Raven Morressey is living the good life. Nice home, husband, three healthy children, and it’s finally summertime, when life is again lovely in Valdez, Alaska. All this explodes one morning when builders, digging up her back yard, uncover a recently murdered headless, handless female body covered with scarification-hundreds of colored designs cut into the skin to resemble tattoos. As if this isn’t enough, where the corpse’s head should have been is a large rock with a face painted on that resembles an Alaska Native mask.
Raven’s eight year old son, Timmy, is the first one to see the body and is suddenly unable to walk or respond in any way. On that same day, Raven hears the voice of her long dead Athabascan father coming from Timmy, who is unaware of the ancient hunting chants he sings in his sleep and the words he suddenly speaks in Raven’s native tongue-a language he does not know.
Jack O’Banion, Valdez’s Chief of Police for the past few years, faced with his first murder case in Valdez, begins his official investigation. Everywhere he goes he finds nothing but deception. The town seems to have closed into itself and nobody will tell him anything that might help him solve this case. Then one murder quickly morphs into two, and then three, and the Alaska State Troopers are hot on his back to find the killer now.
Between Raven’s voices and the visions she develops, and Jack, whose career as well as his contented life in Valdez are on the line, they both feel they have to find the killer and restore some sanity to the town-not to mention their own lives, which are quickly unraveling out of control.
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Five Stars! “I just finished reading RAVEN TALKS BACK written by Beth Anderson on my Kindle! Wow! This woman can WRITE! If you love mysteries with an Indian background (this one is set in Alaska) you will love this. Written from two points of view, the mood of the book changes with the characters. I had trouble putting this one down. Breath-taking ending. Worth way more than the $2.99 it cost me.” -Jackie King
“I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and certainly didn’t pick the murderer. This is amazing, because I pick the murderer in most novels at least halfway through! The plot is excellent, the writing outstanding. The characters are well drawn, believable and the reader soon feels great sympathy for them. Imagery of Alaska is interesting and in no way obscures the real purpose of the story, which is to tell a great yarn! I hope there will be more “Raven” mysteries coming from the pen of this author. Good on ya mate!” -Diana Hockley in Australia, for Kings River Life Magazine
Five Stars! “Aside from being a tightly woven, exciting mystery, Raven Talks Back is also a thoughtful, ethereal novel that speaks of the past of this small Alaskan town in beautiful rich imagery. Raven’s reasonably pleasant world where – ‘Flowers bloom in the summertime, otters play down by the city dock, silver fish jump out of the water, owls and eagles glide high over the countryside and up into the mountains’ – is suddenly thrown into a nightmare that refuses to end. Anderson is an excellent writer and handles her material with impressive skill. You turn the pages faster and faster as you near the thrilling climax. I’m looking forward to the next in this series, and I highly recommend Raven Talks Back…” -Joan Hall Hovey, Award Winning Author.
Five Stars! “Can’t wait for the next in the series of Raven Morressey’s mysteries. Three murders in one little Alaskan village, a family torn apart as bodies are discovered, an 8-year-old fun-loving boy unable to speak from the shock of seeing the first body, a cop mystified by dead bodies turning up, and town people so defensive, keeps this book quite exciting. There are many twists and turns as you wonder who is really guilty. I’ve read several of this author’s books but this one outdoes them all and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good mystery” -Bingo0605
Five Stars! “Beth Anderson truly put her thinking cap on before she started this gripping book. She took care to twist all the stories together like a beautiful and intricate blanket. Had I started at the end of the book and pushed the last person backwards, I would have sent all the characters stumbling into each other like dominos. Brilliant! I was sincerely guessing who could be the murderer all the way through to the end. Raven Talks Back is CLEVER, CLEVER, CLEVER!!” -Stacey Bucholtz
Five Stars! “The reviewers who came before me covered everything wonderfully. Ms. Anderson has created a magnificent book. The characters are outstanding. Every word draws you into the lives of the “players” in this mystery. There is not a wasted word and the story brings you face to face with Alaska and its residents. You smell the air, get absorbed into the atmosphere, and become a part of the culture and lives of the characters. Ms. Anderson has always written very good books, but this one tops them all. Get yourself a copy and enjoy!” -VirgAnn
The spirits of my ancestors live in the towering Chugach Mountains that surround my world in Valdez. I know they are there. I can see them most mornings, great cottony masses of gray fog rolling down the mountains, sinister characters in a black and white movie, shivering and mourning their disintegration above the marina before they disappear over Prince William Sound.
They call to me through that fog, whispering my name. I hear them, soft, desolate sounds you can only hear if you’re really a part of this beautiful land.
My people will tell my story to future generations of Athabascans, and tourists from the lower forty-eight who come to walk through our villages and see for themselves how little is left of what we were. We have no written ancient history. Everything known about our past has evolved only because of stories told in the dark of night before our children go to sleep, when wind screams over the mountaintops and roars down through the passes, bringing the icy chill of our glaciers spiraling into our homes in spite of insulation invented by modern man. The wind is still bitter and we know it.
