A glimpse of red fur, blue fabric, and a blonde curl gleaming. The gelding saw it, too, and twisted in mid-air, his front hooves having to scramble before he safely touched ground beyond the hedge. The rider hauled him around, thinking he’d seen a child, perhaps one who’d been hiding or simply seeking shade in the boxwood’s cavernous interior. One who’d been frightened by the unexpected sound of pounding hooves followed by the sight of a massive beast flying above?
Except for the hum of flies, the gelding’s anxious pawing and snorting, and the rider’s own heavy breathing, the Adamswood jump field lay quiet and empty under a mid-morning September sun. No one crawled out from under the hedge. He heard no cries from the river. Sometimes, despite the No Trespassing signs, rafters stopped for picnics or children from the trailer park on the opposite heights played among the rocks at the foot of the bluff.
He might have imagined the curl lying on pale skin. He wasn’t imagining the hum and buzz of swarming insects.
“Come out, child,” he said.
He leaned down from the saddle to find a sight angle through boxwood’s dense but tiny leaves. Agitated and dancing, the gelding under him snorted and threw his head sideways to use his monocular vision.
“Patches, dammit. Stand still.”
A crow rose cawing from the balcony of a nearby judges’ tower to wing over the field, cross the river, and disappear. Before the caws faded, Rand Adams had straightened, tasting bile, his heart thumping.
“God, no,” he breathed the prayer, not noticing as the gelding stamped a hoof, snorted, and half-reared away, taking them in a circle. Nor was he aware of the physical work of controlling the animal, his eyes staring out over the field in search of an explanation, his mind veering from what he’d seen as though to wish it away, as though the hedge might hide nothing but the usual litter of dead leaves and twigs and bird feathers.
The horse suffered from no such denial, becoming increasingly agitated. The crow came back with allies, all of them circling above. Rand looked up before he booted the horse to a temporary standstill which he used to vault off, releasing the reins. Wanting to get this necessity over and belly down, he edged his way beneath snagging branches. A fly landed on his upper lip; another on an eyelid. He raised a hand and arm to brush them off, sweat heavy under his jumping helmet and catching in his eyebrows. The crows cawed their objection to his interference. Pounding hooves sounded, going away.
He swished his hand at another fly, but it was only an outrider, the host focused on what was clearly the gutted and very bloody body of a fox lying in a child’s arms. More crawled over the boy’s face and bare toes; over the delicate fox mask with its nose pushed into the boy’s hair. Rand reached further into the hedge for the child’s wrist to check for a pulse he doubted he’d find, fighting a stomach that had a life of its own. The little hand rose in his, soft and supple, warm and fragile. Flies tip-toed over his fingers. One bit his neck.
Rand slid back into the sunlight to sit up and wipe the back of a hand over his mouth. Sweat dribbled off his eyebrows. He wiped them, too, and removed his helmet. Pulling out his cellphone, he went back on his belly and snapped off a dozen pictures. Now, what? The boy and the fox, both dead and beyond help, both game changers.
Out of the sun. He needed to get himself out of the sun so he could see the cell’s display.
Could the child have ventured here by himself? He didn’t look older than six or seven, but you never knew about kids.
Trees had encroached several feet into the field along a strip he never bothered to mow, the first of them some twenty feet away. He walked there, crossing the corner of a graveled space where portable bleachers would soon rise. As he did, he scanned what he could see of the river frontage between the field’s many solid jumps, their wings and some of their centers sculpted from boxwoods.
“Okay.” And there it was. Exactly what he realized he’d been expectingthe sun flashing on a red metallic surface seen briefly between a jump wing and a gate that exited the field and led to one of the farm’s many cross-country trails. He looked away. His aunt. Of course, she’d been the first to find the boy.
He reached the tree line and leaned against the trunk of a tulip poplar; saw a small green snake slither across an open bit of ground and disappear under a gnarled root. Deep shade made a cool little oasis here.
He did the 911 call first.
