Vietnam veteran Detective Dean Wallace washed out of his NYPD job. He returned home to work for his father, the chief of police in his home town. When the body of a young man turns up in the woods along with a copy of THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO and thousands in cash, Wallace not only investigates the crime but also confronts his and his family's past.
The Nimitz’s owned a ranch house on Jackson Street. Red brick lined the bottom third, and white siding decorated the top two-thirds. Faded, red wood shutters hung on either side of every window. A row of evergreen bushes ran along the sidewalk from the driveway to the front door, obscuring a small porch. A large oak tree rose up from the snow that covered the front yard.
Through the front room windows, a TV flickered and cast a bluish glow. Archie Nimitz, Billy’s father, peered through the window. As Dean walked up to the front storm door, Archie had already opened the main door. “What can I do for you?”
Dean took off his hat. “Lieutenant Dean Wallace. Can I come in?”
Archie’s lip quivered. “This about Billy?”
Dean nodded once. “May I come in?”
“Of course, of course.” Billy’s father stood to the side, holding open the door, which he closed after Dean passed.
Archie followed Dean into the living room. A commercial for Irish Spring soap played on the TV. Emily sat on the plaid sofa. Jordy, a mutt by the looks of it, looked up eagerly at Dean but remained seated next to Emily. She looked up at him, anticipation visible in her shoulders, which rose as she sat straight up.
Archie said, “This is Lieutenant Dean Wallace.”
She nodded. “Hello. What brings you here?”
After years of practice, with a serious but calm tone, Dean told them about finding their son out at the Pratt farm. They had reported him missing on the third of January when Archie had received a call from Charlie McCord, Billy’s boss at the body shop. They had feared the worst, but the shock was still palpable. Archie asked for details, but Dean fell back on the too-early to know anything line, which was true but also allowed him to escape having to describe anything specific.
Large tears rolled down Archie’s face. Some so big they caught at the rim of his glasses and ran sideways, wetting the bottom edge of the lenses. Emily put her head in her hands and leaned over into Archie’s side. He rubbed her back.
“I know this is very difficult, but I have a few questions about when William disappeared.”
Archie nodded once. He clicked off the TV with the remote and slipped it between his thigh and the sofa cushion.
“Tell me about that day, the last day you saw your son,” said Dean.
Archie’s chest rose with a heavy sigh. “I’m not sure what’s to tell. He didn’t get home before we went to bed, and we didn’t see him that morning. We assumed he had gone off to work early. Charlie called around, oh, I think it was nine or something like that. Asked if Billy was coming into work. We told him he had left already. Charlie said he wasn’t there yet. We gave it another hour in case he was doing something and was late. But when he didn’t get to work by ten we started to worry. So I called the police about then. They said to wait a while. So we did. We waited through the day. Waited through dinner. We had a plate set out for him even. But we didn’t eat. We were too sick with worry.
“We called Charlie at seven. Seven that night. Had to call him at home. Billy hadn’t shown up to work at all. So we called the police again. That’s when they sent one of you fellows down. Can’t remember his name. We answered some questions, and we’ve waited ever since.”
Dean knew that his dad had assigned fellow detective Jeremy Guthrie to work the case. “William lived with you, then?”
Emily pulled at her skirt at the knees, picking off imaginary lint. “He didn’t make a lot at Charlie’s, but he made some. And he worked overtime. He worked hard, really hard. He was saving and taking care of us.”
“Had anything been bothering him prior to his disappearing or had he acted strange?”
Archie shook his head. “No. No. He was the same boy he’d always been.”
“He wasn’t married, right? Did he have a girlfriend.”
Emily smiled. “No. But he had been dating that Sarah woman. Sarah, oh what’s her last name. Sarah—”
“Esposito,” said Archie.
“Yes, Sarah Esposito.”
“Dating but not a girlfriend?”
Emily answered with a nodding shrug.
“Did he date anyone else?”
“No, not that I know of.”
“Corey and Josh and Alex,” said Archie with a scornful tone on Alex’s name.
“Last names?” asked Dean.
“Bender, Frasco, and Smith.” He said “Smith” with a bite.
Alex Smith, son of the Clinton County District Attorney, was a regular at the station holding cell for public intoxication and less frequent bar fights. He had spent a month in county lock up the year prior for seriously beating a man.
“I don’t like him,” said Archie.
“He’s a bum. Always getting into trouble. Always dragging Billy into trouble. But he and Billy have been best friends since grade school.”
