Bone White, Page 2Ronald Malfi
She glanced at McHale, who looked cold and uncertain. He shrugged.
“All right,” Ryerson said. For some reason, she believed him—that it was important he show them where they were, right then and there. As if there wouldn’t be a chance to do it later. She got an extra coat from the cruiser’s trunk, and helped Mallory into it. Mallory peered down at the embroidered badge over the breast, a bemused expression on his wind-burned face.
“Well, lookit that,” he muttered, fingering the badge.
Mallory took them up into the woods, a walk that took nearly an hour and covered a distance that Ryerson, in her head, calculated to be just over a mile. Had she gone back for the car, it would have been possible to drive less than halfway up the old mining road: After about fifteen minutes of walking, the road narrowed to maybe three feet in width, and there were times when they had to climb over deadfalls and step around massive boulders in order to keep going. And then the road vanished altogether, surrendering to sparse stands of pines and Sitka spruce and large boulders furred with spongy green moss.
“If this is someone’s idea of a practical joke,” McHale said to no one in particular midway through the hike, “they’re getting brained with my Maglite.”
Ryerson let Mallory lead the way. She hadn’t cuffed him—it would have been too difficult for the man to climb through the woods with his hands cuffed behind his back—but she had surreptitiously frisked him when she’d helped him into the parka, and she had felt no weapons on him. Besides, she still wasn’t convinced this guy wasn’t just some crackpot. Lord knew there were enough of them out here. Nonetheless, she kept her eyes on him as they walked.
“How’d you get my name and number?” Ryerson asked Drammell as they climbed toward the cusp of the wooded foothills. “The name of this town sounds familiar, but I’ve never been out here before.”
“Two troopers came out here about a year ago looking for a fella,” Drammell said. “Far as I know, they never found the guy. When they left, they gave me your business card. Said I should call you if the fella ever turned up.” Drammell frowned and added, “He never did.”
Yes, she remembered now. She’d gotten a call about a year ago from the brother of a man who’d gone missing out this way. The man had traced his brother back to Dread’s Hand as the last known place he’d been. Ryerson had taken the call and filed the paperwork, but she hadn’t come out here herself. Instead, she had dispatched two troopers to Dread’s Hand to check things out. She couldn’t be positive at the moment, but she believed they managed to recover the man’s rental car.
“You guys ever find the fella?” Drammell asked.
“No,” said Ryerson.
Despite his weakened physical condition, Mallory appeared to have no difficulties on the walk. McHale and Drammell, on the other hand, were both wheezing by the time they reached a vast clearing. It was right here, Joseph Mallory explained, that he had buried the bodies of eight victims whom he’d murdered over a five-year period. He seemed certain about the number of victims, less certain about how long he’d spent killing. “Time,” he suggested, “acts funny out here.”
Ryerson and McHale exchanged a glance.
“You understand what you’re telling us, don’t you?” said McHale.
“Of course.” Mallory glared at McHale, indignant. “I ain’t stupid, son.”
“No, sir,” McHale said, and Ryerson detected more than just a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“This is a big area,” Ryerson said. “Is it possible to narrow down a location?”
“There are many locations,” Mallory informed her. “Come on, then.”
He pointed out the general vicinity of each unmarked grave, which covered an area of just about ten acres of woodland, in Ryerson’s estimation. And although Ryerson had been right there standing beside him, inspecting the somber look on Joseph Mallory’s wind-chapped face as he murmured, “One soul here, ’nother far yonder,” she continued to believe that there were no bodies buried here at all, and that Joseph Mallory was just another backwoods crackpot with dried elk blood on his clothes who wanted his fifteen minutes of fame with the state police out of Fairbanks. After all, it was evident that the old man was one cherry short of an ice cream sundae, as Jill Ryerson’s father had been fond of saying.
