ash from his cigarette, Hadkins answered, "Only me and the rest of the world, Burt. I guess you still need to catch up." He shifted his glance to the hot shimmering desert air. He didn’t much like Burt Lancaster, and he knew the feeling was mutual, but he didn’t care if it showed or not. Behind him he heard Lancaster snort and walk up the steps into the building, footsteps crunching in the sand and grit. A tendril of blue smoke wafted up to Hadkins’ nose, stinging a little; he blinked a tear from his eyes and tossed the butt to the ground, stomping it with his foot.
Lousy cheap smokes.
At least the press people were leaving them alone. Indoors out of the sun, probably, planning their next round of interrogations for the officers. Thank God there were only three of them. So far.
A new car appeared on the street—another police cruiser, unmarked, actually. Hadkins watched it pull into the last parking space in front of the small station, two figures inside. He recognized only one of them.
The driver side door opened with a slight creak, depositing a shiny brown leather cowboy boot coated with a light film of dust. Hadkins knew the boots were more likely than not affected for local color, and smiled slightly. Then the boots were followed by a tall graying man who stretched and yawned. Gary Barber always reminded Hadkins of a lanky marionette man; an older Howdy Doody. The man exiting from the passenger side—no, that was a woman, Hadkins realized—was unknown to him. He saw why as he saw the identification badge clipped to her professional blouse. She was FBI. Hadkins sighed.
"Sam," Barber greeted, "how goes the battle?"
"Same as always. You?"
Barber grimaced. It was a comical expression. "Just spent four and a half hours nonstop from Salem. It’s hot, Sam. Damn hot."
Hadkins nodded and smiled. "You’ve got air conditioning in the car, Gar."
"Yeah…well." The woman cleared her throat. Gary glanced her way. "Oh. Uhm. Sam, this is Agent Dorene Morris, with the FBI. Agent Morris, Detective Sam Hadkins."
The woman raised an eyebrow, and said, "Special Agent Morris."
Hadkins squinted slightly. "Don’t you Feds usually come in pairs? And with your own cars?"
She shrugged, her eyes unreadable. "Budget cuts locally. And I’m only acting as an observer at the moment." Hadkins scrutinized her; her darkish brown hair was cropped short, her face was wide and attractive. Her body stance was confident, though she was almost waif-like. His eyes kept straying to her FBI badge. Hadkins shook his head.
"An observer. You think the serial killer angle is genuine?"
She leveled a cool gaze at him. "Yes. There’s a definite possibility that this will get bigger." She reached into the car and pulled out a black leather briefcase. "Have you and your men explored the dead animal factor the papers have been tearing apart?"
"A Fish and Wildlife guy looked it over, decided it couldn’t be anything other than predators. Otherwise, we haven’t had the manpower—"
"I think that sparing men to investigate might be a good idea, don’t you?"
The heat suddenly seemed oppressive to Hadkins. He glanced out at the desert, the ceaseless heat buzz announcing itself, and wiped his forehead. He resisted the urge to smoke another cigarette, and concentrated instead on the scent of sultry and pungent juniper. He then gestured towards the door of the way station. "Come on in, then. Everything’s laid out for you." He resisted the urge to say something like, Everything’s been laid except for you, and followed as Morris and Barber mounted the steps.
"Welcome aboard, Gar."
* * * * *
From The Oregonian, September 4:
"SERIAL KILLER IN GROUSE?
"The Eastern Oregon ranching town of Grouse has been shattered by the possible presence of a grisly serial killer. Four deaths in four weeks involving similar circumstances have galvanized State and County police into action and several agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigations have been brought in.
"The four deceased were all senior citizens living alone, and the near identical circumstances of their murders have convinced authorities that it is indeed the work of a serial killer….
"Marjorie Seward, 87, Joe Kempson, 83, Mack Donovan, 88, and Stephen Jackson, 76, were all found in their homes at least two or three days after their deaths…police have indicated that all of the bodies were disfigured, but they are admittedly puzzled over the nature of the mutilations…authorities have named no suspects and remain silent about other aspects of their investigation…."
* * * * *
There was a pool of blood on the desert sands.
Wyatt Greene squatted by the blood, waving away the thick black flies clouding over it. He poked at it with a stick, stirring slightly; it was clotting. His nose twitched at the coppery scent. Around him, the desert sands rolled onward, dotted occasionally by sagebrush and the rough gray lava rocks
The only sounds were from the insects.