The Silver Spoon in Pikesville, Maryland was located two blocks from the Baltimore Beltway, which wasn’t far enough away to make the beltway noise tolerable if you were sitting outside. So, Tyler never did. Still and all, it was a nice day, and the sidewalk tables were all occupied when she walked past them and into the popular deli to see a line at the order counter.
She lifted a hand in greeting to Millie Johannson.
The store manager, dressed in her daily uniform of flowery scrubs, sat behind the cash register. She mouthed, “The usual?”
Tyler nodded and crossed to the drinks’ cooler. Cold air enveloped her arm and cold plastic filled her hand as she pulled out a bottle of water which she took to a nearby table. Sitting, she checked her messages for anything from her lawyer, found nothing, so tapped the photo icon to a familiar album.
Picking a cameo at random, she enlarged it and hunched over the memory triggers. GoGo up on Magic, the pony her daughter had finally outgrown last year, came first. This shot caught the child too far forward, as usual. A moment after Tyler had snapped the picture, Magic had stumbled coming off the three-foot fence, pitching the twelve-year-old onto arena sand. In the next picture, GoGo had rolled to her feet, grumbling. “You’ve got to balance over your knees,” Tyler had called to her, repeating an old instruction. The child had done so for the next two or three rounds but, inevitably, her instincts had taken over. Again.
Picture after picture followed. Many had been taken at One Oak, their ten-acre home in Great Fallssome around the barn; some in the old farm house Tyler had spent years renovating.
“Simon,” Millie called out an order from the cash register. “Simon.”
The dogs, cats, and horses made great subjects and appeared frequently in Tyler’s old albums. A favorite was a Jack Russell named Muffin, seen in the next photo with his head and forelegs in a hole, his butt sticking almost straight up with the tail protruding like a handle on a saucepan. Despite being a serious and deadly hunter and rodent killer, Muffin never failed to make them all laugh. They
The cellphone vibrated in her hands and skin tightened around her eyes as she saw the caller ID.
“Tyler,” she said and tapped the screen to replace a photo of her other two daughters, Kat and Ali, with a notepad app.
“Okay,” she said and entered an address. 1616 Adams Road, Marysville.
“Is that it?” she asked when her boss’s secretary wound down.
“Only that I’d bet you a dinner at Trout Creek Mill if one of the birds isn’t perched somewhere nearby.”
Tyler scanned the deli, stopped on a blonde head, and said, “You’d win if I were a betting person.”
One of the younger officers they called ‘Boyd’s birds’ was at a nearby table, cellphone in hand, his eyes not on its screen but on Tyler. His ears were all but pricked as he tried hard to hear what she was saying despite the noise of the deli.
She lifted an eyebrow.
The bird put the cell down and lifted both hands in a surrender signal, saying loud enough to be heard over the deli clatter, “You tell Belinda to mind her own business.”
Tyler repeated the bird’s words, asked a few questions, received no satisfactory answers, and said, “Is there any good news?”
“Other than the opportunity to work with Beau Burt? The beautiful Burt Brooks?”
“I’ve been there and done that.”
“Then, you get to do it again. Another thing. Tom wants a report from you by 1600. He’s got to get back to the governor before the evening news cycle.”
“She’s got cards in this game? One lost kid who runs into a maniac and ends up dead?”
“I’m supposed to tell you that she asked for you by name.”
Having saved the best for last, Belinda laughed and disconnected.
The governor again. Being remembered by her was a mixed blessing. Occasionally, it meant Tyler received more resources than she might otherwise. Always, it irritated her colleagues. And, it led to ambitious young officers, like the one at the next table, trying to attach themselves to her coat tails.
Shrugging away politics, Tyler checked Google Maps for Adams Road. Gainsborough County. The address was familiar.
Yes. She’d thought so. Adamswood Farm. It was one of those grand old places you still found scattered around the mid-Atlantic area. This one had been turned into a horse park of sorts. Excellent facilities. She’d been there twice. Once for a two-star combined training event at which she’d been eliminated on cross-country. The second time she’d taken her daughters for a U.S. Pony Club rally.
