The Midnight Road: Chapter 3

Be sure to check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!

 

 

Lutz twisted the steering wheel violently, and the ponderous car screeched its resistance to such treatment, fishtailing wildly across the road in long, snaking arcs before he was able to get control.

Heart hammering from the near miss, the Sheriff pointed the car at the shallow gravel shoulder and pulled over. His hands were clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, and it took a moment of effort to release them. He killed the engine and for a long moment the only sound was the quiet ticking of the engine as it cooled. Ahead of this curve, the trees would open on side at the beginning of the McGuire farm.

“Sorry about that guys,” he finally managed to say. Officer Clarkson was looking at him with pure astonishment, as if he had just seen a mountain lion in the farmlands of Iowa. In the rearview mirror, Billy met his gaze with a dark look as the two officers unclipped their seatbelts and stepped out into the humid summer night.

Immediately, something felt off, and the flesh on Lutz’ arms crawled. He motioned for Clarkson to join him, and released Billy from his cage in the backseat. Crossing to the trunk, Lutz pulled out the rifle and handed it to Deputy Clarkson. He grabbed the shotgun and two high-beam flashlights before closing the trunk. With a nod of understanding, he passed the shotgun and one of the flashlights to Billy Hudson.

All of the boys and most of the girls in this region learned to shoot before they were ten years old. Knowledge of firearms and firearm safety was deeply ingrained in a community where almost everyone’s deep freezers were stocked full of fresh venison every autumn. Lutz felt no hesitation about handing the shotgun over to the younger man. The kid had sense, even if he was overly fond of drag racing.

His driver’s side door was still open; Lutz reached in to turn off the headlights and then thought twice. The dim light was all they had beside the heavy Maglite he now carried opposite his service pistol. He left the cruiser’s lights running, closed the door to the car with a heavy thud, and the three of them turned to survey their surroundings.

That odd feeling was still creeping up the back of Lutz’ neck, but it was Billy who was able to give voice to his unease. “All the bugs are quiet,” the young man whispered. Lutz listened carefully and realized he was right.

This was high summer, the air was thick and humid and it should have been filled with the chirps of insects. The nightly concerto of katydids, cicadas, and crickets was usually enough to drive a man half-mad but here there wasn’t so much as the buzz of a mosquito. The only sound was the quiet tapping of the men’s boots as they began walking north towards Bud McGuire’s home.

The light from the headlights didn’t failed to penetrate the gloom ahead, and Lutz clicked on the high powered Maglite. Next to him, Billy shouldered the shotgun, his smaller flashlight pressed with one hand under the barrel. Deputy Clarkson was at the ready with the long Winchester rifle at his shoulder. Normally used when a deputy needed to put down a wounded animal on the side of the highway, Lutz was immensely grateful just now for it’s solidly reliable presence.

Lutz swept the flashlight in slow, careful strokes from one edge of the road to another. “Where did you say you saw this arm now, son?” he asked Billy.

“Umm…a little farther ahead, I think,” Billy’s voice came from his right. “Maybe another three hundred feet or so.”

Lutz continued methodically sweeping his flashlight from side to side. At the edge of the beam he could make out the burned rubber made by tires suddenly skidding across the road. The tracks continued up the road, fading away into the darkness.

The men were now far enough away from the relative safety of the car that it’s dim headlights could no longer assist in penetrating the gloom ahead. The beams from the two flashlights seemed to grow smaller and fainter as the walked in loose formation up the road.

Abruptly, the burnt rubber skids made by Billy’s tires came to an end about six feet in front of them. The three men all stopped together, staring dumbfoundedly ahead. In the beam of Billy’s flashlight, on the edge of the road as it faded into scrub grass, was the arm of a human female. It had been torn crudely at the elbow, and bloody strings of meat hung from one end. The other end was wearing a thin gold wedding band around the ring finger. The nails were chipped and embedded with dirt.

All the blood in his body seemed rush to his head, and Lutz could feel his heartbeat pounding sickeningly in his temples. Deputy Clarkson gave a violent heave and turned to vomit quietly into the ditch on the other side of the highway. Lutz squatted down on his haunches near the severed arm, and reached for the ballpoint pen he kept in his shirt pocket. Turning his head to take one more breath of unfouled air, he used the pen to lift one of the strips of flesh away from the wound. It had been almost shredded, and for one horrifying instant the image of Lutz’ late wife’s venison jerky came to his mind. Sour bile rose in his throat, and he fought against the urge to puke.

What animal could do this to a person? What animal would bother?

To his knowledge, there had never been a reports of bear in this area, and any wolves had been killed off generations ago. Coyotes would take a chicken or a duck once in awhile, but Lutz couldn’t recall a single instance of them going after a small child, let alone a grown woman. Besides, these weren’t the teeth or claw marks of a coyote. Whatever had done this had had much longer teeth.

A sudden snap from the forest on his left.

Lutz’ blood turned to ice in his veins. Clarkson heard it too. His rifle was back at his shoulder in an instant and he took a hesitant step towards the looming blackness. Next to him, Billy Hudson was utterly rigid, his fingers deathly white around the grip of the shotgun.

Another snap in the darkness. Had that one been closer?

He quickly swung the beam of the flashlight away from the grisly scene on the road, in the direction of the woods. It illuminated skeletal pine trees and waist-high thornbushes. The light shone eerily on the narrow trunks of the pines. With their ladders of broken branches, the trees became rows of menacing spears waiting to impale unwary travelers. The unnatural silence of the woods was oppressive.

