Monday, October 21, 2013

Pale Horses by Nate Southard - excerpt

The latest release from Snubnose Press dropped last week. Here is an excerpt from Nate Southard's Pale Horses (US|Print|UK) .


Sheriff Hal Kendrick was sitting at his breakfast table struggling to remember his wife’s name and trying to keep the panic down in his gut when his cell phone rang.  The woman he’d loved more than forty years gave him a smile and then stood as he chewed on the toast and bacon he’d crammed in his mouth.  He knew every contour of her face and every inch of her body; that certainly wasn’t the problem.  Only the woman’s name had disappeared from his mind.  She walked‑‑no, she sauntered; that was a better word‑‑over to the kitchen counter and scooped up the phone.  Dammit, what was her name?
The rest of it came easy.  He looked down at his plate‑‑one of the new, plain white ones because the blue designs around the edge of the old plates confused him sometimes‑‑and mentally ticked off its contents.  That was bacon.  The yellow stuff was eggs.  Coffee filled his mug.  He continued.  His name was Hal Kendrick, and he’d been sheriff of Folk County for twelve years, now.  He was sixty-three years old, and he lived two miles outside of Broker, Indiana.  When he wasn’t tooling around in his county cruiser, he drove a 1998 Ford Bronco that ran on spit and wishes.  His birthday was July 16th, and his anniversary fell on September 2nd.
He could remember all of this, every damn lick of it, but his wife’s name escaped him.  Watching her flip open the phone and hold it to the side of her face, he knew she was sixty-one years old and had been born and raised in Hamilton, Ohio.  Way back in Spring of 1964, he had met her at his senior prom.  She’d arrived with Timmy Montgomery but left with him.  He knew her favorite color was a lush green, and he knew her favorite song was “Dawn” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, but her name thrashed outside his grip like a wild fire hose, refusing capture.
Frustration welled within him, coiling with the panic like a snake preparing to lash out.  The doctors had told him not to get frustrated, that it was normal for him to forget things and that the five milligrams of Aricept he took before bed each night would help keep him from forgetting more.  All the frustration would do is make him mad.  The panic did nothing but make him impulsive.  If he gave in to either state, he might hurt himself.  At the very least, he’d be too worked up to remember what had slipped his mind in the first place, so the doctors and his wife had agreed that frustration and panic weren’t worth a bucket of cold gravy.
But the doctors didn’t know what this was like.  They had no idea how awful it was to feel completely normal, yet not know the name of the woman you’d loved the last forty-six years of your life, to have that name dance just out of reach, taunting you.  And they didn’t feel the fear, the aching horror at the knowledge that it would just get worse and worse until it swallowed you whole, until you disappeared inside it and didn’t even exist anymore.
He jumped at the sound of her voice.  The sweet note of understanding and patience was there, but it rang with something else.  Concern, maybe?  He looked up and saw her holding the phone out to him.  That didn’t make any sense at all, not unless one of her friends wanted to talk to him.  If that was the case though, why hadn’t they just called his...?
Oh.  That was his cell in her hand.  Not just any cell phone, either.  It was the county phone, and that meant something bad had happened.  How early was it?
Hal sighed.  Frustrated or not, it was time to go to work.  He wiped his mouth with a napkin and pushed himself up from the table.  Joints creaked and groaned, and he marveled at how much of a chore even standing seemed nowadays.
“Denise,” his wife said as she handed him the phone.  “Dispatch.”
Hal nodded, letting her know he understood, recognized the name she’d given him, and knew why Denise was calling.  She’d adapted to the system quickly, and she hadn’t let him down once.  Dammit, she deserved so much better.
“I’m here, Denise,” he said.  “What do we have so early?”
“Morning, Sheriff.  We’ve got a possible homicide.  Female adult down on State Road 56 just outside the Broker limits.”
“Dammit.  Possible homicide.  Copy that.”  He plucked the pen from beside the yellow notepad that hung next to the phone, jotted down the location and made a note that State Road 56 came off of Third Street and headed toward Rising Sun.
“Who do we have on shift?” he asked.
“Ed Brown.  On shift and en route.”
“That it?”
“Called Patrolman Cole.  He sounded groggy, but he’s heading down.”
“Thanks.  I’m on my way.”
“Copy that.”
“Yeah.  Thanks, Denise.”
