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Grady had always known me, even though she hadn’t known all the things I’d done. She knew my heart better than I did, as cliche at that sounds. It was Grady that taught me that we aren’t the sum of our actions, or even the sum of our intentions. “We are greater than what we wish we are, and less than what we think we are.” When she said it, I must have made a face. She walked up to me so fast and deliberate, I braced for the inevitable slap to the face I anticipated. Instead, she grabbed me so intensely and kissed me with a passion I’d never felt from her before. “We’ll never fully understand or define God’s love in this lifetime, honey. Don’t knock it. Miracles can’t be explained. He gave me you. He forgives and heals all things. He pumps your heart and breaths life into you every second. Put that in your brain and mull it over until you go crazy. Then give in and let go, my darling.”
I had accepted that Grady was a ferocious Christian about five minutes into our first meeting. It surprised and confused me that such a gorgeous package of anomalies, walking around on two sexy legs and taking an interest in a friendship with me, could exist in the world … could survive in Fingerbone. I would come to understand that she defined the place. Opinionated, self-reliant, bad-asses lived in Fingerbone. Sure, there were a handful of socialite-wannabes, crotchety old coots, rednecks, and a few even fit the description “dregs of society.” But for the most part, townsfolk had two things you could always count on: curiosity and friendliness. Pretty harmless features, attractive even, if you have nothing to hide.
It wasn’t until Grady leaned into me one day at the river, whispered the punchline to a joke she was telling me, and then caressed the laugh-lines she’d created with her hands that I realized. I didn’t have to hide from her. She was one of only two in town that had managed to make me laugh since I’d been there. I enjoyed her company, her smell, her mannerisms, her eyes. But I believed her interest in me strictly sisterly, and had self-talked myself batty not to screw up this great friendship by scaring her. I tried to tame my attraction to her and made no inappropriate advances. So when her adoring fingers silenced my giggle, and her lips traveled to my fading smile, my confusion and cautiousness departed, and I fell.
I fell first in love, and then literally into the river. If you know my past, neither makes any sense. I’m not usually at a loss for grace and balance. It was a huge part of my profession at one point. As for love, you have to understand. What I used to do … it would have been like a librarian who couldn’t read, or a mechanic allergic to grease. But Grady and I, we were clumsy like two new colts loping about on spindly legs. She opened the door to all we could have, and we suddenly figured out we had brought a teacup to a well the size of the ocean. That splash helped connect us for eternity though. Eternity minus a bullet.
Later in her living room, as we were warming up next to her wood burning stove, I asked her what she was thinking when she kissed me. I expected her to say, “I wasn’t,” or something that meant there was still some pondering happening. Instead, she’d reminded me of our first conversation.
“I was thinking about what you said when we first met. ‘People aren’t always what they seem, Ma’am.’ Poetic and ironic. I was looking at the scars on your neck after you asked me about Fred Tanner. When you said that, I looked into your eyes and those words stirred my heart more about you than Fred. I wanted to know what made you tick.”
“I thought you just wanted to preach to me.” This made her laugh and give me a little shove.
“I wanted you to know what make me tick.”
You know the rest. The warmth, the light flickering in her eyes, the words and how they purred softly into my emotional wounds … we didn’t make love that night. We held each other, snuggled while fully clothed, and felt the power we had to heal and protect one another, even in our sleep.
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Jack had Hen read the notes she’d taken over the phone with the county coroner from the preliminary findings. Sharing this information before the formal report was done was not common practice unless you were a detective in the police office down the street from her office. The only reason she’d been inclined to share things that might be pertinent to the early investigation with a team an hour away in a town some 2000 feet above her was because Hen was her ex-sister-in law and whom she liked better than her own brother. The lab tech down there either wasn’t as kind or the tests would actually take several more hours before we would know what killed the dog. Hen had confirmed her suspicion about an injection with the coroner after describing what she’d found.
We stood with our hands in our pockets (lame attempts at keeping them warm), studying the empty timeline, the photographs taken with a camera borrowed from the department in Southtown, and a cast someone had made of a foot print in the ground around the dog. Nobody spoke while our minds raced. This quiet pandemonium ensued for nearly 20 minutes. It was Jack’s rule – a trick picked up in his younger days as an MPI (Military Police Investigator) in the Army. Just seconds before we were all about to bust open in thought streams, he silently uncapped a marker and wrote three letters on the right side of the board where he’d asked Tom to leave some space. The BOLO on the truck hadn’t returned anything yet.
“Motive. Means. Victims. Let’s take turns on these three areas based on what we’ve just worked out or questioned in our heads. Give me what you know, or ask a question for each of us to pontificate on and see what we can string together.”