Lutz peered into the darkness, willing the shadows to separate into shapes. He focused on the edges of the light, where it faded into a thick and impenetrable blackness. He thought he could see shapes in the dark, looming patches of shadow that were somehow blacker than the night. A hulking figure dancing just out of his field of vision.

But nothing came charging at them from out of the woods, and after a long moment Lutz relaxed his posture. Telling himself unconvincingly that it had been a deer, Lutz turned back to Billy. They now had evidence of a death, but not necessarily evidence of a crime. There was still work to be done before they could all go back home. “Did you say there were more bodies?” he asked.

Billy hesitated for a long moment and then replied, “Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. Just… just come see for yourselves.”

Clarkson looked bewildered by the answer, but rolled his eyes and shrugged, “Let’s get this done, Sheriff. This place gives me the fucking creeps.”

Hearing his deputy admit his apprehension somehow served to boost Lutz’ own confidence. The forest was now at his back, and he felt watchful eyes on them but he shook off his nerves. Nodding affirmation at Billy, he confirmed, “Let’s get this the fuck over with and go home.”

Leaving the lone, pitiful arm on the side of the highway, the men now began skirting the edge of the cornfield that bordered Bud McGuire’s home. The corn, which should have towered over them at a full height of sixteen feet, was sickly-looking and scrawny. This actually offered Lutz some comfort, the weakened stalks of the malnourished crops made it easier for the beam of his Maglite to pierce the fields.

Looming ahead, set back nearly a quarter mile from the edge of the highway, was the McGuire house. At first, it looked much the same as when Lutz had paid his visit eight years previously, but the disrepair of the home became increasingly apparent as they turned onto the loose gravel driveway.

At the start of the path was a rust-eaten mailbox, leaning precariously on its weathered wooden post. The McGuire’s had obviously failed to keep up with their correspondence. He wondered idly how Bud took care of things like electricity and plumbing if bills never came to their house.

The main house must have been truly lovely in some bygone age. It’s frame was a clean and crisp Colonial, with gabled windows and a large wrap-around porch. But the clean lines were obscured by a sagging roof and missing shutters. The porch was also drooping, with a dilapidated wicker couch sitting neglected to one corner. What must once have been cheerful white paint and blue trimming was now gray and peeling in great strips from the wood. The whole house had an air of exhaustion, like a once-proud old horse that no longer had the energy to hold its head up in the traces.

The front door was hanging open by one twisted hinge.

As the men approached Lutz held up one hand curled into a fist as a signal to hold position.His earlier jitters had cleared away, replaced by the curiously detached feeling he always felt when was approaching a crime scene that sure to be unpleasant. Normally it was a high school kid who partied too hard and wrapped his car around a tree. Or a trucker who came  home drunk and decided to put his wife in the morgue. After thirty years in the sheriff’s department, Lutz was no stranger to the violence inherent in men.

It wasn’t a man that tore off that child’s arm, though.

As if to confirm this chilling thought, Lutz shone his flashlight on the broken door of the house. Scratched deep into the wood, deep enough that the door was nearly splintered into pieces, were four parallel gouges running from the top of the doorframe to the bottom corner in one long, unbroken arc. The aluminium doorknob was twisted out of shape and hung uselessly to one side.

Beyond the door lay only more blackness.

***

Click here for Chapter 4!

The Midnight Road: Chapter 2

If you haven’t had the chance, be sure to check out Chapter 1!

 

Chapter 2

The twenty miles from the sheriff’s station to the McGuire farm passed in almost complete silence as the mostly darkened buildings of the small town gave way to the entirely darkened farmland that made up ninety percent of the area. Endless acres of corn and soybeans framed every small town in the county, with up to forty miles between communities. Lutz had spent his entire life in Richmond county, and for him the horizon would always be where the sky met the fields.

This limitless expanse of cultivated land was interrupted, rarely, by spotty patches of trees and scrub brush. Most of these “forests” were barely twenty acres wide, except the Iowa River Nature Preserve, which sprawled over nearly thirty miles of land on the western side of the highway. On the eastern side of the road was Bud McGuire’s farm.

Those woods had always given Andrew Lutz the creeps. It was an odd, silent place of skeletal pines and briar bushes, offering none of the secret trails and trickling streams of the patches of woods he had enjoyed as a boy. It was also unused by hunters, even in a region choked with hungry deer they had no desire to chew on the tough pine bark offered by the trees. Whatever “nature” the state government was intent on “preserving” was an open question.

The tiniest sliver of  waxing moon shone in the sky, not providing enough illumination to make out anything beyond the orange beam of the cruiser’s headlights. Each man was lost in his thoughts. Sheriff Lutz had conveyed the broad strokes of the matter to his deputy as they had pulled out of the station. At least one casualty. Likely more. Reports of a large animal. Possibly a mountain lion.

“A mountain lion, sir?” Officer Clarkson had asked in complete bewilderment when Andrew had told him. “Have you looked around, Sheriff? You see any fucking mountains? If we are going out to the Bud McGuire’s house, sir, you know as well as I do what we’re going out there to find.”

Yes. Lutz thought as he pulled onto the pitted asphalt of Highway 99.

I know exactly what we’re likely to find.