Even so, we lead a lovely, slow-paced life in this part of Alaska, where flowers burst with fragrant beauty everywhere in the summertime, and deep undercurrents of love and laughter seem to hover beneath the surface of our daily lives.
At least to me it had always been that way, until the Saturday morning in early June, when my world of gentle laughter disappeared and violent death entered the soft space I had occupied all my adult life.
The thought had never entered my mind that I might find myself standing in my back yard shuddering with nausea and disbelief, staring down at a nude female body with no head or hands, and equally horrifying, a painted rock close to where her head would have been. The only other thing missing was blood.
Mark Taylor’s men had graded and leveled our yard the previous week, ready to set the foundation for the attached greenhouse my husband, Red, had been promising for years. Alaska winter days are so short and dark that nothing grows without a heated greenhouse and ultraviolet light. Of all the things I longed for in the wintertime, I missed fresh flowers most.
As was often the case in Valdez, things got done whenever they got done no matter which day it was. I hadn’t known they were coming on Saturday. Mark and his men had simply pulled into the driveway and started working.
My eight-year-old son Timmy stood under the tall pine in the northeast corner of the yard with his thumb in his mouth. I froze when I turned and saw him because he hadn’t done that for three years, ever since he’d started school. I hurried over to him, pulling him close. He shivered when my fingers brushed over his arm and his skin felt cold, although it was quite warm that morning and the fog was already beginning to dissipate over the Sound.
“Timmy, are you hurt?” I forced my voice to stay calm because his black eyes were ringed with white and his lips were a bluish tint.
He pointed toward Jack O’Banion, our chief of police, without making a sound.
I frowned, puzzled by his silence. Timmy had never had a problem speaking; he’d been talking nonstop since he was eleven months old. Now he just shook his head and looked back down at the ground.
Alice, my daughter, was still at the door, where we’d brushed past her in our rush to get outside after she’d awakened us from a sound sleep a few minutes before. I beckoned for her to come.
A surrealistic film seemed to float over the yard as she headed my way. Although she was only twelve, she was constantly swiping her long black hair away from her eyes the way girls did on TV, and lately she had taken to walking in slow motion, her hips moving in a deliberate way that made me nervous. Her voice, shrill with fear before, was now flat and emotionless. “I don’t think he can talk. He saw it first.”
I glanced down at Timmy again. One of the straps on his overalls had come unbuttoned. His black hair hung down over his eyebrows, reminding me as it always did of my father and his father before him when they returned, sweaty and exhausted, from their caribou hunting trips.
His feet were bare, as usual. They were never cold until after termination dust, first snow, appeared on the surrounding mountains early in September, when the temperature would dip below twenty degrees at night. Other than that he went barefoot everywhere, but today his feet were blue and mottled. I tried to pick him up to carry him into the house where I could warm him, but he seemed to have gained twenty pounds overnight. I could not lift him and he could not move.
“Red,” I called, “I need help here. Come carry Timmy into the house for me, will you?”
Red turned to face me. “Why can’t he walk?”
“I think he’s in shock, Red. He’s ice-cold.”
At that, Jack strode over to us and knelt, lifting Timmy’s chin with his finger.
“You okay, son?”
I’d never before heard such a compassionate tone of voice coming from Jack. I’d always thought him distant and unreadable, but this time even the look in his eyes had softened somewhat, a real departure from his usual all-business behavior, and for the first time I found myself drawn to him, whereas before there had been nothing to like or not like.
Timmy turned away from him, still silent.
Jack felt Timmy’s forehead then glanced up at me. “He feels clammy. You’re probably right, I’m pretty sure he’s in shock. Mark told me he was watching while they were loosening up the dirt a little more and he saw it first.”
My heart almost stopped. “What did he do?”
“They told me he ran over to the tree where you found him and hid his eyes with his hands. He hasn’t made a sound. Let’s get him inside so you can call Doc Martin. Tell him I said to get on over here, he can check Timmy first and then I’ll need him out here.”
Timmy shuddered. Jack picked him up without effort and slung him over his shoulder. What a picture they made, Jack in his silver-tipped snakeskin boots and cowboy hat, long legs striding across the lawn toward the house, worn leather holster moving as he walked, and my sad, silent little boy lying limp on Jack’s shoulder with his eyes closed.
I followed them into the house but found myself glancing up into the nearby mountains as if someone were crouched, hidden from sight with binoculars trained on us, watching our every move.
Someone had to be watching. I could feel the certainty of it snaking along under my skin. Otherwise, why had the body been left in our yard?
At eight-thirty that morning Jack had been on his way to the Eagle, Valdez’s only grocery store except for the warehouse-type store on Egan Drive. This morning he was still half asleep and everything was peaceful. For those who left the lower forty-eight and came here to live, the slow pace was welcome, but for those who became chief of police it was usually boring as hell, a far cry from Dallas. Just the way he liked it.
