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Authors: Linda Castillo

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural

After the Storm (14 page)

BOOK: After the Storm
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“So, if it wasn’t a coyote or dog, what kind of animal was it?” In the back of my mind, I’m terrified he’s going to tell me human, which would undoubtedly add another layer of creepiness to an already creepy case.

“Interestingly, I just finished writing a paper on livestock and animal predation identification. I believe those marks were made by one or more
Sus scrofa domesticus,
” he tells me. “Or the common domestic swine.”


“That’s correct.”


“I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that. I can, however, tell you that there are very few feral hogs in this part of Ohio, if any. If this death occurred twenty or thirty years ago, chances are extremely low that feral hogs were involved.”

I’m still trying to make sense of the information in terms of cause and manner of death, but it refuses to settle in my brain. “Doctor Harris, the coroner, believes that the hands and feet of the victim were chewed off. Is that kind of injury common to this type of attack?”

“In the course of my research, I learned that most often feral hogs aren’t even looked at as predators with regard to livestock. But they are omnivores, and they will predate young or injured livestock. Typically when feeding in the wild, unlike other predators such as cougars or even bears, they leave nothing behind.”

“So they would consume even bones?”

“It depends on how hungry they were and how much time they had. The jaw of the feral hog is certainly powerful enough to crush bone.”

An unexpected chill sweeps through me. I can’t think of a more unimaginably horrific manner of death than to be consumed alive by a large creature with jaws strong enough to crush bone.…

“In this instance, it looks like only the hands and feet were … consumed,” I say.

“Of course, we have no way of knowing, but if I were to speculate, perhaps the attack was interrupted. And domestic swine aren’t typically as aggressive as their cousins, the javelinas. That said, if domestic swine are left without food, they will certainly consume whatever food source becomes available in order to survive. In fact, there was a recent case in Oregon in which an elderly farmer went out to feed his hogs. When he didn’t return, his family went out to check on him. The only thing they found was his watch.”

*   *   *

The weight of Nelson Woodburn’s words follows me into the station. I’m unduly relieved there are no media present. It’s only when I notice my second-shift dispatcher at her workstation that I realize business hours have long since passed. Apparently, this story isn’t sensational enough for anyone to be setting up tents. Yet.

“Hey, Chief,” Jodie says cheerily.

“Hi.” I cross to her desk. “You up to doing some research for me?”


“Draft an e-mail to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. I need the names and contact information of every farmer in Holmes County who raised hogs from 1982 through 2005. Send it so they have it first thing in the morning. I’ll follow up with a call.”

She plucks a pen from her desk and jots my instructions. “I’ll get right on it.”

“I also need a list and contact info for all large-animal veterinarians in Holmes County who were practicing during that same time frame. Copy Lois and Mona on everything because I’m probably going to get them involved as well.”

“Sure.” Her brows knit, and she gives me a questioning look. “Is this related to those remains, or are you working on something else?”

“I’ll let you know the instant I find out.”

*   *   *

Once I’m behind my desk, I call Herb Strackbein, who tells me hogs have never been raised at the old barn on Gellerman Road. His father raised cattle years ago, but never had the proper fencing or facilities for hogs. I’ll double-check his claim in the morning once I’m able to get in contact with the Department of Agriculture. For now, I have no reason to believe he’s lying.

I spend an hour going over the files of the six missing men again, this time looking for any connection to farming or farm animals. Twenty-two-year-old Mark Elliott had just graduated from the College of Wooster and was newly engaged to his high school sweetheart. A young man just starting his life. No criminal record. No warrants. No connection to hogs. Thirty-five-year-old Raymond Stetmeyer, father of two young children, was married to Silvia Stetmeyer, an administrative assistant in Millersburg. Again, no connection to farming or farm animals. Thirty-one-year-old Ricky Maitland, no children, married to Gladys Morrison of Berlin, who remarried just last year. Nothing. Twenty-year-old Leroy Nolt. His is the only family I haven’t yet spoken with, but a glance at the wall clock tells me it’s after 10:00
Too late to make the call tonight. I’ll need to pull employment records, but as far as I can tell from the information I have, none of the missing have any connection to farming or farm animals.