His hands itched for a cigarette but he pushed the urge aside. He allowed his thoughts to drift to Bud McGuire and tried to ignore the sinking feeling of dread in his stomach.

 

****

 

Andrew Lutz had been in his mid-twenties when he had first encountered Buddy McGuire. He had been out on patrol one afternoon, driving down the quiet streets of the town when he had seen a young boy in an abandoned lot, squatting in the dust next to a dog. The dog was lying on its side. Concerned that a beloved pet had been struck by a car, Lutz had parked and approached the pair.

The dog, a brindle mutt with wide, sad eyes was convulsing in the dust, panting shallowly as the young boy watched. Buddy could not have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, but he showed not a flicker of emotion as he watched the dying animal.

“Is this your dog, son?” Lutz had asked kindly.

Buddy hadn’t answered. Most kids were unfailingly polite to police officers, as least back in those days, but Buddy simply ignored Lutz and continued watching the dog as it’s breathing became slower.

“Do you know what happened to this animal?” Lutz tried again.

Still nothing. But then Lutz had noticed a sheet of butcher’s paper balled up at the boy’s feet. Looking closer, he could also see scraps of some kind of ground meat. A picture of what had occurred here was beginning to form in his mind.

“Did you give poisoned bait to this dog, boy!” Lutz demanded, raising his voice for the first time.

At his shout, the boy finally turned at met Lutz’ eyes. The blank, expressionless look on the face of the child caused the officer to take a step back in surprise. There was no fear, no hint of intimidation at being addressed by a stranger, a policeman at that. There was nothing reflecting back in Buddy McGuire’s eyes.

Shaken, Lutz had reported the incident to then-Sheriff Bradley. Bradley had hooked his thumbs into the sagging waistband of his trousers and pointed out that it had been a stray animal, not a cherished pet. It was a terrible death to be sure, but local farmers often shot or poisoned strays that wandered onto their properties. The mutts would occasionally kill chickens, ducks, or even begin menacing the farmer’s children as they played outside. It was a necessary evil; one the boy had probably learned from watching his own father.

Lutz had gone back to the abandoned lot later that evening and buried the animal himself.

Over the next ten years, Buddy McGuire made a name for himself as one of those boys who are just really good at hurting people. When he was in sixth grade, an upperclassman had teased Buddy about his dirty, unkempt hair. In full view of the students and teachers, Buddy had walked over to the older boy, grabbed his wrist, and twisted until bones crunched.

 

Bud McGuire had been expelled in tenth grade, and was just in time to be swept up by the Vietnam War two years later. No one quite knows what he got up to over there, but when he returned to the town in ’75, it was as if a blanket of rage had settled itself on Bud’s shoulders. His father had died of cancer while he had been deployed, and Bud took over his family’s hundred or so acres. This small farm was barely have been enough to keep food in their bellies and clothes on their backs, but it had been in the family for three generations.

The soil, that thick black Midwestern soil, failed Bud McGuire. Corn, beans, wheat, every crop he planted seemed to wither and die at his touch. His fellow farmers prospered, the rich soil of the land sprouting healthy rows of strong green corn seemingly overnight.

Despite all of this, Bud somehow managed to land himself a wife. In the fall of 1977, a mere fifteen months after Bud came back from the war, a pale slip of a girl was seen hanging laundry on the front lawn of the McGuire farm. She had long, mousy brown hair and wide blue eyes that were forever fixed on the ground. Who she was, where she came from, was anyone’s guess. This would have maddened the women of the community, all of whom were obsessed with lineage, but no information on the girl could be found. She was just there one day, silently feeding chickens or beating rugs. She never came into town. Never spoke to anyone.

The second time Andrew Lutz encountered Bud McGuire in a professional capacity had been about a year after the arrival of this mysterious woman. The locals had thrown their hands up in exasperation; all of their kind gestures and housewarming casseroles had been met with a closed door. The McGuire’s had never been seen attending any of the many churches in the community, nor had the young woman appeared at the supermarket where the wives could pounce on her.

The initial confusion had given way to righteous indignation. Who did they think they were, holed up all high-and-mighty on their plot of land? Did the McGuires’s think they were too good to associate with their peers?

But as the weeks dragged on and still there was no sight of the young woman in town. Winter set in, and she was no longer seen outside by the few people who drove on the old county road. The offended feelings of the townspeople began to shift into concern. Was she okay? After all, Buddy had always had quite the temper, even before his years in the jungles of Vietnam.

Finally, in the spring of ‘78 the wives nagged their husbands until the husbands had called the city police. The police in turn, called the sheriff’s department to tell them that someone needed to go check on that girl, to soothe the nerves of their worried neighbors. Lutz had been the junior deputy on duty at the time, and had set off up Highway 99 to the McGuire farm.

Barely three miles from the floodplains of the Mississippi River, the ground in March was a quagmire of mud that had sucked at Lutz’ boots as he stepped out of the police cruiser. The house was a traditional farmhouse, two stories with sweeping gables that rose to create a third story in the attic. A large, wraparound porch upheld by thick wooden beams led up to the entrance. Lutz had looked around warily before climbing the stairs to the porch. He had knocked twice. No answer. This had been expected, and Lutz turned away from the house and went instead around the back, where sure enough a petite young woman was sorting fresh spring herbs into an array of bowls.