Tom, a Deputy who had been with Jack the longest, was new to investigation. He was the patrol guy that handed out warnings or tickets if you pissed him off. He was the guy that mostly sat in the office when he was on shift and did the minimum drive time required. He wasn’t lazy, just bored. Jack asked him to stay on shift when we had all convened because he wanted a different, untrained perspective. I could tell there was more to Jack’s plan in this regard than the others understood. Tom was getting an experience he’d not had his entire time on the team. If this sparked more motivation in him, more energy, he would stay on that much longer and Jack wouldn’t have to hire yet another replacement for a hard-to-fill position. He’d gone through eight people since I’d moved here two years ago. That had to be tough. Tom had been solid throughout, but it was clear he was winding down and looking elsewhere. There’s nothing worse than donating forty hours of your life every week to a monotonous, thankless job.
“What do you want for ‘means’ up there, Jack?” Tom asked.
“What does the evidence tell you about the ‘means’ used in each aspect of the crime? Things like, ‘did they use a lock pick?’ or ‘what kind of weapons did they use?’ Anything that will point us to the unsub’s skill set, knowledge, strengths or weaknesses. What they use and how they do things helps ID what kind of person they are inside and out. Get it?”
Tom nodded an affirmative and glanced, self-consciously at us. He shifted his gaze to the filtered headlight gliding over the window drape and appeared almost starry-eyed when he said, “It don’t seem right, what he did to that dog.”
We all acknowledged the observation in our self-imposed silence now. He’d spoken what had eaten at me since I had heard Hen’s report. “I think that speaks more truth about this guy than what was inside the house. He killed the people inside without shedding any blood and without any weird ritualistic or fetish crap you might see in a serial killer. He killed nearly an entire household, something I would usually align with rage or a crime of passion, but I don’t see much rage in the way he did it. But the dog …” I trailed off, a lump forming in my throat. I really needed a antacid.
“Overkill.” Hen was always one for few words with deep meaning.
“Like he hates dogs or at least this one. I seen dogs killed with poison, but never like this.” Our acceptance of Tom’s opening statement had dropped his guard and I could see he was feeling more comfortable.
“You guys keep saying ‘he.’ Are we sure the unsub is male?” Jack played his role as facilitator as he wrote “poison” in the “Means” section, and “family” next to “V.”
“I think there’s a 90% chance our subject is male,” I said, “because I think he knew her.”
“True. Not much struggle from her in the event she was awake. The sheet … and rolling her over. Seems like he didn’t want to look at her or the shape of her face.” Hen pointed to the sheet covered woman and momentarily stepped closer, as if she was looking for something to grab at inside the picture’s realm. “He stuck around in that room for awhile or else returned after he’d finished with the others. Why else would he roll her over like that?”
I was careful how I phrased a response to this. “Suffocation isn’t like strangulation. A pillow held over the face takes a long time to deprive the brain of oxygen and make her pass out. It also leaves her arms and legs free to kick and fight. There would have been noise from a struggle like that. If she fought, it was too little too late. But there’s no bruising or scraping on her arms or hands and you said her nails were clean. So how does he enter the room, reach over her and grab the pillow next to her head, place it over her face and hold it there for two to five minutes without a struggle?”
I left this question hang before answering it. “She was out cold. Either passed out from drugs or alcohol maybe, or something else. But there’s no other way the body lets its life-giving oxygen be withheld, even if the mind is willing, without instinctively fighting. He knew it too. That’s why he turned her over. If she’d been awake, or even cognizant of what was happening, he would have been able to tell if the job was finished. But he couldn’t feel if the body had given up. So he turned her face into the pillow at some point. That way, if she did move to get air, he’d know. If she didn’t, he’d know it was over.”
Jack had frantically scribbled notes on his “MMV” outline as we’d talked. Tom had grabbed a chair and was slouched, scratching his face stubble and watching Jack write. Meanwhile, I realized I may have said too much. Hen was staring at me with a furrowed brow, her hands on her hips, and her eyes asking me who the hell I was.
There was no point in objecting. He was absolutely right. Jack knew I had nothing to do with this besides rushing to the child after the assault, and then flagging his vehicle down for help. But he and his small staff, viewed by other departments as country bumpkins, would have their methods scrutinized more than others. If he wanted to solve this case and see justice done, he’d have to do everything by-the-book.
I followed the officer into an interrogation room that looked nothing like the television renditions. A heavy wooden desk, reminiscent of my elementary school days, sat in the middle of the small office setting. There were empty shelves to the right, and I shuffled sideways between them and edge of the desk to sit in the chair facing the door. The wall opposite the shelves was covered, from corner to corner, with file cabinets and an even smaller space to squeeze through. As I sat in the squeaky roller chair, I took a deep breath to chase away the nagging sense of claustrophobia I was feeling. Across from me, on the “business” side of the desk, a faux leather chair faced me. Tom brought in a second chair, smaller but of similar style, and placed it next to the other. He smiled and excused himself.
