Book Series Binge: Excerpt of Inherit the Bones by Emily Littlejohn
By Crime HQMarch 24, 2020
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In my dreams, the dead can speak. They call to me, in whispers and murmurs, and I greet them by name, like old friends. Tommy and little Andrew. They seem to smile in return but this is merely my imagination; I have no way of knowing what their smiles looked like. I’ve seen photographs, faded black-and-white images, but the pictures are out of focus, and a smile is more than the hazy marriage of lips and teeth.
A smile is the dancing in the eyes, the joy in the face.
When I wake, exquisite sadness overwhelms me for these two souls, whose lives ended in violence thirty years ago. I rise and begin my day, and still, I hear them whisper.
We are the dead, they chant. Do not forget us.
I knelt at the clown’s head. His grin, a scarlet smear, stretched across greasy stage makeup and then angled up toward a wig, electric orange and kinky. He lay on his back, hands at his sides, palms open. Under the portable LED lights we’d set up, the reds and yellows in his checkered shirt took on a fiery glow, as though the fabric was illuminated from somewhere deep inside the boy’s chest.
Inside the tent, the air was still and smelled of stale popcorn and manure and blood. Shadows and gloom filled areas in the space that the LED lights could not reach, would not reach, without a powerful generator.
Outside the tent, it was a hot, dry August day. We’d seen ninety-five on the thermometer before noon. Over the Rockies, clouds like cotton balls dotted the blue skies, cream-colored puffs that teased our parched forests. A few miles from the fairgrounds, popular trails were crawling with hikers and dogs, their enthusiastic paces slowed only by toddling children and overindulgent parents, all oblivious to the newest spectacle at the Fellini Brothers’ Circus.
I squinted up. Chief of Police Angel Chavez stood a few feet from the body, careful to keep his loafers out of the blood that had pooled and thickened beneath the clown. The shoes were brown and Italian and out of place among the horse shit and dust.
The chief looked down at me and sighed.
“Fear of clowns. Coulrophobia. Lisa lost her fourth-grade spelling bee on that word. I had to listen to her recite it for weeks after.
C-O-U-L-R-O-P-H-O-B-I-A,” Chavez said.
I smiled. “How’d she spell it?”
“Two o’s instead of the o and u. Who’s the clown, Gemma?”
“His name is Reed Tolliver. The general manager for Fellini’s, a guy named Joseph Fatone, gave us the ID. Caucasian male, nineteen years old. The injury begins here,” I said, and flashed my pen-light at the gaping tear under the clown’s left ear.
The wound traversed the poor kid’s entire throat, carving a jagged canyon across what had once been a smooth surface of flesh. Reed Tolliver’s eyes were open and when the beam from my penlight caught them, I was struck again by their icy blue color. An arctic shade so pale it looked unreal, like those contact lenses people wear at Halloween.
Chief Chavez sighed again. “Other than the woman who found him, has anyone else been in?”
I stood, twisted to the side and cracked my spine, and shook my head.
A fairground worker had discovered the body two hours earlier. Searching for a box of raffle tickets, she entered the tented storage space and moved through a dimly lit maze of junk and trash: ropes and canvases, signs, nails, empty containers, wadded up fast-food wrappers, crushed soda and beer cans. She found the tickets, turned to leave, and saw the body.
I arrived ten minutes after the call came in; the crime scene techs fifteen minutes later.
Chavez rubbed at the stubble on his chin. These days, the tiny hairs were coming in more gray than black. “What else do we know?”
Fatone, the general manager, had given me little information. He got sick after identifying the body, throwing up all over the front of his polo shirt. I couldn’t handle the smell of the vomit and I let him leave the tent without a full interview.
“Tolliver shows up in Cincinnati two years ago, begging for a job, says he has theater experience. Fatone claims he never takes on kids, but Tolliver had ID and was a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, and they’d just had a clown quit, so…”
“Bullshit. Half these employees are probably underage,” Chavez replied.
I thought about the young men and women milling about outside the tent and decided the chief was right. Most of them didn’t look a day over eighteen. It would be easy for a street kid to fall in with the troupe and find a place for himself. And it would be even easier for the circus to pay a kid less than what they’d pay a migrant worker.
It was what you might call a win-win situation.
“Any family?” Chavez asked.
I shrugged. “Fatone was under the impression Tolliver was a foster kid. At least, he says, there was never any mention of family.”
The chief squatted by the clown’s feet and studied the body. When he stood, his knees creaked and popped. “Jesus. Wait until the press gets word. And the mayor… he’s going to be in my ass tighter than Santa Claus in a damn chimney.”
I winced at the image.