Greene stood up, eyes scanning the horizon. In the far distance, to the north and east, gray-blue hills were barely visible; they could have been a mirage, but he knew they weren’t. He then looked down at the congealing puddle of blood, flies already swarming over it again.
There were no marks of any sort in the sand anywhere near the crimson pool, save for the ones he’d made. It was as if the earth itself had bled a little, and was now scabbing over the wound.
Greene turned and walked back to his pickup truck, a rust colored brown monster covered with baked mud and dust. The windows were open, and Greene glanced in at an assortment of things before grabbing what he needed. Several spiral notebooks laid open with pencil scribblings in them, the pencils stuck in the spiral ring; a shoebox contained a dozen or so instant Polaroid photographs; a tape recorder nestled in the cracked seat cover; and a Polaroid camera sat languidly behind the steering wheel, which Greene picked up, reaching through the open window. He then returned to the blood and began taking pictures.
He had taken five pictures when he lowered the camera and gazed thoughtfully at the puddle for a moment, then lowered to a squatting position again, picking up the stick he had stirred the blood with. He again poked at the pool, then swirled it lightly around. His lips pursed; he found what he thought he had seen through the camera’s viewfinder. The blood, congealing quickly, was thickly imbued with lumps. Lumps not of clotted blood, but, Greene supposed, of flesh. He grimaced, then tossed away the stick, and took three more pictures. Then he returned to his truck, climbed in and drove away.
The trip was not long, but it was uneventful. Greene wove his way along the dirt back-roads so proliferate in the country, concentrating on the warm air blowing on him through the window so he wouldn’t have to think about the blood in the desert.
Not yet, anyway.
His abode was a poorly maintained trailer on an old homesteader site half a mile or so from what constituted the local highway: a long-abandoned wood-planked house and barn stood pockmarked and dry, breaking apart gradually beneath the hammering iron of the sun and cruel sandy wind. The skeletal remains of a fence extended a few hundred yards from the barn before it petered out, and that was pretty much it, besides a powerline running along oily poles to meet up with the highway poles.
Greene pulled into his spot in front of the dirt-colored trailer and exited his truck carrying his camera and things in a clumsy armload. He made his way up the makeshift steps and through the door of his trailer (which was unlocked, as always) into the large central room. He deposited the load onto a table that was a centerpiece for a very large collection of photos, clipped newspaper articles, and handwritten notes. Pinned to a large bulletin board dominating the far wall was a series of Polaroid photos, grouped in categories marked "A" through "S"—each containing at least five pictures of the same thing: pools of blood in various aspects, surrounded by unmarked sand. Also pinned to the wall was numerous more clippings from newspapers, with highlights marked in the articles. On the table were more spiral notebooks, scribbled upon in hastily penciled notes.
Wyatt Greene walked over to a chalkboard next to the bulletin board, and with a yellow piece of chalk made a tallymark in a column with the words "Blood Deposits" written at the top.
There were now 20 marks tallied.
Greene lit a cigarette, sat down at the table and began to scribble in a notebook.
* * * * *
Hadkins stood aside in the tiny living room of the old ranch house and watched as the federal agents swept the room. This was now the sixth murder, and other than the fact that the body had already been removed, it was untouched and still as grisly a scene as the rest.
The living room—before the death—had been bright, garish, and (to Hadkins’ taste) tactless. Bright yellow striped wallpaper surrounded a huge overstuffed plush sofa that was olive green. Dull Victorian pieces—end table, chair, bookshelf—irregularly dotted the thick shag carpet, which matched the couch. Hadkins could imagine someone eating waffles in front of a black-and-white television in this room.
The murder had transformed it completely. It had been violent. Blood had soaked into the carpet, the sofa…the wooden Victorian furniture had a glossy new coat of gore. The wallpaper was splattered red. The scent of blood and death and decay was oozing from the room, and Hadkins was swallowing uneasily and breathing through his mouth. He had just arrived and felt as if he had walked into a slaughterhouse…it was hard to imagine that the human body—a single one, at that—held so much blood. The silent movements of the FBI agents caressed his ears…it reminded him of slithering.
Special Agent Dorene Morris was brushing at the top of the end table. To Hadkins the gesture seemed odd. "What are you doing?"
She made a face. "Damn dirt gets tracked in…gets everywhere, sticking to everything in here…" Then she used a pair of tweezers to pick something up off the end table.
"What do you got?" Hadkins stepped near.