Ten minutes later, Jack and a detective I didn’t recognize entered and sat down. I leaned forward, my chair squeaking as I scooted it back a bit, and planted my forearms on the desk. I noticed their chairs were completely silent as they made themselves comfortable.
The detective placed a tape recorder on the table. His finger poised on the record button as if preparing to pull a trigger, he focused on me and asked, “You’re familiar with this, yes? I understand you are a detective. I’m going to hit record now if you’re cool with that?” His tone was less about seeking my permission and more about an established protocol. I nodded and the red light glowed on the little machine. He stated the date and he and Jack’s name, title, and badge number – never taking his eyes off me. “Please state slowly and clearly into the recorder your full name, date of birth, address for your home of record, and a phone number where you most commonly be reached.”
“Legal name Molly Malone. Born June 23, 1984. I live at 271 W 3rd Street, Fingerbone, Idaho. Cell Phone number 409-435-3242.” The detective wrote down the information as I spoke, even though he was recording it. It was a common interrogation practice. I knew he would start by asking some questions I’d be certain of the answers, and that anyone would be comfortable answering regardless of their guilt or innocence. They would then observe the subject’s body language and demeanor, the speed of their answer, the direction they looked … and would use these as a baseline for gauging a person’s truthfulness later on in the interview. If the interrogator was really good, they could identify micro expressions commonly associated with dishonesty, fear, or other aspects that could help answer questions left unspoken.
The detective continued. “Are you married?” Interesting. Not even one minute into my interview and I was already enjoying some observations of my own. I could tell by the way Jack tensed his jaw for a millisecond that the question made him uncomfortable. I assumed he was nervous about what the detective’s reaction would be when he got around to what Jack perceived as “outing” me.
“Have you ever been married?”
“Do you have children?”
“Are your parents still alive?”
“Where do they live?” He was keeping the introduction to this process simple, asking only one question at a time to give me a false sense of comfort or security. When he started in on the important questions, he would turn up the heat and throw them at me two or more at a time. Cranking up the intensity as the interview progressed was classic methodology and this guy wasn’t impressing me with anything innovative.
We progressed through the ages of my folks, the state of our relationship, and to Jack’s pleasant surprise (I’m sure), this guy never asked me about my orientation or whether I’d ever killed anyone. This guy was not the sharpest tool in the shed. If I had any part of this thing, I’m certain he would have missed it. He then followed protocol and had me dictate a timeline of my whereabouts for the past two days up to the present. He discovered that I didn’t know my neighbors, not by name anyway. The extent of our “relationship” had been me waving and smiling, according to standard social norms for that region, and getting the cold shoulder from “Ma and Pa Kettle.”
Of course, I didn’t tell him what I thought of their ridiculous front yard, it’s remnants of “Hee Haw” days gone-by. Carcasses of sun faded, plastic “Big Wheels,” and long defunct “Sit-n-Spins,” cluttered the scene … along with old tires, cinder blocks, and the quintessential yard-car adorned with blue tarp. I didn’t mention the various camouflaged clothing items (skivvies included) that were habitually hung on the clothesline for weeks because none of them could cart their lazy asses back out to take them down.
Eventually he hit on what he thought to be the key elements of his interview. “Can you think of anyone that would want to see them gone or that would want to harm them in any way?”
“As I’ve said, I didn’t know them at all. I don’t know any of my neighbors except for the people with the game processing business on the corner. And even with them, I don’t spend time or talk with them much.”
And that was that. He concluded that I was not a suspect and thanked me for my time. Asked me to contact them if I have anything further that might help them with the investigation. Walking out with Jack, I waited until we were out of the earshot of any of the regulars at this station. “Jack, please tell me he’s not going to do the rest of your interviews in this case.”
“I’ll be handling the case personally; I just couldn’t question you myself after spreading the rumor that you’re helping us with the case and that I called you in.”
“Yeah, about that. What do you see as the next move?”
“Malone, I only said that to keep you out of danger. I can’t have someone outside the department messing with this. Hen and the boys and I will get this thing done. We’re not the “Barney Fife‘s” some people make us out to be.”
“I know that, Jack. I don’t think that. But you need my help. There’s too few of you and you don’t want to bring these people down here in, if you can help it. There’d be too many chiefs and the search would go south fast. You know me; you trust me. And though you don’t want to admit it, you need someone who can easily skirt the red tape. You need that kind of speed on this case. Jack – listen to me dammit. I can’t tell you what went through my brain when I realized what that dirtbag did to this kid. I won’t walk away from this, can’t walk away from this, even if you order me to. I just have to DO something to make it all make sense … to put things back in order in the cosmos or something.”
