Authors: Linda Castillo
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural
The news impacts me like a power punch to the solar plexus. Vaguely, I’m aware of her speaking. Something about a possible spinal cord injury. All the while the words I was loath to hear echo inside my head.
The baby passed away two hours ago.
“Chief Burkholder? You there?”
I’m gripping my phone so tightly my hand shakes. I don’t know what to say. I’m not sure how to feel. Guilty because I wasn’t able to save her. Angry because once again that bitch Fate was unjust to an innocent who didn’t deserve it. Hollowed out because I’m too tired to react to any of it.
“Thanks for the update, Cat. You guys keep up the good work.”
I end the call before she can respond. I sit there staring at my phone, my pulse thudding. “Goddamn it,” I whisper.
Up until now I’d been operating on adrenaline. Doing what needed to be done and not thinking about any of it. Suddenly everything I’ve seen—the horrific injuries, the devastating damage, the senselessness of this random storm and the havoc it has wreaked on so many lives—rushes at me, and like so many times before in my life, I rage at the unfairness of it.
I rise abruptly, but I don’t go to the kitchen. I don’t want Tomasetti to see me like this. I don’t want to share this with him or talk to him or let him know how profoundly I’m disturbed by it. I’m a cop, after all. Good or bad, this is part of the job, and if I’m going to continue being a cop, I’d damn well better handle it. Toughen up. Stop caring so damn much.
I’m midway down the hall, intent on a shower and a few hours of sleep, when Tomasetti’s voice stops me. “Where do you keep the glasses?”
I stop, take an instant to settle my emotions, and turn to him. “Second shelf in the cupboard next to the sink.”
He nods but doesn’t go back into the kitchen to do whatever it was he was doing. He’s holding in his right hand the old bottle of bourbon I keep above the refrigerator. A kitchen towel is slung over his shoulder. He’s staring at me as if he just realized I’m bleeding.
“What is it?” he asks.
Not for the first time I’m reminded that he is my equal, not a man who will be ignored or lied to or misled. “I just called the hospital,” I hear myself say. “To check on the baby from the trailer this afternoon. Tomasetti, she died.”
Grimacing, he looks away, uses his free hand to rub the stubble on his jaw. “Damn. I hate it when it’s the little kids.”
I start to turn, but he strides to me and sets his hand on my arm. “Kate, you know it wasn’t your fault, right?”
The nurse’s words churn in my brain.
Possible spinal cord injury.
“She was only four months old. So tiny. Why her? It’s so incredibly unfair.”
“I know.” He motions to the kitchen. “Come sit with me for a moment.”
I muster a smile. “I’m not very good company right now.”
His eyes soften. “I think I can handle it.”
I follow him into the kitchen. We sit across from each other at the table. I wait while he pours two fingers of bourbon into glasses that are slightly dusty. “I hate bourbon,” I tell him.
“Yeah, but it’ll do in a pinch.” He shoves the glass at me.
I pick it up and take two big swallows. The alcohol burns all the way down; the taste makes me shudder. Setting the glass on the table, I twirl it and stare into the amber liquid. “In all the years you’ve been in law enforcement, do you ever wonder if you’re cut out for it?”
“No,” he tells me. “But only because I’m too old and set in my ways to start a new career.”
“Stop making me smile. If it’s not too much to ask, I’d like to feel sorry for myself in peace for a few minutes.”
He picks up his own glass and sips, watching me over the rim. “Are you having second thoughts?”
“Yeah,” I say, injecting a little attitude into the word. “I mean, being a cop is all I’ve know. It’s my identity. Most of the time I love what I do.” I shake my head. “Then something like this happens, and I wonder if there’s something better out there that doesn’t hurt as much.”
He looks down at his glass, swirls the liquid inside. “I don’t know if you’ve realized this, Kate, but it’s the cops who care that have it the worst. The cops that
something. The ones that feel too much sometimes and can’t turn it off. I don’t know if you realize this about yourself, but you fall into that category. You have an inherent inability to disconnect emotionally. Maybe you care a little too much.” His gaze lands on mine. “In case you’re wondering, that’s not a criticism but an observation.”
“I’m glad you clarified that,” I say dryly.
