Authors: Robert Daniels
Tags: #FIC022000 Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General
This is a work of fiction. All of the names, characters, organizations, places, and events portrayed in this novel either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real or actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Robert M. Daniels Corp.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crooked Lane Books, an imprint of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.
Crooked Lane Books and its logo are trademarks of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.
The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.
ISBN (hardcover): 978-1-62953-383-4
ISBN (paperback): 978-1-62953-484-8
ISBN (ePub): 978-1-62953-384-1
ISBN (Kindle): 978-1-62953-657-6
ISBN (ePDF): 978-1-62953-668-2
Cover design by Andy Ruggirello
Crooked Lane Books
2 Park Avenue, 10
New York, NY 10016
First Edition: December 2015
This book is dedicated to my mother, who gave me life and taught me the meaning of it through her boundless love, loyalty, and wisdom.
uck: hard to plan for it, impossible to predict when it might show up. Driving through the town of Jordan in search of a suitable subject for her class assignment, twenty-year-old Melissa Harris was almost ready to concede her luck had run out. Less than a week remained before she had to turn her class project in, and she’d come up with nothing for her photo study.
Romantic farmhouses and barns? Really?
Professor Micklenberg, however, was serious. Submit a portfolio or flunk the class. Landscape photography was supposed to be a spring semester cakewalk at the University of Georgia. Instead, it was turning out to be a major pain in the ass. College professors, she had found, took everything seriously, particularly themselves.
The first farm Melissa came to was nondescript and ordinary. Basically, a crashing bore. The second was worse. But just when she was about to give up, her luck changed. The first thing she noted about the last farm was that it was abandoned.
Romantic? Maybe not, but, well . . . interesting. At that point, she was willing to take interesting.
Melissa made a U-turn and pulled her Prius onto the shoulder. She got out and stood there, absorbing the details. Several hundred yards away, at the rise of an amber-colored hill dotted with wild flowers, sat a faded white-and-gray house. Something straight out of Wyeth’s
. To the right of the house, perhaps a quarter mile from it, was an ancient barn, a silo, and a windmill, its blades turning slowly in the cool afternoon air. Farther to the right, a line of trees ran parallel to a set of railroad tracks that disappeared in the distance. The tracks were
seemingly forgotten like the farm itself. Once this place had been filled with people. Sound. Movement.
Melissa nodded to herself. Search over.
The following day, armed with two cameras, a tripod, and a traveling mug of coffee, Melissa returned to Jordan. Located some forty miles north of Atlanta, the distance between the two had little to do with Jordan’s historical distance from the twenty-first century. The town, like many southern towns, had a square, around which were a series of one- and two-story brick buildings and an old courthouse with white columns. In the middle of the square was a statue of a man she’d never heard of. Main Street, which was also State Road 21, connected to the highway five miles away. If anyone were inclined to visit Jordan, they’d find a bank at one end and a convenience store at the other end that doubled as a post office. On the way out of town was a gas station with pumps that were probably two or three generations old. The gas station attendant maintained that the Donneley farm had been abandoned for at least fifteen years.
For the second time in as many days, Melissa parked her car on the shoulder, retrieved her camera bag and tripod from the back seat, and started across the field. The sun had been up for nearly an hour, pushing the long shadows back toward the trees.
Partway across the field, Melissa slowed and stared at a scarecrow some distance away, its arms and head akimbo. A large, black bird was sitting on its shoulder pulling at something with its beak. Hearing her approach, the bird looked up, decided she was far enough away to present no threat, and went back to whatever it was pulling at. Melissa tried to recall if she’d seen it on her last visit.
Probably wasn’t paying attention, she decided.
A moment later, a second bird glided in and landed at the scarecrow’s feet.
“Not doing a very good job, are you?” she said under her breath and kept on walking. The scarecrow had no comment.
The barn’s roofline was bowed in the middle, and the whole building seemed to be leaning slightly as if the passage of time was too much for it to bear. Its wood was gray and badly weathered. In the front was a pair of wide double doors faded to a barely recognizable shade of red.
Melissa placed her camera bag on the hood of a rusted Dodge Charger sitting up on concrete blocks near the entrance and proceeded to set up her tripod, breathing in the scent of jasmine in the air.
As she did on her first visit, she made a circuit around the barn, checking to see if there might be a better angle for her picture. There wasn’t. As she rounded the corner, her eye came to rest on an irregular brown stain on the ground about three feet across. Odd. She didn’t remember seeing that either. She looked around. There was nothing in the immediate area that could have caused it.
Guess I missed that, too
The gas station attendant had assured her no one had been out there in years. Melissa shook her head and turned her attention to her camera and the task at hand.
One of the barn doors was closed, the other partially open, rocking back and forth in the morning breeze. Melissa approached the door and tentatively poked her head inside. Streaming through a broken window above the doors, sunlight lit portions of a dusty interior. A few insects buzzing around darted in and out of the diffuse light. Of course, nothing had changed. The barn was as empty as it had been a day ago. The stain continued to bother her, but she pushed it to the back of her mind because the light outside was changing rapidly. She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear and started back to the tripod.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw another black bird land on the scarecrow’s head.