Next, she created a view of the entire Gainsborough Land Trust, the Georgia-Atlantic Forest Reserve, and the Gainsborough State Parkall on the west side of the Gainsborough River. Repeating the process, the image reduced further to include Baltimore to the north and Washington, D.C. to the south.
Visibly, Adamswood Farm was a key parcel in prime but rapidly vanishing Maryland horse country. It also sat cheek by jowl with trailer parks, strip malls, and the worst of suburban sprawl, separated only by the Gainsborough River. Sling another few bridges across the water and, as quick as a snap of the fingers, you could cheaply scrape and redevelop the one side into high scale shops with professional offices and turn the other into McMansions. Huge profits for all. But a political hot potato.
Add in the dead kid. Grandson of a right-wing, televangelist conservative who preached against wealth, privilege, and the establishment?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, she said to herself, may hold the key to the governor’s interest and explain the bird’s presence.
“So, Lieutenant,” the bird, John Franklin Westen III, was on his feet. “I figured I’d ride along and … .” His words dribbled away under her stare. Three, as he was called, was the oldest son of John Franklin Westen II, a judge on the bench of the 5th Appellate Court. He was also one of the bright boys who packed the Criminal Investigation Bureau’s upper echelons drawn there by Tom Boyd, their mutual boss, who surrounded himself with ambitious, upwardly mobile high-flyersmale and female. Boyd indoctrinated them, trained and mentored them, and sent them on their way. While they soared or crashed and burned under the weight of their own hubris, enough of them made it into leadership roles to justify Boyd’s time and give him power in the state machine disproportionate to his position.
“You. One of my worst mistakes,” Boyd had once said to Tyler, who’d gravitated toward a detective’s job in the Criminal Enforcement Division and stayed there. She’d gone nowhere. She intended to go nowhere despite Boyd’s pushing. She liked what she did. Plus, the job was a perfect fit for this period in her life. She demanded only one thing from itfreedom on the weekends her custody arrangement gave her with her daughters.
“So?” Three might have shut up, but he wasn’t giving up. “What do you say, Lieutenant?”
Her eyelids flickered. Having a bird along might not be a bad idea, and this particular bird had a reputation as a genius with computers. “I say, why not.”
“Yes,” he said, but his mouth remained set in a tight line. “Good,” he added.
Curious about such equivocal vibes from one of the birds, Tyler said, “Yes?”
He made a grunting sound. “The judge. It’s my father.”
At a nearby table a girl in a halter top and heavy eye make-up had been laughing so hard she started to hiccup, a sound equivalent to a bullfrog’s bellow. “Water,” she gasped, rising to her feet and brushing past them.
Eyes focused on the girl, Three said, “You’d better hear it from me.”
The girl had extracted a bottle of water from the cooler, gave a loud hiccup, and threw her head back to guzzle relief. Conversations at the tables around them resumed.
“It’s like this,” Three continued. “Rand Adams, he’s the one who found the kid. He called my dad. Like that’s how the governor heard. My dad figured she should know. Which just underscores one fact. I’ll be a good person to have in your court on this one.”
“Tyler,” Millie called. “Your sandwich’s ready. I threw in some chips and a cookie.”
Three said. “I’ll drive if you like. My car’s just outside.”
Tyler was on her feet picking up her own water bottle. She tucked it under an arm, pulled her wallet from a shoulder bag, and headed for the counter, saying to Three, “You got a name for the victim?”
Three hefted a briefcase and followed. “Harold David Rowland, called Harry. He’s the grandson of that Gainsborough County holy roller. Maybe you’ve seen him? A big wind on the Christian right. Has his own TV channel? The Reverend John David Rowland.”
“Jesus Christ,” she said.
“He probably figures in this, too,” Three said.
“What’s this about a fox?”
“There’s fox hunting, you know. Maybe it’s connected? The press are already saying so, but is it relevant? All I can tell you is that everyone who’s anyone in Gainsborough County is a member of the hunt club. They don’t ride. But like Mom and the judge, it’s social for them … good for being seen and mingling at hunt breakfasts and hunt balls. And, another thing. The Master of the Gainsborough Hunt? She’s an Adams, too. Her property line’s within spitting distance of where the body was found.”
