As Sheriff Piper Blackwell rushes to a clandestine meeting with an aging, paranoid veteran who believes spies are trailing his every move, she is caught in a fierce thunderstorm. Pounding rain drums against the bluff, washing away the earth and revealing a grisly secret someone tried to bury a long time ago.
Putting a name to the skeleton on the bluff, and searching for the thief who robbed the old veteran of his life’s earnings, sends Piper delving into the sleepy towns that dot her rural county. Now she’s digging into pasts perhaps best left alone.
Accompanied by Chief Deputy Oren Rosenberg, Piper seeks to expose a truth someone wants to remain forever hidden. The investigation may have started with a thunderstorm, but Piper aims to finish it and find justice. Uncovering fragments of Spencer County’s history could prove more dangerous—and deadlier—than she ever expected.
Monday, April 30th
The old man sat in the middle of a bench under a big oak, his shoulders hunched and back curved, reminding Piper of a turtle. Hard to make out more details from where she stood under the streetlight.
The light didn’t quite reach his perch, and she suspected he’d picked the spot for that reason; there were closer benches. The clouds hindered, a dense gray dome that coupled with the hour had turned the stretch along the bluff into a mass of twisting shadows. Lights in the houses at the edge of the park were flickering dots, will-o-the-wisps, she mused, more fitting for Halloween than spring.
She started toward him as threads of lightning flashed. Maybe the rain would hold off for a little while. Despite the frequent storms of the past several days, Piper hadn’t brought an umbrella. The ground felt spongy, comfortable to walk on. She quickened her step.
Maybe this wouldn’t take long and she could go home and crawl into bed with the latest Harry Bosch book.
He scooted over, making room for her. She guessed him to be in his early eighties. Twin canes were hooked over the top slat, and he wore a bulky jacket. The dispatcher had mentioned he was a geezer—“a whack-job paranoid geezer likely visited by aliens” were the exact words—and said that he claimed it was urgent and he would only speak to the sheriff…and only at this time and place.
“Evening, Mr. Thresher,” Piper said as she sat, keeping a good foot between them. He was redolent of old-man smells—warring liniments and too much aftershave. She swiveled to face him, took off her hat and rested it on her knees.
“Mark, Sheriff Blackwell.”
“Evening, Mark,” she said.
“Mark the Shark.”
“Interesting nickname,” Piper said.
“Had it a long time. Had it since the war.”
His voice was gritty like sheets of sandpaper rubbing together, a smoker’s voice, though she didn’t detect a hint of nicotine. She tipped her head and found the scent of the nearby river and the headiness of the sodden ground. More lightning speared the clouds, looking like metallic threads embroidered on a garment.
“You were in a war of sorts yourself,” Mark the Shark continued. “Read it in the newspaper last fall. That was a few weeks before the election. Read all about you.”
“Two tours in Iraq. Downrange assignments mostly.”
“That’s why I voted for you. I like folks with military experience, serving the country and all. Patriotic. Didn’t matter to me that you were what—”
“Twenty-three.” She still was. Her birthday was five months away.
“Yeah, didn’t matter that you were a pup. The article said you were Military Police. I figured that’d make you an excellent sheriff…just like your dad. Good man, Paul Blackwell. Good sheriff.” A pause. “Despite his politics.”
The wind gusted and the branches above gently clacked. Piper grabbed her hat to keep it from blowing away, and with her free hand pushed the annoying curls out of her eyes, a reminder of the haircut appointment tomorrow. She watched Mark the Shark fold in on himself and wrap his jacket tighter. The temperature in the mid-fifties, her windbreaker sufficed. But she knew some elderly people chilled easily. He’d mentioned the war. Korea probably.
“I helped liberate the Philippines,” he said. Leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, he looked around, nervous, and then focused on the streetlight.
She corrected herself. WWII. He had to be ninety-something.
