Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Harper Connelly [3] An Ice Cold Grave, Page 2

Charlaine Harris

  “Come into my office. We’ll talk,” said the tall woman. “My name is Sandra Rockwell, and I’ve been sheriff for one year.” Sheriffs are elected in North Carolina. I didn’t know how long her term was, but if she’d only been a sheriff a year, she must have plenty to go. Politics might not be as urgent a consideration for Sheriff Rockwell as they would be during election year.

  We were in her office by then. It wasn’t very big, and it was decorated with pictures of the governor, a state flag, a U.S. flag, and some framed certificates. The only personal thing on Sheriff Rockwell’s desk was one of those clear cubes you can fill with pictures. Her cube was full of shots of the same two boys. They were both brown-haired like their mother. One of them, grown, had a wife and child of his own. Nice. The other one had a hunting dog.

  “You-all want some coffee?” she asked as she slid into the swivel chair behind the ugly metal desk.

  I looked at Tolliver, and we both shook our heads.

  “Well, then.” She put her hands flat on the desk. “I heard about you from a detective in Memphis. Young, her name is.”

  I smiled.

  “You remember her, then. She’s partnered with a guy named Lacey?”

  I nodded.

  “She seemed like a sensible person. She was no flake. And her clearance rate and reputation are impressive. That’s the only reason I’m talking to you, you understand?”

  “Yes, I understand.”

  She looked a little embarrassed. “Well, I know I’m sounding rude, and that’s not my intention. But you have to understand, this is not something I’d consider doing if you didn’t have a track record. I’m not one of these people who listens to that John Edward—not the politician with an s, but the medium—and I’m not one of these who likes to have my palm read, or go to séances, or even read a horoscope.”

  “I fully understand,” I said. Maybe my voice was even dryer.

  Tolliver smiled. “We get that you have reservations,” he said.

  She smiled back gratefully. “That’s it in a nutshell. I have reservations.”

  “So, you must be desperate,” I said.

  She gave me an unfriendly look. “Yes,” she admitted, since she had to. “Yes, we’re desperate.”

  “I’m not going to back out,” I said baldly. “I just want to know what I’m up against.”

  She seemed to relax at my frankness. “Okay, then, cards on the table,” she said. She took a deep breath. “For the past five years, boys have been going missing in this county. It’s up to six boys now. When I say ‘boys,’ I mean in the fourteen-to eighteen-year-old range. Now, kids that age are prone to run away, and they’re prone to suicide, and they’re prone to have fatal car accidents. And if we’d found them, or heard from the runaways, we’d be okay with that, as okay as you can be.”

  We nodded.

  “But these particular boys, it’s just—no one can believe they would run away. And in this time, surely some hunter or bird watcher or hiker would have found a body or two if they’d killed themselves or met with some accident in the woods.”

  “So you’re thinking that they’re buried somewhere.”

  “Yes, that’s what I’m thinking. I’m sure they’re still here, somewhere.”

  “Then let me ask you a few things,” I said. Tolliver took out his pad and pencil. The sheriff looked surprised, as if the last thing she’d ever expected had been that I would ask her questions.

  “Okay, shoot,” Sandra Rockwell said after a brief pause.

  “Are there bodies of water in the county?”

  “Yes, there’s Grunyan’s Pond and Pine Landing Lake. And several streams.”

  “Have they been searched?”

  “Yes. A couple of us dive, and we’ve searched as well as we can. Nothing’s come to the surface, either. Both of those spots are well used, and anything that came up and a lot of things that went down would have been found, if they’d been there to find. And I’m sure the pond’s clear. Still, it’s possible that there’s something in the deepest part of the lake.”

  The sheriff clearly believed that wasn’t likely.

  “What did the missing boys have in common?”

  “Besides their age range? Not much, except they’re gone.”

  “All white?”

  “Oh. Yes.”

  “All go to the same school?”

  “No. Four of them to the local high school, one of them to the junior high, one of them to the private academy, Randolph Prep.”

  “The past five years, you said? Do they vanish at the same time of year?”