He wanted to stop and pick up a box of donuts for his men before he checked in at the station, which was really just a couple of rooms in the main building that also housed the city hall and fire house. He had to admit the donuts weren’t really for his men, but probably more for his own insatiable sweet tooth. It hadn’t affected his weight though. He glanced ruefully down at his waistline while he drove. Well, not much.
At first, when he spotted Mark Taylor waving him down and saw the big mound in the Morressey’s back yard as he pulled in, he thought somebody had shot a bear. The Alaska media would play that up big time, because bears were news no matter what they were doing. They’d mosey on down the mountains from time to time and the cops would always try not to shoot them unless they had to.
In fact, it was like a big holiday when anybody spotted a bear in town. They’d call him and he’d come racing over with a handful of firecrackers. Everybody would run outside to watch him light a few and toss them in the general vicinity of the bear, which would think it was being shot at and haul ass back up into the mountains where it belonged. Then everybody would go inside and have coffee and cake.
Not this day, though.
The corpse in the Morressey back yard was not a bear, it was a woman who had been so brutally murdered it made his eyes swim for a minute while his mind tried to deny what he was seeing. This was the last thing he ever expected to see in the Morressey’s back yard, or in anybody’s back yard up here, and the thought of a murder like this in Valdez sickened him.
He stood over the body to examine it as much as possible without touching it, wondering who it was and what she could have done to deserve anything this violent and senseless, but he couldn’t spend time right now wondering about the unknowns. He could see the knowns without any problem. He pulled out his recorder and began to dictate as he moved around the body.
“At approximately eight-thirty this morning, an unidentified nude female body was discovered buried in the back yard of 4355 Moose Haven Avenue, where a foundation is being dug for construction of a greenhouse on the property of Red and Raven Morressey, residents at the same address.
“We have no identification as yet. The victim’s head and both hands have been severed from the body. A white rock approximately twelve inches in diameter had evidently been placed where her head would have been, although it’s crooked and adjacent to the body now, probably from being moved by the scoop loader used by the builders this morning. The rock appears to be a replica of an Alaska Native ceremonial mask, with two black dots for the eyes and a red circular mark indicating a mouth. There are faint blue signs of blood inside the skin toward the bottom of the torso. Rigor has come and gone.”
He clicked the recorder off for a minute. Spiders were crawling around over the body fighting over the maggots and flies were everywhere, mainly the top of what was left of the victim’s neck and between the legs. He didn’t see much sense in adding that to his report, the rest would get them close enough to time of death, and the bugs were common enough here.
He sighed, clicking the recorder back on. “Blisters two or three inches across have formed on various parts of the body, indicating the victim has been dead at least three days.”
There’d be no way anybody could pick this one up without skin coming loose. It reminded him of floaters found out in the Sound every once in a while among the driftwood and seaweed, bloated, nasty as hell, completely unrecognizable.
“The victim’s torso appears to be completely covered with tattoos.”
He knelt, trying to see whether they were real without touching the body.
“Correction, the apparent tattoos are raised cuts which have healed to form what looks like tattoos but is actually scarification, which is a method used by some tattoo artists to ensure permanence.
“There are no visible blood spatters anywhere in the area. It appears the killer let her bleed out at the murder scene and washed her before he brought her to this location, dumped her, and covered her with some of the loosened dirt.”
He clicked off his recorder and glanced up at Mark, owner of the construction company. “This is not your everyday cutter. Somebody pretty good had to have done this over a long period of time.”
“I never saw anything like it,” Mark said. “Do you have any idea who it is?”
Jack shook his head and looked around at the other men. “Has anybody touched anything?”
They all said no.
“Is it real?” asked Red, squinting because the sun was directly in his eyes.
“Who is it?”
Jack looked up again, his eyes narrowed. “We’ll find out sooner or later. I’ve never seen cuts like that on anybody before, at least not in the flesh. I’ve seen photos on the Internet, that’s it.”
“I’ve never seen it at all,” said Red. “I wonder how she got out here?”
Jack peered at him from under the brim of his Stetson. “You tell me. It’s your yard.”
Red’s face, normally ruddy all year round, turned a couple shades whiter and he looked as if he might throw up.
Jack felt nauseous too, but he didn’t want to let anybody see it. He never showed that side of himself to anyone. Not since his last murder case, anyhow.
“I didn’t know it was out here,” said Red. “If I did, I’d never have had the yard dug up, that’s for damn sure. I never saw whoever this is before, that I know of anyhow.” He hunched over and peered down at the body. “Who around here would do something like that?”
Jack looked up at him again. “I don’t know, but you can be damn sure I’m going to find out.” He turned toward Mark and his men. “All of you, walk single file out of the yard, don’t step on anything that looks like it could be a footprint. Go sit in the truck and I’ll call for somebody to cordon off the area.”
