Only eight ten in the morning, and Cass had already ruined someone’s day. The someone was Robbie Hess, owner of the pizza parlor in Mt. Zion, a small town on the southwest shore of Summersville Lake. The business was being sued by a customer who claimed to have broken a tooth on one of his pizzas. God, I hate serving summonses.
Making things worse was the fact that even with an extra mug of morning coffee, she still wasn’t fully awake. She’d been up half the night with the love of her life—her irrepressible, red-headed, precocious daughter, Katy, whose excitement over her seventh birthday party in just two days kept her awake until after eleven.
Then there was Katy’s cold. Nothing serious, sniffles and a mild fever, but after the little girl finally drifted off to sleep, Cass was up every couple of hours to check on her fever and make sure she was breathing ok.
This morning Katy had protested in her sleepy little voice, “Mommy, I don’t want to go to Grandma’s. I want to stay here with you.”
“I want that too, KK, but Mommy has to go to work.”
“But we have to get ready for the party.”
“We’ll have time for that, sweetheart. The party isn’t until tomorrow. We’ll start working on it tonight as soon as I get off work, okay?”
Fortified by her second mug, Cass bundled Katy up and delivered her to Mom’s house for the day. Thank God for Mom and Dad. Otherwise she would be delivering her precious Katy to some anonymous day care. Damn, being a single mom is hard.
With her thoughts more on Katy than her job, after serving Robby his summons Cass forgot to turn her shoulder radio back up. As she stepped into her patrol car she caught the tail end of a radio call; something or other going on at the lake.
Summersville Lake was the largest body of water in West Virginia, and attracted visitors from all around the state. If Cass responded to the call, it might get her out of summons duty for a while. She keyed her radio mic and said, “Dispatch, unit 10. Could you repeat that last call?”
“10-4, unit 10. We have a 911 request for response to Camp Fork Beach. Something about …”
A loud burst of static drowned out the rest of the dispatcher’s response. Someone else on the network had keyed their mic, interrupting the call. When the static cleared Cass, heard, “Unit 1, Unit 10.” Sheriff Clint Long wanted to talk to her directly.
“Unit 10,” she replied.
“Standby, Unit 10. I’m going 10-21 for you.”
In a matter of seconds, Cass’ cell phone rang. “It’s me,” she answered with her standard non-identifying greeting, just in case it wasn’t the sheriff.
“Sorry for blowing you off the air,” Sheriff Long apologized. “I didn’t want dispatch blaring that call all over the county just yet. What’s your 10-20?”
“I’m in Mt. Zion serving that pizza lawsuit summons.”
“We got a 911 call a few minutes ago. A woman said there’s a dead body down at Butt Beach. I’m over in Craigsville, so it’ll take me a half-hour to get there. You better go up and see what’s going on. Maybe this is the chance we’ve been looking for to take advantage of that Police Science degree of yours.”
“I’m on my way,” Cass said as she reached down and switched on the light bar on top of her car. “Sure will beat the hell out of serving summonses. I’ll keep you posted.”
Dust billowed behind her as she drove as fast as she dared down the bumpy dirt road toward the northwest shore of Summersville Lake. The official name of her destination was Camp Fork Beach, known to locals as Butt Beach. It was a remote, secluded stretch of sand where Camp Fork Creek emptied into the lake at the far north end. The more uninhibited naturist souls of the area used the place as a hideaway where they could sunbathe in the buff.
Most of the time deputies treated the practice with a wink and a nod, much to the sunbathers’ relief. Social nudity was a recreational activity frowned upon by many in the prudish, predominantly Born-Again Christian County.
There was no easy way to get to Butt Beach. Camp Fork Road would have been shorter but it was a four-wheel drive roller-coaster ride that ended on a ridge a half-mile short of the beach. County Road 9/5 off of County Road 23 was a longer, rutted, twisty dirt road, but at least it could be negotiated by car.
Cass was the first officer on the scene. Vehicles of various descriptions were scattered about the field that comprised the beach’s unofficial parking lot. Awaiting her was a fortyish, slightly overweight, big-busted woman with coarse, straw-colored hair nearly to her waist. She was dressed in a thin, vaguely see-through linen wrap and no underwear. She practically ran to the police car as Cass pulled up, her unconstrained bosoms swinging freely with every step.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” the woman said breathlessly as Cass exited the car. Then she pulled up short as she realized she was looking at a woman rather than a real deputy. “Why’d they send you?” she blurted.
“Because I’m the biggest bad ass on the force,” Cass replied testily. “My dispatcher said you found a dead body. Where is it?”
“Down here.” The woman pointed toward a path leading down the creek and into the woods.
Tall stands of oak, ash, pine and sycamores canopied the trail which was bounded by impenetrable tangles of brambles and vines. As the woman led the way to the lake, with mountain ridges all around them, Cass worried about getting a radio signal out of the area. She depressed the ‘talk’ key on her shoulder mic and said, “Unit 10 is 10-23 at the end of County Road 9/5. Give me a signal check, over.”
“Your signal is 5 by 5, Unit 10.” the dispatcher replied.
Good. Communications would not be a problem. “Dispatch, I’m proceeding on foot to Camp Fork Beach. Can you give me a 10-77 on the arrival time of back-up units, over?”
“Approximately seven to ten minutes, Unit 10. Unit 3’s still four miles out and Unit 6 is right behind him. Unit 1 is on his way as well.”
“Copy that,” she replied.
Cass emerged from the forest onto the sandy beach. The shoreline was still a hundred yards distant. The hippie-looking woman nodded toward a large, round, flat rock near the water’s edge. “She’s right over there. Looks like Sleeping Beauty, but she’s as dead as a doornail.”
A crowd of a dozen or so gathered around the rock. Not all had bothered to don clothing. Pretty brassy, she thought. I hope nobody’s messed with the body.
As Cass approached, everyone began talking at once. She raised her hand and said, “Please, I can only hear one person at a time. This is now a possible crime scene. Please stand exactly where you are and do not disturb anything. I need to look at the victim. Anybody know her?” Her inquiry was met by silence.