"Cigarette butt." She placed it into a plastic bag, then straightened up.
She looked at Hadkins, a slight smile playing humorlessly at her mouth. "So it was on top of the blood."
Understanding dawned, and he inhaled sharply through his nose. It was the wrong thing to do. He choked down a cough, cleared his throat. "That means it was dropped after the killing."
"Mm-hmm. It looks as though our friend may have finally slipped up." She turned and headed out the door of the ranch house. Hadkins gratefully followed her outside, breathing deep a lungfull of sweet desert air. It was hot and dry; still, better than the bloody meathouse atmosphere inside.
"Or he left it there on purpose," he mused thoughtfully. She glanced sideways at him, but said nothing. "You don’t come back to Eastern Oregon much, do you?" he asked.
She paused, looked at him directly. "Do you?"
"Yeah, occasionally." He followed her down the weathered porch toward her car.
She turned suddenly. "Is there a point to all this? If not, I’d like to remind you that there’s work to be done here."
He stared at her for a long time, acutely aware of the clicks and drones of the desert, and of the heat tickling his scalp, and of Gary Barber standing over against their State Police car, out of earshot and drinking a cold Pepsi. Finally, he said, "Forgive me for wasting your time, Special Agent Morris. It’s just that I haven’t quite gotten used to the hellish scene waiting inside there like you have. Sorry if I tend to babble in this kind of situation."
Morris squinted at him, and her expression seemed to lighten, only slightly. "I thought an OSP Detective would be stronger mettled than that."
"Against a scene like that? God help me, no. And that’s something I hope I never have to get used to."
He stared at her for a moment longer, then turned away, but not before he heard her begin to say, "Wait—"
"Sam!" Gary Barber was leaning toward the window of the police cruiser, holding the radio mike. "Got a call from the station in town! Wanna talk to ’em?"
Hadkins approached Barber, who held the microphone out to him. He said, "Why are they calling me? If it’s not another body for the walking iceberg over there, they could grab one of the County boys."
Barber shrugged. "They don’t pay me enough to read minds." Hadkins nodded, and keyed the mike.
"Hadkins here. What’s the emergency?"
Carl Banks’ voice filtered through the speaker, seemingly distorted by the heat. It sounded as if it were coming from a tin can. "We got a call on an apparent break-in and robbery. Thought you might like to take it."
Hadkins grimaced, then keyed the mike. "Can’t Varley or Bob take it, Carl? Not really what I’m here for."
"They’re out checking up on another livestock killing."
"Christ." Hadkins rubbed his forehead. So far, they hadn’t been able to come up with a connection, any connection, as Morris had suggested, between the livestock deaths and human ones. Other than the fact that they were both grisly. "Will it take long?"
"Probably not," Banks’ tin can voice replied. "S’just over at the Main Street Market."
He sighed, then said, "Okay, Carl, I’ll take it. Wouldn’t mind too much getting away from here anyway. Over and out."
"Out," came the reply, and Hadkins replaced the microphone in the car and turned to Barber.
"Wanna come along? Probably nothing more exciting than watching corn grow."
Barber scratched his salt-and-pepper head and squinted up at the sun. "No, I’ll go ahead and get a ride back with the Fedsies. You go ahead, get outta here."
Hadkins nodded. "See you later, then." He climbed into the cruiser and drove off, leaving a trail of choking dust in the still air.
* * * * *
The woman in charge of the meat department in the largest grocery store in Grouse—the Main Street Market (which also substituted as a gas station and diner)—was dour-faced and heavyset, yet had a cheery attitude. Millie Howell was rather short and wide, crowned with fiery red hair loosely clumped by a pencil at the back, and had a tendency to wipe her hands on her stained apron. Apparently several others worked at the Market as well, but Hadkins didn’t see them as he listened to Howell’s story.
"We have absolutely no idea how they got in here or why they stole what they did—"
She smiled broadly. Her hair bobbed. "Yeah, there’s no way one person could’ve made off with all that meat."
Hadkins was startled. "Meat? They stole meat?" No one had actually told him what was robbed.
"Uh-huh. 32 pounds of beef! Can you believe it? Right out of the meat cooler, and it was bulky and awkward—no way any one person could’ve done that unnoticed and alone." Her hands wiped manically below a generous bosom. Hadkins sighed.
"Do you have any idea who might have stolen the—uh—meat, Miss Howell?"