“Don’t mention it, Sheriff.”
“Too late.”
He slapped the cell phone shut and let out a sigh.  Jesus.  A possible homicide before eight in the morning.  Looked like he had the makings of the worst Monday on record.
His wife gave his shoulder a squeeze, one that was both strong and comforting.  “You got it, honey?”
“Yeah.”  He placed his spare hand on hers as he continued scribbling on the pad. 
“Then tell me.”
“Possible homicide on an adult female just outside Broker limits on 56, which is the road that comes off of Third and goes to Rising Sun.  Detective Ed Brown and Danny Cole are both on the way.”
“That’s my baby.”  She gave his back a pat.
“I certainly do try.”  He tore the yellow sheet from the pad and stuck it in the pocket of his shirt.  Looking down, he patted his chest.  Something was missing.  He knew it was something simple, something he couldn’t leave without, but it avoided him the same as his wife’s name kept dancing just beyond his reach.
“Your badge is on the kitchen table,” his wife said in a patient voice.  “It’s right beside your plate.”
Realization rushed in, and he rolled his eyes at how obvious the answer had been.  Of course, the badge.  For Pete’s sake, he’d even been patting his chest while he tried to figure it out.  He returned to the kitchen table long enough to grab the shining piece of metal and pin it over his left breast.  Maybe he should leave it on all the time?  One less thing to screw up, and these days every little thing counted.
“Looks like it’s time for work,” he said.
“Looks like.  You be safe.”
“Always am.”
“Call me if you need help with anything, okay?  A name, a place, part of the job.  Call me.  Don’t be afraid to get a nudge, okay?”
He nodded.  Guilt came charging in, same as it did every single day he didn’t announce his retirement.  Looking into his wife’s eyes, seeing the understanding and love there, he remembered why he fought so hard to keep at the job, to do things right.  He had to leave Folk County better than he’d found it.  The last thing he would dream of doing was to destroy everything and then walk away.  Minutes remained on the clock, and he would keep fighting to make things right until time ran out.
And she understood, this wonderful woman understood all of it and had decided to help.  She really was amazing.
“I love you, Hal,” she said.
“I love you, too.”
Hal leaned in and planted a kiss on his wife’s lips.  Then, he hurried out the front door and to his cruiser before the sad smile on her face made him cry.


Ten minutes later, Hal pulled his cruiser over to the gravel shoulder and parked it behind Ed Brown’s sedan before checking his appearance in the rearview.  He was pleased to find he looked like himself, or at least how he remembered himself.  His hair didn’t stick out at crazy angles, and the frightened look that crept into his eyes now and then was nowhere to be found.  All things considered, he looked like the picture of competence, and that was probably better than he deserved.
When he shoved open his door and stepped onto the shoulder, he found the detective standing across the two-lane highway, waiting.  The man wore a suit that looked like it belonged in Chicago or at least Cincinnati, not on the side of a road in Folk County.  His face was impassive, square jaw set and impossible to read.  Some others might not realize it, but Hal knew that look meant something bad. 
“Morning, Detective,” he said as he crossed the pavement, giving Brown the heads up that they were keeping things pro this morning.  Not that the detective needed the hint. 
The sound of an approaching motor reached him, and he looked up to see Danny Cole tooling toward them as casual as you please.  He felt a flare of annoyance, but then he reminded himself that he’d barely beaten the kid to the scene, and Danny could have been anywhere in the county when the call came through.  By the time he reached Brown’s side, he felt nice and calm again.
“Wanna talk to me?”
“Not really, Sheriff.  Think we got more of a look and see situation goin’ on right at the moment.”
“That bad?”
But he already knew.  The look had told him everything.
A car door opened and slammed, followed by the sound of running footsteps charging across the hardtop.  Hal craned his neck backward right as Danny Cole let out a, “Well, isn’t this a great way to kick off a morning?”
The patrolman, halfway through his twenties with the wide eyes of a kid first starting to sprout hair down below, clapped his hands together and rubbed them back and forth.  His brown windbreaker rustled in the morning breeze, and his smile made him look like a bit of a buffoon.  “Sheriff, Detective.  Hear we got ourselves a body.”
Hal searched his memories and realized that after two years on the job, this just might turn out to be Danny Cole’s first homicide.  Good for him.  The kid was one step closer to becoming a jaded old man.  Another couple of years and he might stop smiling all the time.