The body lying on the rock was a lovely young woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties. She was dressed in a beautiful, full-length, chiffon lace over a rich scarlet-colored satin evening gown that daringly revealed the woman’s considerable décolletage. It was a dress one would expect to see at a prom or the opera, not adorning a dead body on a flat rock in the middle of a nude beach.
She had long, blonde hair and a delicate, beautiful face. Her makeup and manicured fingernails were exquisitely done. A distinctive, inch-wide scarlet and black lace ribbon festooned with embroidered white daisies and fastened with a pretty pearl pin was around her neck.
She was laid out in a classic death pose—her hands placed one atop the other below her breasts. One hand held a small bouquet of what appeared to be real daisies accented with a sprig of baby’s-breath.
The woman looked as if she’d simply climbed up onto the rock and gone to sleep. Only the pallor of her impossibly pale skin gave any hint that something was amiss. When the gentle morning breeze blew a wisp of hair across the woman’s face, Cass instinctively wanted to brush it back to stop the tickle.
Cass had to get up on the rock for a better look. She donned a pair of latex gloves, scrambled up on the rock and placed two fingers against the girl’s neck to see if there was a pulse. The instant she touched the woman’s skin, she knew there would be none. The body was cold: far too cold for any life to be left in her.
There was no blood, no visible bruises, nothing to indicate to Cass how she had died. The body was fresh enough that the tell-tale signs of morbidity had yet to show, but her beauty wouldn’t last much longer in the hot sun.
Cass depressed the talk key and spoke into her shoulder mic. “Unit 10 is on-scene at Camp Fork Beach. Requesting immediate dispatch of the Medical Examiner and a non-emergency response by County Ambulance Service for transport.”
Despite the tragedy, Cass couldn’t help but feel a twinge of excitement. This might be her first murder scene. She spied two deputies emerging from the forest trail onto the beach—backup at last.
Then she groaned. Even from this distance, there was no mistaking the florid, round face and protruding pot belly of fifty-five-year-old Tommy Reece, a twenty-five-year veteran of the department and the bane of her life ever since she joined the force. He was the more obnoxious of the last two deputies who still refused to accept the idea of a woman deputy.
Just last week she overheard him say, “Hey, she’s a good-looking babe, built like a brick shithouse. But she ought to be somebody’s secretary, or home taking care of her kid, not out driving a patrol car and carrying a 9mm Glock. No wonder that guy from down by Fayetteville divorced her.”
What neither Reece nor the other deputies knew was that Orson Peters didn’t divorce her. She divorced him. After graduating Cum Laude with a degree in criminal science from the University of West Virginia, Cass gathered up her degree and went to West Virginia’s Police Officer Standards & Training course where she graduated at the top of her class, the first woman to ever do so.
She was a year and a half into her job as a UWV campus police officer, six months married, and three months pregnant, when she came home early one day in February, and found Orson in bed with a rail-thin, sallow fellow by the name of Stewart Kinross.
Cass somehow resisted the urge to shoot both of them where they lay. Instead, she ran them out of the second-story apartment at Taser-point as they clutched only a single white bed sheet between them. As they tried to hide outside, barefoot and bare-assed in the snow-covered bushes, Cass threw everything Orson owned out the bedroom window. It was with particular satisfaction that she watched Orson’s TV make a spectacular crash landing on the sidewalk below.
Only after she’d decided that frostbite was a real danger did first their shoes, then underwear, pants and shirts come fluttering down. She watched with tearful amusement as the pair awkwardly tried to hold the sheet in place while trying to retrieve enough clothing to restore their decency.
The marriage was over. The day the divorce was final, Cass moved back to Summersville to have the baby—a baby she made damn sure carried the Rosier name, not Peters.
As Reece approached, his ungainly, wide-armed gait made him look more like a blow-up doll than a fit sheriff’s deputy. Knowing him as she did, she knew he would be sweating profusely and likely cursing like a sailor by the time he arrived at the rock. Why couldn’t it be someone else?
Then Cass recognized the other officer and felt a sense of relief. It was Hal Halverson, her friend and one of her strong supporters from the beginning. Reece wouldn’t try any funny business with Halverson present. Maybe this wouldn’t be as hard as she feared.
As the first officer on the scene she would be the Officer in Charge until the sheriff arrived. She asked Reece and Halverson to take charge of the crowd while she dealt with the body. The sheriff arrived ten minutes later and took over supervision of the crime scene. “Deputy Rosier, I’m assigning you to be lead investigator on this,” he barked. “Deputy Halverson, you’ll assist.”
Halverson scowled. He was usually lead investigator on major crimes. Cass was elated at the assignment but at the same time concerned. With sixteen years on the force, Hal might not like being relegated to second place behind a college-educated upstart, and a woman to boot. She’d have to tread lightly.
She retrieved the department’s high-res camera and object markers from the crime-scene kit the sheriff brought then approached Halverson and asked, “You okay with this, Hal?” At five-foot-eight, she was taller than most women, but Halverson towered over her by nearly a foot.
The man hesitated a moment then said with resignation, “Yeah, I guess so. It’s about time you had your chance, kid. You’re smart and better educated than the rest of us.” He eyed Reece. “Any of the other deputies say anything, you just send them on over to me. Want me to put those out?” He pointed at the object markers used to identify anything at the scene that might be evidence.
“Would you? I’m going to start photographing the body.”
“No problem. Let’s get to work.”
After shooting ground-level pictures of the rock and body from all angles, Cass climbed on the rock again and turned the camera straight down on the unfortunate woman. As she worked, the questions began piling up in her mind. Who is this beautiful young girl? How old is she? Is she from around here? Who are her parents? Will I have to tell them, or will Sheriff Long take care of that? Images of her own daughter flashed through her mind. Dear God, don’t let me have to be the one to tell the parents, she thought.
Question after unanswered question flooded her mind, and as lead investigator, it would be her job to answer every one of them.
Dr. Gary Coleman, the county’s young Medical Examiner, arrived, his hospital smock billowing behind him as he rushed across the beach with his ME jump kit in hand. “Who was the first officer on scene?” he asked after giving the body a quick preliminary examination.
“I was,” Cass said.
“Anybody touch the body?”
“I took a neck pulse but that’s all. I asked the bystanders if any of them had touched her. They all said they were afraid to.”