She had bristled like a startled cat when she caught sight of him, and Lutz had held his hands in front of him to show he meant no harm. “Good morning, ma’am. I’m Deputy Lutz, I’m with the sheriff’s department. Can I ask your name?” he spoke in a low, gentle voice, taking very slow steps towards the girl.

The girl’s eyes had been sky-blue as they looked into his with an unreadable expression.

“April”

The word had been little more than an exhale of breath, and Lutz had been about to ask her to repeat herself when the girl’s eyes had focused on something behind his shoulder and widened with alarm.

Lutz had turned to see Bud McGuire standing a few paces behind them. His black eyes had been just as blank and soulless as when he had gazed upon that dying dog. Leaning with casual menace on his shoulder, pointed at the sky, was a double-barreled shotgun with a long, sleek muzzle.

Lutz had thankfully resisted the urge to startle at the sight of the burly man. “Morning, Bud,” he said. With slow deliberate movements, Lutz had moved his hand to the pistol hoisted at his hip and thumbed open the clasp.

Bud had noticed, as he was meant to. His mouth twisted in a scowl, he had replied, “You’re not welcome here,” he had said in a flat, toneless voice, and Lutz had realized this was the first time he was hearing Bud speak.

“I’ll be leaving shortly,” Lutz had replied in an authoritative tone. “People have been wondering how you two have been getting on up here by yourselves all winter. Thought I’d come over and make sure everything was okay.”

“Fine. You’ve seen. Now go,” and with that, Bud had crossed the short distance between him and his new wife. Lutz had waited for him to hit her, if he did than the deputy could bring him into the station, but Bud just stood a few feet from the girl with a look of pure fury on his face.

April McGuire had been utterly silent during this encounter. Now she sprang from her table of herbs as if scalded. She knelt then, and Lutz saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Under the table was a large wicker basket lined with woolen blankets. Nestled sleeping in the blankets was a tiny, swaddled infant.

The girl snatched up the basket and fled into the house without another word. Bud had turned, the shotgun still balanced on his shoulder. “This is my property. Ain’t no crime been committed. You got no right to be here.” All of this was said in the same eerie, deadpan voice.

Bud’s words, spoken in the same eerie, deadpan voice, were all true. April McGuire had not accused Bud of anything. It wasn’t against the law to hold a firearm while standing on your own land. There was nothing more for Lutz to say, so he had retreated back to the cruiser and headed back to the station.

He hadn’t returned to the McGuire property since that day nearly eight years ago. The McGuire’s had been seen no more than a handful of times in those eight years, most often driving in Bud’s battered Dodge Ram as the family returned or drove away along Highway 99. At some point another child, a daughter, was added to their number. Neither child was ever seen at the local public school or the local Christian school.

Many times Lutz had driven slowly down the county road, hoping to see April McGuire or her children out in the yard. But the house had been shuttered and silent, and Lutz had been forced to keep driving. Over the years, most of the people in the community had long since stopped gossiping about the McGuires. Everyone sympathized with the lonely young woman isolated with her children and Bud’s anger. But these were also a conservative group who prized their right to privacy. As long as there was no apparent problem at the McGuire farm, everyone merely shook their heads and went about their lives, even though they all knew what the ultimate outcome was likely to be.

As Sheriff Andrew Lutz neared the McGuire homestead, he was cursing himself for not doing more, for not inventing some ridiculous reason to go check on April and her children.

He only hoped he wasn’t too late.

But it didn’t look as though that were the case.

“Uh, sir?” the voice of Billy Hudson suddenly snapped Andrew Lutz out of his guilt and grief. Consumed by his ghoulish thoughts, he was about to miss the blind curve in the road leading up to Bud’s farm. The heavy police cruiser was instead aimed directly at a large pine tree.

 

****

Be sure to check out Chapter 3!

Rescue Cat Wednesday! 10-04-19

While reading is my oldest love, I am also very passionate about animals. I volunteer twice a week with a wonderful Toronto-based charity called Action Volunteers for Animals. They rescue homeless cats from all around Ontario, as well as run Trap-Neuter-Release programs to help control the population of homeless cats. Every week, I plan to post pictures of some of the delightful kitties currently staying with us at the local adoption facility.

If you or anyone you know is interested in adopting a rescue cat, you can find out more at actionvolunteersforanimals.com

 

There are so many new cats in the kiosk this week, and they are all looking for their new forever homes!

 

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Dizzy is a two year old long-haired female. She is very nervous in the shelter, and but is slowly becoming braver. Dizzy is still getting used to people, and the volunteers have been working to socialize her using gentle words, treats, and lots of patience! She would do well in a house with a cat friend to help her adjust to her new home.

Chet is a stunning flame-point Siamese mix. He has the most beautiful blue eyes which are slightly crossed, a signature of Siamese cats. Chet enjoys feline companionship, and would do best in a home with a cat friend.

 

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Filemon and Pisho are one-year old males. Filemon has the darker face, and is the braver of the two. Pisho has more white on his face and has been a bit hesitant to come out and explore with his brother. He is still a sweet, gentle cat who likes to be petted around the ears. These two brothers are not bonded, and can be adopted individually or as a pair.

 

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I’ve been volunteering with AVA for over a year, and this is the first all-white cat I’ve seen in the shelter. Samson is a sweet, gentle seven year old male. He is grouchy in the kiosk, but still enjoys being scratched and petted. Samson likes to have all the attention to himself, and would do best as the only cat in the house.