He gave Ed a look.  “Want to lead the way?”
Ed turned and started walking through the high grass.  A lighter path of stomped blades marked the detective’s earlier passing, but the going still wasn’t exactly easy.  It seemed Hal couldn’t take three steps in a row without finding some hidden rock or piece of driftwood.  Jesus, they were almost a hundred feet from the Ohio’s edge.  How were they running into driftwood?
“Who found the body?” Hal asked.
“Jogger.  Maya Dawson.  Pretty thing.  Took her statement and sent her home.  I tried to get her a car, but she said she wanted to run.  Strange, huh?”
Hal didn’t bother replying.  His legs swishing through the grass sang a harmony with the river’s muddy water as it lapped against the shore.  No traffic passed by on 56 to destroy the illusion of peace, and Cole didn’t even let out a nervous giggle or wisecrack behind him.  Nothing broke the illusion until they drew within forty feet of a stand of trees and the smell rocked him like an uppercut.  The stench of decay was strong and thick, shoving aside the normal air and setting up shop in its way. 
Another twenty feet and Ed shouted, “Go on, git!”
Hal understood the command a split second before he heard the dog bark.  Then he was out of the grass and looking at the bare ground within the trees.  A shepherd that had seen better days stood maybe a dozen feet away from them, teeth bared and maw bloodied.  Its growl tickled the back of his neck, but he reminded himself how dogs could sense fear.  He’d heard that nugget of wisdom his whole life, and he figured he’d be a bigger buffoon than Cole to tempt fate by ignoring it.
Besides, the naked body splayed in the mud behind the dog drew far more attention.  At his first glance he could tell it was a woman.  The breasts and smooth curve of her groin gave that much away.  Dirty, black hair spread out around her head like rotting seaweed.  There was surprisingly little blood, and he supposed if there was anything to be thankful for, that was it. 
The dog had done enough damage, anyway.  From his vantage point, he could tell the animal had chewed away most of her right hand.  The left side of her face was a ragged tear of loose skin, her teeth and gums exposed.  Her throat was a glistening wound, and as he watched, a buzzard dropped out of the trees and pecked at the hole before the dog turned and barked.  The bird flew away as if it had been shot at.
Hal wasn’t surprised to hear Danny puke into the grass behind him.  This wasn’t a wreck out on Highway 50.  What they were dealing with here‑‑what patrolman Danny Cole was seeing for the first time‑‑was a dead body, possibly murdered, that had been gnawed on by a wild dog.
Ed clapped his hands together and stomped a foot into the dirt.  “I said git, dammit!”
The dog trotted away, growling low in its throat.
“Holy shit,” Danny said.  He sounded like he still had a little in his mouth.  “Sheriff, you want me to shoot it?”
Hal spun and gave the Officer a look.  “What?”
“The dog.  Look at what it did.  It’s a man eater now, right?  I mean, nothing else, it’s got evidence inside it.”
He fought the urge to roll his eyes or slap the patrolman senseless.  Shoot the dog?  What was it with kids?  “How about you give animal control a call?”
“Oh my god.”
Cole’s voice suddenly sounded hollow, like he’d taken a kick in the belly, and Hal knew the kid wasn’t so interested in the dog anymore.  Danny staggered past him, bent forward slightly and moving like a man in a dream.  “No.  Jesus Christ, No.”
“Officer, you want to tell us what’s going on?”
Cole continued, staggering toward the body.  He left the grass, and suddenly his standard issue boots began to sink into the mud that hugged the Ohio.  His hands were fists, knuckles white.
“Dammit, Officer,” Ed cursed.  “Get back in the grass before you contaminate my scene.”
The kid backed up a few steps.  The bootprints he left behind were deep.
“Jesus.  Thanks for the help, Officer.”
“I…That’s Colleen.”
“Colleen?” Ed asked.  “Knew her, huh?”
“She’s Bobby…Oh, shit.  She’s Bobby Lothridge’s wife.  Jesus, I played ball with him in high school.”
That got Ed’s attention.  His head jerked so fast, Hal thought the man might hurt himself.
“You played ball?”
“Short stop.”
“Oh.  Baseball.”  The interest drained out of Ed Brown’s face like wax melting in front of a fire.  Hal almost chuckled at the sudden change, but then Danny was moving forward again, stepping past the grass and into the soft mud beneath the trees.