  She looked at a file on her desk, opened it. Flipped over a few pages. “No,” she said. “Two in the fall, three in the spring, one in the summer.”

  None in the winter, when the conditions would be worst for an outdoor interment—so she was probably right. The boys were buried somewhere.

  “You think the same person killed them all,” I said. I was guessing, but it was a good guess.

  “Yes,” she said. “That’s what I think.”

  It was my turn to take a deep breath. I’d never handled anything like this. I’d never tried to find so many people. “I don’t know a lot about serial killers,” I said, and the two dread words dropped into the room like unwelcome visitors. “But from what I’ve read and seen on television, I believe they tend to bury their victims in the same geographic conditions, if not in the exact same location. Like the Green River Killer dumping most of his victims in the river.”

  “That’s true,” she said. “Some of them prefer the same location. Then they can visit it over and over. To remember.” She’d done her homework.

  “How do you think I can help?”

  “Tell me how you work. How do you find bodies?”

  “My sister does two things,” Tolliver said, launching into his familiar spiel. “She can find bodies, and she can determine the cause of death. If we have to search for a body, obviously that’s going to take longer than someone taking her to the local cemetery, pointing to a grave, and wanting to know what killed the person in the grave.”

  The sheriff nodded. “It costs more.”

  “Yes,” Tolliver said. There was no way to dress that up and make it prettier, so he didn’t. Sheriff Rockwell didn’t flinch or try to make us feel guilty about earning a living, as some people did. They acted like we were ambulance chasers. This was all I could do, my sole unique ability; and I was determined to bank as much money as I could while it was still operative. Someday, as quickly as it had been given to me, it might be taken away. I imagined I would be glad; but I would also be unemployed.

  “How do you decide where to look?” the sheriff asked.

  “We get as much information as we can. What did you find after the disappearances?” Tolliver asked. “Any physical clues?”

  The sheriff very sensibly got out a map of the county. After she spread it out over her desk, we all three rose to peer at it. “Here we are,” she said. “Here’s Doraville. It’s the county seat. This is a poor county, rural. We’re in the foothills, as you see. There’s some hilly land, and there’s some steep land, and there’s a valley or two with some level acres.”

  We nodded. Doraville itself was a town strewn about on many levels.

  “Three of them had vehicles of their own,” Sheriff Rockwell said. “We found Chester Caldwell’s old pickup up here, in the parking lot at the head of the hiking trail.”

  “He was the first one?” I asked.

  “Yes, he was the first one.” Her face tightened all over. “I was a deputy then. We searched all along that trail for hours and hours. It goes through some steep terrain, and we looked for signs of a fall, or an animal attack. We found nothing. He’d gone missing after football practice, in the middle of September. This was when Abe Madden was sheriff.” She shook her head, trying to shake the bad memories out of it. “We never found anything. He came from a tough home; mom drinks too much, divorced. His dad was gone and stayed gone.”

took a deep breath. “Next gone was Tyler Webb, who was sixteen. Went missing on a Saturday after swimming with friends at Grunyan’s Pond, a summer afternoon. We found his car here, at the rest stop off the interstate.” She pointed to the spot, which wasn’t too far (as the crow flies) west of Doraville. About as far as the trailhead parking lot was from north Doraville. “Tyler’s stuff was in the car: his driver’s license, his towel, his T-shirt. But no one ever saw him again.”

  “No other fingerprints?”

  “No. A few of Tyler’s, a few of his friends’, and that’s all. None on the wheel or door handle. They were clean.”

  “Weren’t you wondering by then?”

  “I was,” she said. “Sheriff Madden wasn’t.” She shrugged. “It was pretty easy to believe Chester had run off, though leaving his pickup behind? I didn’t think so. But he had a tough time at home, he’d broken up with his girlfriend, and he wasn’t doing well in school. So maybe he was a suicide and we simply hadn’t found his body. We looked, God knows. Abe figured someone would come across his remains eventually. But Tyler was a whole different kettle of fish. He had a very close family, real devout boy, one of the solid kids. There just didn’t seem to be any way he would run off or kill himself, or anything like that. But by then Abe wouldn’t hear a word on the subject. He’d found out he had heart trouble by then, and he didn’t want to upset himself.”

