BY J. S. JAMES
This is a novel excerpt. Email the author to buy a copy at js-james-fictionist-at-gmail-dot-com. Copyright is held by the author.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley
Four Months Before Waterfowl Hunting Season
THE STENCH of decay wafted into the patrol car like an insult. Sheriff’s Deputy Delia Chavez fought an urge to roll up the window and hit reverse. The bodies on the porch didn’t factor into the foulness. They were fairly fresh. The odour seeped in off the river, like it always did.
Too late to back out anyway. Deputy Craig Castner was already poking his boxy jaw into the opening, his forearm planted on her driver’s side windowsill. “Wasted trip, Chavez. Suicide pact kinda deal.”
She nodded knowing Cast Iron Castner figured his tough-as-nails act had earned him his nickname, not the super hard lump between his ears.
“Evening, Craig. Mind if I stretch my legs?” With a shove that forced Castner to take a step back, she got out and shut the cruiser’s door.
With his feet set wide in the space between their cars, his thumbs hooked into his utility belt, Castner postured like an oversize turnstile against a background of blue and white flashes.
He’d gotten there first and she was deputy-come-lately, trying to horn in.
“It’s Friday night, Chavez. Don’t you have a truckload of borracho berry pickers to cuff and stuff?”
Delia bit her tongue and took in the river bottom scene. Take his shit. This could be the ticket.
Both pairs of headlights shone on a rock foundation as high again as the first floor of the two-storey wood-frame it supported. Three of the four walls were overgrown with blackberry vines. The dilapidated house sat 50 yards from the Little Lukiamute River — not so little at 60 feet, bank-to-bank. A quarter-mile below, it dumped into the much larger Willamette. Somewhere on the opposite shore, the Santiam River did the same. To Delia, this lowland junction of three rivers dredged up the rot of nightmares.
“Got things sorted out, Chavez.” Every second or two, the strobing lights recast his glower as either comical or garish. “Waitin’ for Harvey and the M.E. to show up and confirm.” Harvey Schenkel was Senior Detective in the Sheriff’s Department.
Delia nodded, scanning a weed-infested yard full of woodpiles and clutter so rusted it would shame a junk dealer. “We have a bit of a wait, Craig. Charlie’s out of state and that leaves just Harvey.”
Charlie Lukovsky was Investigation’s other detective. Running short had become chronic, given a morale-busting, penny-pinching sheriff, a half-staffed patrol unit and a two-person investigations division saddled with a six-person caseload.
“I heard.” Castner’s face was stone. “Some old coffin-filler at that Bethel nursing home kicked it from smoke inhalation. So?”
“So, Harv’s there with FD, ruling out arson and — ”
“And he sends Señorita Bachelor’s-of-Law Enforcement to make sure I snap on my surgicals and preserve the crime scene.”
Too late for either, she figured but said nothing. With six years in grade, she was still Castner’s junior deputy. He often accused her of using her education to jump seniority. In truth, she did lean on her degree. Otherwise, why had she sweated blood to earn the damned thing?
Detective next, sheriff not far down the road.
Castner backswept his arm toward the dark forms at the middle of a sloped porch. “Look, it’s open and shut. Way those two oldies are slumped in their lawn chairs? Way the guns dropped? The woman looks like death warmed over. Her man prob’ly couldn’t stand to outlive her.” He flattened his hands across his heart. “‘Life’s over for us, Sweetie. How’s about we go out with a bang? Ready? On three,’ ka-pow, ka-pow.” He re-hooked his thumbs on his belt.
“Maybe so, Craig. How about we go over what else you’ve found?”
Except for a grunt, Delia got no response. She reached in through her open window, pulled out a flashlight, rubber gloves and shoe covers, and toggled the cruiser’s high beams. With part of her protective wear snapped on, she brushed past Castner’s elbow gates and made it to the front bumper before he tugged at her arm.
“Hey now, woman. You hold up. This is a goddamned waste of time.”
Delia turned and burned a stare into Castner’s hand, then his face. “I guess you haven’t heard. Harvey specifically requested that I do a preliminary. Either we walk through the scene together or you wait here. Your choice.”
Castner backed off, his eyes drops of lead. “Yeah? We’ll see about that.”
She stepped toward the wreck that the pair on the porch had called home. Behind her, the door to Castner’s Crown Vic opened and slammed shut. He was sure to be on the horn to Sheriff Gus Grice.
After all, Castner was Grice’s nephew.
Confident Harvey had already run interference, Delia slipped on the shoe covers and eased her way up a dozen sagging porch steps. Too high for headlight beams to do any good.
The bodies were slouched in opposing lawn chairs as Castner had described, the male in bib overalls, undershirt and a weathered fedora, the female in a faded housedress, one slipper halfway off her left foot. Had there been loving gazes, any sign of them were long gone. The pair had been dead for a day or more, judging by the sallow, waxen skin.