“Look, it’s tough not to get involved. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel that way. Some cases get under your skin. You get pissed off. You get your heart torn to bits. It’s happened to all of us at some point, and it doesn’t mean you’re not a good cop.” He tilts his head, makes eye contact with me. “But it’s a tough row to hoe, Kate. You’re the chief of police in a small town. You have family here. Friends. You care about these people. That’s a lot of responsibility, and you don’t take any of it lightly. Good for the town. Hard as hell for you.”
We fall silent. Around us, the house seems to hold its breath as if in anticipation of our next words, the direction in which the conversation will go. The last thing I want to do is cry. It’s an innately humiliating experience, particularly if it happens in front of someone I respect and admire. Like Tomasetti. But I can feel the exhaustion peeling away the layers of control. The ones that even in the face of heartbreak I can usually clutch together in desperation because there’s something inside me I don’t want him to see.
“She had blue eyes,” I whisper. “She looked at me. This brand-new little person. It’s like … I don’t know … she knew she was in trouble. And she just handed herself over to me. She was counting on me to help her.”
“You did your best. That’s all any of us can do. When it’s not enough, you pick up the pieces and you move on.”
“That’s a good speech, Tomasetti, but sometimes life pulls the rug out from under you. Then what?”
His eyes sharpen on mine. I’m aware of tears on my cheeks, hot and unwelcome. I know I’m overreacting and making a fool of myself. I’m exhausted and overwrought, and had I been a smarter woman, I would have forgone the bourbon and conversation for a shower and bed.
Embarrassed, I rise to leave, but Tomasetti reaches out and stops me. “What are we really talking about here, Kate?”
Something that feels vaguely like panic quivers in my gut. For an instant I consider broaching the subject I’ve been avoiding for a week now. But I’m in no frame of mind. Not tonight.
I glance down where his fingers are wrapped around my wrist and ease away from him. “I’m going to take a shower and get some sleep.”
He releases me but holds me immobile with his eyes. “You know you can always talk to me, right?”
“I know.” I give him the best smile I can muster. “Thanks for talking me off the ledge, Tomasetti.”
“Anytime,” he says.
But I feel his eyes on me as I walk away.
He’d given up baseball practice for this. According to his mom, he was probably going to have to forgo the away game on Saturday, too. Twelve-year-old Josh Pennington loved baseball almost as much as he loved being an Eagle Scout, but his mom had laid down the law: He couldn’t do both. It’s too much, she’d said. You have to choose. Luckily for Josh, his dad—who’d been an Eagle Scout
played shortstop—saved the day and told him as long as he kept his grades up, he could do both.
It was a lot harder than Josh thought. He’d had to get up at 5:00
this morning and be at the school by 6:00, where he met the rest of Troop 503 for the bus ride to Painters Mill. It was volunteer day, and they were going to spend it picking up trash and debris left by the tornado that hit the day before. First stop was a farm—or what had once been a farm, anyway—on the edge of town. Scoutmaster Hutchinson had instructed them to clean up the area, and boy was it a mess. Big trees had been knocked down. Men with chainsaws had left an hour ago, leaving branches and trash and chunks of crap everywhere. Tin shingles and splintered pieces of lumber from the old barn that had been blown down. It was a good thing most of the troop had turned out, because it was going to take all damn day. If they had to camp, Josh was going to miss practice for sure.
His scoutmaster had started two piles: one for deadfall and lumber, which would be burned later; another pile for any type of steel, which would be loaded into a truck and taken to a recycling center. So far this morning, Josh and his partner for the day, Scott, had been concentrating on dragging branches from a felled maple tree to the fire pile. Hopefully, they’d get to have a bonfire later and maybe some hotdogs and s’mores. Mr. Hutchinson was usually pretty cool about stuff like that.
“Hey, Josh, let’s get all them boards over there.”
Dropping the branch he’d dragged over to the bonfire, Josh walked over to where his friend was standing and looked down at the old wooden siding scattered over an old concrete footer.
“Musta been a hell of an old barn,” Josh said.
“Or a big fuckin’ outhouse.”
Both boys cracked up at that. Josh’s mom didn’t like Scott. She called him a smartass and said he cursed too much. Josh didn’t tell her those were the two things that made Scott so fun to hang out with.
“Let’s do it.” Josh bent and picked up a six-foot-long plank. One side had once been painted red, but that must have been a long time ago because most of the paint had faded to gray.