Dean nodded. “What kind of car did your son drive?”
“Oh, he had one of those fast cars. He worked on it a lot. A seventy-three Dodge Challenger. Canary yellow with a black hood stripe.”
Dean had seen it around town. So that was Billy. But he had not seen it at the Pratt farm. He closed his notebook. “Can I see his room?”
Archie nodded and stood up. Emily lowered her head and started heaving. He looked down at her and put his arm on her shoulder. It was a small, effortless gesture that spoke of years of familiarity and fondness. “It’s down the hall. Last door on the right.” He sat back down, his arm wrapping his wife.
“Can I get you a water or start some coffee?” asked Dean.
Archie shook his head. He left them to their grief.
The hallway led straight off the entryway, and Dean walked it in the dark. He passed picture frames hanging on the wall, but assuredly photos of happier times, in happier days. He passed a bathroom, a closed door that he guessed was to the master bedroom. At the end of the hall, he stopped. The door in front of him was probably for a linen closet. He opened the door on the right. He did not know what he expected. Billy was still living at home so he thought he might enter the world of the teenage Billy, but he was wrong. He flipped the light switch, which turned on a lamp next to the bed. A twin bed with a solid blue bedspread and matching light blue pillows. The wall was an eggshell white. A tall dark wood dresser with five drawers stood in a corner near the closet. On top of it was a bowl with a few bits of change and a matchbook from the Shambles. A photograph in a light wood frame of grade school Billy holding a baseball bat over his right shoulder. Orange t-shirt with Franco’s Pizza spelled across the front. A black wood frame leaning on an easel held a photograph of a dark-haired, olive-skinned woman at a beach. Sarah Esposito Dean guessed.
A small desk with a desk light set against the wall beside the bed. Dean turned on the light and opened the drawer and sifted through the pencils and pens and rusting paperclips. He picked up the photograph leaning on its stand on top of the desk next to the light. Archie and Emily standing together with the Statue of Liberty looming behind them. With Archie’s black frames and leaner build and Emily’s darker hair, Dean guessed this was at least a decade old. Could have been while Dean was humping in the jungle and Billy was only fourteen or fifteen or so. Billy had just escaped the draft.
Dean opened the drawer on the nightstand, where the lit lamp sat. A small Bible—New Testament only—which he flipped through and found nothing. The dresser drawers exposed only clothes. Billy wore jeans and t-shirts. In the closet, two pairs of slacks hung on wire hangers with cardboard tubes. Two shirts with large pointed collars and decorated with some vague floral pattern hung along with three standard dress shirts in white, light blue, and a darker blue.
On the floor, Dean opened a shoe box to find a pair of brown dress shoes. He opened another and pulled out a manila envelope. He opened it and pulled out fourteen wads of cash folded in half and tied with red rubber bands. At the bottom of the envelope, a copy of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and some loose bills.
He picked up The Communist Manifesto. The gray cover was stiff. It looked like the same copy they had found on Billy’s body. The quote “Workingmen of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win” appeared below the title. Published by Charles H. Kerr Publishing. Samuel Moore translation and edited and annotated by Frederick Engels. He flipped through the sixty pages. No marks. Two copies of this book. Was Billy a radical?
The cash totaled nearly twenty thousand—two years’ wages for Billy, Dean guessed. Fourteen bundles of wrapped ten-dollar bills and one unwrapped set. The remains of the rubber band in the bottom of the envelope. Dean contemplated where the money might have come from. Legally, saving. Otherwise, moving heroin or marijuana across the border made the most sense, except that it was across the southern border most drugs moved through. Besides, Zion’s drug problem was not significant—it was there. In favor of moving drugs, New York was only a few hours south. But what do money and The Communist Manifesto have in common, in Zion of all places.
He put the money and the book into the manila envelope and debated what to do. He could leave it. If Billy was a suicide, then this money was his parents’ and no one would care about the book. If, however, this turned into a murder investigation, that was evidence.
He pulled out his flask and took a swig. The warmth of the Wild Turkey rolled down to his stomach. He played it safe and grabbed the manila envelope. He walked out of the room and set the package on the entryway table and then walked into the family room. Archie sat holding Emily’s hands, which were gripped together and on the top of her legs.
“One more question before I leave. You said William worked overtime. Was it a lot of overtime?”
Archie nodded. “All the time. He was working hard. They didn’t pay him a lot there.”