The minute he said, “cordon off the area,” he knew his easy days in Alaska had come to an end. He’d never cordoned off an area in Valdez for a murder like this. There hadn’t been any murders here like this until today.
He was so sick of grisly crime scenes. That last one back in Dallas…well, best not think about that right now, although there were similarities. Then again, most all murder victims had similarities, except in the scale of brutality. This killer was brutal all right, and definitely had good control with a knife. All the cuts were clean. Whoever it was had done each cut in one swift, vicious slice.
He got on his cell and told two of his officers to pack up a body bag and get on over here.
Red was still looking down at the corpse, his forehead wrinkled like Jack’s old Setter’s whenever he spotted a bird on hunting trips in Texas.
“But how the hell did it get here, Jack? This yard was just dug up last Saturday, before that it was rock-solid. Somebody who saw the yard being dug up had to have done this.” He glanced over at Mark and his men. “I wonder if one of them could have anything to do with this. Both of Mark’s men are Alaska Natives, and that rock definitely is a replica of those masks they use in their ceremonies.”
Jack was already thinking about questions to ask them. He was also, for the moment, wishing he’d stayed in Dallas, where a squad of detectives would have taken care of things like this, and maybe it wouldn’t be his squad for a change. Here, he was the squad, and in Valdez kills were almost always bar fights, or if it was a marital thing it usually happened in the winter. The locals liked to call them Alaskan Divorces.
Jack’s men showed up and got busy taping off the area, snapping digitals, drawing pictures, setting up a grid, searching the surrounding yards. He had to help Doc with the body because by that time his men, both rookies, were gagging behind their vehicle after they tried to pick it up and it slipped away from them, leaving skin residue on their gloves and shoes.
He spotted a green thread on the victim’s arm as they rolled her onto the body bag. It could have come from the yard, but he pulled it from the body with some tape and dropped it into a plastic bag, then wrapped the rock in a tarp from the back of his vehicle and marked that too.
The whole time he was taking care of business, he could hear the soft voice of his grandmother, who had raised him after his mother left and his father died, and whose voice had been stilled several years ago.
“You know what you need to do to make this right, son. Go do it.”
I had expected Doc to take care of Timmy first but he took a quick look, told me to keep him covered and give him something warm to drink, then disappeared out back for over an hour while I lay cuddling Timmy, trying to keep him warm.
He shivered, as he had the previous winter when he was sick with a virus, then fell asleep, making strange, guttural noises deep in his throat that reminded me of an ancient Athabascan chant my father used to sing when I was a kid. I could have sworn it was the same chant, but my father died years before Timmy was born and Timmy had never heard it.
Still, it sounded like my father’s voice and I found myself wondering how Timmy could have done that. Then again, when children are in the throes of a nightmare, who knows what sounds might come out of them? Nightmares are deep and powerful events and voices in them are often surreal.
I put it out of my mind when Doc came into the bedroom. Timmy was half asleep and didn’t respond, even when Doc tapped his knee with a rubber hammer.
Doc, a heavy-set man with a pale complexion and thick flying sandy hair that as usual hadn’t been cut in a while, glanced my way. “He walked into the house, didn’t he?”
“No. Jack carried him in.”
Doc frowned. “Was he standing when you were outside? He didn’t pass out and hit his head on anything, did he?”
“He was standing when I went to him. I just can’t get him to say anything.”
Doc touched Timmy’s forehead and he opened his eyes.
“Son, did you get hurt out there?”
Timmy shook his head and closed his eyes again.
Doc looked up at me. “He saw it, right? Out back?”
“I did.” Flashes of the scene in my yard were coming back to me now, a slide show running a little too fast.
I lowered my voice. “What I can’t figure out is why anyone would bury a body in my yard. It’s beyond frightening. I feel very threatened. I don’t like this feeling at all.”
Doc patted Timmy’s arm. “Let’s go into another room and talk, Raven. He’ll be okay here.”
We went into the kitchen and I poured him a cup of coffee, black like he always took it. Doc had delivered all three of my children so he wasn’t just our doctor, he was family, as he was to so many people in town. He was also the town’s unofficial medical examiner. Valdez was so far from the Alaska State Troopers’ main location that quite a while back they had licensed him to perform autopsies rather than try to transport the body to them.
I made myself a cup of Earl Grey tea, which I’d been drinking all day, every day, since I discovered it in college, while he settled into one of the kitchen chairs and took a sip. “Timmy’s probably going to have a hard time for a while,” he said. “Keep him warm but try to get him back into the normal family routine as soon as you can. Don’t make him sleep without a night light if he wants one. I know a good child psychologist in Anchorage who treats Post Traumatic Shock Disorder. Timmy’s got all the signs of it.”