“Signed up in forty, saw a recruiting poster ‘Man the Guns, Join the Navy.’ Got my pop to sign permission ‘cause I was seventeen. Way at the end, Luzon in forty-five, that’s when I got my nickname.” He rubbed at his chin and coughed, his shoulders bouncing. “Before we left the islands, one very early morning, me and some mates went fishing. We jury-rigged poles and tackle, used shiny fish we’d scooped out of the surf with a bucket. Went out on a sandbar and cast into the shallows. Figured we might catch something ‘cause we saw lots o’ life in the shoals. I still remember how good the water felt, and how salty the air tasted.”
She forced down her impatience. Whatever matter he’d called the department about obviously wasn’t urgent after all.
“Out in them shoals, I hooked something with size to it and it broke. The sky was lightening, all pale and pretty like a Kinkade painting, and so we saw it clear the surface. ‘Bout shit my pants, I did. Excuse the language, ma’am. Easy a dozen feet long, maybe longer, probably longer, half of it tail. It snapped the line and we got the hell out of there. It was a goddamned big shark. My mate Gerald, he’d been studying to be a marine biologist before the war. He said it was my namesake, a thresher shark. We looked it up in a book when we got back to the ship. Threshers are a mackerel shark, you know, nocturnal with big eyes to help them see in the dark. Like deep water they do, but they come into the shallows early in the morning to feed, use their tails to sweep the little fish together so they can eat ‘em easier. There’s not as many of ‘em anymore, them threshers. Sharks declining all over, hunted for their fins and meat. Pity, don’t you think?”
Piper nodded as if she was interested. More lightning flashed, a broad stroke that illuminated his face. Horsey, fitted with a long nose, white whiskers peppering his jawline, skin wrinkled and ruddy like a farmer’s or someone who spent a lot of hours outdoors. Couldn’t tell the color of his eyes behind the thick lenses of his boxy-framed glasses, and a hood covered his head, adding to the turtle image. His clothes were a mix of dark blue and gray, everything rumpled and worn. Old man attire. He nervously scanned the park again and cocked his head, listening. After a moment, he lowered his voice.
“I’m being hunted, too.”
And all she had was the small flashlight.
She continued to scan where her beam reached. The dispatcher who’d taken Mark’s call had encouraged Piper to ignore it, said the old man had a reputation for his “elevator not reaching the top floor,” suggested she instead send one of the deputies on shift. Piper’d had a slow week and figured she could use a little distraction. This certainly was distracting. A tidy sum maybe stolen and conspiracies involving Democrats—not very likely. She didn’t see a soul in the park.
What the hell am I doing here? Looking for spies? The more she thought about it, the more it became likely that Mark the Shark was missing a few of the fries from his Happy Meal. And how many fries was she short for staying out here?
Another sweep with the flashlight.
There was a break in the clouds near the bluff, the full moon poking through. She slogged toward the edge, around a clump of birch trees, intending to stare down at the river, take a brief sodden stroll before getting the interior of her department vehicle all wet. Make sure no one else was in the park. Harry Bosch could wait until tomorrow night.
Harry Bosch would never get a case like this one.
The river was a shiny black ribbon and reflected a piece of the moon. Normally she could hear it, perched even this high above, the sound of it sloshing against the bank, a comforting susurrus. But all she heard now was the angry tat-a-tat-a-tat of the rain.
As a teenager, Piper had loved the stretch along the river, picnicked on the bank with friends—the place called Lincoln Landing to commemorate the spot where Abraham Lincoln set off on a flatboat. This park above was known as Rockport City Bluff. She used to climb these rocks, watch the boats go by; great entertainment for a sparsely-populated county at the southern end of the state. The bluff and the landing below because there wasn’t a single movie theater or shopping mall.
What the hell am I doing here?
She’d passed the Plainfield Sheriff’s Academy fifteen days ago, meaning she could retain her office. She knew her chief deputy had hoped she’d fail. Had she, he would have been appointed to fill the vacancy. Piper had expected him to retire when she nailed a near-perfect score. Maybe he would retire…but he hadn’t yet. And she wasn’t ready to push him out. Oren’s experience with the department, and with the Rockport police before that, was yin to her inexperienced yang.