“That does her,” Mallory said once he’d finished walking Ryerson, McHale, and Drammell all over God’s green earth (although there was nothing green about this Alaska forest in the middle of September—the ground was as cold and gray as the trunks of the Sitka spruce). The whole thing had taken over two hours—a few times Mallory got confused as to a specific location while other times he just needed to rest—and they still needed to walk back down out of the woods, but despite the cold, Ryerson had overexerted herself and was sweating beneath her uniform and parka. She instructed Mike McHale to mark each spot as Mallory pointed them out, and McHale had jammed sticks into the earth and tied a Kleenex to each one for quick reference.
“You don’t really think there’s people buried here, do you?” McHale asked her at one point, his voice low, his hot, coffee-scented breath against the side of her neck.
“No, I don’t,” she said. “He just seems confused. But let’s do this thing by the book, in case we’re wrong, okay?”
“Roger that,” said McHale.
“I’m going to cuff you and take you back to Fairbanks for now,” Ryerson told Mallory once he finished pointing out all eight unmarked graves. “Would make me feel better if I got a doctor’s eyes on you, too.”
“I feel fine now,” Mallory said, standing there in that clearing. He closed his eyes and tilted his reddened, wind-chapped face to the sky. Sores ran along his cheekbones and suppurated at his lips. It looked like he might have some frostbite in places, too. “But we’ve been spending too much time out here. I’ve already scrubbed it off once. Let’s get back to town before it gets grabby again.”
Jill Ryerson might have asked him to elaborate on what he meant by that statement had Valerie Drammell not spoken up then: “Yeah, let’s get back to town. Like, right now.” He was looking around, as if expecting someone to walk out of the trees and join them. A ghost, maybe.
“You both should cordon off the area and take some pictures,” Ryerson suggested, looking from Drammell to McHale. “Let’s treat this as a crime scene. I’ll radio for assistance when I get back to the car. I’ll contact the ME’s office in Anchorage, too, just to put them on notice, in the event that, well . . . our friend here knows what he’s talking about.”
“Of course I do,” grumbled Mallory, scowling.
“Me?” Val Drammell said. “Me stay here, too?”
Ryerson thought he sounded like Tarzan at the moment. “You’re not obligated, but we could use the help, Mr. Drammell,” she told him.
Drammell nodded, though it was clear he didn’t want to be here. The ground speared by McHale’s sticks with their Kleenex flags was an unsettling visual, and no doubt the past hour and a half sitting with Mallory on that church bench had creeped the poor guy out. He put a cigarette in his mouth.
“No smoking, please,” Ryerson said. “Crime scene.”
Drammell stared at her for the length of two heartbeats—long enough for Jill Ryerson to think, Okay, here we go, let’s flex those man muscles now—but then he took the smoke out of his mouth and propped it up behind his left ear.
“You don’t want help taking him back to the car?” McHale asked as Ryerson placed Mallory’s hands behind his back and snapped the cuffs on him.
“I can manage,” she said. “Let’s just secure this place. And let’s keep any locals from coming out here, too.”
“No locals would come out here,” Drammell said, but he did not elaborate.
* * *
Once they got into the police car back in town, Ryerson recited Mallory’s Miranda rights.
“Don’t have no need for them rights,” Mallory said from behind the wire cage in the backseat of the cruiser. “Don’t have
no need for no lawyers, neither. I confessed all my sins. That’s about it, ain’t it?”
“I’m just telling you the law, Mr. Mallory,” she said, firing up the engine and cranking the heater to full force. A small group of onlookers stood across the road, watching the situation, clouds of vapor spiraling from their open mouths. To Ryerson, they all looked like refugees deposited on the shores of some foreign country.
She drove slowly down the main street, which alternated between rutted dirt and white gravel, while the onlookers all turned their heads in unison to watch their departure.
“You feel like giving me your motive for killing those folks?” she said.
“No,” Mallory said.
“Don’t feel like giving it,” he clarified.
This time, Mallory didn’t answer.
“How ’bout their names?” Ryerson said. “Care to tell me who they are? Were they locals?”
“Don’t feel like speakin’ their names aloud, ma’am, though I don’t expect you to understand,” Mallory said. “Don’t rightly recall any of their names at the moment, to be honest. That part was never important.”
“Is that right,” she said.