I’d told Tomasetti I’d try to be home in time for dinner. Not that he believed me; he knows I’m snowed under with this case, and he’s okay with that. But I’m not being completely honest with myself. Or him. The truth of the matter is, I’m avoiding him. Tomasetti is an astute man; he knows I’m preoccupied with something. I’m terrified he’ll look at me and somehow know. I have no idea how he will react to the possibility of my being pregnant.

The smart thing to do would be to stop by the drug store and buy a pregnancy test. At least then I’ll know what I’m dealing with. Chances are this missed period is just a temporary manifestation of stress or diet.

Not allowing myself to take the thought any further, I gather the file, shove everything into my laptop case, and head for the door.

*   *   *

Forty-five minutes later, I arrive at the farm and let myself in through the back door. Tomasetti left the light above the stove on for me, which tells me he’s already gone to bed. I cross the kitchen and see he left a note next to the coffeemaker.
Hi, guy.
Next to the note is a foil-wrapped chocolate Kiss. It’s a silly thing, but it warms the cold knot of fear in my gut. It gives me hope that everything is going to be all right, no matter what the outcome of the test.

I go to the guest bedroom I’ve set up as an office and set down my laptop case. Kneeling, I dig inside and pull out the pregnancy kit. I feel like a teenager sneaking a pack of cigarettes into the bathroom as I tuck the box into my shirt and take it to the half bath downstairs. It takes me several minutes to figure out how to use it. I spent a couple of extra dollars for the digital kind. It’s pretty much idiotproof, and the results only take two minutes.

I take the test and set the stick on the counter next to the sink. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror as I wash my hands. A pale, worried-looking woman stares back at me. “You’re not pregnant,” I tell her firmly. “It’s just stress. Crazy schedule. You need a vacation.”

But I can’t ignore the butterflies fluttering in my stomach or the way my mouth has gone dry. I don’t want to look down at that tiny oval window.

I force my gaze to the test stick. I’m expecting relief. A moment I’ll share with Tomasetti later and we’ll laugh our asses off. The floor seems to drop beneath my feet, when, instead, I find myself staring down at that little oval window and the word
stares back.



I arrive at the station a few minutes after seven. I managed to avoid Tomasetti this morning, getting into the shower while he made coffee and then rushing out the door while he showered. He’s probably wondering why I didn’t at least touch base with him before I left, but there’s no way I could look him in the eye without his knowing something’s wrong.

I’m usually pretty good at compartmentalizing my life, doing my job without letting personal matters interfere. But I didn’t sleep much last night. The reality of what I’ve let happen is like a hammer, pounding incessantly against my brain. This morning, I’m sick with worry. I don’t know if my jittery stomach is from the pregnancy or the raw nerves that came with confirmation of it.

“Morning, Chief.”

I enter through the front door to see Mona standing at the dispatch station with her headset on. The Black Keys belt out “Tighten Up” a little too loudly. I’m inordinately glad for the normalcy of the moment. A sense of stability and control washes over me, and I’m reminded that the world, that my position as chief of police, is much larger than my own problems. Women have been having babies since the beginning of time. I’ll get through this. Tomasetti and I will deal with it. For now, I have to set it aside and concentrate on my job.

“Hey, Mona.” Feeling calmer, I cross to the dispatch station and pluck pink slips from my message slot.

I scan them as I walk to the coffee station. Most are from media outlets wanting an update on the remains. There are two from Vern Nolt, the father of Leroy Nolt and the only family member with a missing loved one with whom I haven’t yet spoken. Anxious to talk with him, I fill a mug with coffee, unlock my office, and slide behind my desk. While my computer boots, I make the call.

“This is Vern Nolt.” The voice on the other end of the line has the froggy, slightly shaky quality of an old man.

Before I’ve finished identifying myself, he interjects, “Did you find my son? Did you find Leroy?”

“I don’t know,” I say quickly, not wanting to get his hopes up only to crush them if the identification process doesn’t pan out. “Mr. Nolt, there were some human remains discovered here in Painters Mill. I’m talking with all the families in the area who’ve reported family members missing. I’d like to ask you a few questions if you have a moment.”

“Of course I do.”

