Inherit the Bones by Emily Littlejohn is a debut novel and the 1st book in the Detective Gemma Monroe series (Available November 1, 2016).
Secrets and lies can’t stay buried forever in Cedar Valley.
In the summer, hikers and campers pack the small Colorado town’s meadows and fields. And in the winter, skiers and snowboarders take over the mountains. Season by season, year after year, time passes and the lies, like the aspens and evergreens that surround the town, take root and spread deep.
Now, someone has uncovered the lies, and it is his murder that continues a chain of events that began almost forty years ago. Detective Gemma Monroe’s investigation takes her from the seedy grounds of a traveling circus to the powerful homes of those who would control Cedar Valley’s future.
Six-months pregnant, with a partner she can’t trust and colleagues who know more than they’re saying, Gemma tracks a killer who will stop at nothing to keep those secrets buried.
Beautifully written with a riveting plot and a richly drawn cast of characters, Inherit the Bones is a mesmerizing debut from Emily Littlejohn.
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 horseshit 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 penlight 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 became 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 fingertip 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.
Copyright © 2016 Emily Littlejohn.
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Emily Littlejohn was born and raised in southern California and now lives in Colorado. If she’s not writing, reading, or working at the local public library, she’s enjoying the mountains with her husband and sweet old dog. She has a deep love of horror stories, butter pecan ice cream, and road trips. Inherit the Bones is her first novel.