“I suspect you’ll find out in time, though. And that’s fine.”
“If this is some game you’re playing with us, Mr. Mallory, you should just tell me now so we can avoid a lot of unnecessary work.”
“Game?” he said.
“If you’re trying to fool with us, in other words,” she said. “If there are no bodies up there, I mean.”
“Oh,” he said, “they’re up there, all right, ma’am. God help us, they’re up there.”
Jill Ryerson had her doubts.
* * *
Ninety minutes later, Ryerson deposited Mallory at Fairbanks Memorial and into the care of two fresh-faced troopers while McHale and Drammell secured the wooded clearing and awaited the arrival of backup, which included sniffer dogs and a technician schooled in using ground-penetrating radar. Ryerson did not think too much of it until she got a phone call sometime later from McHale, who was still on the scene.
“You better get out here, Jill,” McHale said, and she could detect a note of brash excitement in his voice even though he was trying his best to keep himself under control. “We’ve got a body.”
Paul Gallo was at Telluride nursing a glass of Johnnie Walker and grading essays on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when he first learned of the monster.
Wholly incongruous among the rustic, nautical-themed taverns of downtown Annapolis, the bar known as Telluride was outfitted in a ski lodge motif. There was a pair of skis cross-boned above the bar and framed photos of various Colorado slopes on the paneled walls. A cozy stone fireplace stood at the far end of the barroom, fronted by a tattered couch of Navajo design. Stuffed antelope heads hung from lacquered shields, their dead eyes gray and furry with dust.
The proprietor was a retired Baltimore homicide detective named Luther Parnell. Luther had never been skiing in his life, and had admitted to Paul on more than one occasion that he wouldn’t know a bunny slope from the bunny hop. He had bought the place following his retirement from the department, and because Telluride’s clientele had been plentiful and the place in good shape, he’d left it unchanged, right down to the name.
Paul liked the bar’s atmosphere and he liked Lou even more, but he had come here primarily because it was within walking distance of the college campus. His Tuesday and Thursday classes ran late, which put him on the street close to dinnertime. In no hurry to return to his Conduit Street residence for a microwaveable dinner in front of the TV, he’d cultivated the habit of dining at Telluride on those evenings while he graded papers and chatted with Lou.
This evening, Paul had already finished his burger and was halfway through his second glass of Scotch when Luther Parnell, passing by the bar and in a casual tone, said, “Dread’s Hand.”
Paul looked up from one of the essays he’d been grading and stared at Lou. “What’d you say?”
Luther pointed to the TV that was mounted above the bar. The image on the screen was an aerial shot of a bleak wooded clearing surrounded by tall gray trees. A solitary police car was slotted at an angle between two trees, and a few people were milling about. A strip of yellow police tape flapped about near the lower half of the screen. A yellow backhoe, expelling clouds of bluish exhaust, was carving a trench in the earth. The text at the bottom of the screen identified the location as Dread’s Hand, Alaska.
“Some funky name for a town, huh?” Luther said.
But Paul wasn’t listening to him now. “What is this? Where’s the volume?”
Luther shrugged and made a sound that approximated a grunt. He turned his attention to a balding, middle-aged fellow in a necktie at the far end of the bar. The middle-aged fellow said something and Luther Parnell laughed his great bassoon laugh.
“Lou,” Paul called to him. “Can you turn this up? Can you turn the volume up?”
At that moment, a block of text appeared on the lower portion of the screen: UNIDENTIFIED BODY RECOVERED FROM SHALLOW GRAVE.
Paul stood up off his bar stool. The red pen, which he had been using to grade students’ essays, rolled off the bar and clattered to the floor, but he hardly noticed. He could focus on nothing but the television screen.
Luther squeezed behind the bar and began searching for the remote.
“Come on, come on,” Paul said, waving a hand at him.
“Jeez, son, settle down,” Lou said, searching around behind the bar for the TV remote.
On the screen, the block of text was replaced by another declaration. This time, Paul felt an icy finger trace down the base of his spine at the sight of it: LOCAL MAN ADMITS TO MURDER OF UNKNOWN NUMBER OF VICTIMS NEAR REMOTE ALASKA TOWN.