 

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Last but not least, Boujie is a beautiful orange and white male, with one of the sweetest faces! He is still learning the rules for live indoors; he loves to be petted and scratched but can also become easily startled. He loves exploring every inch of the shelter, even the places he’s not supposed to be!

You can see more photos of our wonderful rescue cats, learn more about AVA, and become involved as a volunteer by visiting actionvolunteersforanimals.com

 

 

The Midnight Road: Chapter 1

 

AUGUST, 1986

When Billy Hudson came screeching into the sheriff’s department on the night of August eighth, his cherry red Firebird came within a hairsbreadth of sideswiping the prized Cadillac belonging to Sheriff Andrew Lutz.

When he heard the squealing of tires, Sheriff Lutz looked up from the outdated magazine he had been absentmindedly thumbing through. He saw the fender of Billy’s Pontiac come swinging towards the driver’s side door of his Caddy, and was out of his desk and halfway through the station in one swift, fluid motion.

What the blazing hell was Billy thinking, Lutz thought with a look at his scuffed metal watch. It was barely minutes into Saturday morning, and Lutz’s first inclination was that the young man had been drinking. What kind of drunk driver willingly drives himself into police custody?

Before the wheels of the the Firebird had come to a full stop, the driver’s side door swung open and Billy Hudson tumbled out, falling to his knees before stumbling back to his feet.

“They’re dead!” Billy shouted breathlessly as he struggled for balance. “The McGuire’s, I think they’re all dead!”

Lutz’s mouth was already open to chastise Billy for nearly smashing in the door of his Cadillac, but at Billy’s words his jaws snapped shut with an audible click. Lutz took note of the scene before him.

He had been sheriff of Richmond County for more than ten years, having won reelection twice after Sheriff Bradley retired back in ‘75. In a county with forty thousand inhabitants spread over four hundred square miles, he spent most of his time on the highways, and so was well acquainted with Billy Hudson and his group of gearheads. Billy was a polite kid, always respectful, but that wasn’t always the case with the young people of the town.

The local teenage boys were entirely obsessed with their cars, and could often be found on one lonely country road or another late at night, drinking and drag racing and having a generally wild time. They weren’t bad kids necessarily, there just wasn’t much else to do in an area that was almost entirely given over to corn and soybean fields. At least once a month, Lutz or one of his deputies would have to go out and disperse the group once they got too rowdy and began blasting the speakers on their stereos loud enough to wake the long-suffering farmers in the area.

With a sinking heart, Lutz thought he knew what might have happened. “Which one of you hit them? Where is the accident?” he reached for the walkie-talkie at his hip, but Billy shook his head vehemently, “No one hit them sheriff. We weren’t racing tonight. Stu Lennox is in deep shit with his Daddy for wrecking his brand new Ford and –”

“Get to the point, Billy!” Lutz growed.

“Sorry, sir,” Billy’s began talking so quickly his words tripped over one another as they raced to get out, and he had to take a deep breath before continuing. “No one was racing tonight, Sheriff. I was out with Molly Greene, she lives over in Oakville. We went to the drive-in, and I took her home. On the way back I wanted to — I decided to take old Highway 99. I like how peaceful it is out there at night.”

Wanted to disturb the peace by revving up the Pontiac away from the troopers on the state highway is more like it. Sheriff Lutz thought but didn’t voice aloud.

“Anyway, I was over by the McGuire place, you know that big patch of woods out by that farm? I was driving out there and I– I thought I saw something cross the road. Like a dark shadow, bigger than a bear. Scared the shit out of me. I nearly lost control of the car.”

“There aren’t any bears around here son.” the sheriff replied skeptically, “Sure it wasn’t a deer?”

“It wasn’t no damn deer, sir. It moved like a cat, but it was hunched and sloping like a bear. I only saw it for a second, but it definitely wasn’t any deer I ever seen. It was taller than the roof of my car!”

What nonsense was this? Lutz ran a hand through his dark, thinning hair and looked down. It was then that he noticed the blood spattering Billy’s dusty workboots and the hems of his jeans.

Backing slowly away from the young man, Lutz edged his right hand ever so closer to the revolver holstered at his hip. He began eyeing the red Pontiac for dents and scratches, assuming this story of an animal was nothing more than misdirection. Finding none, he turned carefully back to the young man, maintaining a distance of ten feet.

“Okay, Billy. You’ve got about twelve seconds to start making sense before we start to have a problem. Why are you saying that the McGuire’s are dead? Whose blood is on your shoes, son?”

 

“I was trying to tell you, Sheriff. I was driving out on old Highway 99, and I saw this big hulking shape cross the road. I don’t know what it was sir, honest. But it spooked me bad enough that I damn near skidded out. When I finally got the car stopped on the shoulder, I looked around, but whatever it was had disappeared into that patch of forest next to the McGuire plot.

“I figured the same as you, sir, “ Billy continued, “Thought I was just seeing things late at night. But then in my headlights, I could see some kinda liquid on the road. Like oil…except when I looked again it wasn’t oil. It was blood.”

“Is it possible this animal or whatever you saw could have been wounded?” the sheriff asked.