“Deputy Rosier is lead investigator on this,” Sheriff Long told Dr. Coleman. The doctor arched an eyebrow in surprise and nodded an acknowledgment.
“Deputy Rosier, would you help me bag her hands?” he requested. “If this is a murder, hopefully she got in a few scratches before she died.”
Cass knew the routine, but this was her first chance to practice her skills on an actual dead body. “How long before you can give me a time of death?” she asked Coleman as she donned a fresh pair of latex gloves.
“Based on the temperatures out here and her state of rigor mortis, I can give you a preliminary estimate of six to eight hours, certainly no more than twelve. I won’t be able to do any better until I can take a body-core temperature back at the morgue.”
Dr. Coleman spent almost a half-hour giving the body a more thorough examination before saying he could find no obvious cause of death. “At first glance, she looks like she could have died of natural causes or perhaps overdosed on drugs or alcohol,” he said. “But there’s something very strange here. I tried to test her eyeballs for moisture depletion but they were sewn shut. I tried to swab her mouth but found the same with her jaw. Other than not being eviscerated and embalmed, it’s like this body came straight out of a mortuary. It’s like somebody carefully prepped and staged this body for us to find.”
Being lead investigator meant that Cass had to witness the autopsy. Not fully knowing what to expect, she entered the stark, sterile, white tile-covered, brightly fluorescent-lit room behind Dr. Coleman and found that it was filled with cold, stainless steel fixtures and nose-wrinkling smells.
Her breath caught at her first sight of the young woman’s body laid out naked on the narrow metal autopsy table. More than one wager had been placed in the department on how long she’d last before vomiting. As Dr. Coleman made the large ‘Y’ cut, it was only with steely resolve and much difficulty that she made sure none of those who bet against her won.
A microphone above the autopsy table recorded Dr. Coleman’s running commentary as he worked. The autopsy revealed that the woman had been horribly abused. Only the parts of her body not covered by her dress were spared. There was evidence of savage beatings and brutal torture, right down to the soles of her feet. Three teeth were missing and she had four broken ribs.
The woman had no pubic hair, a feature not terribly unusual since shaven or waxed pubic areas became a fashion statement of sorts among trendy young women. But Dr. Coleman said this girl’s hair had not been shaved, but rather the hair had been removed by plucking it out.
There was extensive bruising in and around the woman’s vaginal and anal areas, but no third-party bodily fluids or hair was found on or inside the body nor on the woman’s clothing. “This perp must have either used a condom or used objects to rape her with,” Dr. Coleman said. He shook his head. “Whoever did this was an angry, sadistic bastard.”
The cause of death was revealed only after removal of the girl’s brain. “Ah, there it is,” Dr. Coleman said as he held it up for examination. Pointing at the brain stem, he said, “There’s your cause of death, Deputy Rosier.”
It was easy to see even with Cass’s medically untrained eye. While most of the stem was a uniform reddish pink, right in the middle was a dark, shriveled, damaged area that looked as if it had been burned. The doctor placed the brain in a stainless-steel bowl then turned the body on its side. He pulled back the hair at the nape of the woman’s neck and looked closely. “I thought so,” he muttered.
He invited Cass to come closer and look. He pointed at what looked to Cass like a tiny insect bite at the base of the skull. “That’s where someone stuck something, probably a hypodermic needle, into this girl’s medulla oblongata—the brain stem. The stab wound most likely killed her instantly, but this sick bastard injected something nasty, maybe some kind of acid, to make sure she died. We won’t know what it was for sure until we get the tox report back.”
“That’s awful,” Cass said, fighting the impulse to retch.
“She most likely died instantly from the brain stem puncture. Probably didn’t feel the injection or tissue destruction at all. The killer chose this means of death very carefully.”
Cass was relieved to leave the autopsy room. She followed Dr. Coleman to his office to discuss the findings. “This woman suffered a prolonged, agonizing ordeal that had to have taken place over weeks—maybe as long as a month,” he said. “She was tortured just enough at any one time to keep her alive. Whoever did this knew what he was doing and was very good at it.”
“You’re assuming it was a man?”
“I’m not assuming anything; it’s just a frame of reference. Odds would say it’s more likely to be a man, but if the evidence takes us somewhere else, we’ll go there without hesitation.”
“So does the autopsy tell us anything at all about the killer?” Cass asked.
“There’s no trace evidence that could lead us directly to someone’s identity—no skin under her fingernails, no third-party body hair on either her or the clothing. But we have several hints.
“One of the first and most obvious is the woman’s fingernails. They were elaborate, custom-designed acrylic nails that were put on after the torture.
“Then there’s how her hair was all done up and the professional quality of her makeup. With her injuries she wouldn’t have had the dexterity to do any of that. It’s almost like someone took her to a beauty salon either just before or just after killing her. Since that’s highly unlikely, I think we can presume the killer or killers have those kind of skills.”
Dr. Coleman seemed perplexed. He stood and walked to the window scratching his head in thought. “Then there’s the way the body was prepared,” he said. “That old thing you see in the movies about someone closing a dead person’s eyes after death is a myth. People don’t close their eyes when they die, and even if someone else closes them, they don’t stay shut. Same thing with the jaw. The jaw muscles relax, and the mouth naturally sags open. Mortuaries sew the eyelids and the jaw shut when they prepare the body so it can look like the person is peacefully asleep.
“The person who sewed this girl’s eyelids and jaw used medical suture material better than most mortuaries use and made good, medical-grade surgical knots. I couldn’t have made much better ones myself. Then it becomes bizarre. There’s evidence that the killer broke and then reset some of her bones. Whoever did this to her was helping her heal at the same time he was killing her.
Cass scribbled furiously, trying to keep up. She couldn’t tell if he was merely musing or giving her critical medical facts. She didn’t dare miss a word.
“If this woman had sustained all of her injuries at once,” Coleman continued, “it would have killed her outright. This killer kept his torture just under a lethal level. In my opinion, our killer is a person or persons with extensive medical skills and possibly experience as a mortician or morgue worker. Morticians use makeup in their job, but I’ve never seen one of them make a body look as good as this one.”
“There’s another possibility here,” Cass said. “We could be dealing with a group of people, a ‘murder club’ if you will, who share all these skills among them.”