Tyler waved away her change, wished Millie a happy afternoon, and aimed herself at the door but stopped before she got there.
A TV, hung from the ceiling above the door, was broadcasting the mid-day news out of WJZ, the Baltimore CBS affiliate. On screen, Beautiful Burt Brooks in full and impressive uniform stood with his back to a police barricade on what looked like a dirt road. His mouth moved, his words lost in the deli noise of several dozen people talking across their sandwiches and drinks. A banner under the picture scrolled an announcement: Murdered Gainsborough County boy found with fox carcass. Identity being withheld. Animal rights’ activists and local fox hunt appear involved. More at 6:00.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Three said, trailing her through the door. “You get these crazies.”
“You’re from Gainsborough County?”
“Baltimore.” He pronounced the city name the way she would, not with the ‘Bal’mor’ slurring of a native. Nor did either the strong Baltimore accent or the softer rural Maryland one color his sentences.
Three continued explaining, “But we have a summer place in the Gainsborough Trust. The old man likes to fish and Mom entertains.”
“They keep horses?”
“My uncle and aunt do.”
The sun had had just enough time to turn her truck into a furnace. When she reached it, she looked back to see that Three had paused alongside a blue Jaguar squarely set in a No Parking zone.
“Well?” she had to raise her voice to be heard over the beltway’s racket. “You coming or not?”
The hot summer sun glared down on Three’s sun-bleached hair, cut in the long, spiked crew that just now passed for fashionable among his peers. His skin was a warm tan, his eyes blue, his features regular. In fact he looked like he could earn a good living posing for underwear ads. Throw in the car, and Ralph Lauren would use him in a photo shoot.
And, maybe he had. Tyler got in and started her truck, a 2016 Ram 3500.
“Aw, fuck it!” The bird made up his mind, hurried forward to jerk the passenger door open. “They’ll tow it, you know,” he said.
She relented. “Follow along. We’ll take it back to the office lot.”
Sun speckled the shade-darkened road with glints of gold and dressed the air with narrow yellow beams. One of those played over Assistant Deputy Chief Mary McCarthy’s blonde head, high-lighting her where she perched on a sawhorse barrier next to an expensive looking bicycle. Two uniformed cops stood nearby, both leaning slightly in her direction.
McCarthy eased to her feet, the sunbeams darting down her body like mini spotlights in a strip joint.
Tyler rolled her window down and stuck out a hand. “Hi, Mary,” she said.
“How’s it going, Tyler. They said you were coming. Lucky you. Who’s your friend?”
Three flipped open his badge wallet, passed it over.
“Well, well,” McCarthy handed the wallet back. “We rate more attention than I’d have guessed. The famous Tyler Lowe and one of Boyd’s more notorious birds. It’s our lucky day.”
“He’s just along for the ride,” Tyler said.
“Aren’t they always?”
“Well. Don’t go reading anything into it. Boyd probably doesn’t know this one’s away from his desk.”
Three’s face remained nothing but agreeable.
“So. Where’s this body?”
“The kid?” McCarthy said, all business now. “Straight ahead along the lane, past the house and barns. He’s in a jump field down by the river.”
Tyler nodded, remembering the place. She’d done the stadium jumping phase of the two-star there. That was before she’d stopped riding competitively. More recently, she and other parents had watched from a set of bleachers alongside that field during a regional Pony Club rally.
She’d driven the Ram that weekend, tooit pulling a four-horse trailer with air-conditioned living quartersthem just one in line of high-priced trucks and luxury trailers hauling mostly girls but a few boys, too, and their horses.
“The victim’s a seven-year-old boy,” McCarthy continued, “from a trailer park on the other side of the river. They told you about the grandfather and the fox?”
“We think it … the fox, I mean … was trapped by animal rights’ activists somewhere on trust land and probably not recently. Probably came from a facility where they’re stored before being moved on. You want me to ride along with you? I can brief you as we go.”