“Jeez,” she muttered. “You’re supposed to scare them, not attract the stupid things.”
A thought occurred to her. Why put a scarecrow in an abandoned field? Melissa stopped and considered the scarecrow more closely. Something wasn’t right. For the first time, mixed in with the jasmine scent she’d smelled earlier was a foul odor unlike anything she’d ever smelled before.
Seemingly on their own, her feet began to move, drawing her toward the black figure.
No way those are crows
, she thought.
They’re too large
One of the birds swiveled its head in her direction and fixed a pair of malevolent eyes on her. It was holding something red in its beak. Her mind began to race, conjuring up ghost stories and movies with dark images that scared her as a child. As she came closer and the wind picked up, the more ubiquitous the smell became, seemingly coming from the ground and grass at the same time. Incongruously, around the scarecrow’s neck was a thin, gold necklace. Without warning, the bird took off, startling her, its wings beating hard. Its companion let out a squawk of protest and followed suit. Melissa tracked their flight upward.
Four more birds were now circling overhead. She forced her feet to keep going.
Thirty feet from the macabre figure, she came to a halt, staring in horror at a deathly white face under the scarecrow’s hat. A cry that tried to escape her throat turned into a croak as her voice deserted her. All the strength seemed to have drained from her legs. Rooted to the spot, she stood there.
“This is a joke,” she whispered. “Someone’s idea of a sick joke.”
The scarecrow’s hat, dislodged by the bird, finally slipped to the ground. It was no joke.
Melissa Harris began to scream.
etective Beth Sturgis leaned against the rear fender of her police cruiser and watched as the crime scene techs took the man’s body down. Standing twenty yards away, Tony Colsart, Burton County’s medical examiner, and his assistant waited to load the corpse into a body bag. Their van was parked close by. Two deputies, also present at the scene, stopped what they were doing to watch. No one spoke.
Once the body was properly secured, Colsart broke away and came toward them. Flashing blue lights from the other cruisers reflected off his face, making his movements appear staccato. Colsart’s expression was grim.
Three months new to the Robbery-Homicide Division, thirty-four-year-old Beth Sturgis had worked a total of four murders during her brief tenure. The smell of death always got to her. It seemed to linger on her clothes and hair long after she was gone, a hazard of the profession. Being outdoors helped.
Next to Beth was Max Blaylock. Blaylock was a large man with a big stomach. He’d been Jordan’s sheriff for the last twelve years. Without being asked, he poured Colsart a cup of coffee from a thermos resting on the trunk of his car and handed it to him. The ME accepted it gratefully, nodding his thanks.
“Tony, this is Beth Sturgis from Atlanta. I’ve asked them to step in and help. I’m thinking this one’s too big for our little shop to handle.”
Colsart and Beth shook hands. She was dressed in a gray pantsuit and a light-blue blouse. At five feet nine inches, her eyes were nearly level with his.
“Anything you can tell us?” Beth asked.
A wiry man with sandy hair, Colsart was in his early forties. “Apart from the obvious,” he said, “not a helluva lot. There’s a small-caliber gunshot wound to the face, just under the victim’s left eye. Powder burns and ridging indicate it was made from close range.”
“What about the time of death?” Beth asked.
“Judging from the way rigor’s letting go, I’d estimate a little over thirty hours, give or take. We’ll know more once I get him on the table.”
“You think the bullet killed him?”
“Doubtful. It exited through the back of this neck and missed both the brain and spinal cord. I assume you noticed his pasty-white condition?”
“Hard to miss,” Beth said.
“He appears to have died from blood loss,” Colsart said. “Problem is, there’s not enough at the base of the cross or the barn to account for it. This is really weird.”
“You’ll figure it out, Terrance,” Blaylock reassured him. “Ain’t no vampires in Jordan.”
“I intend to,” Colsart said. “Goddamn birds did a job on his body. What the hell are they?”
“Turkey buzzards,” Blaylock said, looking up at the black shapes circling the field.
It was late in the afternoon, and the day had continued to brighten but without warmth. Yellow police tape declaring the area a crime scene had been stretched around the barn on stakes in a hundred-foot perimeter. The scarecrow and the house were similarly cordoned off. Five minutes after arriving on scene, Beth had called Ben Furman with Atlanta’s crime lab to come out. He and a helper were at the moment painstakingly going over the ground for anything that might yield evidence.
Beth turned to the sheriff and asked, “Ever see him before?”
Blaylock shook his head. “I don’t think he’s local.”
“Think you’ll identify him?” Colsart asked.
“Ben told me he got a clean set of prints off his good hand,” Beth said. “Assuming the vic’s in the system, there shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Good hand?” Blaylock said.
“The left one’s missing its ring finger.”