“Did he have any other job outside of McCord’s?”
“No. He worked more than enough there.”
“What were his politics?”
Archie squinted and thought. Emily looked up. “Why on earth are you asking that?”
“Just a question. I found some evidence where we found your son, so I thought I’d ask.”
“What kind of evidence?” asked Archie.
Dean contemplated how to answer and decided to be straight with them. “A copy of The Communist Manifesto.”
Archie squinted again and then his eyes opened and he looked straight at Dean. “I don’t know why he would have that.”
Dean nodded, said his thanks and condolences, grabbed the manila envelope, and walked out into the frigid January air. Can't wait for the next chapter next week? Order your copy ($2.99) here:
Dean recognized the pistol as a Remington M1911A1. The short trigger, the extensions behind the grip, the safety spur all told him it was the later model of the iconic pistol. One he had used himself in Hue and the bush, in places he could not pronounce the name of or had no sense of where he was.
He had Zach photograph the pistol before heading back to the farm for a chainsaw. Dean then picked up the cold gun, dropped the clip, and emptied the chamber. He held the pistol out and down toward the ground, looking into the chamber and through the barrel to ensure it was empty. He popped the bullets out of the magazine. Including the round in the chamber, he had five bullets. Assuming a fully loaded magazine, two shots had been fired—at least.
He stood and held the pistol toward the bloody spot on the tree, putting himself into the mind of the shooter. A few feet away. Up close, but cautious. Kept himself distant enough to avoid surprise.
He dropped the pistol, the magazine, and the loose bullets in a paper evidence bag and set it on a large tarp the officers had laid on the ground outside the clearing.
He looked back toward the clearing. All sorts of potential evidence could be buried under a foot of snow. Moving around without altering the scene was never possible in even the best of circumstances, but in these conditions, it was impossible.
Zach and James had found nothing around the edge so far. James, however, was certain a set of steps—covered by fresh and wind-swept snow—lead from the body northward. James pointed with his ungloved, thick fingers while leaning toward Dean. His breath foul with coffee. The same faint indentations in the pack Dean had seen when he walked into the clearing. With their condition, however, it was impossible to tell if the footsteps walked to or away from Billy’s body.
He shook his head and bounced up and down on his toes. They may have to wait for spring and the snow melt before they could find any buried evidence, and that was at least eight weeks away, and this winter had not suggested any kindness in moderation. He had no way of sealing off the clearing or even monitoring it.
When Zach returned, Dean told him to help Miles. James and Dean walked into the clearing and began a grid search, looking and feeling for anything. The saw made quick work of the tree. While the coroner carefully wrapped the section of the tree with its brain matter and frozen blood, Zach assisted with the grid search. Miles left with the body and headed back into town. Dean, James, and Zach took turns warming up in the Pratt house while the other two searched.
What had happened here? What had brought Billy Nimitz to this clearing? Billy had walked in. Assuming this was not a suicide, had Billy walked in alone? Had someone met him? Was that Billy’s gun or the killer’s?
Dean called off the search as darkness approached. They had found a black flashlight near the body, almost directly beneath the right hand. They bagged it. Other than that and a handful of sticks and some rocks, they found nothing.
* * *
Dean swung the car into the small parking lot to the north of the Shambles, one of the local watering holes. The restaurant and bar had been open since the early twentieth century, surviving two World Wars, the Great Depression, Prohibition, Korea, and Vietnam and now enduring the Cold War.
Designed to look like a log cabin from the last century, the wood had darkened over the years into a deep brown-red. Large glass windows punctured the facade. A paper Open sign with orange lettering hung on the door. Neon lights advertised Budweiser, Miller, and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Dean parked the car, out of sight of the front windows. He took a deep breath, let it out, and turned off the Nova. He stepped out into a pile of slush left along the edge of the lot. The town was quiet that Tuesday evening. People were staying indoors, out of the cold. Still, the regulars of the Shambles or any of its other two main competitors braved the weather.
The front door creaked open, and Dean walked in, closing the door behind him. The bar proper was straight ahead, through the dining room, filled with four- and six-top tables and chairs with faded red cushions. Booths with the same red cushions formed an L pattern along the wall against the parking lot and the front windows. A hostess stand stood unattended by the door with a sign hanging from it: Please seat yourself.
The bar was separated from the dining room by a short, wrought-iron railing. A few bar tables with stools stood along it.