“Sure,” Tyler said. “Trust land?”
“You know about the Gainsborough Trust?”
“I’ll put your bike in the back,” Three said.
McCarthy nodded at him and continued, “And here’s another thing that maybe plays. The bait shop … where the animal rights’ types keep the foxes … that’s on a parcel that isn’t in the trust. It’s part of JJ Adams’ Rockingham Farm. She’s the aunt of the guy who owns this farm, but she’s got that bait shop parcel leased to a fellow named Linus Rider. Which is something she no doubt regrets because he’s become an animal rights’ activists and she’s master of the local fox hunt.”
Tyler flicked an eyebrow.
“So, you’d think that she’d revoke the lease. Right? You’d think, too, that as hunt master she’d be in step with the other land owners and have her land in the trust, right? But, no, she’s the sole hold-out on this side of the river.”
Three said, “What the trust does is establish covenants saying owners, like my dad, can buy and sell but can’t subdivide or build outside the size of the current footprint. Like, say you want to put up a big house where there’s an old one? You can tear down house, old tobacco sheds, or tenant houses or whatever to equal the new square footage, and your building is legal.”
“Got it,” Tyler said. The Parsonsher former in-lawshad been considering doing something similar with their Virginia land. “What about the boy’s parents?”
“Harry Rowland, son of Alice Rowland and Lee Morrison. Father and mother never married. One of those high school sex experiments. When the girl came up pregnant, the boy was shipped off to a military school and never came back until a few months ago. As a veterinarian.” McCarthy paused. “Coincidentally, maybe, and I’m telling you this because you’re going to hear a lot about it, but Dr. Lee put a very valuable horse down last week. Almost on the same spot where Rand … Randall Adams who owns this place … found the kid. Big coincidence, right? That it’s Dr. Lee’s own kid?”
She stopped there and looked at both of them to underscore her own sarcasm before continuing. “Yeah. Dr. Lee’s own kid found dead where Dr. Lee killed a horse. It belonged to JJ Adams who, no surprise, was more than a little pissed at Lee, has threatened to run him out of the county.” She paused again. “You get all this?”
Three said. “Where’s the fox come in?” He’d lifted the deputy’s bike onto the truck’s bed and was holding the front passenger door open for her.
“It gets more complicated. The kid may have been Dr. Lee’s, but they barely knew each other. People say there’s no love lost there, that Lee’s got no interest in being a father, but here’s another thing. He and the mom are engaged. He’s going to do the right thing and marry her. So. And here’s one more thing.”
Mary had settled herself on the front passenger seat. “The kid was like a TV star … a child celebrity among the local holy rollers.” Her seat belt snapped an emphasis. “Knew whole books of the Bible off by heart … a prodigy, they say, who received the spirit of Jesus at birth, who was born as a living reminder of atonement for sin.”
Three had seated himself behind McCarthy and shrugged his shoulders when Tyler turned with a questioning look for him. “The judge didn’t mention that part,” he said.
“Which part?” McCarthy asked.
Tyler swung her Ram around the roadblock and onto the paved Adamswood drive. “Tell us more,” she said to the deputy.
McCarthy did while the Ram passed through a tree belt to roll between white board fencing. She’d shifted to describing an up-coming horse show scheduled to be hosted at Adamswood.
“The Gainsborough Horse and Pony Show,” Three weighed in to show his local knowledge.
“It may put a crimp in your style,” McCarthy said to Tyler. “The County Attorney wrote a provision into the search warrant. You gotta clear the scene by 0800 on Wednesday so the show organizers can get on with their work.”
The farm buildings had appeared on their left, and four big semis were in a large field to their right, men working on what clearly would be massive tents.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” McCarthy said. “Unless you object, Chief Brooks is inclined to let them get on with the show set up here.”
“Nice layout,” Three said of the farm buildings.
“I’d sure as hell hate to have to maintain it,” Tyler said, slowing the truck to a crawl.
A cardinal, ruby red against the deep green of a privet, flitted across the Ram’s hood, came within inches of the windshield before flicking its tail and soaring up and away.