“That certainly is a possibility, Dr. Coleman said. “Sorry I couldn’t get you more on this girl’s identity. Has the department had any missing person inquiries that fit her description?”
“Not as far as I know. And that’s kind of strange considering how long you’re saying she was in the hands of her torturer. That will probably change when her story hits the newspapers and the television news tonight.”
Coleman leaned back in his chair and sighed tiredly. “Tell the sheriff I’ll try to get a transcript of the preliminary autopsy report over to your office by tomorrow afternoon. Wish we knew more about what drugs she may have had on-board, but it takes at least three weeks to get a tox report back from the state lab. I’ll see if I can hurry them up but I doubt it will make any difference.
“By the way, you did well in there today. Much better than most. You didn’t make a single trip to the sink. Tell the sheriff you have my compliments.”
Cass smiled. “It’d be better if you told him yourself, doc. There was apparently a lot of money riding on whether or not I would keep my stomach. I want the losers to get the bad news from someone other than me.”
“I’ll be happy to convey that news. For your information, there’s more than one member of your department who didn’t fare so well during previous autopsies.”
“Glad to know that.” Cass grinned wryly. “Care to share any names?”
“I’d better not, other than to say that one of them is the guy who wears the biggest star over there.”
“Clint—our good sheriff?”
“You didn’t hear it from me,” Coleman laughed. “You better get out of here before my mouth gets me in trouble.”
A thorough search of the beach and forest around the crime scene turned up no evidence Cass could tie to the murder. Fingerprints and the woman’s DNA profile returned nothing.
Despite Cass’s prediction otherwise, no one showed up to claim the body. Even with the crime being listed on the national NCIC (National Crime Information Center) registry and on every local police bulletin board and missing person’s registry they could get access to, the case remained an utter mystery.
Nicholas County’s evening gown clad victim bore only the anonymous name of Jane Doe.
Murders were rare in Nicholas County. Prior to the evening gown murder, the only other one committed in the five years since Cass joined the department essentially solved itself. Nine months into her rookie year, a husband called in and confessed that he’d shot his wife. They’d been fighting over who got custody of the dog in their divorce.
It was early October, sixteen months after the discovery of the woman wearing the evening gown. Cass was just pulling out of her driveway on the way to take Katy to the dentist when the call came in.
“Unit 1, Dispatch.”
Odd. Mary, the dispatcher, knew that Cass was taking her daughter to the dentist this morning.” Unit 1,” she responded a bit testily.
“Cass, they need you down at Mt. Nebo right away—mile post 79.”
“Jeez, Mary, you know I’m busy with Katy this morning. What is it?”
Mary Donavan was a relatively new dispatcher. She sounded uncomfortable. “They’ve got another one, Cass. Remember that Jane Doe last year?”
A chill coursed through her. “Not again,” Cass said under her breath.
Katy sensed the sudden change. “What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“Nothing, baby. Just some police business. I’ve got to talk to this lady for a minute.” Cass didn’t want her eight-year-old daughter in on this conversation. “Use call signals, dispatch,” Cass scolded. “Give me a 10-21.” In moments, her cell phone rang.
“Thanks, Mary,” Cass answered. “Sorry for barking at you. What’s going on?”
“That’s okay. I’m still getting used to this radio stuff. Deputy McKesson responded to a 911 call at Up-Yonder Road. He says he’s got another body in an evening gown. He wants a 10-39 response.”
10-39 meant drop everything but your pants, full sirens and lights and haul ass.
“10-4, Mary.” Cass was so used to radio jargon that she sometimes unwittingly used it on the phone as well. “I’ll call him right now.”
It took five rings for Deputy McKesson to answer. “Go,” was his terse, non-identifying greeting.
“It’s Cass, Jerry. What’s happening?”
“Got another one like we had over at Butt Beach. An old couple the body from up on the highway. She’s lying in the bed of a farmer’s hay wagon that was parked in a spot easy to see.
Cass wanted to curse but stifled the impulse before Katy could hear something out of her mother’s mouth she ought not to hear.
“Mary said you want a 10-39. I’ve got my kid with me. Do I have time to drop her off at school?”
“Yeah, there’s no perp on site. Just need you here fast to take charge of the scene.”
“Will do. My 10-77’s twelve to fifteen minutes depending on traffic. Keep that place clean, Jerry.”
“10-4 Sheriff.” He clicked off without a goodbye.
At times it was still a bit startling when someone called her sheriff. At the moment the title was actually ‘Acting Sheriff.’ As she raced toward Mt. Nebo, she couldn’t help but reflect on the monumental changes that had given rise to her new job title.
It all started with an unexpected visit to her house by Jessie and Melinda Ginn around seven-thirty one night last May. The Ginns, a middle-aged couple, went to church with Cass’s parents. She knew them, but not well. “Come in,” Cass said, expecting a friendly chat. She seated them in the living room.
Jessie started the conversation in a shaky, hesitant voice. “We’re sorry to intrude,” he said, “but we just have to talk to someone. We’ve prayed about this and feel that if we can trust anybody down at the sheriff’s office, it’s got to be you.”
The statement set off alarm bells in Cass’s head. “Do you have reason to not trust the department?”
“Yes!” was the man’s abrupt answer. “We understand you’re the chief investigator down there. Is that right?”
“The department doesn’t have an official chief investigator, but I guess you could say I’ve been filling that role. Why?”
“If we were to tell you that someone in your department was breaking the law, what would you do?”
“I’d investigate it, same as any other crime. Members of the sheriff’s department aren’t above the law. If anything, we have to be more circumspect than anyone else. If an allegation turned out to be true, I’d arrest them just like I would any other lawbreaker.”
Cass watched a tear roll down Melinda’s cheek. Her husband was actually trembling. Melinda reached into her purse, withdrew a sheaf of papers and handed them to her husband. “Do you know our daughter, Jenny?” the man asked.
“I think so; fifteen-year-old, tall with long, sandy-blonde hair?” Cass knew the girl, by reputation, if nothing else. She was fifteen but looked and dressed much older. She ran with a rowdy bunch, several of whom had been arrested for various misdemeanors. She was a girl with a cocky attitude who defied authority and was suspected by the school resource officer of distributing prescription drugs around campus; a charge her parents would probably deny. After all, they made sure she was in church every Sunday.