"Oh, God, call me Millie!" Her smiled widened. He winced inwardly at the crooked teeth. "And no, no idea at all. We can’t even figure out how they got in!"
"Well—Millie—if there’s no sign of forced entry, how are you sure that you just haven’t misplaced the meat, or maybe miscounted—"
"No no no—" she gave him a sly look, still smiling—"we may not have all the computerization stuff, like in the big city and all that, but 32 pounds of beef is 32 pounds, and you just don’t lose that—you can’t lose that, actually!" Hadkins rubbed his eyes.
"So how—" he began.
"Well, there’s physical evidence, of course."
Of course. Nancy Drew, here. He said, "What evidence do you have?"
"Come here." She led him back behind the meat counter, and pointed to the large metal door of the cooler. "They got dirt all over inside there. Look." She opened the door, and a blast of cold air struck Hadkins. It carried the thick scent of chilled meat…he was reminded of the ranch house earlier in the day. Only this was cold. Would death smell this way in the Arctic?
The inside walls and ceiling were coated with a thin glaze of ice crystals, and he could see what Millie meant: dirt did, indeed, smear the icy surfaces.
"I figure they must’ve brushed up against the ice with dirty clothes or something. Not too careful, but it is the only sign that they made off with the meat." She tittered, wiping her hands nervously.
Hadkins ignored her and bent forward to examine the dirt. It wasn’t from someone brushing against it…it was grainy and random. More like someone had thrown dirt up on the walls. Purposeful vandalism as thumbing the nose? By why would they spray dirt on the walls? He shivered in the draft and stepped out.
"Well, what do you think?" She was peering at him, an anxious smile playing across her features.
"I think, uh—Millie—that I will write up a report and we’ll look around for any possibilities," he answered, watching as she closed the cooler door and headed for the front of the Market.
She snorted. "That’s pretty much what the last guy said."
Hadkins stopped, then turned around. "What?"
Millie smiled shyly. Her hands wrung each other instead of the greasy apron. "Last time—"
"This happened before?"
"Well, yeah, back at the end of July…it was the same thing, with the dirt and everything. There was even a write-up in the paper." Her hair bobbed; Hadkins suppressed an urge to pull the pencil out of the crude bun and let it smother her. He shook his head.
"Uhm, okay…we’ll check around, let you know."
He left the Main Street Market without waiting for an answer. Better out in the heat, away from Millie Howell and her stained apron. An image of three burly men came to mind, stealing 30-odd pounds of beef and ignoring money in the register.
"Christ. Small towns," he muttered under his breath as he opened the door of his cruiser. Several children were playing in the sand nearby, and looked up when he opened the door. He waved to them, and grinned.
"Did you see the dust devil?" one of the kids—a small boy—asked suddenly.
"What?" He paused, surprised.
"The dust devil. It got the meat."
He frowned skeptically. "A dust devil?"
Instead, the children jumped up and ran away, shouting "Devil! Devil!" as they did so.
Hadkins sat in the driver’s seat of his cruiser, watching the kids run off and feeling a growing unease he could not explain.
* * * * *
Wyatt Greene stood upon the small ridge and stared intently through a pair of binoculars.
An undefined distance away a misty cloud of dust was traveling over the packed sand. It was indistinct; it could have been a dust devil, swirling madly and going nowhere in the heat. The view through the field glasses did not help define the image, but Greene didn’t think that was what it was.
He lowered the binoculars and stared thoughtfully out at the blur of dust and dirt. He was sweating heavily in the harsh afternoon heat, but ignored the apparent discomfort. He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his hip pocket and lit one, the delicate blue smoke curling upward in the breezeless air. He smoked in silence for a long while, ears straining to catch any possible sound drifting over the desert; then he abruptly raise the binoculars to his eyes again, absently flicking the cigarette away.
The fraudulent dust devil had stopped roaming, and now appeared to be dissipating: tendrils of dust separated from the body, sinking to the desert floor in slow, waif-like motions. Soon there was nothing.
Greene lowered his binoculars again and stared at the spot for a long time where the cloud had vanished. Then he turned to his pickup truck.
There would be a new pool of blood on the desert.
* * * * *
The cigarette butt in the clear plastic bag lay at the focal point of attention between Hadkins, Barber and Banks. It was burned nearly to the filter, and a streaked stain of red darkened one side.
"They really think our killer’d leave a clue pointing to himself?" Banks poked as the bag, squinting. "What good’s this gonna do, anyway?"