Tyler had been letting the Ram drift while she looked around. Now she stopped where the drive made a tee-junction with a lane that ran straight back through the buildings. On its west side stood the main house, behind it an eight-stall barn, next an equipment shed with attached garage, then a big three-sided hay barn, finally a small two-stall isolation stable. All but the main house opened to the communal drive. On the lane’s east side, she counted two large outdoor arenas with overhead lights. Next came the two indoor arenas with attached stable blocks, a sawdust storage shed, and what might be a well house. Farthest back, the lane terminated in the yard of another old house. That one featured a cat-slide roof over what might have been an original cabin, now expanded and connected to a short stable row by a breezeway.
Indisputably, she was in horse country. That partially explained, she figured, why she’d been selected to lead the investigation.
The murder, of course, might have nothing to do with the mid-Atlantic horse culture but, then again, it might.
The fields were empty, of course, their occupants enjoying the cool, bug-free shade of the airy barns and stalls. Once the sun had passed below the treetops, their caregivers would begin turning them out, probably sorting mares into their fields and geldings in others with troublemakers isolated by themselves.
Every barn had its problem children.
Which brought her back to Harry Rowlanda religious icon. Poor little guy.
She moved her foot back to the gas pedal and began accelerating.
“Hey! Mary! Mary McCarthy!” The call came from a screened-in side porch of the house.
“Stop a sec,” McCarthy said, opening her door and detaching her seat belt.
A screen door slammed, and a man strode toward them on a path flanked with rose bushes. For a moment Tyler thought she recognized him, then realized it was more type than individual. He had a horseman’s bodylong-waisted, muscular torso and arms, and was on the tall side. As he came closer, the gray in his thick hair became more pronounced as did weathering on a tanned face. Middle-aged.
Discipline. Trust. Those were the other words that came to mind as she appraised him, realizing she was looking at Randall Adams, Adamswood’s owner. From the flat line of a full lower lip to a patient and reserved cast of blue eyes, she read the self-discipline essential to anyone working successfully with animals. She’d bet money that horses responded willingly to him.
Three and McCarthy had both dropped to the ground.
“Mr. Adams,” Three beat McCarthy around the truck, his hand outstretched. “I’m Three Westen. You wouldn’t remember, Sir, but I met you and your wife at a fund-raiser for the Maryland Veterans Association several years ago. Maybe five. I was a junior at Georgetown.”
“Ah,” Adams took the hand. His eyes softened, but he didn’t smile. “Ah, yes. Judge Westen’s son. You look like him. Nice of him to send you.”
With only a flick of his eyes toward Tyler, Three said, “I’m with the Maryland CIB now, Sir, doing like an internship, come to assist one of the state’s top detectives from the Criminal Enforcement Division. Let me introduce you to Tyler Lowe.” He pointed up to the cab’s open driver’s window.
Adams glanced at Tyler, before his eyes passed over the empty passenger seat.
“Lieutenant Tyler Parsons-Lowe,” Westen amended, using her full surname; one that occupied space on legal papers but that she didn’t use and didn’t realize Westen III knew.
Tyler reached out an arm and hand as Adams’ eyes came back to her. She made the handshake as brief and limp as possible, interpreting his hesitation as sexist, as male disbelief that a lead investigator could be a woman. What else was new? A woman? In charge? So very typical.
He said, “I expected you, but I thought Tom Boyd would come, too.”
Three said, “Chief Boyd sends his regards, of course.”
“You expected me?” Tyler asked.
“Jamie Patton told me,” Adams said, as though that explained everything, adding, “Humm. I’ve only just now made the connection. Parsons. Of course.”
As he spoke, Tyler’s cellphone pinged. She checked the display, then opened a text message, hearing, as she did, McCarthy’s phone alerting her to a message.
Tyler read; then clicked off her device hearing McCarthy saying, “That’s not possible.”