“We…” Jessie’s voice broke. He swallowed and began again. “Ahem—we lost control of Jenny over a year ago.” The statement was too much for Melinda, who broke down and wept openly as her husband went on. “She won’t listen to us or do what we say. And now she’s in way over her head.”
“I’ve got to tell you folks; Jenny’s come up on the department’s radar a couple of times. She’s been mentioned as a source for prescription drugs at school. I hope it’s not true but I’d watch your medicine cabinet very closely if I were you. Is that what you’ve come to tell me about?”
The man handed Cass the papers. “I wish that was all. We’ve warned her and warned her about drugs, but that’s not the reason we’re here. These are text messages I downloaded from her cell phone last night while she was sleeping. I printed them out this afternoon while she was at school.”
Cass began to read. All were addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. The messages wove a trail of prurient, salacious, X-rated dialogues detailing a pattern of flirtations entirely inappropriate for a fifteen-year-old high-school sophomore. Mid-way through the stack Cass found a self-taken topless picture Jenny had sent to someone. The responding message was a corresponding photo of a man’s erect penis.
The messages made it clear that a few days after the exchange of photos, the pair had met and had their first sexual encounter. Then there was another, and another. This girl was clearly on her way to an unwanted pregnancy—or worse.
Cass shook her head at the anguish of these poor parents. “This is a huge problem with high school kids,” she said. “I’m sorry it’s happening with Jenny. The kids consider this stuff no big deal, but what I’m seeing here is considered a felony; child pornography. Do you have any idea who the boy is?”
“It’s not a boy,” Jessie said venomously. His hands balled into fists. “It’s a man!”
Melinda reached into her purse and this time produced what appeared to be a diary.
“We hated to do it,” he said. “But we read her diary this after-noon. The man she’s been seeing—the man whose penis is in that picture—is Sheriff Long.”
The words struck like a thunder-clap. Cass was momentarily slack-jawed; unable to speak. Finally she stammered, “Sheriff Long?”
“It’s all right here. Read it for yourself.” He opened the book, handed it to Cass and pointed at what the girl had written. The damning evidence was, laid out in the girl’s barely legible longhand.
I love it when my Clinty touches me down there…
Tonight I gave him a pair of my panties…
It’s so kool doing it in his cop car…
Ain’t nobody gonna mess with me and my sheriff…when that Durango’s rockin’, don’t nobody come knockin’.
Cass felt sick. Tucked between the pages was a three-by-five photo of Clint in his dress uniform. Scrawled across the bottom was “This is my man!” The word ‘my’ was underlined three times.
“My God!” Cass whispered. She looked at Jessie and asked, “Where’s Jenny right now?”
“We don’t know. After we read her diary, we went looking for her. One of her friends said she saw the sheriff pick her up down at Dewey’s Malt Shop around seven o’clock. We thought you might know where he is.”
“I don’t, but I’ll find out. Can I keep these?” Cass indicated the messages and the diary.
“Yes. We don’t want them in our house.”
“You two go home.” Cass instructed. “I’ll look into this right now. If I find Jenny, I’ll let you know. If she comes home first, you call my cell phone.” She handed Jessie her business card and pointed out the number. “Don’t worry; you’ve done the right thing.”
Only a faint tincture of light remained above the mountains west of town when Cass drove back to the office. She couldn’t use her radio for fear that Clint might hear. Once there, she asked the night dispatcher if she knew where the sheriff was. “Haven’t heard from him,” she said. “Do you want me to give him a call?”
That was the last thing Cass wanted. “No, no. It’s nothing important. I’ll run by his house.”
Clint’s house was actually one side of a small duplex he’d maintained since his rather nasty divorce from Nancy four years ago. She and the two kids still lived in the house he once called his own. As she drove past the duplex, Cass thought of the first time she met Sheriff Long.
It happened a year after Katy was born. Nick Hathaway, a long-time Nicholas County deputy sheriff, had suddenly passed away. A massive heart attack they said. Armed with her degree, her extra credits in crime-scene management, and her POST certification, Cass marched up the steps of the county courthouse and handed the surprisingly young Sheriff Long her application. She harbored no illusions about how slim her chances were of being hired on.
To her surprise, Long called the next day and asked her to come in for an interview. Young and progressive by Nicholas County standards, the then thirty-three-year-old sheriff said he considered himself a bit of a rebel. He said that, over the objections of some in his department, he’d been looking to hire a female deputy, but had so far been stopped by the fact that in conservative Nicholas County, West Virginia, the very idea of hiring a woman deputy was unsettling to some, including two of the three County Com-missioners, and downright offensive to others. He said that in light of her qualifications, he might be willing to buck the opposition.
Though she thought her interview went well, she was nonetheless somewhat surprised when Sheriff Long called three days later and asked her to come back for a follow-up interview.
She was happy to oblige, but was slightly offended by his first question. “It won’t be easy doing this job, Ms. Rosier, are you certain you’re ready to tackle this?”
“I wouldn’t have applied if I weren’t, Sheriff.”
“You understand that some of my deputies are absolutely opposed to the idea of hiring a woman. If we do hire you, they’ll probably give you a pretty rough time.”
Cass bristled. She bit her tongue to keep too much of her redhead temper from showing. “Sheriff Long, I’m educated, I’m competent, and I’m qualified—far more qualified than a lot of your deputies.”
“No question about that, Ms. Rosier. It’s just that some of the guys are convinced that this department is no place for a woman.”
“Do they mean can I keep up with the pace of the job? Am I smart enough? Can I shoot straight or handle a patrol car in a high-speed chase? What?”
“No, no. I’ve seen your POST scores. I’m sure you can do all that. They want to know what happens when you have to handle a drunk who’s twice your size. What happens with an armed suspect? Will a perp take you seriously enough to believe you’ll actually pull the trigger? Your fellow officers need to have confidence you’ll be there to back them up in dicey situations.”
Again Cass had to stifle an angry reply. Instead she said, “I was raised with five brothers; all a lot bigger than me. I know how to dish it out when I have to. I more than held my own in POST training against a class of forty-two other officers, most of them bigger than me. I’m five-eight and 159 lbs. I run at least five miles a day and bench press 220 lbs. I’ve seen your deputies, sheriff. Half of them are significantly overweight and out of shape. They couldn’t run down a perp if their lives depended on it. Tell you what, you set up a 5K run and put up your best five deputies. If they all beat me, I’ll withdraw my application.”
