Death Lives In The Water – Snippet 09


He was more than a bit horrified. It was a head, for sure, and he had asked for a head. But it was human, and the eyes and much of the skin were gone. A boot lay beside it, with a foot in it. He looked beyond the door, peering into the woods behind his house. There was nothing to be seen, no trace of his “benefactor” could be spotted.

This he had not asked for. He had been clear when he presented his last gift, a lovely new lamb still warm and luscious, like all the others. Every time, every single time, he said exactly what he wanted.

Yet here it was, human, and a boot, with a foot. The horror of it nearly overwhelmed him.

Hastily he put on his taxidermy gloves, gathered up the offending items, and threw them in the back of the red pickup truck that was parked behind his brother’s house. He would wash his back stoop when he got back, and the truck. He drove down to the river where it gathered strength for the rapids and threw the head and foot in. With any luck the fish would take them, or the current would carry them all the way to the Mississippi. He did not like to drive. He had a schedule to keep. He needed to be home. In his haste, he cut his arm on the tailgate as he closed it.

He parked the truck behind his house and by the light of the moon got the hose out of the toolshed between the two houses. He washed his arm with strong disinfectant soap. The gash was deep; he would stitch it himself once the truck was cleaned. He washed the bed of the truck until it gleamed. He parked the truck precisely where it had been earlier. He rolled up the hose and hung it on the peg in the shed. Good work requires good work habits. Mother always told him that.


Jim sat in his office, ruminating on the incidents of the previous day. It was nearly lunch time. Ben’s story had been harrowing. Jim was pretty sure that Rory had wandered off and was betting he would show up in the next few days. As for Sparks and Ben, he felt pretty sure that Ben was traumatized for not being able to catch his dog as it fell in the well, and that his increased drinking had created an image for him to cling to. Guilt is a hard thing to endure.

He did have to admit, though, that Ben had been very badly shaken–incoherent, in fact–when he picked him up on the road near the pump house that night, and Jim knew he was sober at the time. Although he had little prior contact with the man, the few times he chatted with him at Morey’s he had not considered him as someone easily shaken.

He turned his thoughts to serious consideration of the event of the day. He would have to decide soon if he should call in Blake Meadows from the State Police in Jefferson City. There was little to go on other than the disappearance of Rory. Jim did not want to be the one who tried to explain Ben’s encounter in the pumphouse. Meanwhile, it was time for lunch, and he was more than ready. The loud growl from his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. He closed the office and headed for Morey’s.

The usual customers were nearly finished wolfing down today’s lunch offering: meatloaf, smothered in browned butter gravy, mashed potatoes, and fresh roasted carrots. Jim asked for a salad to go with it, knowing that while one serving of lunch would not be enough to quell his hunger, he needed to be aware of calories and carbs these days. The meatloaf was nearly as legendary as the apple pie, and Tuesdays were always busy at the diner.

Jim took his customary place at the communal table and listened to the gossip. He was not surprised to hear that someone had learned that Ben had sobered up and signed the sale deed. Martin had probably hurried to the courthouse to register it before the end of the business day. One of the young clerks working there had most likely been unable to resist the desire to share the news, even though it was a breach of policy. He was genuinely pleased to hear that Ben’s newly discovered sobriety had also not gone unnoticed.

The ongoing topic of conversation was the restoration of the mill and the slave quarters. Several of the customers wondered if they would put the mill back into operation, and if so, if they would they hire back some of the former workers. It was also a certain thing that workers would be needed not only to restore the mill but the restoration of the quarters. The building had been closed for years, and everything inside and out was in need of repair. Despite its tainted history, the building was well constructed of native wood, and the restoration would enhance the mill’s operation as an authentic historical site.

Halfway through his meal, the bell tinkled above the door as a young, lanky man wearing fishing boots and a mill cap came rushing in calling for the sheriff. Jim rose, took him by the arm, and went outside, aware of all eyes on him and his unexpected guest.

“What’s up?” asked Jim.

“Oh god, it’s awful. I’ve got it in the back of my truck.”

He was pale to almost white and looked like he was about to throw up. Which he did just before they arrived at his truck.

While Jim waited for him to regain his composure, he glanced in the back of the truck. There was a bucket that held a bit of water and what appeared to be three or four bass, a fishing tackle box, and a pole, still rigged for fishing. It had obviously been tossed in the truck bed by someone in a hurry. But what caught his eye the most was a large burlap tarp, covering something and held in place by a couple of large rocks and a tree limb.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Zak. Zak Millbank. I live up on the hill, work at the mill as project manager for the restoration.

“Okay. What did you want to show me?”

“Oh god, I can’t. It’s under the burlap. Please, go ahead, look.”

Jim lifted the burlap and recoiled. Two items lay on the truck bed: a foot, or more precisely, a left boot with a foot in it, and next to it, Rory O’Connor’s eyeless head.

The customers in Morey’s could see Jim’s reaction, and they poured out onto the street like cats to a fishmonger. Jim quickly replaced the burlap but not quickly enough to keep Jen Harper and one of the diners from seeing the grizzly cargo. Jen blanched while the customer hurried around the corner behind the diner, holding his hand over his mouth.

Everyone began talking at once, while Zak Millbank just sat on the curb, crying and refusing to respond to their questions. Jim turned and yelled at them.

“Leave him alone, you hear?”

There was sudden, open-mouthed silence. In the three years Jim Burch had been sheriff of Harper’s Landing no one had ever heard him raise his voice. But there was no doubting now that he was at the very least pissed off.

“You folks, either go back and finish your dinner, or go home. This is now a police matter, and I won’t have you bothering Zak here or getting all up in what might end up being evidence.”

Jen gave him a hard look, and he rested his hand briefly on her shoulder and gave it a small squeeze. She nodded, turned, and went back into the diner, herding her customers like first graders coming in from recess. Some chose to button up their dinners in to-go boxes and head home, but most chose to stay, hoping for a glimpse of something more interesting than some fishing gear and a burlap cloth.

Jim pulled out his cell phone and called the emergency number at Missouri State Police headquarters. After identifying himself, he requested to be put through to either Meadows or Murdoch. He was connected to Clay Murdoch.

“Clay, Jim Burch here. I need you and Blake up here in Harper’s Landing as soon as you can, along with CSI.”

Quickly he gave him a brief description of the contents of the truck and then mentioned there was more to the story that they would both want to hear.

“We’ll be there. Blake’s wife wanted to get him to some church social, so he’ll be grateful for the excuse to leave. Do you want us to drive or should we take a chopper up?”