“That’s the first thing I thought too, sheriff, and I hopped out of the car and grabbed my Winchester rifle out of the trunk. Figured I could at least put the poor creature out of its misery. But when I got closer to the blood on the road — when I got closer, I–” Billy started stuttering, and it was as if all the strength in his legs gave out. He sank almost gracefully to his knees, his oil-stained blue jeans sinking into the soft grass of the station’s lawn.

“Out with it, son. What did you see?” Lutz asked. He was trying to be patient but it was also imperative that they get to the scene of any crime as fast as possible.

Billy took a deep, shaking breath. “An arm, sir. On the side of the road, just beyond my headlight, was a lady’s arm. Ripped off at the elbow. It was still wearing – still wearing a wedding band.” At this Billy started shaking so badly the sheriff thought he might be on the verge of having a seizure.

He looked around for a moment, baffled at the turn of events his previously peaceful evening had taken. Then he squatted down on his haunches next to the trembling young man. Out of habit, Lutz sniffed the air around Billy Hudson’s head, almost hoping for the tell-tale whiff of whiskey or gin. But there was nothing.

Lutz turned and walked back into the sheriff’s department. “Clarkson!” he bellowed for his senior deputy. A moment later, Henry Clarkson’s head popped out of his small office, “Sheriff?”

Thank goodness it was Clarkson on duty tonight. Clarkson was a calm and capable officer, excellent in tense situations. The only African-American on the force, Henry Clarkson had a booming voice and a deep barrel chest that could be used to great effect on unruly suspects, but he also possessed a logical mind that ticked through every possible scenario before taking any action. Thank God it isn’t Miller, Lutz thought again, this time in relief that it wasn’t his younger, jumpier deputy sharing the station tonight.

“Is the cruiser gassed up? Good. Grab the rifle and the shotgun and get some flashlights as well. We’re going out to Highway 99; something may have happened over at Bud McGuire’s place.”

An additional benefit, Clarkson followed orders without peppering him with dozens of questions. The deputy nodded shortly, and turned to do as asked. In the meantime, Lutz went back outside and squatted down next to Billy Hudson, who was still kneeling on the lawn, his head in his hands. Lutz’ mouth had a sour taste and he longed for a cigarette.

 

“It’s okay, Billy. You did good, son. It’s okay. Just breathe,” Andrew Lutz murmured this litany over and over, remembering as he did the way his own father used a similar technique to calm skittish horses. Sure enough, after a minute or two Billy Hudson’s breathing began to slow, and the rigid tension along his spine relaxed. Billy took one or two more slow, rattling breaths and looked up at the sheriff.

“After I found the arm, I went into the house,” he said with grim resolve. “I – I can’t explain it, sir. But something — horrible happened in there. I’d like to go home now please, if that’s okay.”

Sheriff Lutz wanted to tell Billy Hudson that he could go home, have a hot shower and a stiff drink, it was not meant to be. “Sorry, Billy. We need you to show us exactly where all of this happened. There aren’t any lights out there, we’ll drive right past it in the dark.”

A flicker passed over Billy’s face, like he was choking back tears, but his jaw tightened and he just gave a short, hopeless nod.

Lutz called his junior deputy at home, rousing him out of a deep sleep with orders to haul his ass over and man the station while the two senior men went to check on the McGuire’s.

Then the three of them piled into the sheriff’s cruiser and headed north to Highway 99.

 

****

Chapter 2

Book Review: Tiger Lily by Jodie Lynn Anderson

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Review 2.29

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair…

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell. [Source]

The world of YA fantasy is largely dominated by romances that are painfully trite. Too often the relationships in these books can be boiled down to a collection of tropes. We have the obligatory love triangle, the dangerous stranger with a secret softness, and my personal favorite, “the heroine predictably falls in love with the first man who is described in any detail whatsoever”. Even my some of my favorite authors of the genre, like Sarah J. Maas, fall entirely into this pitfall.

For a book that is marketed towards the under 16 crowd, Tiger Lily, the short novel by Jodie Lynn Anderson tells a very mature story. Not in the sexual sense, but in the way it approaches its characters. Tiger Lily is a fierce, competent warrior who knows the risks and the threat inherit in her choices and makes them with calm certainty. For all her ferocity, Anderson captures the vulnerability of Tiger Lily with all the insecurities and passions of youth.

Peter Pan has been portrayed by boys and girls, men and women of all ages for nearly one hundred years. J. M. Barrie’s original source material left so much of Peter’s true motivations up to interpretation, which in my opinion is part of the enduring magic of the story. Here Anderson has made him a complex and romantic boy on the very cusp of manhood; older than in most iterations, Peter is meant to be around seventeen. And while there are no overtly explicit scenes, Peter Pan has always carried sexual undertones and Anderson does not shy away from the sensuality of the story and its characters.

If I had to describe Tiger Lily in one word, it would be enchanting. Every once in awhile there comes a novel that so truly encapsulates the feeling of first love and first heartbreak that it sweeps its reader away on a river of shared experience. The emotional power of Tiger Lily took me completely by surprise, before I even knew what was happening I was lost in Neverland.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Tiger Lily here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Note: By far, the best film adaptation of Peter Pan is the 2003 version, starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. It is the only one to adequately capture the magic in a similar way to this novel.