A grin spread across Long’s face. “You’d do that?”
“Damn right. I’ll do it today, right now. And when we’re done, we can take those same deputies down to the wrestling mat at the high-school gym, and I’ll show them how this ‘little woman’ can plant them flat on their fat asses in at least ten different ways. I’d rather earn this job that way than have to start talking about things like sexual discrimination in hiring.” It was a none-too-subtle hint that she’d better be considered solely on the basis of her qualifications and not disqualified because of her gender.
Two days later, as Cass crossed the finish line of the impromptu 5K, she looked back to find the second-place runner nearly two hundred yards behind her. By the time he came wheezing to the finish line, the sheriff had already offered her the job. He later told her he was going to give it to her anyway, but thought the race might be the perfect way to show his deputies what she was made of—and to shame them into getting into better shape themselves.
In the four years since his divorce, Clint had gained quite a reputation as a man about town. Cass didn’t care who he slept with. Until now he’d been discrete. But this time he wasn’t just screwing another woman, he was raping a child.
Failing to find him at the duplex, Cass took a swing through downtown. A fair number of high school kids hung out down at the Sonic, a drive-in hamburger joint just off Main Street. The business’s large parking lot served as the pit stop where kids gathered to show off their cars and troll for attention from the opposite sex.
Cass spotted a gaggle of kids at the far end of the lot. They were standing around a nicely restored 75 blue Malibu Super Sport and a tricked out, impossibly tall, white Dodge pickup truck with rims that must have cost at least a thousand bucks.
The smell of burning Marijuana was unmistakable as Cass pulled up and rolled down her window. The source was nowhere in sight. “Hey guys,” she greeted, “I’m looking for Jenny Ginn. She’s not in trouble or anything, y’all seen her?”
A general snicker ran through the crowd. Piper Parker, a skinny blonde with a shock of pink hair on one side, looked around a little and responded with a smirk. “She was here a while ago but she left.”
“Left? Was she with someone?”
“Ask your boss,” a boy’s voice from the back called out. The crowd laughed.
“Guess I’m a little behind,” Cass smiled, trying to convey the message that she wasn’t a threat. “I can’t keep up with that girl’s social calendar. Anybody care to enlighten me?”
“The Sheriff keeps pretty good tabs on it,” another boy laughed. Cass heard someone whisper loudly behind him, “Shut up Kenny, you’ll get her busted.”
“Look guys, I’ve got to find her. It’s kind of a family emergency. If you can’t help me I’ll just have to get out of my car and start investigating the burning rope I smelled when I pulled up. Make y’all empty your pockets, take a look inside those vehicles, that sort of stuff. I don’t want to do that but it’s up to you. Who owns the pickup? I’ll start there.”
A big gangly kid with hair to his shoulders and a half-finished tattoo on his left forearm pushed his way to the front. “Ahh come on deputy, you don’t want to do that. We’re just out here having a little fun. We ain’t hurting nobody.”
It was Nathan Caldwell, a nineteen-year-old who’d dropped out of school in the middle of eleventh grade but had never outgrown his immaturity. “You’re right, Nathan,” Cass said, trying to still sound friendly. I’m not here to hassle you guys, I just need to know where Jenny is.”
“We don’t know,” Nathan said, looking around seeking confirmation. The sheriff came by here an hour ago and they took off.”
“Anybody know where they went,” Cass asked the crowd. There were a lot of shaking heads. A couple of girls in front twittered conspiratorially behind raised hands. Apparently Jenny’s antics with the sheriff had become general knowledge.
“Look guys, give me something—anything,” Cass pleaded. “Cause if I open this car door, a lot of you are going to be cited for possession and a couple of you might go to jail. I don’t want to be a hard-ass, but that’s just the way it is.” She pulled the inside door lever and the door popped open slightly; just enough to let them know she was serious.
Nathan turned pasty faced. Obviously there was something in the pickup he didn’t want her to see. He held up his hands defensively and said, “No, no, Deputy Rosier, no need for that. They could’ve gone almost anywhere. The sheriff usually drops her back off down here around ten.”
“Where do they usually go?”
“I da’know. Nathan turned and asked, “Anybody else know?”
“Down to the city dump,” someone shouted out. “Out to the Pit” another said. “She said something about the lake,” revealed one of the girls who had twittered earlier.
It was all the information she was going to get. “Thanks guys,” Cass called out as she closed her car door. “Just two things before I go. Nathan, I’m going to call for a vehicle check on the pickup in about two minutes. Same thing with the Malibu. If there’s anything in there, you better get rid of it in a hurry. The other thing is that if any of you are entertaining ideas of calling Jenny before I find her, just remember this. We’ll be checking her incoming calls. Any of you trying to warn her that I’m looking for her will end up in jail.”
Cass caught the couple in the act in a dark corner of the marina parking lot. She crept up on the sheriff’s Dodge Durango and peered cautiously through the windshield. What she saw sickened her—Jenny, wearing nothing but skimpy panties, kneeling on the passenger seat with her head bobbing up and down in Clint’s crotch. His head was thrown back and his eyes closed in the throes of ecstasy. Even with the vehicle running, air conditioner going full-blast, and the windows rolled up, she could hear his moans.
She wanted nothing more than to run away and erase the revolting vision from her mind’s eye, but duty stopped her. Whatever else he was, Sheriff Clint Long was a child pornographer and a pedophile who was preying at this very moment on an underage girl.
She snapped a damning picture of the couple through the windshield then flung the vehicle door open and shouted a police warning to not move.
Arresting her boss—her friend, was the hardest thing Cass had ever done as a police officer. Trembling with anger, she actually had to pull her gun to get Clint to turn around so that she could get the handcuffs on. All the while she was thinking that if this was eight years from now, his victim could have been Katy. Friend or not, Clint Long was just another scumbag—and a child abuser to boot.