JJ Adams drove the 4x4 electric vehicle with its over-sized tires past the bait shop, past the long shed roof that covered rows of fox cagesall full and all illegally taken, she was sure, on her land or Adamswood or Breck Hill or one of the other farms that comprised the Gainsborough Hunt Club’s turf. Impossible to prove, but that was about to change. Linus Rider’s poaching days were over.
This fall, during cubbing season, the hunt staff would be trapping and chipping every fox they could find. Then, they’d be able to claim and prove Linus and his animal right’s activist friends guilty of poaching, and the tree huggers’d be stopped dead in their tracks.
Today the necessity and expense of such action didn’t rankle as it usually did. She barely gave the foxesricocheting about their cagesa glance as she bounced the bright red Ranger EV onto the boat ramp and slowed to ease it into the river. She aimed for the wide gully that sloped up from the river’s far bank to climb through what the family called the Bridge Parcel. There’d been a bridge here once. Back in the days when most of Adamswood’s tobacco fields had stretched out on the flat land east of the river. All long gone. What had once been a road bed that had carried the slow-moving legs of hundreds of field hands and work horses, was now a track just wide enough for the EV. It rose gradually with the terrain to emerge at what had been a tenant house and outbuildings, now long abandoned.
She veered away before reaching the ruin, taking the EV on a spur trail that led to a gate in storm fencing and an alley behind a long, one-story building with commercial signs alongside many of the back doors. Traffic noise from Rt. 601 was loud here, the alley lined with vehicles, the parking lot between the end of the mall and the fence separating it from the trailer park was full. She left the EV alongside a dumpster and let herself into the back door of The Cutting Edgethe end shop in the strip mall.
“Okay. I sort’ve expected you.” Donna Pratt looked up from her desk when JJ appeared in her office doorway.
“I want a wash and blow dry.”
“That kid dying on Adams’ land.” Donna rose. “What happened? Who did it?”
“Did you see the crowd out front? I walked down to pay a condolence call the moment I heard, but Alice Rowland’s trailer was already full. It’s a tragedy. Little Harry … . The boy was a saint. They’re saying … .”
JJ glared, said, “Come on. I don’t have time for this.” Clearly confident that Donna would follow, she walked down the hall and out into the salon where most of the chairs were full, music playing, water splashing, hair dryers humming. JJ picked up a plastic cape from the back of a chair, put it over her own shoulders, grabbed a towel, and seated herself in front of a sink.
Donna caught up. “Well? You must know something about what happened; about what they’re saying over there.”
JJ had closed her eyes.
Snapping blue eyes, as Donna thought of them, glad to see them disappear. She worked up the suds around the familiar wrinkles in JJ’s facethe crinkles radiating away from the eyes, the curling lines increasing in size from lips to ears, the smoker’s pin-marks radiating off the top lip. JJ had been pretty as a girl and as close as be-damned to beautiful until her husband died. After that her face had set, the first of her wrinkles had appeared, each year digging a little deeper. Each year, too, her temper had become a bit more wildly uncertain. She could set a room to laughing or broadcast her bad humors as broadly as a viral You Tube video.
Donna finished the wash and led the way to her station. “Maybe we should do something different. Give you a younger look.”
“When I expect you to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, I’ll tell you.” JJ dropped down into the chair, her body falling into place. She extracted her cellphone and checked her messages. Two texts from Rand, her nephew, both telling her to call him. One text from police chief Beau Brooks asking if she would make time to see him.
Donna combed out the wet hair. When JJ put her phone away, Donna asked, “You don’t want to talk about it? I can understand that, but aren’t you even curious about little Harry?”
“Why should I be? They breed them like rabbits over here.”
Donna’s lips thinned. She swallowed visibly then lifted a strand of hair in the comb and aimed a pair of scissors at a point where the hair emerged from JJ’s scalp. “Yup. I think one of those pixie cuts we used to do would look good on you.”
Conversation spiked with laughter mingled with the drone of dryers, the running of water, and the hum of overhead fans. Donna’s beauticians worked at four stations angled around a central pillar; four more had their stations clustered in each of two corners. Two manicurists labored in front of large windows facing the street. The dryers sat along a back wall while the wash stations filled a corner behind two screens decorated with radical hair styles in outrageous colors.