  There was a little moment of silence.

  “Then?” I said.

  “Then Dylan Lassiter. Dylan didn’t have a car. He told his grandmother he was going to walk over three streets to see a friend, but he never got there. A ball cap that might have been his was found here.” She pointed a finger to a spot on the map. “That’s Shady Grove Cemetery,” she said.

  “Okay, a message,” I said.

  “Maybe, maybe the wind blew it there. Maybe it wasn’t even his, though the hair looked like Dylan’s. It was just a Tarheels cap. Eventually, we sent it to SBI, and the DNA was a match for Dylan’s. But it didn’t do us much good to know that. It just meant wherever he was, he didn’t have his hat.”

  This was certainly the chronology of a botched investigation. I was no cop and would never be one, but I thought Abe Madden had something for which to answer.

  “Hunter Fenwick, a month later,” Rockwell said. “Hunter was the son of a friend of mine, and he’s the reason I ran for sheriff. I respected Sheriff Madden—up to a point—but I knew he was wrong about these missing boys. Hunter…well, his car was parked the same place Chester’s pickup was found. At the trailhead. And there was a little blood inside—not enough to be able to say for sure that he couldn’t have survived losing it. And his wallet was found not a half mile out of town, in a ditch off this road.” She pointed to a meandering county road that led northwest out of Doraville for about twenty miles before heading north and then northeast to the next town, up in the mountains.

  “Who next?” Tolliver asked, because the sheriff was getting lost in her own dark thoughts.

  “The youngest, Aaron Robertson. Junior high. Fourteen. Too young to drive alone. He stayed at the school to shoot some hoops one afternoon after basketball practice. He always walked home. But we’d had the time change the night before, and it was dark. He never made it to his house. His backpack was never found. No other trace of him.” She pulled a sheet of opaque plastic back from a standing corkboard at one side of her desk. We looked at a row of young faces. Underneath each face was the date of the boy’s disappearance. Hearing about it was hard, but seeing their faces was harder.

  We all kept a moment of silence. Then Tolliver said, “The last one?”

  “The last one was three months ago. Jeff McGraw. It was because of his grandmother that we called you in. Twyla didn’t think we were getting anywhere, and she was right.”

  It galled the sheriff to say that, but she said it.

  “Twyla Cotton donated a lot of money and raised some more from the families, the ones that could help. And she got some money from some people who just want this to stop, people not related to the missing boys in any way.” Sandra Rockwell shook her head. “I’ve never seen anything like the time and energy she put into this. But Jeff was her oldest grandson….” Her attention strayed from us to the cube of pictures on her desk. Rockwell was a grandmother, too. Her gaze shifted to the last photograph in the row of faces: a boy with freckles, reddish brown hair, a school sports jacket. Jeff McGraw had lettered in basketball and football. I was willing to bet he’d been a local hero in Doraville. I knew my southern towns.

  “So you’re like the frontman for this consortium of local people who’ve donated money to a fund to find the boys,” Tolliver said. “Since the county, I’m guessing, didn’t have the money.”

  “Yes,” Sheriff Rockwell said. “We couldn’t spend county money on you, or state money. Had to be private. But I wouldn’t have you here unless they let me interview you. And I’m ambivalent about the whole thing.”

  Whoa, big words from the sheriff, in more ways than one. I’d never heard a law enforcement professional admit to being doubtful about a course of action involving me. Angry, disapproving, disgusted, yes; doubtful, no.

  “I can see how you would be,” I said cautiously. “I know you’ve done your best, and it must be, ah, galling to be asked to call in someone like me. I’m sorry about that. But I swear I’ll give it my best shot, and I swear I’m not a fraud.”

  “You’d better not be,” Sandra Rockwell said. “And now, I’ve arranged for you to meet with Twyla Cotton. It only seemed right. After that, we’ll pick the place you start to search.”