“I missed that completely. I was concentrating on the gunshot.”
“Not a problem,” Beth said. “Maybe we’ll catch a break and get some latents off the body.”
“Not likely,” Colsart said. “Your tech did a preliminary with the Polilight and didn’t look happy.”
“Sick bastard to do something like this,” Blaylock muttered to no one in particular.
When Colsart finished his coffee, he handed the cup to the sheriff, who crumpled it and tossed it onto the back floorboard of his car.
Beth said, “Tony, I don’t know your situation up here, but I’d like to move this to the top of the list if possible.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Colsart said. “We don’t do as much business as Atlanta. You might want to have your boss give Dr. Andrews a call though. He’s the one who can put a rush on it. I’m just a lowly assistant ME.”
“Well, use your influence,” Beth said.
“Right. My influence. Got it.”
Blaylock turned to the medical examiner and asked, “You and the wife still attending that couple’s class over at church?”
Colsart responded with a flat look. “Every Friday night, rain or shine.”
“Is it any good?”
“It’s what I live for.”
The sheriff laughed to himself.
“Some fights I should get into,” Colsart said, “Some I shouldn’t. Diane thinks we need to communicate better, so we go.” He inquired of Beth, “You married?”
“Not at the moment,” she said. “The class is about communicating?”
“Basically. You learn how to talk to each other and hear what the other person’s saying. Stuff like that. The instructor wrote a book.”
“Yeah?” Blaylock said. “What’s it called?”
The Power of Yes
“You read it?” the sheriff asked.
“Not yet. The wife did. She only got up to the power of
Beth and Blaylock both smiled. Like the air going out of a balloon, their smiles faded as the body was loaded into the van.
“I’ll see what I can do about moving the autopsy up,” Colsart said. “Call me tomorrow.”
After he left, they watched the ME’s van lurch over the field as it made its way back to the road.
“Got a mess here, Detective,” Blaylock said. “You sure you want to take this on?”
“No, but I’ve got it now,” Beth said. “You already turned the case over.”
“I can turn it back,” Blaylock said. “No disrespect, but I thought you city types worked with a partner.”
“Usually,” Beth said. “Mine’s on medical leave at the moment. I was about to give him a call.”
Blaylock nodded and moved away to watch the techs at work. Beth removed her cell phone from her jacket pocket and dialed her partner. After four rings, she was about to disconnect when Leonard Cass answered.
“Sorry, Beth,” Cass said. “I’m still moving like molasses. What’s up?”
“We caught a case in the town of Jordan. Interdepartmental request for assistance.”
“Lovely. Someone up there steal a chicken?”
“A little worse than that. I’m standing in the middle of a field outside town. Someone shot a guy in the face and strung him up on a cross dressed as a scarecrow.”
“Holy shit. Are you serious?”
“The ME just took him down and the techs are going over the scene now. On top of everything else, the sick bastard cut off one of his fingers. This is a nasty one, Lenny.”
There was a silence on the phone as Cass processed the information. “Fuck. We got us a copycat,” he said.
“Looks like it,” Beth said. “I hope that’s all there is.”
“The sheriff also mentioned two women have gone missing. He doesn’t think they’re related. I’m praying he’s right.”
“Jesus,” Cass said. “I need to get my ass back in the office.”
“Come back when you’re ready,” Beth said. “I can hold down the fort till then. A few more weeks won’t kill me.”
More silence followed. “Is he sure about the women?”
“He just mentioned it in passing. You know, like when it rains, it pours.”
“Yeah,” Cass said. “Let’s hope they’re not related. Does the name Jackson Kale mean anything to you?”
Beth frowned as she watched the techs conferring with each other about something. “No. Should it?”
“Kale was the FBI’s lead investigator on the Scarecrow case eight years ago.”
“Before I joined the department,” Beth said. “Is he still around?”
“He pulled the plug and took a teaching position somewhere.”
“The official reason was medical, but I heard there were problems with Internal Affairs or whatever the feds call it. He might be worth talking to.”
“What kind of medical problems?”
“Who knows? Like I said, it was just a rumor. Maybe the pressure got to him. Putting on a medical label might have been the Bureau’s way of saying thanks for a job well done and bye. I mean, the guy was a hero.”
“Too bad he’s gone,” Beth said. “I’ll see if I can find him.”
“You understand once the papers get hold of this, the shit’ll hit the fan.”
“Let’s keep the missing finger out of the report for the time being. You understand why?”
“It’s what you did on the Scarecrow case.”
“Smart girl. I’m here if you need me.”
“And I’m here if you need me,” Beth said.
When they disconnected, she tried to recall the details of the Scarecrow murders. Sixteen deaths in all. Men and women. Bodies mutilated. The city of Atlanta and surrounding counties in a state of panic. The national media and lurid tabloids you find at checkout counters picked up the story and only made matters worse.
“Please don’t let it be happening again,” Beth whispered and then went to watch the forensic techs work.