"Criminals—killers, anyway—do strange things," replied Barber, who was sitting half on and off the desk, rolling a pencil between his fingers. "Sometimes they do things to draw attention to themselves. And the Feds probably wanna run a DNA saliva test on this—" he poked at the bagged butt with the pencil—"and run a trace to find their man. CODIS, probably."
"They’re not going to have a whole lot of luck, with that blood soaked into it. They’ll more likely get the DNA of the victim." Hadkins picked up the bag, looked at the butt from all angles. He had finished up the report of the theft of the Main Street Market—all one and a half pages of it—and it was the furthest thing from his mind. "Besides, it’ll take at least a week to get this to Salem, run the test and get any results. That’s too long a time, especially with the way the killings seem to have been going."
"So this isn’t a vital piece of evidence?" asked Banks.
"It’s the only one they’ve got, so it’s the most vital," Hadkins replied.
"Speaking of which, where did the Feddies run off to?" asked Barber.
Banks leaned back in his chair. "They wanted to go over the crime scenes again."
"They won’t find anything," mused Hadkins. "Already seen what there was to be seen. Bloody mess." He held the bag containing the cigarette stub up to the light, gazing thoughtfully at the tiny black lettering that was nearly completely obscured by stained blood. "Lucky Strikes," he finally said. "I think. I didn’t know they made these anymore."
Barber slid off the desk and wandered over to the coffee maker, and poured himself a cup. "I thought your cigarette literacy was up to par."
Hadkins grunted. His hand slapped at the cigarettes in his breast pocket, then pulled it out. There was one cigarette left; he’d have to buy some more. He crumpled the pack and threw it in the trash, then thoughtfully gazed at the lone cigarette.
Barber poked at him. "You sure that there butt wasn’t one of your cancer sticks you forgot to tell about?"
Hadkins smiled humorlessly and held up the cigarette. "Hey, I’m not a complete bumpkin. Besides, wrong brand. I smoke Camels." He stared at the rolled tube of tobacco for a moment longer, then moved to light it. He paused. "What d’you think about our perp here…someone passing through, saw a chance to stir things up? Or what?"
Barber sat in one of the other desks, a slight frown creasing his forehead. Banks leaned forward, thought a moment, then said, "Murders just came out of the blue, catching everyone off guard. Had to be an outsider…"
"Are you thinking the possibility of someone here in town?" asked Barber.
But Banks answered first. "Couldn’t be a local. Not in a town this size—there would’ve been signs long before this, and everyone in town would’ve seen them."
"Maybe," Hadkins said. "But maybe your overstereotyping small towns, Carl. There has to be some secrets that others don’t know about." He walked over to a wall where they had put up a map of Grouse, highlighting the crime scenes in red. "But look—these murders just started up, like you said, out of the blue. No warning, no idea they were coming…"
"And there are no other murders anywhere else in the U.S. like these," Barber finished the thought. "I thought of that, checked. Nothing like ’em here, or in Canada, either. As far as anyone knows, they’re unique."
"So we’re dealing with the work of an entirely new killer with a clean M.O.?" Hadkins finally lit his cigarette, thinking. "A perp who leaves absolutely no clues to the first five crimes. Absolutely none. No fingerprints, footprints, stray marks, hairs, nothing." He raised an eyebrow. "Is that even possible?"
"Theoretically," answered Barber. "But then comes murder number six, and we have—"
"The cigarette butt," finished Banks. "His first mistake."
Hadkins squinted, eyes focusing on the air in front of him. "No, it couldn’t be a mistake, I don’t think. It’s not consistent." He took a drag from his cigarette. "At the same time though, most criminals who purposefully leave clues to their crimes start with the first, not the sixth."
"Then…that might open the possibility of a second party," said Barber. He had entirely forgotten about his coffee on the desk before him as he stood up and approached the desk with the bloody cigarette butt on it.
"Someone who was there after the murder, otherwise the cigarette would be completely coated red." Hadkins dropped his burning cigarette into an ashtray and picked up the plastic bag. "Someone who knew about the murder before we did."
"Who went in, smoked a cigarette while looking it over, then left the butt behind?" said Banks. "A guy has to be pretty sick to do something like that."
"That may be, given the fact that this somebody didn’t report the killing," Barber mused.
Outside, a pickup could be heard rattling by. Hadkins looked toward the window, silent. Ideas were tumbling around in his head. "So either were dealing with a brand new, oddball killer who doesn’t fit the standard profile…or a killer who goes in to do his work and then a second party coming in to examine the work—who smokes Lucky Strikes."