  “Okay,” I said, and that was that.

  TWYLA Cotton was a very heavy woman. You read about fat people who walk very lightly; she wasn’t one of them. She walked ponderously. She answered her door so quickly I figured she’d been standing right inside, since we’d called her to tell her we were on our way from the sheriff’s department.

  She was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt that read “Number One Grandma.” Her face was bare of makeup, and her short dark hair had only a few threads of gray. I put her in her midfifties.

  After shaking our hands, she led the way through the house. She didn’t match the décor. Some designer had worked here, and the result was very pretty—lots of peaches and creams and beiges in the formal living room, dark blues and chocolate browns in the family room—but not very personal. The kitchen was Twyla’s natural domain, and that was where she led us. It was full of exposed brick, stainless steel, and gleaming surfaces. It was warm and cozy after the chill gray of the morning. It was the homiest room in the house.

  “I was Archie Cotton’s cook,” she said. She smiled at me as if she’d been reading my mind.

  I’d had a white-collar upbringing for my first decade, but after that my parents had descended pretty quickly through blue collar and down below, so you could say I was a medley. It had been a case of riches to rags. Twyla Cotton had gone the better way, the rags-to-riches way.

  “And then he married you,” I said.

  “Yep, we got married. Have a seat, hon,” she said to Tolliver, and she pointed at a chair for me. There was also a formal dining room, but this gleaming round table was positioned in a bay window at one end of the kitchen, and the chairs were wide, comfortable, rolling chairs. There was a newspaper and a few magazines, a little pile of bills, handy to the most convenient chair. Tolliver and I both knew not to pick that one. “Can I get you-all a cup of coffee? Some coffee cake?” our hostess asked.

  “I’d like some coffee, if it’s already made,” Tolliver said.

  “Me, too, please,” I said. I sank into a chair and rolled up under the table.

  In short order, we had mugs of coffee, spoons, napkins, and cream and sugar close to hand. It was very good coffee. The morning improved, just a bit.

  “Archie had some children, already grown and gone,” Twyla said. “They didn’t come around as much after his wife died. He was lonely, and I’d been working for him for y
ears. It just came natural.”

  “Any hard feelings from his children?” Tolliver asked.

  “He gave ’em some money, quieted them down,” Twyla said. “He laid it out to them about the will, and who would get what, in front of two lawyers. Got ’em to sign papers saying they wouldn’t contest the will, if I survived him. So I got this house, and a good bit of cash, plus a lot of stock. Archie Junior and Bitsy got their fair shake. They don’t exactly love me, but they don’t hate me, either.”

  “So why did you want us here, Mrs. Cotton?”

  “I’ve got a friend you helped a couple of years ago. Linda Barnard, in Kentucky? Wanted to know what had happened to her little grandbaby, the one who was found a mile away from home, no marks on her?”

  “I remember.”

  “So I thought about calling you in, and Sandra researched you-all. Talked to some policewoman in Memphis.”

  “Jeff, your grandson. Is he your son’s son? He’s sixteen?” Tolliver asked, trying to lead Twyla to the subject we’d come to discuss. Though almost everyone we looked for turned out to be dead, Tolliver and I had learned a long time ago to refer to the missing person in the present tense. It just sounded more respectful and more optimistic.

  “He was sixteen. He was the older boy of my son Parker.”

  She’d had no hesitation in using the past tense. She read the question in our faces.

  “I know he’s dead,” Twyla said, her round face rigid with grief. “He would never run away, like the police say. He would never go this long without letting us hear.”

  “He’s been gone three months?” I asked. We already knew enough about Jeff McGraw, but I felt it would be indecent not to ask.

  “Since October twentieth.”

  “No one’s heard from him.” I knew the answer, but I had to ask.

  “No, and he had no reason to go. He was already playing varsity football; he had a little girlfriend; he and his mom and dad got along good. Parker—Parker McGraw, that was my last name before I married Archie—Parker loved that boy so much. He and Bethalynn have Carson, who’s twelve. But you can’t replace any child, much less your firstborn. They’re all broken up.”