“Officer Cole, I need you to stop.”
“Sheriff, I know her.”
“I get that.  It doesn’t mean you can stop doing the job, though.”
“I’m still‑‑”
“You take another step, you’ll be destroying my crime scene,” Brown said.  “That’s the only thing you’ll be doin’, and I ain’t about to have it.  Take a step back.”
“Sheriff, I‑‑”
“Do what Detective Brown says, please.”
“Dammit!”  Danny spun, flinging his arm wide like he was trying to punch a ghost only he could see, and then he stomped back into the grass.  The sudden movement set the dog barking again, and the patrolman drew his sidearm as he whirled around to face it.  “You fucking thing!”
“Officer Cole!”
Hal felt the words explode from his throat, rocketing up from deep in his gut, and he saw them hit the patrolman like a cupped hand to the ear.  The kid froze, sidearm raised but not aimed, and slowly turned to face him, a new buffoonish look pasted across his face.
“Will you please return to your cruiser and request animal control?  Right now, that would be the most help.”  He watched as a series of emotions played across the young officer’s face.  Confusion gave way to anger, and desperation followed close behind before collapsing into a resigned sort of sadness.
“Yes, sir.” Danny said.  The patrolman turned and started walking back the way they’d come.  He moved slowly, like a broken-hearted schoolboy.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Hal said.  “She was a friend of yours, and this isn’t how anybody should have to see a friend.”
“Right.”  The kid nodded a little and kept trudging up the hill.  Hal watched him go, refusing to turn away until he saw Danny reach the road.  The patrolman waited as a single pickup rattled past, and then he disappeared from view.
“Well,” Ed muttered, “Looks like somebody’s one step closer to being a bona fide cop.”
“He thought he could be eager and work a murder.  Last thing he expected was for it to be a friend of his.”
“So I should cut him a little slack?”
“If he keeps doing the job, I don’t see the harm.”
“Right.  Well no offense meant, I don’t want his virgin ass near my scene.  Maybe the kid’s eager, but maybe he’s a headless nail we’re gonna be trying to pull out somewhere down the road.”
“Got it.  How many hands you need.”
“Think you can get me two?”
“Then two.”
“Coming right up.”  He grabbed his cell phone from his pocket and brought up the number for dispatch, put a call through to Denise.  When she asked who he wanted, he requested Crosby and Philips, both of whom would be starting their regular shifts in four hours regardless.  They wouldn’t mind the overtime.
As he slapped his cell shut and stuffed it back into his pocket, it occurred to him how unfair it was that he remembered how to use the damn thing when he’d lost his wife’s name.  His dispatchers and patrolmen, their schedules, he knew all of that.  Ask him his wife’s name or the way home, however, and he might draw a blank.  If he hadn’t remembered the GIS the county had installed on all cruisers a few years back, he might still be wandering the county’s back roads.  The whole mess angered him, as did the knowledge that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.  Like it or not, this was his life.  Or what remained of it.  Goddamn Alzheimer’s.
Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and pressing it to his nose, he approached the body, remaining careful to avoid any footprints he saw in the dirt, though most of them appeared to belong to the dog.  Ed had already closed in, and now the man crouched beside the body, pointing here and there with a pen when he wasn’t jotting down notes on a notepad.  How the man stood the stench was anybody’s guess.  Looking at the wreck the canine had made of the body, he was shocked at how little blood covered the area.  When he mentioned it to Ed, the stocky man gave him a nod.
“Got that right.  Definitely a dump.  Appears Colleen…What did Cole say her last name was?  Lothridge?  Anyway, looks like she died somewhere else.”
“Great.  Violent death?”
“Got some bruising here and there along the arms.  Pooch over there screwed up the throat, so if she was strangled we’ll have to hope the coroner can tell us.”  He pointed at her lips with the pen.  “Call me an optimistic, but I’m thinkin’ this is our biggest clue right here.”
Hal stepped closer and squatted.  His old eyes needed a little help, but squinting brought everything into focus clear enough, and he didn’t like what he saw.
“Yup.  Looks like we got us a dead girl on meth.  Fun, huh?”
“Sweet Lord.  Don’t let Officer Cole in on that, okay?  It stays under our hat until the autopsy confirms it.  We thinking overdose?”