The arrest threw the department into complete disarray. Though she didn’t feel like a hero, she was hailed as one in the press. In her mind she was just a police officer doing her duty. Cass struggled with the thought that she had betrayed a friend, but reconciled that dilemma with the knowledge that he was the one who had betrayed not just his badge and oath of office, but the trust of an impressionable, underage girl. She had to put duty before friend-ship, especially since there was a minor child involved.
The undersheriff was an aged, barely functional officer whom everyone liked, but knew wasn’t qualified to be sheriff. To blunt any potential political fallout from the fiasco, the county com-missioners came to Cass and requested that she serve as Acting Sheriff until a new one could be elected in November.
Whatever possessed the Republicans to nominate Deputy Cassandra Camille Rosier, a redheaded, attractive, thirty-one-year-old, divorced, female deputy with just less than seven years on the force, she couldn’t imagine; she was the least political person she knew. But she was flattered and accepted the nomination more out of a desire to not hurt anyone’s feelings than anything else. After all, she didn’t think she stood a chance in the general election.
But the Democrats nominated a little-known, inarticulate candidate who was running a terrible campaign. His campaign ads made him look like a Nazi and he had already offended the League of Women Voters by telling them that he thought women were too tender-hearted to be police officers. He provoked outrage in most of the rest of the community by saying that he thought Sheriff Long’s crime was more the girl’s fault than Long’s.
Now as she raced toward Mt. Zion and yet another encounter with a dead body apparently dressed in an evening gown, she was running the department and in the midst of a campaign to remove that ‘acting’ part from her title and change it to just plain Sheriff Cass Rosier. It appeared she was about to pull off what she and many in the county would regard as one of the most improbable wins in the history of Nicholas County politics.
The thought of being the honest-to-god sheriff would take some getting used to. Today, when people addressed her as Sheriff, she still felt like they were talking to someone else.
The crime scene was less than a half mile from Mt. Zion. The minute she arrived, Deputy McKesson escorted Cass to the wagon where a body of a young woman who looked to be in her mid to late twenties was again staged to look peacefully at rest. She looked strikingly similar to the first evening gown victim; long blonde hair, slender, fit body, perhaps a bit taller than the first woman.
She was dressed in a full-length, scarlet brocade evening gown. The soft, lustrous fabric seemed almost like a cloud around her. The dress’s dramatic squared ‘V’ sweetheart-style neckline exposed the woman’s considerable endowment. Cass shook her head. This killer obviously likes boobs and low-cut gowns, she thought.
Like the first victim, this woman had perfect makeup and elaborately done nails. Cass caught her breath when she saw an inch-wide scarlet and black lace ribbon festooned with embroidered daisies around her neck, fastened with a pearl pin.
Though the dresses were different, the color was the same. And the ribbon and pearl pin were identical to that found on the first evening gown victim.
“I’ll take lead on this,” Cass informed the other deputies. “Halvorson, you’ll assist.”
There was no scowl from Halverson this time. He’d come to respect Cass’s investigative abilities, not to mention the fact that she was now his boss—at least until the election. Cass had heard through the grapevine that Halverson had already told people he was going to vote for her.
The ME’s findings came back nearly identical to the first Jane Doe. Rape, prolonged brutal torture, and the same hideous cause of death; a syringe-full of acid delivered directly into the brain stem.
Again the killer covered his tracks well. Other than the body itself and the clothing the woman wore, there was a complete lack of physical evidence.
Six months later, a frustrated investigative team gathered to discuss whether to put the case on inactive status.
“How can someone show up and get themselves killed here with nobody knowing who they are, where they’re from or why they’re here?” Cass asked. “It’s so damn strange.”
“You’re assuming it’s a he,” new deputy Eric Zeeman said. “Just as easily could be a woman.” Zeeman was Cass’s first new hire. He was sharp as a whip and loved being a cop.
“I thought about that, Eric, and I don’t discount the possibility. But my gut tells me the killer is a man. That field we found her in was fairly muddy. We didn’t find any heel drag marks or mud on her dress. Whoever put her in that wagon was strong enough to carry her there. Most women couldn’t do that.
“Yeah you’re probably right,” Zeeman muttered, “and he’s probably hiding in plain sight right under our noses”
“Anything new from the ME?” Deputy Halvorson asked.
“No,” Cass said. “Dr. Coleman even called in the state ME and had her re-autopsy the body. As you all know, this body was prepped the same way as the first girl. Dr. Coleman is even more convinced that the killer has a medical background. I’ve been running checks on every medical professional in the county. So far they all look clean; same with morticians. I’m checking all their workers out as well.”
“This may be a long shot, Halvorson said, “but how about military service records?”
“Good Call. We’ve got a lot of veterans in the county. It’s anybody’s guess as to how many of them served as medics. I’ll put in a DOD information request and see what turns up.”
“How about the other kind of vets—veterinarians?” Zeeman asked.
“I thought of that too,” Halvorson said. “There are only two in the whole county. Doc Boynton here in town is nearly seventy years old. He’s been here over forty-years. The other guy, Doctor Beasley over in Richwood, is nearly sixty years old and just lost a foot to diabetes. Both are married and neither has a criminal history. I ran criminal background checks on both and they each came back squeaky clean.”
Cass sighed and leaned back in her chair. “I’ve been getting a lot of bad feedback lately. People are starting to lock their doors and pack guns. Concealed carry permit applications are up more than three hundred percent over the last three months, almost all of them for women. It might only be a matter of time before some nervous Nellie out there plugs some kid looking for his dog in her backyard.”
“How’s the county commission treating you?” Halverson asked.
It was a good question. She’d won the election and the ‘acting’ part of her title was gone. It was now just plain “Sheriff.” That meant a lot of people were watching and judging her performance. “Polite but nervous,” she said. “Two nearly identical unsolved murders in less than two years don’t do a lot to help their reelection chances any more than it does mine.”
Zeeman shook his head, ran his fingers through his hair and said, “Sheriff, who’d have ever thought that Nicholas County would have its very own serial killer?”
Damn you, Ricky Thornton, you stole seven years of my life! Sam’s mind screamed the accusation for what had to be the thousandth time. She slammed the phone back down in its cradle and clasped her hands together to stop their shaking.
Why is this so hard? Cass has been through this herself. If anyone will understand, it’s her.