“Doesn’t Bellington have enough to do without getting in our way? You can’t tell me he’s got room on his plate, between chemo treatments, running this town, and keeping his fingers in the pie that is Washington. Christ, he nearly ran the whole operation on that home invasion case a few months back. And that was before he got sick.”
Chavez pointed an index finger at my face and gave me the look. “You just remember, the man’s got eyes and ears all over this valley. The murder of this kid, here at our fairgrounds? It just be-came your only priority. This sort of thing doesn’t happen here.”
“Not recently, at least,” I said under my breath.
I was pleased to be the lead on this, but I didn’t relish the thought of the mayor breathing down my neck every step of the way. Terence Bellington had run his campaign on a sort of idealized return to the 1950s, where family dinners are the norm and neighbors watch out for one another. He thought if things were right with your family then that would translate to the community at large.
Family was everything to him. It was like the Sopranos, or the Medicis, without all the blood and art. I found the man out of touch with reality. In this day and age, the aftershocks of the Great Recession were still being felt. Families were lucky to put dinner on the table and have homes next door with neighbors still in them.
But I kept my mouth shut. Chavez and the mayor had a long history, of which I knew just enough to not want to know more.
I also knew Bellington was a man still grieving the loss of his only son, Nicholas. While hiking with a group of local teenagers, sixteen-year-old Nicky had slipped and fallen off a cliff, high above the raging Arkansas River. His body was never recovered and the mayor and his wife were left to bury an empty casket in a plot they’d bought for themselves.
That kind of loss was hard to come back from. I imagined that kind of grief lasted forever.
The chief lowered his finger from my face to my belly. “How are you feeling?”
I looked down and felt the spark of surprise that hit me every time I saw the expanding dome under my breasts. I was six months’ pregnant. A girl, if the sonogram didn’t screw up and hide a tiny penis in the shadowy, gray imagery.
We called her the Peanut.
“I still can’t figure out why they call it morning sickness when you’re puking every hour of the day, but I seem to be over the worst of it. Now I’ve just got this backache that keeps me up at night.”
In truth, I was happy to trade the vomiting for the aches in my lower spine. I could work through pain; I couldn’t work through near constant runs to the bathroom… or sink… or whatever handy receptacle was available.
Chavez grimaced and touched a knuckle to the small of his own back. He’d been through this with his wife, a sturdy Jamaican woman who’d delivered naturally, and at home, four children in the last ten years. There were rumors she wanted more kids but Angel Chavez had put his foot down, crying he couldn’t survive one more labor.
“Are you up for this, Gemma? I can talk to Finn. You could take it easy and work on some traffic cases…” he trailed off.
I knew he was weighing my skills against the political shit storm we’d hit if we didn’t wrap this up nice and neat for Mayor Bellington. There hadn’t been an unsolved murder in Cedar Valley in thirty years. Bellington’s cronies in the city council would find a way to spin this. Traveling circus, seedy fairgrounds. This wasn’t the Cedar Valley way; this was the Outside World Way.
I was happy to take the challenge. While the scene was messy, the motives could only be so many. My money was on a love triangle; the circus seemed ripe with young things used to hard living.
“No way. My call, my case,” I said. “I’m fine.”
Chavez nodded and walked off. He left through a flap at the far end of the tented space. A cracked and peeling leather strap held the coarse canvas open, allowing one long narrow triangle of sunlight to shine through. Dust floated in the light, sparkly and pretty.
I longed to walk the twenty or thirty feet and step out into the fresh air, but I wasn’t done with Reed Tolliver yet. I grabbed my two-way and called in the medical examiner.
Dr. Ravi Hussen had waited patiently outside while we roped off the crime scene and marked the ground with dozens of tiny colored flags and pins. The CSI team would continue working the scene long after Ravi left with the body. The detail guys handle the minutiae, while Dr. Death woos secrets from the dead. I just try to put it all together and chase down the killer.
She ducked into the tent, pristine in spotless pants, blouse, and heels, a black leather medical bag in the crook of her arm. Behind her were two attendants, Lars and Jeff. Brothers, they wore pale blue jumpsuits with the words “Coroner’s Office” stitched across the breast in fine, red cursive print. They moved in silent tandem, a gurney between them.
Ravi pulled out latex gloves as she approached, snapping them on with an efficiency that said she had done this sort of thing countless times before. Too many times, it seemed; she swore as she took in the blood, and the body.
“He’s just a kid,” Ravi said. “He’s what, sixteen? Seventeen?”
I patted her shoulder. “Nineteen. His name’s Reed Tolliver. I’ll meet you at the morgue. I’m going to stop by the station and run some reports and grab a sandwich. Do you want anything?”
Ravi Hussen shook her head. She motioned to Lars and Jeff. Silently, Lars prepared the gurney as Jeff unfolded a black body bag. He paused to pop a peppermint in his mouth and sucked on it with a steady, squelching sound.