For twenty minutes the boys picked up two-by-fours and busted-up siding and a door that had been split in half, and dragged all of it to the woodpile. Josh was thinking about the bonfire and wondered if Scoutmaster Hutchinson would buy some hotdogs. It wasn’t yet noon and already he was starving.
He tugged a long plank from the collapsed floor, when something round and white rolled out from beneath it. At first, Josh thought it was a rock, but it was a little too round and rolled easily. Too light to be a rock. Definitely not a soccer ball. Dropping the plank, he walked over to it and knelt, rolling the thing over with his hand. That was when he saw grinning skeleton teeth and the black holes of eye sockets.
“Holy shit!” Josh lunged to his feet and stumbled back so fast he lost his balance and fell on his butt. “Scott!”
Vaguely, he was aware of his friend laughing as he walked over to him. “If you’re freaking out over a mouse, I swear I’m gonna tell Missy Hansch, and she’s going to think you’re the biggest pussy that ever walked—” Scott let out a short little scream. “Whoa! What the hell is that?”
“It’s a fuckin’ head!” Josh swallowed a big wad of something gross at the back of his throat.
The two boys exchanged looks. Scott’s mouth was open so wide Josh could see the cavities in his back molars. “You mean like a human?”
“Well, duh. You ever seen a cow with teeth like that?”
Both boys crept closer, their eyes glued to their macabre find. “I wonder who it is,” Scott whispered.
“I wonder why it’s here and not buried in a cemetery or something,” Josh said.
“We’d better let Hutchinson know.” Scott sighed.
“Jeez, I hope we still get to have a bonfire,” Josh said.
* * *
I’m standing in the middle of a street littered with twisted sheet metal, pieces of vinyl siding, a paneled door, and other unrecognizable debris. A few feet away, a flowered sofa that’s remarkably clean sits in the grass near the curb with a young maple tree draped across it. Farther down, a mangled car has been dropped down on top of an otherwise undamaged double-wide. On the lot next to it, someone has pounded a T-post into the ground and raised an American flag.
A dozen mobile homes are crushed as if some drunken giant staggered through, stepping on everything in his path. Several were blown off their foundations. At least two are completely gone, the pieces of which are yet to be found. At the end of the street, a bulldozer pushes debris into a pile that will eventually be loaded into a truck and hauled to the dump. Pieces of peoples’ lives gone in an instant.
Tomasetti and I had risen at the crack of dawn, downed a cup of coffee, and then he’d driven me up to our farm, where I picked up the Explorer. We parted ways after that. Neither of us broached the subject of last night’s discussion, and we didn’t revisit the death of little Lucy Kester.
The American Red Cross, with its iconic red-and-white disaster-relief step van and a small army of volunteers, was already on scene when I arrived, handing out bottled water, serving up hot food, and passing out teddy bears for the traumatized kids.
“Bad as this is, it’s a miracle more people weren’t killed.”
I turn at the sound of Glock’s voice to see him come up behind me. His usually crisp uniform is damp with sweat and streaked with dirt. His trousers are wet from the knee down and clotted with mud.
He shoves a steaming cup of coffee at me. “Thought you might need this.”
“I do. Thanks.” I sip, burning my lip, but it’s worth that pain because it’s hot and strong and just what I needed. “You been out with search and rescue?”
He nods. “No sign of the kid yet.”
“God, I hope they find him. I can’t imagine what the parents are going through.”
“No one’s going to give up.”
I nod. “You know I’ve got you covered with OT, right?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Looking out over the destruction, he sips coffee. “I’da been out looking for him anyway.”
“I know.” I’ve just taken my second sip of coffee when my cell phone chirps.
“Chief.” It’s my dispatcher, Lois Monroe.
“I just took a call from a Boy Scout scoutmaster by the name of Ken Hutchinson. He’s got a bunch of kids out at that old barn on Gellerman Road that got hit by the tornado, cleaning up, and he says a couple of boys found a human skull.”
I nearly spill my coffee. “Is he sure it’s human?”
“He seemed pretty adamant.”
Gellerman Road demarks the village limits on the north side of town. Everything north of the road falls under the jurisdiction of the Holmes County Sheriff’s Department. Everything on the south side belongs to me. This particular property is on the south.