“I’m still thinking violent.  If I....” He slapped gloves on his hands and gingerly lifted her head.  Not much, barely more than an inch.  He peeked at the back of the dead woman’s skull and then lowered her head.
“You sure‑‑”
“Already got pictures on the digital, Hal.  No worries.”
The detective shook his head.  “Lotta blood black there, and I don’t wanna poke around, but I know a blunt impact when I see one.  Our girl was bludgeoned.”
“Dammit,” Hal said.  The word tasted terrible.  “Husband, maybe.  This Bobby guy.  Finds out his wife’s smoking meth, they have a fight....”
“I’m leaning that way too, Hal.  Probably been leaning that way a while longer than you have.”
“No need to be cocky.”
Ed gave him a nod and then stood, brushing non-existent dirt from his knees.  “No hair off my ass.  I got another concern might be worth following up on.”
“How far you reckon we are from the town limits?”
Hal craned his neck toward the roadway and then followed it upriver.  He noticed Danny starting back down the hill, but he ignored him.
“Two hundred yards, maybe.”
“About what I thought.  By any chance, you remember who got this land in their divorce about ten years back?”
Hal felt a sharp prick of fear at the idea of needing his memory.  Ed was a friend and not just a fellow officer, and he trusted the detective more than anybody else in the county offices, but Ed was a good cop‑‑a damn good cop‑‑and the man couldn’t just sit on knowledge like The Sheriff Has Alzheimer’s.  The thought stabbed at him like a gleaming blade.
“I’m thinking.”  And to his surprise, he didn’t have to think long.  Another nugget of trivia leapt into his thoughts, and suddenly he knew exactly who owned the land.  In the next moment, a cold, hollow kind of dread crept into his gut and settled there like a sleeping Copperhead.  The feeling that bad news on its way hovered like a blanket of black storm clouds, ready to erupt with a crack of thunder.
“It’s Regina Hunt’s property isn’t it?”
Ed nodded, the makings of a grin playing on the corners of his mouth.  It was the look of a kid who doesn’t want to get into a fight, but wouldn’t mind watching a pair of hicks go at each other with pool cues for a while.  Hal might have taken offense if he hadn’t spent so many years as Ed Brown’s friend.
“We heard anything from Korey lately?” Ed asked.
“He’s been pretty quiet.  I think Aurora tanked him about a month ago after a good brawl, but I haven’t heard anything since.”
“Well, this oughta make up for lost time.”
“You think this is something he could have done?”
Ed gave him a shrug, the look on his face saying he’d prefer not to commit.  “I don’t like to put nuthin’ past nobody.  Job won’t let me take another path.”
“Want to talk to him?”
“I would love to, Sheriff.”
Danny coughed into his fist as he approached.  Hal didn’t know if the kid was trying to get the last part of his breakfast up and out or just announcing his return, and he didn’t much care.  Other things had jumped up to demand his attention.
“Talk to who?” Danny asked.  “Need me to pick somebody up?”
Hal glanced at Ed and saw the burly detective break into a full grin before turning back to Colleen Lothridge’s body.  “You remember where Korey Hunt lives?”
“We got a suspect?”
“How about we say ‘Person of interest?’”
“Whatever.  Just tell me when you want him at the station.”
“How about two hours?”
“Sure thing, Detective.  I can do it right now, if you want.  I don’t want to just let some piece of garbage think he can get away with this sort of thing.”
“Nobody’s getting away with this,” Hal said.  You just pick up Hunt and be cool about it.”
“Just feel like I owe‑‑”
“You owe her a clean investigation, Danny.  Clean and thorough and by the book.”
Hal held the kid’s eyes until Danny finally gave in and nodded.  He could tell by the wounded look on Cole’s face that he didn’t like it one bit, that he’d rather be in the thick of things, maybe kick in a few teeth before slapping on a set of cuffs, but that was fine so long as Danny did as he was told.
The kid muttered something along the lines of, “Sure thing,” and then started back up the hill.  Hal watched him climb halfway before turning to Ed.
“You’re good here?”
“Right as rain.  I’ll do what I can before my help comes.”
“Great.  Figure you want to be there when I tell Bobby Lothridge the news?”
“Yep.  Better than waiting for a warrant any day.”
“That’s the Detective Ed Brown I know.”  Was it?  He couldn’t be sure.

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