A deer rifle lay at the man’s feet and a large-bore pump shotgun beside the woman’s chair. Delia’s MagLite lit up a puddle of sticky-dry blood beneath the dead man’s torso. Gun cleaning materials and loose 30-06 cartridges lay on a bench next to his chair. Beneath the ever-present river stink, the warm night held a lingering odour of butchery.
The man appeared near seventy, had a face like cracked leather and a tennis ball-size hole in his chest. A cascade of blood, now dry, saturated the lower portion of his bib. A dark ochre pool had hardened on the porch floor, more than she’d expect from a gunshot wound. Delia put her light on his face and her body tensed. His corpse wore a look she’d seen too often. Run-ins with hard men were common in Delia’s line of work, but even in death, this guy pushed a primal button. Like she’d seen him. Someone like him.
The quiver of familiarity passed. She shifted her light to the woman and sucked in air — not at the dark flower around the heart-level hole, but at the impact of longstanding damage. Careful not to touch the body, she teased back tendrils of grey and exposed a recently bruised forehead. The woman’s face spoke less of old age than ongoing abuse — the sunken, beseeching eyes, the discoloured skin, the buildup of calcium deposits on both cheekbones. The scarring from repeated damage and healing. And the silent scream that echoed within the cavity of her dead mouth.
Delia flicked the beam back on the man, down to his gnarled hands. Club-like. Each knuckle aping the rounded end of a ballpeen hammer. Her free hand found the butt of her holstered weapon. Her left shoulder twitched as if a demon had dug in, whispered in her ear. Pull it. Shoot the bastard again. Years of practice breaking up domestic squabbles hadn’t dulled her loathing of abuse as blood sport. She fingered the Smith & Wesson’s release strap — officially her back-up weapon, in practice, her preferred duty sidearm — and flicked a glance toward the idling patrol cars. Castner glared back from behind his dash lights. She let out held breath and forced her hand down to her side.
Castner’s premise — two old, fast-failing fogies deciding they couldn’t live without each other — had dissolved faster than a sand castle in a tidal wave.
She edged deeper onto the porch, spraying light over layered seediness, bringing to mind a word movie critics liked to toss around when they’d seen it all before. The ambiance here beat out that Tobacco Road flick she’d wasted an evening on. Now there was a deputy Castner could relate to.
A screen door hung from a single hinge, the sill worn to a deep groove. Her light travelled over a clapboard outer wall gone without paint so long its weathered wood reflected an eerie, silver grey.
About to step in, she backed up and re-aimed her flashlight along the front wall, down into a narrow space between encroaching brambles and stone foundation. Something blade-like glinted back. She crouched at the side of the porch for a closer look.
Blade was right. It was the longest piece of cutlery she’d seen outside a meat market. A home-fashioned boning knife, slightly curved and slender. Below the handle, the first three inches gleamed. The remaining nine were coated in dark maroon.
Delia returned to the body of the old man. Using a pen point, she unhooked one side of his overall bib and folded it back. Next, she pried up the blood-starched hem of his shirt and exposed a horizontal gash — the main source of the blood puddle. She saw the guy yanking out the blade, flinging it off behind him then staring in shock at the gusher he’d unplugged.
Good for her.
Method evident and motive congealed, Delia pressed on.
She played the beam down the front hallway and stepped past an open gun cabinet ringed with spilled shotgun shells, then through a doorway to her right. No blood spatters, no telltale drops suggested the stabbing or shooting happened anywhere but the porch. The inner walls were steeped in outside dankness. She flicked the kitchen’s light switch and got nothing. She flash-lit a wooden table, scarred and burnt under hard use. Beside a lantern, a lined tablet and Bic pen rested at one end. The closest chair lay upended.
Delia swept the room, over cupboards painted institution green, across Formica countertops, gouged and ripped, yet neat and uncluttered. Her beam traced along a row of drawers, all closed except one. That drawer stuck out at an awkward jaunt, its collection of knives awry. Castner must not have even glanced in there.
She scanned the linoleum floor, worn thin by foot traffic. Spilled kitchen matches littered a pathway ending at a potbellied woodstove with a nickel-plated base, its door ajar. She stepped closer and bent low over one clawed foot where the circle of light haloed a dried stain smaller than the tip of her pinky. The spot was dark maroon, like the puddle under the old man.
She wedged the MagLite into the stove. The door swung open with a rusty screech that jangled her nerves.
Delia bent forward. A crumpled page, the same yellow as the tablet, lay atop the stove’s dead ashes. She withdrew the paper by a corner, teased it open with her pen and read by flashlight. The message appeared hurried, but written by a delicate hand.
Stay away. Willard made me write the postcard he sent you. That devil means to get even for what happened to Je —
Graceful loops flattened into a scrawled line as if the page had been yanked from beneath the pen point. Delia swallowed on a dry throat and straightened up.