Three families sat at the tables and a half dozen regulars were already seated in their familiar locations at the bar. A waitress entered through the double-swinging door at the far end of the dining room holding two plates. She smiled at Dean. He nodded and walked toward the bar.
Joe Banks, owner of Banks Auto Repair on Elm Street and council man for the third ward, turned around in his stool, saw Dean, and smiled. Using one of his too-thin arms for a person his age, he nudged the man sitting next to him, who was dressed in the full dress blues of the Zion Police Department. That man grunted and raised a glass to his lips before saying, “What’s up son?” Eric Wallace turned around. The Zion Police Department badge spitting rays of light off its polished sheen.
Dean had not inherited his father’s linebacker bulk, a mass waiting to surge forth and crush, a physique that never seemed to waver despite his fifty-two years. Dean had seen photos of his father when he joined the Marines at seventeen. A scrawny kid notorious for stealing apples from Faston’s shelves. The Marines had transformed him, and then the Battle of Okinawa and transformed him again. The Marines had not transformed Dean. Not physically at least.
“Hey, Dad. We need to talk.”
“What I’m hearing out at the Pratt farm?”
“Have a beer and tell me.”
Dean looked at Joe and hesitated.
“For Christ’s sakes, you can talk in front of Joe. He and I just left the council meeting.”
“Ah, that’s why you’re in your blues.”
“Had to give the monthly update.”
Dean pulled out the stool and sat down, his father between him and Joe. He saw his dad was drinking whiskey. Wild Turkey. He was tempted but ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon instead.
On the TV hanging above the mirror behind the bottles of liquor, Walter Cronkite covered the unrest in Iran.
“So it’s true?” Joe turned between Dean and the TV. “A body out at the Pratt farm.”
Dean nodded. “William Nimitz.”
Joe’s eyes opened wide. McCord’s Body Shop was the town competition for Bank’s Auto Repair, though they tended to specialize—Banks more on fixing engines and McCord’s more on the body—to avoid too much overlap. “Billy? Nice kid. I knew his family.”
In Zion, a town just over three thousand, knowing someone or someone’s family was a rather simple matter of getting out and about a bit.
“Details?” asked Eric.
Dean filled them in from the initial call from Wayne through the efforts of the day. Throughout, Eric nodded and asked for a few clarifying details.
“Suicide?” asked Joe, rubbing the underside of his nose.
Dean pulled out a pack of Camels, tapped out one part way, and used his mouth to pull it out completely. He said as he lit it, “Don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” asked Eric.
Dean inhaled deeply, held it, and then let the smoke out in a long exhale. “Exactly that. The gun was close enough to maybe have been used, but maybe not. Seemed a bit far away. Usually in a suicide, the gun just drops right there. Might bounce or something if it falls and hits right. Maybe animals moved it somehow. We don’t know if the gun was even fired. The coroner needs to do some work first. So it could be or it could be something else.” He shrugged.
“Jesus, people’ll flip out if they hear it was a murder.” Joe said the last word in a whisper. “The last time that happened was in—”
“Sixty-eight when Freddie got smashed and killed his wife, Jeanine.” Eric had been the Assistant Chief of Police at that time.
Freddie—Frederick Jarnkow—was thirty-two at the time and a notorious drunk and ne’er-do-well. Jeanine had put up with it for nearly ten years until he pulled the trigger on a loaded gun aimed at her chest. She was buried in Crown Point Cemetery just outside town off Route 23. Freddie was in prison outside Buffalo. When the murder happened, Dean had been in Vietnam several months into his tour witnessing and participating in sanctioned murder.
“Well, we don’t know what it is yet,” said Dean. “We’ll find out and then deal with it.” He looked at his watch: 7:12 p.m. “Shit, I need to tell his family.”
Eric nodded. “If this is a murder, I don’t want the state troopers here. Got it? It’s your case.”
“Okay. We really haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
“And we may not, but no troopers. Clear?”
“Sure. Yeah. The Sheriff’ll be calling too.”
Eric brushed the last fact aside. “I mean, this is what you did in the city down there, so do it here.”
Joe took a drink and looked away. He knew as well as anybody that Dean’s last homicide case in New York City had ended his career and his marriage. Like everyone else in Zion, he knew Dean was a cop in this town far from the big city because of his old man.
Dean hated Zion. Hated it. But he was stuck. He finished off the beer. “Yeah, Dad, yeah. I won’t call the troopers or the deputies.”