I was dismayed. It was such a long trip to Anchorage, especially to drive there. We’d have to fly every time. “I have to take him all the way up to Anchorage? Can’t you treat him here?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know that much about this kind of thing with kids. We need to get him to somebody who does. Call me Monday morning and I’ll set something up for you, but if you have any problems over the weekend, no matter what time it is, call me right away.”
He took a last sip of coffee and stood. “Looks like I’ve got a busy day coming up. You don’t happen to know any female who’s covered with cuts that look like tattoos, do you?”
“No,” I said, “I have no idea who it could be, but then I don’t see people running around town naked.” I realized what he’d just said and looked up at him, frowning. “What do you mean, cuts that look like tattoos?”
Doc pulled at his ear. “Well, some people have cuts made on their bodies and the design is formed by raised scars as they heal. They rub indelible colored ink on them while the wounds are still fresh and the color forms what amounts to a three-dimensional tattoo, or in her case, a couple hundred or so.”
My jaw dropped. I’d never heard of anything like that, although I had toyed with the idea of a tattoo while I was in college. “What kind of person would do a thing like that?”
His mouth formed a wry grin. “Somebody who likes pain, I guess.”
“I wonder who it could be.”
“I don’t know, but there can’t be many like that around here. I know none of my patients have ever been decorated like this body is.”
I shuddered. “I can’t imagine doing anything that must hurt so much.”
“Well, our dead friend must have liked it a lot,” he muttered, heading out the door.
A few minutes later, while I was still sitting at the table, Alice came into the kitchen.
“They took it away. I watched the whole thing. It was gross.” She opened the breadbox. “I guess we’re not having breakfast, huh?” She took a quick glance at my face.
“I don’t see how you can eat anything after seeing that.” I sipped my tea and watched her carefully measured movements. “Are you sure you’re okay? That’s got to have been an awful shock.”
“I’m okay now.” She started to drop her bread in the toaster, then changed her mind. “Besides, I see stuff almost that bad on HBO all the time.”
“But this was real and it was in our back yard, Alice. I can’t figure out how anyone could have buried someone out there without being seen.”
“Easy. They did it at night.” She spread peanut butter all the way to the edge just as she always had.
“It’s not that dark at night now, Alice. Someone had to have seen it.”
She gave me a sideways smile and bit into the bread, shrugging. “Maybe a ghost did it. You’re always talking about the spirits of our ancestors hanging around, so hey, maybe one of them…” She rolled her eyes. “Mom, I was just kidding. Maybe Charlie saw something. He’s always up at night.”
“Speaking of Charlie, go get him.”
She returned about five minutes later with Charlie, still in his underwear, stumbling down the stairs behind her, his eyes heavy with sleep.
“Did Alice tell you what happened this morning?”
He rubbed his eyes. “She babbled something about somebody getting killed someplace. So? Is it anybody we know?”
Alice grinned. “Not unless you know somebody with full body tattoos, numb-nuts, and I do mean full body. She even had them on her—” She stopped abruptly at the look on my face and giggled, turning away to pour a glass of milk.
“What the hell is she jabbering about? Isn’t there anything to eat around here?” Charlie lowered his head almost to the tabletop. His thick red hair, which he usually spiked with some kind of gel every day, hung down over his forehead, obscuring his eyes.
Charlie was a typical sixteen-year-old male, bored all the time. The town had built a teen center on West Hanigeta but there was nothing else for kids to do in the evenings. No movie house, no bowling alley. The center was pretty much it.
Red had started a senior scout troop for the boys several years back. The older kids mainly messed around on their computers at night and ran in and out of each others’ houses at all hours, but at least Charlie and his friends still belonged to the scout troop.
To me, they seemed like normal kids, playing CD’s at night and talking while they goofed around on their computers. We let it pass, since they slept on the opposite side of the house and we rarely heard the noise. It was comforting just to know where he and his friends were most of the time.
“Charlie!” I said sharply because he was beginning to doze again. His head shot up. “I need to know if you’ve seen anything strange in the back yard in the past week.”
“Not if you mean somebody burying a body out there.”
“I mean anyone walking through the yard.”
Charlie scratched his armpit, glaring at his sister, then shrugged. “The guys walk through there at night all the time, Mom. How am I supposed to know who’s been back there? My room’s in front.” He gave Alice a wicked grin. “Maybe you ought to ask her. Right, Alice?”
“What are you talking about?” I turned to her. “What did he mean?”
She flushed a deep pink. “Oh, Mom, once in a while some of the girls sneak out in the middle of the night and come over here, too. We don’t do anything wrong, just sit around and talk about boys and stuff.” She gave her brother a malevolent glare.
“We’ll have a little talk about that later,” I said. “Meantime, have you noticed anyone or anything out back at night?”
“Mom, animals walk through the yards around here all the time. I hear stuff, sure, but nothing like you’re talking about.”
Our house was on the edge of town in a cul-de-sac bordered by the highway on one side, halfway hidden by tall bushes and trees on the outer edge. One new two-story house had just been built on the other side, and several houses sat in a row across the street from ours.