 

Book Review: The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien

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Review 2.28

 

In the tradition of The Glass Castle and A Child Called It, this memoir by Maude Julien is filled with such heartbreaking and harrowing detail that on more than one occasion I had to put it down and walk away. How such people come to abuse their children, and how such children find the strength to survive, are questions often explored in autobiographies and memoirs. But not since Tara Westover’s Educated, which I read and reviewed last year, have I encountered two people less deserving of the word “parent”.

It is obvious from the beginning chapters of The Only Girl in the World that Maude’s father is severely mentally ill. Of course that is just a polite term for “bleeding batshit crazy”, which is closer to the actual definition of Monsieur Julien’s affliction. Years before his daughter was born, he “adopted” a five year old girl from a family that was unable to provide for her. This young girl was groomed in the worst possible sentence of the world; she was indoctrinated to believe that her purpose on Earth was to bear a daughter for her adopted father. She went on to marry Mr. Julien, and bore his child in 1952.

This was a hard read. The entire stomach-twisting saga is narrated in a matter-of-fact manner, as if such things are standard practice. Sadly, the child abuse seen in the introduction it is but the merest inkling of the horrors to come. From the time she was able to walk and speak, Maude Julien was isolated away from the rest of the world in a manor home in Northern France where she was subjected to torture, molestation, starvation, sleep-deprivation, and a childhood deprived of love and affection from any other human.

Thankfully, Maude was born with a deep sense of compassion. Her love for animals and her connection to nature offered some consolation from the rigors of daily life. The second half of the memoir, in which Maude begins engaging in defiance and plans for escape, are much easier to read than the first half. The countless scenes of a small girl being treated with such cruel neglect were often too much, especially combined the rather deadpan narrative work by Elisabeth Rodgers in the audiobook edition. As I said earlier, I often had to pause and resume the story at a later time.

One thing that remains unexplained in The Only Girl in the World is exactly who was Monsieur Julien? With enough money it is said that one is never crazy, only eccentric, and that must have been the only thing keeping him from a mental asylum. But where he was getting all of this money from is never fully explained. I would have liked a little more detail on exactly how someone comes to the belief that their urine has magical properties, but it is more likely that the author simply doesn’t know.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Only Girl in the World here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is narrated by Elisabeth Rodgers and is available here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

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Review 2.27

 

One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime. [Source]

Emma in the Night is one of those purely innocuous novels that is perfect for a long airport layover. Between its relatively slim pages is a story that is fast-paced, entertaining, and entirely forgettable. I finished this book three days ago, and I had to read the Goodreads synopsis to remember much of the plot.

Describing this novel by Wendy Walker as forgettable sounds harsh, but it isn’t meant as such. Sometimes it’s nice to sit down a read a book that doesn’t require your full concentration. It does; however, make writing a review more difficult because there isn’t much to say beyond, “Yeah I read that.”

The dysfunctional family relationship between mother and daughter is at the heart of Emma in the Night. Walker explores the concepts of narcissism and narcissistic personality disorder as they relate to the bonds between the women of the Tanner family. We are told about the psychological strain of growing up in a household ruled over by a manipulative and controlling parent, and how that often triggers a cycle of mental illness and abuse.

I liked that Walker resisted the urge to split her timeline, instead keeping the story in the present tense and delivering important exposition via conversations between Cass and the police. While this does create a distance between the reader and the protagonist, it also avoids the cliche of having constant flashbacks which add nothing to the overall narrative. When the final twist came, as final twists inevitably do in the thriller genre, it didn’t feel like a cheat. Which is high praise from a reader who is thoroughly fed up with unnecessary plot twists.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Emma in the Night here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Wendy Walker’s debut novel, All is Not Forgotten, was reviewed for this website by none other than my momma! Check it out here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Agony House by Cherie Priest

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Review 2.26

 

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast.Nothing seems to work around the place, which doesn’t seem too weird to Denise. The unexplained noises are a little more out of the ordinary, but again, nothing too unusual. But when floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something more sinister lurks hidden here.Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic: the lost, final project of a famous artist who disappeared in the 1950s. Denise isn’t budging from her new home, so she must unravel the mystery-on the pages and off-if she and her family are to survive. [Source]

 

Graphic novels are among my very favorite type of book, and when I heard about The Agony House, set in a derelict New Orleans house in a community still reeling from Hurricane Katrina, I got excited. It turns out that Cherie Priest’s novel isn’t a traditional paneled graphic novel; instead, the primary narrative is written in standard prose, following Denise as she had her family attempt to unravel the riddle surrounding their new home. Nestled at random intervals throughout the novel are snippets of a mysterious comic book which may provide clues as to the identity of the spirit haunting the house on Argonne Street.

I really, really wanted to like this book. It has everything going for it: spooky house, plucky heroine, the cultural heritage of New Orleans. Not to mention the artwork by Tara O’Connor which I thought would offer a unique parallel to the main plot.

Unfortunately, The Agony House can’t decide what kind of book it wants to be. It is part mystery novel, part ghost story. It is part teenage adventure story, part cultural admonition on gender inclusivity. In general I find that when a book scatters itself over several genres, it ultimately spreads too thin and ends up as none of them. Such was the case with Priest’s book. The supposedly complex “mystery” at the center of the plot is oddly disjointed, long sections would pass where no one seemed to be working to solve it.