Eric nodded once. Joe kept looking away. Dean tossed five quarters on the bar and walked out.
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After the sound of Wayne’s steps disappeared and his final, “Come on Dot,” Dean remained standing where he was but took in the clearing. Perhaps a quarter of an acre, the ground rose at a small angle to a point in the center. Tips of tall, brown grass stuck through the snow, which was as fine and powdery as that in the woods itself.
The wind had blown the snow eastward giving the clearing the appearance of being tilted in that direction, like someone holding a glass of water and leaning it to one side.
He returned his attention to the body and then looked down at his feet before taking a step toward it. A number of prints—both human and animal—were visible around the body, so he decided for the moment to remember where he stepped and not to mess up any of the others, which would prevent his examining the corpse from all sides. But Dot and other wildlife had left tracks around the body so numerous they had contaminated the area in the snow.
He also knew the body was frozen. Snow and ice clutched at the ear lobes and the back of the head. The body had warmed up during the day in the sun, letting the snow melt and drip down before refreezing at night. Other than the smear of brightness in the sky, Dean was not sure when the last clear or partially cloudy day had been. A uniform grayness seemed to have dominated since before Christmas. Temperatures had not broken the freezing point since the day after Saint Nick’s bounty was opened by families across the county.
He did not recognize the man, but that may have been because of the animal mutilation. No eyes and the missing pieces of flesh and the frozen state made visual identification difficult. Dean patted the outside pockets of the victim’s coat. He could not feel anything, but his gloves were thick and the coat thicker. He pulled up on the top panel of the coat, which lifted, but then he stopped himself. No need to rush this. Wait for the assistance. He needed a camera to document the scene. A flood of to-dos and steps jumped up at him from his days in New York City as a homicide detective.
He knew it sounded strange to people, but he was fond of those days. He felt a purpose in life stronger than he had ever felt before and he did not understand that until it was gone. Only then did he comprehend what people meant when they said, “I just want to do something meaningful.” Solving murders had been Dean’s meaning.
Zion’s crime consisted of petty theft, rowdy teenagers, some domestic violence, and speeding. He could not remember when the last time someone died a violent death at the hands of another person in the town.
He stood up and walked back into the woods to get moving again, to try to warm up. He looked northward. Canada was only a half-mile away. From this position, looking across the clearing, he thought he saw what looked to be impressions in the snow leading north. Perhaps footprints partially filled with blowing snow. Maybe not. It seemed that way, but he knew he might be trying to find a pattern where none existed.
He shook his head. He looked north toward Canada and thought back to his days in New York City and wondered how, despite all his efforts, his path through life landed him smack back in the middle of his hometown.
* * *
Dr. Miles Cotton had been the coroner for the county for twenty odd years. He owned the Cotton Brothers Funeral Home on High Street, as well as ran a small family practice next door to the funeral home. Miles, in his early sixties, carried a few extra pounds around the waist, though wrapped in the heavy, brown coat with a faux-fur trimmed hood, it was not noticeable. His large, brown plastic-framed glasses seemed ever ready to slip off his small nose. He kept pushing on the bridge with his right index finger. His wavy light brown hair stuck out along the edges of the hood, which kept blowing back in gusts.
Officers Zach Adams and James Ridge were walking the edge of the clearing as instructed by Dean. Both had cameras and were taking photographs of the larger scene along with specific photos if they saw something of interest. Dean had said to take more photos than not enough.
The coroner stood next to the body in footsteps Dean had created. “Well, I can’t say for certain yet what killed him, but it’s either the bullet through the brain or the cold weather. Tough call, but I guess the people will expect the bullet done the killing.”
Too focused on the scene, Dean missed the joke. “We’ll need to know eventually for when this thing gets to court.”
“Mmmmm. Do you want to help me move him?”
“Sure. Do you know who it is?”
Miles rubbed his chin. “He looks familiar, but I can’t say for sure.” He pointed behind Dean. “Let’s preserve this as best as possible by putting him directly in the bag I brought.”
Dean had ignored the thick, black plastic bag just beyond the edge of the clearing. He had seen plenty of them over the years in New York and even as a cop in Zion for car accidents and suicides. Of the many millions of things he wished he could forget about Vietnam, body bags would be near the top of the list. He also knew he could not forget, ever. He stepped over, grabbed the bag, unzipped it and took it back to the body. Miles seized one end, and they set it down where they had photographed and already disturbed the scene.