But maybe she should have sent him to deal with Mark the Shark. To schlep around here and—
The lightning played erratically high above the river, nature’s fireworks. In spaces between the growls of thunder, and accompanying the constant staccato rain, she heard the cry of some night bird, probably complaining about all the water the county had been blessed with. Farther away a horn honked repeatedly.
April showers indeed.
Conspiracies, Democrats, and spies, oh my.
It was a notch more interesting than the steady thread of DUIs—Spencer County’s number one ticketed offense. Dealing with drunks and sifting through applications for a vacant deputy position had not stirred her imagination.
She’d delve into Mr. Thresher’s complaint, see if there was truth to it or get him to realize his bookkeeping was off. She’d drive out to see him, get the name of his bank, and go there with him to iron everything out. Symbiotic-like. Not much else pressing in the office at the moment, she could help the old man.
Piper whipped around, deciding to call it a night and go home. A dozen steps to the minimal shelter of the birch clump and the toe of her Nikes connected with an exposed root. She flailed forward, lost her balance and her flashlight, and splatted stomach-first, her chin bouncing against the soggy ground.
“Shit,” she sputtered, pushing herself up on her knees, spitting a gob of mud out of her mouth. And two is four and four is eight, she added. Piper felt the mud soak all the way through her clothes and to her skin. Her right shoe had been pulled off by the root, her sock soaked. The chill was no longer invigorating. It was awful.
Shit. Shit. Shit. She grabbed the narrowest trunk with both hands, pulled, and stood, stomped in frustration and brushed at the muck that was a frosting-like coating on the front of her pants and jacket. The department vehicle wasn’t just going to get wet; it was going to get filthy. Too dark to see the roots and her absent shoe, but she saw her flashlight and went for it, snatched it up—that took two attempts because the handle was slick.
“Shit,” she repeated turning and aiming the light toward the trunk and spotting the Nike, the toe wedged under a white birch root. Piper retrieved it and froze. It wasn’t a root; it was a bone she’d tripped on. She’d seen enough bodies, pieces of bodies, skeletons from her time in Iraq. She was pretty sure it was human. “Holy shit.”
She held the beam close, just to be sure, and then panned it back and forth around the trunks. All the rains—and before that the winter’s record snow—had turned parts of the park into a slurry-like mix that had eroded. A good measure that had lacked grass cover had slipped away, revealing the roots and the bone.
And on closer inspection the top of a skull.
Piper had been looking for a distraction. But this wasn’t what she’d had in mind.
Dr. Ulysses Abernathy wore frameless oval glasses tinted blue-gray. Oren guessed he was five-eight or five-nine and was a little on the pudgy side. His ash brown hair was shaved on the sides and had a styled curly mound on top that likely had been doused with a liberal amount of hairspray or mousse; Oren swore he could smell it. His cheeks were dotted with freckles, standing out because his skin was so light. A dime-sized gold skull and crossbones hung from his pierced left ear, and his clothes were casual—jeans and an orange pocketless, oversized polo.
Young, Oren thought, and then corrected himself when he noticed the crinkles at the edges of Abernathy’s eyes and lips. Young-looking, but probably late thirties, maybe even a touch over the forty-year mark. A little more scrutiny, and he spotted some gray in the buzzed sides. That made Oren feel a little better.
“Dr. Neufeld,” Abernathy said with a nod. “Good to meet you.”
“And I’m happy to meet—”
Abernathy took a position by the table and plowed ahead, interrupting Annie’s pleasantries. “Interesting,” he said. “See the dent on the right side of the skull here? Forceps were used during delivery. The bone was deformed. As a person grows, the bones thicken. The skull is normal on the inside. But the dent on the outside. Forceps. No lower teeth and jaw available for inspection. Would make it a little more challenging for a facial reconstruction. But the upper teeth on cursory examination suggest that your remains are that of an eight- to ten-year-old. The teeth are not permanent, they are deciduous—milk teeth, some call them.” His voice was low-pitched and strong. Oren figured he would do well in front of a classroom.
