I am hopelessly behind on my fourth book in the Winnebago County Mystery Thriiler Series. I keep wondering what is going to happen next to delay me, but being “homeless” for the past three months has been a particular challenge. Here are the first few pages. Sorry the formatting is off–I corrected it three times and it kept reverting to no indents, or extra line between paragraphs, but hopefully it is not too difficult to read. I welcome all critiques. Thank you!
Beginning of Chapter One
“This is harsh,” Carlson said.
Deputies Brian Carlson and Todd Mason had arrived at the scene a minute before calling me. I was their shift supervisor, the evening patrol sergeant for the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department. The three of us were standing in the middle of a soybean field staring at the remains of a naked forty-something man. He was lying on his back and his chin was tucked into his right shoulder in what looked like a self-defense position. His arms and legs were stretched to the limits in exaggerated Vs. Each hand and foot was bound and tied to four foot long metal fence stakes that were driven into the ground.
“Not the way I’d want to go,” Mason said.
The crows we had chased away were caw-cawing nearby. They were feasting on the body before our arrival put a stop to that. One swooped in low, close to our heads, then dropped to the ground and partially disappeared in the crops to join his feathered friends.
“A murder of crows. Just what we need,” Carlson said.
“Sounds like those birds are telling us to leave or else. Murder,” Mason said, trying out his best menacing-sounding voice.
“They’re mad because we interrupted their meal.” I surveyed the damage the crows had done on the man’s face. “Ah, forget I said that.”
“Since we’re responsible to preserve the scene, if they start attacking, they’re history.” Carlson patted his sidearm.
Mason nodded. “Justifiable birdcide.”
“Birdcide?” I said.
Mason grinned and shrugged.
We turned our attention back to the victim. He was a little under six feet, trim, not overly muscular. Maybe a professional who watched his diet, but didn’t work out. His dark brown hair was wavy and thinning. It was messy and matted to his head, most likely caused by excessive sweating during whatever trauma he had endured in the events leading up to being tied and left in a soybean field.
“Wonder how long he’s been here? What do you think, Corky?” Mason stood five inches taller than my five-foot-five height and blocked the sun.
I moved out of his shadow for a better view. “I’ll leave that up to the coroner, but it doesn’t look like very long. Less than twenty-four hours, I’d guess.”
“Yeah, it doesn’t take long for a body to start getting stinky,” Carlson said.
The crisp air of the May afternoon did not mask the odor of decomposition.
We stayed about three feet back from the body so as not to contaminate the immediate area around it. I held my breath and leaned in as close as possible to study the marks on his body. “He didn’t pull against the restraints enough to draw blood on his wrists and ankles, which seems odd. That twine is rough and would cut his skin if he twisted and tried to escape. And there is faint bruising on his upper arms and shins below his knees. See those lines?” I pointed out the two-inch-wide areas.
“Tied up?” Carlson said.
“Maybe taped up. That’s about duct tape width,” Mason said.
I moved closer to the man‘s arms. “Could be. Good observation, but why change from tape to twine? It doesn’t look like he was out here long before he died.” I leaned in as close as possible. “But what killed him? No frontal gunshot or knife wounds, and no blood on the ground around him.”
“Unless wild creatures licked it up,” Carlson said.
I shook my head. “There should be some sort of animal tracks.” I pulled a pen from my pocket and used it to spread the crops apart to study the ground. Mason and Carlson did the same.
“There are crow prints just barely visible in between the rows, and next to his body,” Mason said.
The longer I looked the more I found. “I see that.”
Carlson put his pen back in his pocket. “Those crows really did a number on his eyes and mouth.”
Mason stood up and crossed his arms on his chest. “The easy pickings. That wouldn’t take a few of them very long at all.”
I looked at the surroundings. We were perhaps a half mile from the nearest grouping of trees. “It’s strange the coyotes and other furry, pawed critters hadn’t found him yet.”
“It is. So far it’s flies, ants, and crows, from the way it looks. Those pesky flies are always first.” Mason screwed up his face.
Carlson swatted a fly off his arm. “Huh. No human footprints. Evident, anyway. He didn’t get here and tie himself up all by his lonesome. Someone covered their tracks.”
“No vehicle tracks close by, either,” I said.
My cell phone rang. It was Detective Elton “Smoke” Dawes. “Hey, Smoke.”
“Where exactly are you? I’m on Thirty-Five and just passed Forsythe. I don’t see any squad cars.”
“Take the next field access south. We’re about a tenth of a mile down. The land dips quite a bit so our cars probably aren’t visible from the road. We left them just under the crest where the field starts.”
“Okay, I’m turning in as we speak.”
He was gone before I could respond. “Dawes will be here in a minute.”
Mason crossed his arms on his chest. “Melberg can’t get here too soon.” Dr. Gordon Melberg was the county coroner.
Carlson stopped his soil examination and rose to his feet. “Our guy’s not going anywhere.”
“And the sun can’t hurt him,” Mason said.
I wrinkled my nose. “Except to speed up the process. You guys know I have a problem with maggots, and they seem to be multiplying by the minute.”
“They’re efficient little critters that have a rightful place in the ecosystem,” Detective Dawes said behind me. That was fast.
I glanced over my shoulder. “Yes, they are, and yes they do, but I’d rather not be a witness to their efficiency.”
“She never got over Maggot Man.”
Mason was referring to a case we had responded to when I was a rookie deputy. A daughter who lived out-of-state called the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department and requested a welfare check on her father whom she hadn’t been able to reach for two days. It was a hot summer day and I was the first one on the scene. There was an odor so putrid coming from inside the residence, even the house couldn’t hold it in. I called for back-up because I didn’t know what to expect. Suicide. Homicide. One body. Two bodies.