Miles walked behind the victim’s head and waved Dean toward his feet. The sounds of rubbing fabric on the coats. The crunch of them stepping in the snow. “The back of his head is frozen to the tree, so let me loosen that.” The doctor grabbed the head and applied a back and forth pressure, rocking the head sideways. What sounded like snapping icicles and a crunch of bark rose up. “Okay.”
Dean lifted the feet, and Miles lifted the body by the shoulders. Rather than flopping legs and arms and a rolling head, the body remained fixed as they set it on the body bag.
Miles knelt down and opened the man’s coat. Dean looked at the tree. Where the man’s head had been, frozen blood and brain matter. Icicles of blood rose up from the tree.
“Here.” Miles handed him a wallet before turning back to the tree. “I want to take this part of the tree back with me.” He pointed to the tree where the man’s head had been attached.
“Sure. I’ll get Zach to borrow a chainsaw from the Pratts.” He looked at the wallet. A black tri-fold. A generic looking brand. The smooth sheen of the leather rubbed down on the edges and corners. Part of the stitching was coming loose at the top inside fold. He opened it. A number of business cards filled the slots. A collection of photographs in clear vinyl sleeves. He skipped over those for now. In the fixed clear plastic window, a driver’s license. “William D. Nimitz.”
“Billy. Ah, I see it now.”
“Billy?” Dean could not abide adult men being called by youthful versions of their name.
“Yeah, Billy. He worked down at McCord’s Body Shop.”
“So you knew him.”
“Knew of him. Saw him when Sally got hit on the square, and we had to get some body work done. Damned insurance wouldn’t cover all of the costs.” Miles sighed.
Dean flipped open the money portion of the wallet. Three dollar bills and a slip of folded paper. He pulled that out. The paper was a torn piece of an envelope, the precise cut of the flap and a thin strip of dried glue, yellowed from use. On the surface that would have faced the interior of the envelope was written in nice flowing cursive, “I love you.” On the backside, a partial address was visible:
, NY 55768
Dean slipped it back into the wallet.
“Well, that’s interesting,” said Miles.
Miles handed Dean a thin book, which could have even passed for a pamphlet. “Found it in the front upper pocket of the coat.”
Dean took two steps back. “Zach, come here.”
Zach looked up, nodded, and started walking back. He and James had nearly completed their circuit around the clearing.
Dean looked at the book in his hand: The Communist Manifesto. What was this? He tried to open it, but his gloves were too thick. He shook his head and bagged it.
Dean took one more step back and felt something under his foot. Hard. Not natural. He lifted his foot up and looked down. Where he had crushed the snow down, he saw the exposed polished black metal of a pistol decorated with snow and slivers of brown grass.
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Lieutenant Dean Wallace turned off Route 23 and onto the driveway that led to the Pratt farm. A gravel driveway that Cole, the youngest Pratt son, had simply driven back and forth in a truck on to crush the foot of snow. The barn, which had been re-painted a cherry red the past summer, stood at the edge of the property as a signpost of civilization. The house, a white three-story built in 1902, was almost lost in the drifts of snow that receded backward to the tree line, three hundred yards away.
The Chevy Nova bounced over the uneven gravel. Dean’s keys jingled against the dashboard and his coat scratched against the leather seat. The snapping sound of the turn signal clicked off. The radio cracked and spit, so Dean twisted the volume knob to low.
The Pratt’s two Ford trucks were parked haphazardly near the house, and as he pulled into what seemed like a reasonable spot, Dot ran up to the car, her tongue hanging out. Dean put the car in park, turned off the engine, and opened the door. The cold rushed inward and slapped his face. The air had the sterile smell that only temperatures in the single digits or lower seemed to bring.
Dot jumped up and put her paws on Dean’s chest, tapping Dean’s name tag and the police logo.
“Hey, girl, good to see you. It’s been a long time.” He petted her head, scratching just below her jaw and toward the back, where she liked it. “Let me get my hat.” He reached into the car and pulled out his campaign hat and pulled it on his head. When he looked up, Cole, his ex-wife’s youngest brother, stood on the porch.
Cole looked the least like the male side of the family. Blond and skinny and tall, he stood a head taller than Dean, which meant a good foot and half taller than his father or brothers. A senior at Zion High School, Cole was a star of the Panthers basketball team. The boy raised his hand and waved before opening the screen door, peering inside, and stepping back out on the porch. “It’s cold. Get inside.”