“Because permanent teeth are in by age twelve,” Annie said.
Abernathy hummed. He pulled a pair of gloves from his pocket, put them on, and picked up pieces of vertebrae. “T1 and T2, broken. Yet to determine if post mortem, but not likely.” He looked up at Oren. “These are the first and second vertebra in the thoracic spine.”
Replacing them, he slid farther down the table and picked up the femur. “Note the diaphysis.” He pointed with his free hand. “And the epiphyses at each end? There is no fusion there, definitely a child. Look here.” Abernathy replaced the bone and indicated the arm. “Not joined, no fusion, under the age of twelve.” He made a clicking noise. “It’s the ribs. Fortunately we have the desirable third, fourth, and fifth ribs. You were lucky with these bones, Dr. Neufeld. Count your stars providential. But I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know. I understand you were a pediatrician for many years. For the sheriff here—”
Oren did not correct him with chief deputy sheriff, though he noted Annie’s raised eyebrow.
“—the ends of these ribs are rounded, and they’d be smooth to the touch. As a man ages the ribs display pitting, and the edges here and here—they’d be sharper. I want an MRI done. X-rays are good, but not sufficient. An MRI will give us the calcium density, and that’s useful in a final determination of age. I suspect they’ll reveal that your boy was eight or nine years old. The ribs tell me that, not the ten I first mentioned as a possibility. I’m very good at this. Eight or nine. Probably nine. I’ll want to pull DNA, too, though it might not help because—” He looked to Annie. “You mentioned these remains might be forty to sixty years old.”
“They found some coins.”
“Sixty,” Oren said. “I’m leaning toward sixty.”
“That old, might be hard to trace to relatives. But you never know. MRI, DNA. Might not need to bother with facial recognition if there are dental records to compare with missing children reports. We’ll see.” Abernathy shifted his weight. “No evidence of carnivore scavenging on these bones, no rat bite marks. But the lack of some bones might indicate animals removed pieces. They’ve been subjected to repeated freezing and thawing cycles, and those reduced some of your finger and toe bones to fragments. Some evidence here and here of plant abrasion—roots growing across the body, probably into the flesh before it dissolved. Can’t tell if these bones were moved. You didn’t call me to the scene. You packed them up and brought them here.” He paused and frowned. “Then you called me. You should have called me to the scene.”
Abernathy stood a little taller and Oren figured the forensic anthropologist was thoroughly “full of himself.” Nevertheless, Oren was impressed.
“Eight or nine, eh?” Oren said.
“Probably nine.” Abernathy made the clicking sound again. “I’m always right to within a year to a year and a half. Always. But like I said, I want the MRI before I write a report. I see some evidence of nutritional deficiencies, but a further analysis will confirm that.” He made a circle of the table, picked up the skull, turned it over in his hands and replaced it. Picked up a few vertebrae to study, and then put them back down. “This arm bone is thicker than the other. See? That was the boy’s dominant side. So he was right handed. The right femur would be thicker than the left, dominant side. But we don’t have a right femur. The radius of this arm bone, and the skull—it has a more distinct ridge here—say ‘boy.’ The pelvis is not, in my opinion, strong enough evidence given the young age. Still, it all suggests ‘boy.’ Caucasian. Right handed. Nine, eight on the outside. I think—”
It was a big red Case tractor, double wheels on the back, hitch, with a raised disc harrow attachment used for cultivating the ground prior to planting—all of it caked with dried mud and in need of washing. Piper was stuck behind it on 66, on her way to Hatfield, an unincorporated dinkburg where Mark the Shark lived.
Piper figured this ten-mile endeavor would take her an hour away from her cold case—fourteen minutes to Mark’s, fourteen minutes back, and a half hour at the bank or looking through his records to show him the bookkeeping error and ease his conspiracy fears.