But even as Sam questioned herself, she knew the answer. She’d been hiding the truth from Cass for more than two years. Cass might not count it as lying, but at a minimum she’d regard Sam’s omissions as a serious breach of trust.
Sam, Samantha Louise Martin, and Cass Rosier had been spit-in-the-hand, cross-your-heart, double-pinky handshake best friends since the first day of second grade. Years ago, they’d promised to always tell each other everything. Easy to do when you’re seven or eight, and even more so during the awkward teenage years. But today, 23 years later, Sam still considered the promise valid even though she was now a highly successful New York attorney and Cass was a successful cop back in good old Summersville. After all, a spit-in-the hand, cross-your-heart, double-pinky handshake promise had no expiration date.
Sam always intended to keep the promise, no matter what, and she had; at least up until the fairytale story of her perfect life with the perfect husband began to unravel. Whether from denial or embarrassment, Sam had falsely tried to maintain the façade of a happy marriage to her friend. “Ain’t right to ask other people to carry your load,” her intensely private father used to say. She shared the sentiment and hated other people knowing her intimate business. So even though she and Cass talked weekly, sometimes daily, Sam had never let a hint of the problems slip.
But now there was no way of avoiding it. There could be no more hiding; no more denial. Cass would learn the truth anyway. Far better that she learn it directly from Sam than in any other way.
I can do this, she resolved. I’m a grown woman, a highly trained attorney, an associate partner at one of the most prestigious law firms in New York City. I’ve dealt with a lot tougher situations than this.
The argument seemed valid except that, before now, all those ‘tough situations’ belonged to her clients and were by definition impersonal and distant. Never before had it been her at the eye of the storm.
Summersville was home—her sanctuary. To her mind, there was nowhere else she could ground herself and move the center of her world back to its proper place better than there. The artificial stony canyons of Manhattan wouldn’t do. She needed the real canyons of West Virginia where regular people lived quiet, normal, real lives.
Her leave of absence started yesterday. This morning the car was loaded. The UPS man had already picked up the things she had to ship. All that remained was to let Cass know that she was coming. Cass was the only person Sam could hold on to as she stepped over the precipice to at least temporarily escape her frenetic life in New York and attempt a soft landing back in the mountains where she grew up.
But the more she thought about it, the more she realized she didn’t have to fear telling Cass the truth—what she had to do instead was admit it to herself. Cass wasn’t the enemy, she her savior. The fear retreated as she finally picked up the phone and dialed this time without putting it back down. Now all she had to do was control that sudden quiver that took over her lower lip every time she’d tried to dial before.
Katy answered the phone. “Rosier residence, Katy speaking.”
“Hello, KK, this is Aunty Sam. How are you?”
“Aunty Sam!” nine-year-old Katy shouted in delight. “I’m fine. Guess what. Jackie Wooten got a new puppy, a little brown one. It’s so cute. I asked Mom if I could have one too, but she says not till I’m twelve.” The little girl’s tone turned petulant. “That’s a long time. I don’t think that’s fair, do you?”
“I don’t know,” Sam chuckled. “I’d have to think about it.” Sam wasn’t about to step into the middle of a dispute between mother and daughter. “Is your mom there?”
“Yes,” Katy said with resignation. She obviously wasn’t going to get her hoped-for ally in the puppy fight. “I’ll get her.” Without putting the phone down, she shouted into Sam’s ear, “Mom! It’s Aunty Sam. She won’t let me have a puppy either.” The phone went clattering to the counter.
“Sam!” Cass answered brightly a minute later. “How are you? Sorry about the ‘Aunty Sam’ bit. I keep trying to get her to call you Samantha.”
“Don’t worry. I like ‘Aunty Sam’ just fine. I’m sorry I haven’t called much the past few weeks. There’s been lot on my plate.” That’s an understatement, Sam thought as she eyed the final divorce decree lying on the coffee table.
Usually bright and upbeat, Sam knew she sounded down, but she couldn’t help it. Her mood was not lost on her friend.
“Okay, who is this and what have you done with my Sammy?” Cass asked. “What’s the matter, girl, did somebody run over your dog?”
“Darn you Cass Rosier, you read me faster than I sometimes read myself. Can’t you at least wait until I’m finished saying hello?” She tried to put a smile in her voice, but the trembling lip was back.
Cass paused a moment then said, “Hello, Sammy. Glad you called. How’s your gerbil? Now tell me what’s going on.”
Sam swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’m coming home Cassie. I’ll be there tomorrow night.” She said it with such indifference that it sounded more like a funeral announcement than a cause célèbre.
“Woohoo Sister,” Cass shouted! Katy and I will be jumping up and down. But there’s more, isn’t there. What’s the rest of the story darlin’?”
“I’m coming alone.”
Again there was a pause. When Cass finally spoke her tone was more guarded. “Alone, as in driving by yourself, or alone, as in unattached, say-good-bye-to-Ricky, kind of alone?”
“As in all of the above. Ricky and I are over. The divorce was final last month. I’m coming home for a while because—just because I just need to come home, that’s all. I’m pretty messed up.”
Sam waited for Cass to speak for several long moments. She was obviously digesting the news. Finally she responded in typical Cass fashion. “Sammy I—I—oh shit Sammy girl, that really sucks. Are you okay?”
“I knew you’d have just the right words for it,” Sam laughed softly. “No, I’m not okay. That’s why I’m coming. Do I ever have stories to tell you.”
“And I want to hear every one of them. What can I do to help?”
“I hate to ask, but could you go open up Daddy’s house? I need to make sure the water’s running and the lights are on, that sort of stuff.”
“Of course. Want me to hook up the hot and cold running Chippendale Dancers while I’m at it?”
Sam laughed again, a real laugh this time. “I think I’ll pass.”
“Anything else you want me to do?”
“Just don’t give up on me. I’m probably not going to be the best company for a while.”
“Don’t you worry, girl. Just get your skinny little ass down here. Do you need me to fly up and drive down with you?”
Sam shook her head. “No, no. I’ll be okay.”
“Well fine. Now that we both have exes, we can talk about them all we want while we’re sticking the pins in our voodoo dolls.”
Sam laughed again. It felt good. It was the first time in months she’d actually laughed out loud twice in the same day.