Dean smiled. “If I go in now, I won’t want to go out there.” He pointed to the woods beyond the barn and the field.
The Pratt’s farmed two hundred acres along the U.S. and Canadian border. According to Wayne, the eldest living Pratt, the farm had been in the family since the 1820s, when Elias Pratt bought two acres after working for three years in the slums of New York City. Dean had listened over the years to Wayne rattle on about the founding of the Pratt farm as if it were some mythological tale equivalent to the Olympians many times.
Wayne stepped out onto the porch. He was bundled up in a heavy, navy coat trimmed with a faux sheepskin tan fur and a John Deere knit cap. He waved and nodded his head, which Cole took as the command to go back inside. Wayne was archetypal for the Pratt male line: dark, nearly black hair, strong cleft chin, average height, and stocky with a five-o’clock shadow that was a several days’ growth for many men. He wore a pair of fur-lined, black boots. He walked down the two steps and onto the small path of pounded snow to Dean’s car. He held out his hand. “Good to see you, Dean. Sorry to trouble you on a Saturday.”
“Good to see you. And no worries.” Dean gripped his former father-in-law’s hand and shook once. “It’s damned cold.”
Wayne nodded and breathed out, which condensed and the wind carried to the side and upward. “Is anyone else coming?”
“No. You weren’t clear why you needed me out, other than I needed to be out here. Do we need someone?”
“Yeah. Yes. You’ll need someone. Probably several.”
“Dot found a body.”
* * *
After Dean called the station to have them send out a couple of officers and the coroner, Wayne led him behind the barn and back toward the tree line. Dot bounded alongside them, kicking up the snow in fine bursts of powder that were caught in the gusts of wind and carried easterly into the snow-covered field where last year the Pratts had grown potatoes and winter and summer squash.
Dean walked beside Wayne despite not having the proper footwear. He cursed himself for not thinking ahead. He also regretted not accepting Cole’s offer and stepping inside to warm himself with a coffee. He refrained from pulling out the flask in his coat’s inside right pocket. Wayne was no teetotaler, but he had always frowned on Dean’s drinking.
The older man walked at a fast clip, and Dean kept pace, but they both kept their heads down until they reached the woods, their gloved hands buried in their coat pockets.
“Those are mine and Dot’s.” Wayne pointed to a trail of dog and human footprints leading through the trees, both to and from. “Dot came home a while ago and was spinning in circles. She didn’t want to play. She didn’t want to eat. She kept running out this way, so I let her lead. I hadn’t seen her so insistent except when I hold her back from retrieving ducks. I followed her, and she led me to a body. So we came back, and I called the station.”
“Did you recognize it?”
“Nope, but I can’t say I looked at it too long.”
“You found it this morning.”
They followed the trail back for about fifteen minutes, walking among the stands of leafless maple, black ash, elm, and green and heavy with snow spruces and firs. The sun had begun to burn through the clouds and was a bright aura in the sky. Despite its presence, it seemed unlikely to alter the bitter cold. Rather, the sun seemed a taunt of its denied potential.
Eventually, they reached a small clearing. The trail ended in a swirl of Dot’s prints from when she had discovered the body and after leading Wayne here. Wayne’s steps were singular. They paused about where they were standing now—ten yards or so—made a one-eighty, and headed back to the house.
The body—a man—leaned against a large chestnut oak as if he had sat down to rest. A dark, hardened splotch fell on the right shoulder of the thick gray overcoat. The man’s right arm rested along his side. His left hand laid on his stomach, as if he had reached for the wound in his head, stopped, and then relaxed. A pool of black, frozen blood had created a depression in the snow at the base of the tree.
Animals had gotten to him before he froze too much. Crows or some bird had gotten the eyes, leaving two dark recesses staring upward at the empty space above the trees. Probably a fox or coyote had gnawed on the face and neck. The coat—tufts of white lining poking through—and jeans were shredded and torn in places. Dried flecks of frozen blood clung to the tips of the threads where the animals had made their attempts.
“You can head back, Wayne. I’ll take it from here. If you can, when the officer and coroner arrive, send them back this way. You’ll need to answer some questions, too.”
“Make sure they know they have a hike.”
Wayne whistled at Dot, and they headed back the way they came. He paused a few feet into the woods. “Oh, and Happy New Year.” He gave a friendly wave and walked away.
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