A thudding heartbeat filled Paul Gallo’s ears.
“Lou,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah, gimme a sec.” Lou located the remote and aimed it at the TV.
The voice of a female news reporter burst from the speakers in midsentence: “. . . when a man walked into a local restaurant Tuesday afternoon and confessed to the murders of an unknown number of victims, according to police. Sources say the suspect claims to have buried these victims in a wooded area a few miles from the remote Alaskan town of Dread’s Hand, an old mining village about a hundred or so miles northwest of Fairbanks. As you can see from our SkyCrew video, police are on the scene, where they’ve been working around the clock for the past forty-eight hours. Police have not yet released the identity of the subject, and very little information is known at this time, except that he is in police custody and under the care of medical professionals. One witness has reported that the individual is, or was at one time, a local resident, but the Alaska Bureau of Investigation’s Major Crimes Unit, which maintains jurisdiction in this matter, hasn’t released an official statement yet.”
“A disturbing situation, Sandra,” said a male reporter, just as the image on the screen cut away to the studio, where both newscasters sat behind a high desk, looking grim yet also somehow perky. “Just to recap, one unidentified body has been recovered in the approximate location given to police by a suspect claiming to have murdered several individuals here in this isolated Alaskan village.”
Paul stood there staring at the TV for what seemed like an eternity, until the broadcast cut to commercial. His heart was banging in his chest, and his hands were shaking. After a time, he was aware of Lou’s voice calling out to him.
“Hey, you okay, Paul?”
Paul looked around and noticed that a few of the other patrons were gazing at him from their tables. They turned away as he looked at them.
“Man, what’s the matter with you?” Lou said. He jerked his chin toward Paul’s stool and suggested he sit down before he fell down.
Paul sat and stared at his drink before knocking the rest of it down his throat.
Lou muted the TV,
then stowed the remote back beneath the counter. He leaned over the bar toward Paul, the diamond stud in his left earlobe sparkling. “The hell’s the matter with you, man?”
Paul cleared his throat and said, “Dread’s Hand is where Danny went missing.”
“Danny,” Lou said. He spoke the name as if unfamiliar with it. But then recognition dawned on him—Paul watched it overtake Luther Parnell’s face like a metamorphosis—and then the retired homicide detective said, “Danny. Your brother. Shit, Paul. You sure?”
“Positive,” he said, and thought, Who could ever forget a name like Dread’s Hand?
Lou glanced back up at the TV, which was now broadcasting a reverse mortgage commercial. Luther Parnell knew the story about Paul’s brother. Paul had even come in here a few times with Danny back when Danny had been staying at his place. When Danny disappeared, it had been Lou who’d put Paul in touch with an old colleague of his, a Baltimore city homicide detective named Richard Ridgley. Ridgley had gotten some of Danny’s personal records—credit card statements and cell phone toll reports—and had put Paul in touch with Jill Ryerson, an investigator with the Alaska Bureau of Investigation’s
Major Crimes Unit out of Fairbanks. It had been Ryerson’s men who had found Danny’s rental car, abandoned on the side of some nameless dirt road outside of Dread’s Hand.
“This is crazy,” Paul said. His mind was reeling.
“Just take it easy,” Lou said. “Just sit here for a few minutes and take it easy, Paul, okay?”
“I’m okay,” he said—a bit disingenuous, he knew, because his body had gone from cold to hot in the span of thirty seconds. He loosened his necktie and undid the top two buttons of his shirt.
“Want me to get Ridge on the line?”
Paul waved a hand. “I’m not sure what good that’ll do at this point,” he said. He glanced back up at the TV, but it was still on some commercial. “What happens with something like this, Lou? They find this body and . . . and then what?”
Lou arched his eyebrows and refolded his arms. The tattoo of a hula girl flexed on his bicep. At first, Paul thought Lou might be trying to figure that out himself, but then, as Lou spoke, Paul realized the retired homicide detective had only been considering the most delicate way to answer his question.