Ravi squatted and pulled a large flashlight out of her medical bag. She said, “I just ate. Some concession guy out there gave me a free hot dog. No mustard, though. Jiminy Cricket, it looks like our killer used a butter knife. This is an incredibly jagged cut, Gemma, did you notice?”
I squatted beside her and paired the weak, narrow beam of my penlight with her more powerful torch. Peering closely, I tried to ignore the blood and gore and focus instead on the edges of flesh. I had seen enough knife injuries to agree with the medical examiner; the skin looked torn, not sliced.
“I’ll know more when I get him in the lab, but I can tell you right now, this was not any kind of flat blade. I don’t even think a hunting knife would leave this kind of damage,” Ravi said. She gently touched the crimson pool below the body, her gloved fingertips sinking into the blood and dirt and dust. “Your killer would have been absolutely soaked in this boy’s blood.”
“How did he manage to leave without anyone seeing him? It’s the middle of the damn day. There’s a hundred people out there,” I said. I stood, my knees screaming.
Ravi stood, too, and shrugged. “That’s your area of expertise, not mine.”
“I can tell you this much. The blood, the destruction on another human being, it reeks of rage. Yet no one saw a thing. That takes cold, calculated planning. Our guy caught Reed Tolliver alone. He had an escape route. He probably brought the murder weapon with him, whatever it turns out to be. What could this poor kid have done in his nineteen years to make someone kill him?” I asked.
“ ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’ ” Ravi quoted with a grim smile. “Shakespeare wasn’t talking about murder but I think he knew a thing or two about the mysteries of our motivations.”
Her quote hung in the air over Tolliver’s body, an invisible shroud. It contained my question, and a killer’s answers, all the thoughts and feelings and ultimate, final action that led to one person taking the life of another.
I made a fresh pot of decaf back at the station and two turkey sandwiches on rye with mayo, mustard, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and red onions. I added a couple of dill pickles for good measure and a stale-looking chocolate-chip cookie I found tucked behind some cans of soup in the pantry. Balancing the full plate and a cup of coffee, I slowly maneuvered to my desk in the back corner. A low whistle filled the room and I turned to see a handful of cops watching me.
Phineas Nowlin leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Holy shit, Gemma. Are you growing a grizzly in there?”
“Screw you, Finn. I’m starving.”
He grinned and something about the way his jaw jutted forward, coupled with his gleaming white incisors, gave him a positively wolfish appearance. I could summarize what I knew of Finn in three important points: experienced cop; lousy boyfriend; general pain in the butt. We’d never dated but I had seen enough of the wreckage he tended to leave behind to feel I had a good grasp on his love life, good enough to apply the “lousy” to the boyfriend. I gave him the finger and ignored the other cops’ laughter as I scarfed down the first sandwich. I slowed a bit on the second, chewing each bite thoroughly. By the time I finished eating the pickles, the room was absolutely silent.
I smiled when I saw the four of them still watching me, their jaws open.
“Do you think one of you could grab me a bag of chips from the vending machine?” I asked sweetly. Sam Birdshead, the newest, and youngest, member of our small police department, gulped and nodded. He was almost out of the door when I called to him.
“Sam? Not the Doritos, hon.”
“Christ. Your ass is going to be bigger than a house by the time this baby’s born,” Finn said. “ Don’t you want to maintain your figure? Maybe get Brody to put a ring on it after all?”
He slid his lanky body out of his chair and joined me at my desk. He sat on the edge of it and as I looked at the manicured black eyebrows that framed his baby blue eyes, groomed as carefully and obsessively as a woman’s, I felt the first ache of acid reflux flood my chest.
“You know, that kind of language could be considered sexual harassment in many work places,” I told him. “But I’ll forgive you, I know you haven’t been laid in what? Six months? Seven?”
I picked up the last pickle and bit it in half as the grin fell off his face. He stalked back to his desk. Hitting below the belt wasn’t my usual style but Finn brought out the worst in me. Part of it had to do with the fact that at his core, Finn was actually more than a decent cop. He was a damn good one. But he didn’t know when to shut up and he walked a moral line that weaved a little too much for my taste. I saw a boatload of talent slowly going to waste.
If I was honest with myself, though, which I try to be, what really bothered me the most about Finn was the power he had over my future.
A few months back, he’d almost cost me my job.
We were partners on a home invasion case, high up in the mountains above Cedar Valley, in a subdivision where houses started in the low seven-figures, and four and five-car garages were the norm, not the exception. It was a burglary that went south when the homeowner pulled a knife; not a great idea when the bad guys have guns. The wife and son managed to escape but the six-year-old daughter was shot and killed by a stray bullet. The bad guys were not especially bright and they were caught a few days later.