Backtracking toward the front of the house, she mentally assembled the events of a last-straw scenario: Devil Man catches Battered Woman writing covertly to someone she knows. Battered Woman’s warning attempt is thwarted. She blows her cork, latches onto the first handle available in the drawer and skewers Devil Man in the gut. Devil Man makes it to a lawn chair, tosses the knife and loads the rifle he’d been cleaning. Committed to finishing what she started, Battered Woman grabs up a new weapon from the hall gun cabinet, loads and pursues.
Back on the porch, Delia aligned herself directly behind the dead woman, her light trained on the body she assumed was Willard’s. Facial crags remained deeply shadowed as if carved into granite.
Maybe they touch off at the same time, maybe not, but Devil Man’s heart-shot drops Battered Woman into her chair.
At any rate, years of suffering were over. End of story.
Then why did it feel like chapter one?
“Told you it was a damned waste of time.” Silhouetted in headlight glare, Castner stood below the porch, his arms locked across a data entry keypad.
Delia came down the steps. Halting on the last, she faced him at eye level. “You sure did, Craig.” She nodded back over her shoulder, toward the porch. “Got IDs on the victims?”
“Now, what d’you think?”
The grip-strengthening ball, always in her coat pocket, got a hefty squeeze. She cocked her head and waited.
Castner’s eyes wavered. He tilted the keypad forward. Lips moving, he read silently off the display then hugged the cranky device to his chest, like a pat hand. “Postman called it in. One Willard Lester Gatlin. The other’s Rose Gatlin. Lived like hillbillies in this river-bottom skunk hole. Annie’s trace pulled up a string of poaching convictions on the old man.”
Annie Cox’s official title was Communications and Dispatch Officer. Unofficially, she covered the sheriff’s butt and kept the place afloat. Polk County Sheriff’s was not the tightest ship in Oregon’s law enforcement armada.
Delia acknowledged his cooperation with a nod. “How about a Robbie? Maybe Robert?”
Castner’s eyes narrowed. Chin jutting, he sighted down his nose. “You find somethin’?”
Delia said nothing. Let him wait.
The muscles in Castner’s jaw bunched as he checked his precious database. “Missing person report filed twelve years back. A son named Jesse Gatlin drowned in the Willamette. Nothing on anybody named Robert.” The keypad disappeared behind Castner’s back. “Your turn. What’ve you got?”
A fresh set of headlights approached the house. A mud-caked Ford F-350 four-by-four rolled to a stop and a lanky frame unfolded from it. Harvey.
“Craig, you got here ahead of me. You go first.”
Delia prowled the property and waited Castner out. If he hadn’t been such a stink-flinger, she might’ve stopped him from making an ass of himself in front of Harvey.
The yard between the back of the house and the river was littered with everything from discarded animal bones to a single-wheeled deer-toting cart and overturned boats, all choked by weeds. Her light picked out an old outboard motor the colour of sea kelp with cursive lettering in faded gold that spelled out Elgin. Her upper arms goose-bumped. She blinked at the déjà vu sensation, there and gone in a flash. Unsettled, she faced away from the mess.
Lowland woods defined three sides of the open ground that sloped toward the river. An ancient weeping willow dominated the fourth, dangling its umbrella far out over the slow-moving current. Her light kicked back diamond-like sparkles between the tree roots. With each step toward the river, the disquiet crept higher, almost to her throat.
It’s only water.
Thirty feet back was plenty. From behind, sounds of a radio dispatch drifted on the night air. Thankful for the MagLite, she narrowed the beam to its farthest reach.
The glitter at the base of the tree turned out to be broken bottle glass, the bark above so chipped and pitted with bullet holes she was amazed the willow had survived.
Farther up, her light picked out a band of discolouration where the trunk went from mud grey to nut brown. Its significance hit with a coldness that traced its finger along her spine. The last flood had climbed several feet above her head. No wonder the house sat on a built-up foundation. Images of angry currents surrounded her on that porch, swirled over its top step to rise above her ankles, drove that chill deep inside. Down to the ends of her toes.
Castner, signaling his exit.
Harvey called to her from the porch. She was up. This was her ticket.
Delia made to move but felt glued in place, slow to tear her eyes from that telling watermark or tamp down the feeling that her fate was at the whim of a river.
J. S. James lives near Portland, Oregon with his family, including Lulu, their “Velcro” Vizsla and furry red exercise machine. James completed a popular fiction writer’s program in Washington but grew up fishing and hunting in Oregon. Like the characters in River Run, he’s encountered the cream and the crud among hunters. Currently, he’s at work on other novels, including a mystery/road book entitled The Long Tail and more in the Delia Chavez series: Like Father, Like Son and Hurricane Hole.