The pages of paneled comic book within the novel were also a bit of a let-down. After finishing The Agony House, I went through and read only the blue-tinted illustrations to see whether or not they made a cohesive story on their own. The answer was no; the illustrated sections offer nothing conducive to the overall plot. I started the book looking forward to these portions, but ended up just disappointed and confused.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Agony House here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008)

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Review 2.25

 

In Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher tells the true and intoxicating story of her life with inimitable wit. Born to celebrity parents, she was picked to play a princess in a little movie called Star Wars when only 19 years old. “But it isn’t all sweetness and light sabers.” Alas, aside from a demanding career and her role as a single mother (not to mention the hyperspace hairdo), Carrie also spends her free time battling addiction, weathering the wild ride of manic depression and lounging around various mental institutions. It’s an incredible tale – from having Elizabeth Taylor as a stepmother, to marrying (and divorcing) Paul Simon, from having the father of her daughter leave her for a man, to ultimately waking up one morning and finding a friend dead beside her in bed. [Source]

 

When I hit “play” on the audiobook edition of Wishful Drinking, hearing Carrie’s Fishers voice come out of my earbuds almost floored me. I knew that the audiobook was narrated by the author, but somehow I hadn’t connected that with the fact that Carrie Fisher was going to be telling me the story of her life.

Just hearing that sarcastic raspy voice was enough to transport me completely. Carrie Fisher was one of my heroes when I was growing up, and not for the reasons you might think. Of course I’ve been a life-long fan of Star Wars to the point where I’m currently sipping tea out of a Death Star mug, but it wasn’t Fisher’s portrayal of Princess Leia that made me love her. It was maybe twenty years later, when I was watching an interview with Fisher on Leno or Letterman or one of those late-night talk shows. I was probably only ten years old, but I remembered even then just how few fucks Carrie Fisher gave about anyone else’s opinion of her.

Her memoir, Wishful Drinking, is an extension of that attitude. Considering that the cover features Fisher dressed up as Princess Leia, I imagined that this book would be filled with fun behind-the-scenes tales from her time on the set of Star Wars. Fisher knows her audience, and does deliver some amusing anecdotes about working with George Lucas. But ultimately, Fisher did not write her memoir to talk about her career as an actress.

She wants to talk about mental health.

Carrie Fisher was a loud and lifelong advocate for mental health. She is open and honest about her own battles with bipolar disorder and the substance abuse problems that so often accompany the illness. She describes how electro-shock therapy has left her with holes in her memory  but a renewed zest for life. This matter-of-fact portrayal of mental illness was refreshing, and Fisher herself seemed to take great comfort that so many “crazy people” managed to achieve so much despite their mental health problems. It doesn’t help that it was all read in Fisher’s brash tones.

I cannot recommend enough you listen to this book as opposed to reading it in print. As I listened to Wishful Drinking I could picture Carrie Fisher so perfectly. She is chain-smoking one cigarette after another and laughing over-loudly at some inappropriate comment. It was like having her back for a few short hours

My rating: 4/5

You can find Wishful Drinking here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is read (wonderfully) by the author and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Review 2.24

An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.

Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt’s throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt’s second female pharaoh. [Source]

It becomes clear quite early on in The Woman Who Would Be King that author Kara Cooney is personally outraged by the near erasure of Egyptian King Hatshepsut from the annals of history. And well she should be; the only reason that Egyptologists were able to recover any traces of Hatshepsut’s reign at all is that she built so profusely during her reign that her successors were simply incapable of finding and destroying all of her iconography.

Every book lover still mourning the loss of the Library at Alexandria can probably sympathize.

Still, precious little information has survived as to what Hatshepsut’s personal life was like, or what her motivations were for seizing the throne. Cooney explains this in the introduction, and admits that large areas of her biography on Hatshepsut’s life are based, by necessity, on conjecture. And it’s true that she resorts to using the word “perhaps” at an irritatingly frequent pace. We simply cannot know the circumstances under which Hatshepsut was crowned King. What we’re left with is speculation, which Cooney uses to fill in the gaps in the historical record as best she can.

There are a few less savory aspects of life in ancient Egypt that cannot be denied. Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother, Thutmose II, and give birth to at least one daughter. Inbreeding was standard practice within royal bloodlines at the time, and she may have been the product of inbreeding herself. Also, far from the gilded surfaces and cool stone palaces we picture from films, life in this time period was short and hard. Disease was as common as sand, and the royalty in the palace would not have been immune from lice, boils, malaria, and worms. Cooney accepts these facts as further proof of Hatshepsut’s exceptionalism and, in truth any woman who survived into adulthood and through childbirth in ancient Egypt was most definitely worthy of high praise. And Hatshepsut managed to do it all while holding a kingdom together.

After her death, all of Hatshepsut’s statues and icons were torn down, and her face was replaced in many other reliefs. The exact reason for this systematic destruction is just one of a thousand things we will never know about Hatshepsut’s reign. I enjoyed that Cooney did not take an extreme feminist slant as this stage, as she noticeably did in the introduction. While it is incredibly likely that Hatshepsut’s successors were threatened by her status as a female king, it may have had more to do with the shaky line of succession left in the new King Thutmose III, and his desire to avoid civil war that led to Hatshepsut.

I’ve always loved stories about ancient Egypt. Growing up, Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game was one of my favorite childhood books. However, this biography was accessible to anyone, regardless of prior knowledge of Egyptian society. I was familiar with a lot of it, but ended up learning a ton more.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Woman Who Would Be King here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is narrated by the author and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!