The fourth side, at the back of the house, was pretty much hidden from a side street which ran into the highway. About a mile or so across from the highway stood a mountain range, cold and forbidding in the wintertime, but in the summer, filled with fireweed and tall green pine trees.
Alice was right. Anyone could walk into our back yard at night and we’d probably think it was deer or a bear and never give it a second thought.
Jack headed back inside after Doc left. He wanted in the worst way to find out what was really going on in the Morressey household. He’d always felt something was not the way it seemed in that family, although he could never put his finger on it.
The coupling of those two puzzled him because they were so different. She came from an Alaska Native family. Her natural black hair and high cheekbones, as well as those haunting deep-set dark eyes, testified to that. He thought she was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen, not only on the outside but inside, too. Listening to her talk was like listening to Joan Baez sing an old Seventies folk song, soft and somewhat sad, but always worth honing in on.
On the other hand, some town people seemed leery of Red, although Jack wasn’t sure why, he’d never seen Red do anything out of the way. Now his gut was telling him to go slow, be careful, because why would anyone pick this yard to bury a body, when they could easily have hidden it up in the mountains where it might not have been found for months or years? Maybe never, if the animals found it first. There had to be a reason.
It wasn’t going to be easy finding it. Everybody in town knew Raven was finally having her greenhouse built and the yard was being dug up. There’d been a lot of talk about it all week in town so at least he was clear on one thing. Whoever murdered this woman knew about the digging and wanted the body found in this yard.
He settled himself into a chair in the kitchen where they were all four sitting, staring at each other.
“Alice? Charlie? Have either of you seen or heard anything out back this past week?” He knew he was just yanking his own strings. None of the teenagers he’d been around ever seemed to notice anything except what was going on in their own lives. He was that way himself when he was growing up. Girls, cars, sports, that was about it.
Naturally, both kids said no.
He turned back to Red. “For the record, can you account for your time during the last few days?”
Red’s eyes narrowed. “Sure, I guess so.”
“Would you mind writing it all down for me, including anyone who saw you?”
Raven got up and got two sheets of paper and two pens. Red started to write his movements over the past week and Raven began writing her own without being asked.
After they were done, Jack pointed toward the new house that had recently gone up next door. “Do y’all know anything about those people? All I know is, it’s a couple and somebody’s mother.”
The house was visible out of Raven’s window and he thought, as he had before, how strange it was that there were no windows anywhere on the first floor except for one small window high up. It had to almost reach the ceiling because right above that, four large windows spread across the back of the house.
Even though snow often reached twenty-three feet or more in Valdez in the winter, whenever there were good days it was nice to let a little natural light in. He couldn’t figure a house with only one window that high up on the first floor, but there it was. There were no windows on the other three sides either. These people had brought their own contractors in, complete with their own city builders’ license. As long as they didn’t do anything wrong, they were on their own.
“I’ve never seen anyone there except for the builders,” said Raven. “Red, have you?”
Red shook his head.
Raven glanced at Alice and Charlie, her eyes questioning.
“I’ve never seen anybody,” said Alice.
“How about you?” Jack asked Charlie.
“Nope,” said Charlie, “they don’t have any kids my age or I’d have seen them. We haven’t had anybody new all year at school except for the freshmen and I know all of them.”
Jack pushed back his chair and headed for the door.
“I’m going to go find out if anybody’s there now,” he said. “That’s as good a place as any to start.”
Just as he reached the dividing line to the next yard, his cell phone rang. He answered it, glancing at his watch.
It had to be Vera, he could smell the pheromones. She had enough of them to fill the countryside and then some.
“Hi, baby,” she purred. “I can be at your place in fifteen minutes.”
“Uh…Vera, I’ll have to call you back. Something’s happened here and I have to talk to some people.”
“Can’t you talk later?” she half-whispered. “I’m horny as hell and I need my Jack fix right now, know what I mean?”
He cleared his throat, trying to shake the voice that had been revving his world for the past few months. “Not right now, honey, I’m working. There’s been a murder here.”
“A murder? Who?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Right now we don’t know who she is but believe me, she’s dead. I’ll have to call you later.”
“Want me to come pick up your key and go on over to your place and get ready?”
His eyebrows rose when he heard the low seduction in her voice. A little thing like murder didn’t mean a whole hell of a lot to her, that was clear, but he didn’t let anybody have the key to his house, even Vera. He’d been dodging this issue for a while, so he tried to sound regretful. “I don’t have time right now. I’ll have to call you. I’m right in the middle of things here.”
That was true enough, he was standing halfway between the Morressey house and the new one. “Later, okay?”
There was silence, then a click. He shook his head. Vera had a fierce temper when she was crossed. He knew he’d be in for it that night if he saw her, but probably not what he was hoping he’d be in for.