Mason arrived a few minutes later. He pulled a small plastic container filled with mentholated ointment from his pants pocket, opened it, swiped out a finger full, and rubbed it under his nose. He offered me the ointment, and I did the same. We entered the house and I was in no way prepared for the sight of the deceased man covered with crawling, eating maggots. He had little flesh left.
My eyes burned from the death smell, even with the mentholated protection, and I breathed as shallowly as possible, which was nearly impossible. Mason waved me back outside. He called communications to tell them our initial findings and ask for the coroner. After a few breaths of outside air, we went back in and checked the rest of the house. Thankfully, there were no other bodies. I had been at many death scenes since, but that one stood out as one of the worst because of the stink and the maggots.
“Sergeant?” I tuned in at the sound of Smoke’s voice.
“Thinking of Maggot Man?” Mason said with a wry grin.
I did my best to mirror his expression in place of an answer.
Smoke knelt a short distance from the body and studied it. “Someone believed this guy really done them wrong, looks like.”
Carlson nodded. “Or was into some kind of weird ritual gone bad.”
“We had enough of rituals to last a lifetime in that big case last month,” Mason said.
Our facial expressions indicated there was no need for further comment on that subject.
Smoke changed positions for a view on the other side of the body. “Doesn’t look like there was a struggle here, and it seems highly unlikely he’d be involved in kinky sex out in the middle of a field full of crops.”
“I knew a girl once who–”
“A lot of us have, Carlson.” Smoke effectively saved us from a story Mason and I had heard before. “What’s Melberg’s ETA?” Smoke asked.
I looked at my watch. “Maybe ten. Communications said he was in his office. It’s about a twenty, twenty-five minute drive.”
“How about the guy who found him? The crop duster?” Smoke glanced up at the sky.
“He flew to the Emerald Lake Airport and landed his plane there. That’s where he called from. I talked to him about ten minutes ago and asked him to meet us here. I think it’s the last place he wants to be, but I knew we’d be tied up here for a while. ”
“Along with our victim,” Mason deadpanned. I held my smile inside.
Smoke ignored Mason. “No doubt. There’s no need to bring the pilot too close to the body. We’ll get his statement and send him on his merry way. And no more crop dusting in this field today.”
I nodded. “Thank you. What would they be spraying for at this time of year, I wonder?”
Smoke looked at the crops. “Fertilizer, maybe.”
“I don’t smell any chemicals,” I said.
“Thankfully. I don’t relish tromping around in a field full of fresh chemicals.” Mason faked a cough.
Smoke nodded. “And depending on what they are, how they could compromise the scene.”
“Not likely insecticide or there’d be dead flies and maggots.” Mason again.
Carlson indicated his head toward our winged audience in the nearby crops. “And the crows wouldn’t like it, either.”
“No sense speculating–we’ll ask the pilot when he gets here,” Smoke said.
I waved my hand in the direction of the body. “How the bad guy got our victim here is what I want to know. The crops are flattened in the area immediately around him, like there was activity, but like you said, no deeper depressions that would indicate a struggle. So he was subdued.”
Smoke raised his eyebrows. “Or already dead.”
I took a closer look at the ground further out from the body and spotted something. “The ground really dried out after that last rain, so it’s fairly hard. But there are faint depressions in the soil from the body westward. The shadows from the crops makes them hard to see.”
Carlson bent over to look. “Maybe the crows made them, if a lot of them were waiting for their turn for a snack.”
I shook my head. “Almost looks like a bunch of bird prints, but if you stand back, you can see there is a fairly defined pattern. Some of the depressions are deeper, makes it easier to pick them out.”
“Oh, yeah, I see what you mean,” he said.
I followed the prints across the dirt between the rows, past another row of crops to another line of dirt that ran between the rows. I waved the others over and pointed at a path. “Looks like he could have been dragged here on something.”
Smoke nodded. “Ah, the evidence of how he got here, directionally-speaking, that is.” The created path, about two and a half feet wide, ran between two rows of crops, starting about seven feet from where the man’s body lay, and ran north.
The three of us wandered close behind him and studied the drag marks.
Mason screwed up his face. “Bigfoot drag him?”
“Bigfoot?” Smoke said.
“Look at those depressions. Those are big feet.”
“Bigfoot is always barefoot, right? And they’re not foot-shaped, or even shoe-shaped,” I said.
Smoke crouched down again, slid his readers from to top of his head to his nose, and stared at a large mark left in the dirt. “Yes, they are. Think outside the box here.”
I squatted down next to Smoke. “Snowshoes. I’ve never seen them in anything but snow before. Looks like two different pairs. The one pattern, especially, looks like a bunch of bird feet.”
“Bingo.” He gave his thigh a slap.
“So they had him on some sort of a sled maybe, one without runners, and dragged him in on that. Then they stopped here.” I pointed to support my words. “They must have carried him over there because there are no drag marks.”
“And the deeper depressions were made when they were carrying him. And they were stepping sideways going in. Like one had his upper body and one had his lower body. And it’s hard to see, but they were walking straight going back.”
“He had to have been drugged, or passed out for some reason. That is really bizarre to go to all that trouble to bring him out in the middle of nowhere. For what?”
Smoke focused on Carlson. “Brian, get some pictures of the scene before anything is compromised.”
“Ten-four.” He left to get a camera from his squad car.
Christine Husom is the author of Murder in Winnebago County, Buried in Wolf Lake, and An Altar by the River.