He started shaking his head halfway through my protestations, as if the act would negate what was spewing at him. He gripped his jaw, now scraggly with the long day’s growth (we’d been off the hill since the late morning and it was now nearly seven in the evening). “I’ll think about it.”
“It’s not uncommon for private investigators to consult with police departments from time to time, Jack. I think – ”
“I said I’ll think about it. I will. Now let’s go grab a few pizzas for the team and head back. I got a long night still ahead.”
“Great. You can finally fill me in on everything Hen found so far on the way back up. Don’t look at me like that. You’re thinking about it – I get it. In the meantime it can’t hurt for you all to add my perspective on everything … until you are finished thinking about it, that is.”
“Sometimes I wonder what my sister ever saw in you.”
It felt like someone was pushing ice water through my veins. In fact, it was pretty close to that. When I woke I was laid out on a gurney in a hallway. A saline pack above my head was half empty, its tube draped over my shoulder and running parallel to my arm. They must have stuck poorly the first time because the back of my hand was sore and I could see the small bruise that had formed when the needle nicked the vein, causing blood to form just under the skin. The taped gauze where the saline drip entered my arm didn’t cover it entirely. I knew from my lab tech days in the Army, they’d probably had to poke around to get it set up right. I was irritated at the prospect of having my hand look like I’d lost track of a hammer while nailing a board for the next few days.
I could see through the double doors to the reception desk. Jack was talking to a woman with one of those nose piercings that look like a diamond. I could never understand how people with those things kept from sneezing all the time. She was nodding and folding a piece of paper he’d handed her. He turned around to point down the hall and noticed I was awake. I saw his lips change course to form an “Oh, look,” and he waved and smiled. His wave morphed into a “number one” as he mouthed “Just one minute,” and I nodded my understanding, then reassessed my hand.
I reached up and tightened the clamp, shutting off the drip. Placing the tube between my teeth and making sure there was no slack in the tube leading to my hand, I gently tugged at one side of the tape. Peeling it upwards, I anchored a finger just below where the needle ended under my skin. I pressed down and pulled my hand away from the tube, then pushed the gauze back over the buise and taped it down again. Getting off the stretcher was a bit more difficult, since someone had failed to lock the wheels when they’d parked me there. Thankfully, I was able to stay perpendicular to the floor and roll my shirt sleeve back down as I approached the doors.
“… until we figure this case out, just to make sure he stays safe. And I want a phone call immediately if anyone asks about him or comes to visit, okay? Hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing? I said we’d be with you in a minute; what’s the hurry?”
“I know,” I said, “but I feel better and I know a thing or two about phlebotomy. No sense wasting a nurse or tech’s time to do all that when I can do it myself.”
Jack shook his head in disgust but decided to concede the battle. “This is Sue Polanski from social services. She’s going to make sure the boy is cared for and stays protected while we work the case. Sue, this is Malone; she is the private detective I’ve asked to help that I was telling you about.” As Sue shifted her focus from Jack to me and extended her hand, his eyes fluttered quickly to mine. His head bobbed an inconspicuous nod as his eyes narrowed and spoke an urgent message of caution. It was not necessary. I had already taken his lead as he spoke the deception, and smiled at Sue with my no-nonsense professional look of confidence.
Sue smiled. “It’s a pleasure to meet you Malone. I’m sorry to hear about your little accident, but so glad to see you’re just fine now.” Texas? Maybe Oklahoma … I wasn’t sure. I’m a sucker for Southern accents. I made a mental note to quell my curiosity another time (perhaps over dinner) about why on earth she would leave warmer climates for the daunting winters up in these parts.
“Thanks. I hadn’t eaten yet when Jack called and, in the rush, I think I just got a little light headed. I appreciate the concern.”
With that, Jack grabbed a nurse and lead Sue to where the boy was being treated (the Intensive Care Unit, I assumed). I signed myself out at the desk and grabbed a bag of chips and a soda from the vending machines. I had devoured the chips by the time Jack returned and we headed to the station to file paperwork.
“Thanks for playing along back there. I don’t know if the guy you saw is paying attention or not. If he thinks there’s a witness, it could put you in trouble.”
“What makes you think he wouldn’t just run faster and get the hell out of Dodge?” I asked. Kicking a kid like this scum had, it was certainly evil. But it wasn’t the same kind of crime as taking out your enemies, one-by-one. It didn’t seem to fit – Jack thinking this guy was that organized.
“Hen called while you were out. She had to go get a couple of guys to help her process the inside of the trailer. There’s no one alive inside.” I studied his face as he turned the ignition. My neurons still hadn’t pieced together his words when he turned and looked directly at me. “Share what I’m telling you with NO ONE. What I’m saying is …” he studied me as he spoke, “… there were three dead bodies inside.”