But the tractor was fouling her time-frame.
It belched fumes; her windows rolled down, the stink wafted inside and made her eyes water. It was noisy, overwhelming the oldies station she’d had on and just now clicked off. It was slow, riding in the center of the road, impossible for her to pass on either side without risking the ditch. And it wasn’t traveling straight, sometimes in the proper lane, sometimes veering into the left lane. Usually it held to roughly the middle.
The driver raised his left hand and flipped his middle finger.
“Really?” Piper stuck her head out the window and hollered, “Pick a lane!” Then thinking he might not be able to hear over the racket the tractor was making, she used the PA in her car. “Pull over. Spencer County Sheriff. Pull over.”
The tractor had no rearview mirrors that she could see, and the driver hadn’t turned around to notice who was honking at him.
She honked again, this time laying on the horn. Piper really didn’t want to further delay her visit to Mark Thresher’s and subsequent return to the alluring skeleton case by citing the farmer for a simple traffic violation, but— She honked a third time, the driver took both hands off the wheel and gave her the dancing double middle fingers. The tractor, which according to the speedometer in Piper’s Ford was going about twenty miles an hour, shimmied to the right. As she started to pass, and reached to turn on her flashing lights, it sped up, drifted back to the left, and nearly clipped her front fender. She pumped the brakes and eased behind it, matching its speed—twenty-five miles an hour now. A boxy station wagon pulled behind her, and another car was coming farther back. Fortunate no one was in the opposite lane at the moment.
The tractor wobbled farther right, then left, shuddered, and went faster still. Thirty miles an hour.
“What the hell?”
Then the driver tossed an empty whiskey bottle off to the side of the road.
She turned on the siren and called the dispatcher to report her impending traffic stop. No license plate on the tractor, so no identification to note. Fleeing to avoid arrest, failure to yield, she mentally started writing the charges. She couldn’t yet add DUI—that would have to be proven.
It looked like the driver—she guessed him to be young to middle-aged, as he had a flowing mane of ink-black hair—was finally going to acquiesce. He slowed to twenty, then ten, and pulled to the right, one of the big back tires drifting to the berm. A car and a motorcycle appeared in the opposite lane and zipped past. Piper continued to follow the tractor, the station wagon still behind her. Then she cursed when he sped up again. How fast could a farm tractor go? It jinked left, the sudden motion causing the tractor’s back right set of tires to come off the road. They dropped back down with a clatter and the disc harrow made an ominous clunking sound, came loose, and cut into the blacktop, leaving grooves like open wounds.
“This is just absolutely wonderful.” Piper’s lip curled as she tried to maneuver her Ford Explorer around it again. “Pull the hell over!” She pressed on the gas, was nearly even with it and could read the MX 240 model on the side, then it trundled left again and she slammed on the brakes to avoid being run off the road. “Sonofabitch!”
Wisely, the two cars behind her drifted back.
The tractor surged forward, weaving and now straddling the center line. She matched its speed. Forty miles an hour.
“Really? Tractors go that fast?” She almost called for backup. Should call, she told herself. But Piper was proud and stubborn. How would it look if a decorated Army veteran couldn’t stop a drunk on a farm tractor? Her deputies would not respect a sheriff who could not manage a traffic stop. She used the PA again. “Pull over! Pull over now!”
A beer can sailed away into the ditch. The hand that threw it raised the middle finger again.
“I left the 101st for this,” she hissed. Piper was a skilled driver, able to operate armored personnel carriers, combat support vehicles, light armored vehicles, and an assortment of heavy trucks. This Ford was easy, and she could use it—if she absolutely had to—to force the tractor off the road. But there wasn’t much shoulder, and she worried the tractor would flip into the ditch and seriously injure, or possibly kill, the drunken driver. She slammed her hand against the steering wheel and looked at the speedometer. The tractor had slowed back to thirty. Then twenty.
“Now ten,” she encouraged. “Ten.”