I pull out my notes on the missing men from Holmes County and begin by verifying some basic information: name, age, the date of his disappearance. And then, “Mr. Nolt, do you know if your son ever had a broken arm?”

A quick intake of breath hisses over the line. Then the sound of a palm placed over the handset. He doesn’t respond immediately, so I give him a moment. “Mr. Nolt?”

“Leroy worked at Quality Implement for a couple of years,” he tells me. “There was a forklift accident. Pallet tipped over and a huge auger fell on him, broke his right arm nearly in half.”

A sort of dark excitement surges. The kind that comes when I know a case is about to break. “Did your son have to have surgery to repair that broken arm?”

“Doctor Alan Johnson in Millersburg operated a couple of days after the accident. Had to wait for the swelling to go down. He put in some kind of pin.”

“Mr. Nolt, I’d like to speak with you in person. Would it be all right if I drove over?”

Another short pause. The sound of a shuddery exhale.

He knows,
I think.

“I’ll let my wife know you’re coming,” he says and ends the call.

*   *   *

Vernon and Sue Nolt live in a nicely kept Craftsman-style home across the street from Sutton’s IGA. I pull onto the asphalt driveway and park beneath the shade of an elm tree. Ahead, I see a detached two-car garage and a yard that’s fenced with white pickets. A geriatric-looking mutt of dubious pedigree barks at me between the slats of the fence when I get out of the Explorer.

I’m ascending the concrete steps to the front porch, when the door swings open. An elderly man shuffles out. His eyes dart to mine, and in that instant I see a combination of anticipation and hope, and I know that after thirty years of not knowing the whereabouts or fate of his son, he’s ready for the mystery to be solved, even if the news is bad. On his heels is a plump woman of about seventy. I don’t realize they’re Mennonite until I notice her print dress, the blue-and-white-checkered apron tied at her waist, and her head covering.

“Mr. and Mrs. Nolt?” I cross to them, my hand extended, and introduce myself. “Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice.”

The elderly man’s hand feels quivery and frail within mine. “I’m Vern.” He steps aside to introduce his wife.

She’s already moving around him, her eyes seeking mine. “Please tell us. Have you found him?” She looks down at my extended hand. As if it’s an afterthought, she gives it a single, weak shake. “Did you find Leroy?”

“I’m not sure yet, but there were some human remains found here in Painters Mill. I’d like to talk to you about your son.”

They stare at me, hanging on my every word, and I remind myself that I’m talking about a son they’ve hoped would return alive for thirty years now. “Mr. and Mrs. Nolt, can we go inside and talk?”

“Of course. Where are my manners?” The woman wipes her hands on her apron and then opens the door. “You can call me Sue. I made some iced tea. Come on inside.”

Vern motions me through the door, and I follow her into the living room. The interior of the house is murky and cramped but not unpleasant. Dust motes fly where sunlight slants in between lacy curtains at the front window. The aromas of vanilla potpourri and recently baked bread add a comforting countenance. I didn’t know my grandparents, but if I ever imagined walking into their home, it would have been like this one.

I motion toward the Amish quilt hanging on the wall above the sofa. It’s heirloom quality, a stunning combination of mauve and cream and black with the iconic eight-point star in the center. “It’s beautiful,” I say. “Did you make it?”

Sue’s smile is a sad twisting of lips. “It was a birthday present from Leroy a few weeks before he disappeared. I’d been looking for one with those colors.” As if catching herself drifting back to a past that’s long gone, she clucks her lips. “I’ll fetch the tea.”

Vern asks me to sit, so I take the brocade chair adjacent to the coffee table. Looking nervous, he eases himself onto an overstuffed sofa that’s crowded with crocheted pillows, and I wonder how many nights his wife stayed up late, making those pillow covers, wondering where her son was, if he was alive, if she’d ever see him again.

“You have a nice home,” I tell him. “How long have you lived here?”

“We bought it back in 1975.” He smiles, and I notice that his teeth are still straight and white. “Leroy was ten. The first thing we did was build the tree house in the backyard. I can’t tell you how many nights he spent out there with his friends, telling ghost stories and looking at the naked ladies in my
National Geographic
with the flashlight.”

BOOK: After the Storm
12.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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