He went to the front of the house and knocked on the door. A female voice shouted, “Hold your horses, I’ll be there in a minute!”
He waited a couple of minutes, then knocked again.
The same voice, a little closer now. “Just hold your damn horses, for cryin’ out loud! I’m comin’, I’m comin’!”
When the door opened and he looked in he saw the entire first floor was what amounted to one fully furnished great room, separated only by a huge stone fireplace in the middle, with a see-through opening into the kitchen right behind the front door. They had everything anybody could need and more, all of it first-class.
Nobody in the Morressey house had seen anything being moved in? He found that hard to believe, considering what all was there.
The furniture wasn’t his only surprise. Attached to the back wall, which faced the Morressey house, was a motorized chair with a track leading up only to the small window he’d seen from outside.
“Well, come on in,” barked the same voice from behind the door. “What the hell’re you waitin’ for, after poundin’ like that?”
A head peeked out. “Takes this old body a long time to get to the damn door, young man. You gonna stand there all day scratchin’ your balls, or are you comin’ in?”
He edged into the open foyer eyeing the woman, who kicked the door shut with her foot, then wheeled herself across the room like she was coming in second at the Tour de France.
She motioned toward the sofa. “Sit,” she ordered.
He sat, still trying to eye the track without letting her know he was staring at it.
“I had that built in,” she said. “They didn’t want windows on the first floor on account of the high snow. I wanted one and it’s my money so I had it installed when they weren’t here. I knew it’d drive ‘em crazy and it does.” She grinned, obviously proud of herself.
He nodded, still surprised by a chair that could only go up to nowhere and then back down. They eyed each other while she set her wheelchair brakes.
“You’re the chief of police, ain’t you?” She smiled with satisfaction at her own cunning.
“I am,” he agreed while he gave her a quick once-over. She couldn’t have been more than four-foot-ten, ninety-five pounds. Probably close to seventy-five years old. Long white hair flew wild around her face, half-shielding wide open blue eyes, but there was something about those eyes…. He took another look and realized one was glass.
A purple housedress with two top buttons open hung from her shoulders, and knee-hi stockings that barely covered a slew of varicose veins were rolled almost down to her red and white Reebok running shoes.
“Nice shoes,” he commented.
“Ought to be. Cost me a pretty penny, but it’s my pennies and I’ll spend ‘em any damn way I want.” She raised her chin, daring him to contradict her. He waited.
“If you’re wanting to talk to my son and his…” she hesitated, then spat out the word “wife, they ain’t here. They drove up to Anchorage yesterday, should be back a little later on today.”
She nodded. “Bitch wants new drapes. The ones my decorator picked out ain’t good enough for her. I’m payin’ for them, too, like everything else.” She drew herself up into a tight knot. “My husband left me a skunk-load of money, plus what I had anyways. She’s spendin’ it as fast as she can.”
He smiled inside. “What did your husband do?”
“Oil. He was a CEO, flew in and out of here a lot. We were going to build a house here, then he croaked on me so I built it anyways. And besides that, don’tcha know, I used to be a famous movie star!”
He tried not to look surprised, although when he looked closer he could see flashes of fading beauty underneath her wrinkles. “What’s your name?”
She grinned, toying with him. “My movie star name or my real name?”
He shifted in his chair to get a closer look. “How about your real name first.”
She laughed out loud, a cackling, hacking sound, and slapped her thigh. “I’m Kimberley Clarke. Used to be Kim Stiletto back in my movie days.”
Stiletto? He thought back because he didn’t want to offend her. “I’m sorry,” he had to admit, “I never went to movies much. What movies did you make?”
She laughed again and unbuttoned a third button, then leaned toward him. “Take a look.” She grabbed both sides of the top like she was going to rip it open.
He held up his hand to stop her. “Ma’am…Mrs. Clarke, I’m here on official business. I need to ask you a few questions and I’ll be on my way.”
“You don’t want to hear about my movies?” she wheedled.
“Okay, tell me about your movies.” Anything to keep her from showing him whatever was under that dress.
She grinned at him. “Pornos, sonny. I did pornos. Made a hell of a lot of money at it too.” She chuckled, eyeing him while she re-did the top button, leaving the two middle ones open.
“So,” she said after she got her dress arranged to her satisfaction, “I saw ‘em take that body away while ago. That’s why you’re here, ain’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am. What can you tell me about it?”
She shrugged and he noticed one side of her mouth smiled more than the other. He leaned closer, all business now. “Did you see who buried that body in the Morressey’s yard, Mrs. Clarke?”
She glanced up at the window. “I don’t spend all my time looking out that window. I ain’t that bored with life, not yet anyways.”
“I don’t know how much time you spend there, Mrs. Clarke. I just want to know if you saw anything unusual over there.”
She leaned toward him, tapping him on the knee. “Did you know I used to be a famous movie star?”
“Yes, I did, Mrs. Clarke. That’s very nice. Now, about the Morressey’s back yard. Have you seen or heard anything different over there in the past week or so?”