"Makes sense, on a very desperate sort of level," commented Barber. Banks nodded.
"Still, it’s only conjecture," replied Hadkins. "Look at both possibilities—we don’t know who the killer is in either one."
"But in the second scenario, we have a second party," said Barber.
"—and we have one clue as to who it is," finished Banks, who pointed to the bag with the butt.
Hadkins sat back. "That still doesn’t help us, though. We’d still have to wait for days for the DNA results to come back, and match it up with somebody who is actually on record, and even then this imaginary second person might not know who the killer is." He picked up the burning cigarette from the ashtray, flicked the ash from the end.
"That still brings us one step closer," said Barber.
"Hm." A stray thought flitted through Hadkins mind as he raised his cigarette to take a drag. Gonna need to buy more cigs. Then the burning butt stopped an inch from his lips; there was suddenly a looming yet slippery idea forming before him…if he could grasp at it…"What if," he began as he lowered the cigarette, aware that they were staring closely at him, "given the two options, what if this second person was a local?"
Banks leaned back in his chair and looked as if he were about to protest, but said nothing. Barber only watched Hadkins, expectantly.
"Not even considering if the killer is a local guy, suppose this second party is?" he went on. "Then this cigarette butt—"
"—was bought locally. Probably at the grocery store you were at earlier," Barber said.
Banks shook his head. "That’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?"
Hadkins stumped his cigarette out, and shrugged. "I thought the idea of the assembly line was obvious when it was invented, but people had muddled through without it before. 20-20 hindsight, I guess." He rose from his chair, pulled his car keys out of his pocket. "I’m heading over to the Market. Man the fort while I’m gone—I’ll be quick."
And he was out the door, leaving Barber and Banks behind to ponder the blood-streaked cigarette.
* * * * *
Hadkins glanced almost nervously around as he got out of the car at the Main Street Market, wondering if Millie Howell was lurking nearby. Then, feeling silly, he shook his head and straightened up and entered the Market. Once again it was blissfully cool upon passing through the door, and he wiped a line of perspiration from his upper lip. He strode purposefully toward the nearest clerk he saw, an older woman stacking boxes of lasagna noodles on a display. She paused as she noticed his approach.
"Do you sell many cigarettes?" he asked without preamble.
The woman, a little off guard, answered, "Uh, y-yes. Uhm, Marlboros and Pall Malls, mostly. Did you want some?"
He waved his hand impatiently. "Do you sell Lucky Strikes?"
She looked less confused now. "I think we have them in stock, but not many. Would you—"
"Who buys them?" Hadkins interrupted.
She held out her hands. "Uh, I don’t know, actually. If you don’t mind waiting a moment, I could get the manager."
"Sure," he replied. "No problem." He was slightly amused at the idea of a manager for a store as small as this one.
He wandered over to the cigarette display as she hurried off to find the manager, and looked it over. The Lucky Strikes occupied only one space on the bottom of the display. He reached down and plucked a pack up and rose as the manager approached.
"Can I help you out, sir?" he asked helpfully. He wasn’t anyone Hadkins recognized, even though he had passed through Grouse in the past a few times. The man was shorter, and had gray hair and glasses.
Hadkins showed his badge. "Detective Sam Hadkins. I’m on an investigation—" the way the manager nodded told Hadkins that he already knew which investigation—"and I need to know who buys Lucky Strikes on a regular basis."
"That’s easy enough," the manager replied, and Hadkins felt his heart pounding faster, despite himself. "That would be Wyatt Greene. He only comes in occasionally. Lives by himself, a few miles out of town, I think. Don’t see him too often."
Hadkins felt himself squeezing the pack of cigarettes in his hand a little too hard, and let up. His palm was sweaty. He nodded. "That’s all I need. Thank you." He started to turn, then paused. "I better pay for these, I guess."
The gray-haired manager waved a dismissing hand, smiling warmly. "Don’t worry about it. I don’t sell enough to make it worthwhile, anyway."
Hadkins threw a "Thank you" over his shoulder as he headed out the door to his cruiser. As he got in, he looked at the pack of Lucky Strikes in his hand and then set them aside.
Not even my brand, damn it.
Yep, that’s all I have for it right now. I have a rough idea of how this story ends—or how I think it might end, which isn’t the same thing—but have never fleshed out the details. Sorry if it’s rather abrupt.