There were problems from the start, though, with the whole case. There was a jurisdiction question, as the property line of the house butted up against Avondale County, where the cops are hungry for action. They were first on the scene and one of them, a real sweetheart from Butte, Montana, found cocaine in the master bathroom. He called in his brother, a DEA agent, and by the time Finn and I arrived on the scene, it was chaos. It didn’t help matters that the homeowner was a former Cedar Valley City Council member, close to Mayor Bellington. The wife blamed the coke on a foreign housekeeper long since fired. Other things, important things, began to get covered up.
There was enormous pressure to close the case. In the chaos, though, the evidence collection had been shoddy. It wasn’t anyone person’s fault, just the way things go when you’ve got three agencies duking it out at a crime scene. Just when it looked like the case would be dismissed, new evidence appeared. I couldn’t prove it, but I was certain the prosecutor and Finn colluded together to ensure a conviction. Finn took an enormous risk, both for him and for me; had he gone down on charges of planting evidence, as his partner I’d have gone down with him.
Justice was served but the law was twisted and I was reminded of an important lesson, one that I’d seen time and again but never at such risk to my own career. At the end of the day, no one really cares how you put the bad guys away, as long as you get it done. I hated knowing that at any time, on any case, Finn’s actions might blow up in our faces. That’s the thing about partners; you hold each other’s lives in your hands.
I hit the power button on my PC and waited for it to boot up. Before I headed to the morgue to observe the autopsy, I wanted to write up some notes while the crime scene was still fresh in my mind.
Sam Birdshead returned with my chips and he tossed them to me, then sat down and took out his steno notebook. Sam had only been with us a few weeks, a rookie from Denver, fresh meat. He was better than an intern because we didn’t have to shield anything from him and he was willing to do the grunt work, the odd jobs and the messy stuff. We took turns babysitting him. This first year was critical to the success or failure he would have as a cop. Sam was a quick study. If I could minimize his time with Finn Nowlin, he might have a chance of becoming a halfway decent officer.
I logged into my desktop and waited for the half-dozen programs to load. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sam eyeing the wooden shelves that lined the wall behind me. They sagged with half a dozen large binders, each stuffed to capacity with documents and photographs and topographical maps, and I knew what the next words out of his mouth would be.
“Are those the Woodsman books?” he asked.
Nodding, I opened the word processing program and created a new file. I named it “RTolliver” and added a subtitle with the date and time. The document that popped up stared at me, blank and empty and waiting to be filled with the sad details of Reed Tolliver’s final moments.
“Mind if I take a look?” Sam said. Without waiting for a reply, he reached around me and took the top binder, thick and black like the other standard-issue casebooks we bought wholesale from a distributor out west. The department had been buying them for years. Decades.
I didn’t fault Sam’s curiosity; he hadn’t grown up around here.
When tragedy strikes a small town, it leaves a scar that never heals. Months and years may pass and the scar may fade, but it never goes away. It becomes a part of the town, marking it as different, a permanent reminder of what may have been, what could have been.
The Woodsman murders were as much a part of Cedar Valley’s culture as the ski chalets and hiking trails. You couldn’t go a dozen steps in town without seeing the tattered remains of posters, battered all these years by wind and rain and snow and time. Mostly time.
A few of the posters were still intact, the black headline of “Missing” faded to pale gray, the pictures of the children blurred together so that you couldn’t tell who was who anymore. They were simply the McKenzie boys, which makes them sound as though they were a singing group from the ’50s, except of course they weren’t.
They were Tommy and Andrew McKenzie.
They were cousins, two years apart, with pale hair. They liked chocolate ice cream and Matchbox cars. They rode bikes along the river and chased rabbits with BB guns. They disappeared in the summer of 1985.
Most of what remained of the posters were small corners and narrow strips of paper, the glue and tape pressed so hard to the telephone poles and storefront windows you could feel the panic and urgency with which they had been plastered up.
The disappearance and murder of the McKenzie boys defined Cedar Valley in a way that is hard to explain to an outsider. Perhaps it was the fact that children were involved; maybe it was the fact that the murders were never solved. Unanswered questions take root in people’s hearts and burrow in, rearing their heads up every so often.
You go on, but you don’t forget. Ever.
It happened with the McKenzie boys and it happened again, twenty-seven years later, with the death of Nicky Bellington. Nicky was a little different; there was no crime, no blame to place on someone. He was there one minute and the next he was gone, a quick slip followed by a long fall. But for the mayor, and his family, it was a fact they lived with every day; them, and countless others whose lives have been torn apart in a single moment.
Copyright © 2016 Emily Littlejohn.