“I made porno movies. My son’s wife hates it.” She chuckled under her breath. “She’s a school teacher, didja know that?”
He shook his head, trying to suppress a smile.
“Well she is, she teaches English. She’s applied for a job here. I got a way to get even with her for stealin’ my son and my money. Guess what it is. Go ahead, guess.”
His hopes were sinking fast. “I don’t have a clue.”
“I fracture every damn word I can think of. Drives her crazy, so I do it all day and all night. I know better, but I do it anyways.” She laughed again. “Can you think of a better way to drive an English teacher nuts?”
“No, I guess I can’t.” He stood and held out his hand. “It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Mrs. Clarke. I’ll stop by later and speak with your son and his wife.”
“Wait, don’tcha want to see how my chair works?” She hopped out of the wheelchair, took two firm steps, then realized what she’d done and spun back around to face him, perfectly steady on her feet. “Don’t you dare ever tell them I can walk.”
Her voice had completely changed. It was deeper, stronger, more definite, and her diction was clear. “Don’t you dare ever. I absolutely mean that.”
“No, ma’am,” he agreed. “I won’t say a word.”
Her left eyebrow rose. “Just keep that in mind when you cash your paycheck, young man. I pay the taxes here.”
She strode over to the chair, settled herself into it, pushed a button and the chair carried her up the wall. She looked down at him, then out the window.
Her voice rose and her fractured grammar returned. “Yes siree, I can see real damn good from up here. I can see nearly everything.” The chair slid back down the track.
“But you haven’t seen anything unusual this past week, is that right?”
She gazed at him for a long minute while she settled back into her wheelchair. “I did over five hundred of them movies.” Her voice had softened now, drifting, her speech slurred again. “Over five hundred.”
This wasn’t getting him anywhere. God only knew what she’d seen or if she remembered anything about it.
“Thank you, Mrs. Clarke. I’ll check back with your family later.” He was about to let himself out when he heard a noise in the yard. He opened the door and peered out then closed it. “Looks like they’re home.”
“Bitch probably bought out Anchorage again.” She arranged herself in her wheelchair so she slumped sideways. “Remember, mum’s the word!”
He nodded and the door opened. A man entered, glanced at him, then Kimberley. “What’s going on here?”
“I’m Chief of Police O’Banion. I stopped by to see if you folks heard or saw anything unusual going on next door in the past few days.”
His wife walked in, struggling with a couple of shopping bags. “Unusual in what way? Who are you?” She glanced toward Kimberley as she dropped her packages on a chair.
“That’s my new boyfriend,” Kimberley said, wriggling with obvious enjoyment. “We just popped off a quickie. Good thing you didn’t get home fifteen minutes ago.”
Now he was doubly uncomfortable, partly because of her remark and also because her son was still holding his hand.
“I’m Clint Clarke and this is my wife, Melissa,” her son said, finally breaking the clinch. “Don’t pay any attention to my mother. What’s the problem next door?”
Jack took a good look at both of them. Clint was about five-ten, salt-and-pepper hair. Manicured fingernails, soft hand, a pot-belly that propped up a striped pullover shirt, loafers scuffed and run down.
In wild contrast to her husband, not a stitch was out of place on his wife and she didn’t appear to have an extra ounce of flesh. Her red hair seemed to have just been done up and her movements were swift and sure as she pulled off her sweater and dropped it on the floor, ignoring Kimberley’s astonished look.
“Yes,” she said, “is something wrong?”
“Mrs. Clarke, an unidentified female body was just dug up next door this morning. I came to see if anybody here has seen or heard anything going on over there in the past few days.”
They glanced at each other, then back at him. “I haven’t,” said Clint. “I don’t have time to talk to the neighbors. I’m getting ready for my new job.”
“What’s your new job?”
“I’m taking a course in engineering.”
“Mail order,” said Kimberley. “He’s a permanent student. Keeps him from having to go out and earn an honest living.”
Clint flushed. “I’m almost done. I have a good offer here but I need to finish this course. My wife will probably teach English at the high school this fall.”
“And I’m gonna help,” Kimberley chimed in. “I’m gonna give talks to all her classes about the movie business.” She flashed a grin at Melissa, apparently oblivious to the way her daughter-in-law’s jaw worked, silent but furious.
Melissa caught him watching and recovered quickly. “I haven’t seen or heard anything, so if you’ll excuse us….” She rose, putting an end to the conversation.
He wasn’t going to get any information here, not today, anyway. He let himself out the door and headed back across the Morressey’s yard, glancing at the windows as he passed the house. The shades were drawn.
When he got back in his vehicle he headed for the north side of town, where Oliver Jackson, the first of Mark’s men he wanted to interview, lived with his wife and six kids.
The scenes in this document are copyrighted by Beth Anderson and may not be reproduced anywhere for any reason without express permission from the author.