“And I think,” JJ said, raising her eyes to the mirror and meeting Donna’s there. “I think that you need to get a grip.”
Emily Pratt, Donna’s daughter, occupied the next station over, the two facing a partial wall topped with ferns that separated the retail and reception area from the working beauty parlor. She said, “The boy hit his head, Mom. It was an accident. That’s all. That’s what they’re saying.”
“Where’d you hear that?” both older women asked almost as one.
“The people in the street. Just a minute ago, when I went out for a cigarette. The boy had a concussion or something.” She tipped her head toward the window wall that faced the street and were largely masked by sheer curtains and a jungle of hanging plants. Even so, the shapes of lines of people were visibleSavior parishioners waiting to enter the trailer park and file past Alice Rowland’s trailer as a gesture of respect for her grief.
“Honest to God,” JJ closed her eyes on the sight beyond the windows and Emily’s news. “Don’t people have anything else to do with themselves?”
Donna didn’t bother answering. She and JJ went back a very long way, and she actually understood the woman as well as anyone, although they could not have been more different. Donna was a sixty-five-year-old mother of three, grandmother of seven, converted Catholic and born-again staunch alt-right Republican and religious fundamentalist. JJ had no children or religious or political beliefs, lived alone in a big house, received invitations to every gathering of note in the county, and was master of the local fox hunt.
They fell silentJJ experiencing the hypnotic effect of a haircut and blow dry; Donna hovering in the thoughtless zone that accompanies repetitive tasks.
In forty-odd years as a beautician, she had experienced every kind of hair. If it existed, she’d had it in her chair. Fine, soft, cottony, wiry, tough. And over the years she’d developed a theory. She called it the beautician’s guide to personality types. Take JJ, as a prime example. Her hair was on the dense and coarse side and seldom felt really good. Down deep, the woman under this thatch was just like her hair.
Down deep, JJ’s mind was like one of those forest thickets you need a machete to cut your way through. There was nothing yielding or giving or soft or flexible about her. And the way her hair grew? Lots of people only needed a haircut every six to eight weeks. JJ needed one almost every other week her hair grew so fast … reminded Donna of the kudzu vines that had taken over the south and invaded Maryland.
Donna had finished trimming and had begun drying before JJ spoke again. “If you want so much to tell me about the kid, go ahead. I can see it’s stewing somewhere behind that grimace that passes for an agreeable expression on your face.”
Donna visibly clamped her lips together. After a long pause, her expression softened and she said, “He was a special one. Harry was. He looked like Jesus must’ve when he was a boy. And sing? God spoke through that voice. Not to mention the way he could recite scripture. It wasn’t the way kids usually do when they bother to memorize a verse or two, either. No. He understood what he was saying. Listening to him, the meaning came clear … the word of God reached out and sank into your soul … breaks my heart to think of him”
“Gone to Jesus?” JJ finished the sentence. “Isn’t that what you were going to say.”
“A concussion. How did he get a concussion?” Donna used the brush to roll the ends of JJ’s hair into the pageboy bob she liked.
“Hank Judson used to take Harry fishing early in the mornings,” Emily Pratt, Donna’s daughter, spoke up from the next station. “I’d see them down at the river sometimes.”
“You still feeding those foxes for Linus?” JJ asked the girl.
“What if I am? They’ve got a right to food and shelter and freedom from the fear of being chased by your dogs.”
“Vipers and bosoms come to mind,” JJ muttered.
Donna held up a hand, the gesture intended for her daughter. “We’re talking about poor Harry … that sainted child. Don’t go starting an argument.”
“I’ve got a right” Emily ignored her mother.
JJ said, “God almighty, Donna. You’ve got to do something about your daughter.”
But Emily had turned away, distracted by the arrival of one of her regulars.
After a moment, JJ added, “It could’ve been Hank. He’s got a temper on him and may have belted the kid too hard or something like that.”
“What about the fox? They’re saying Harry was holding a dead fox.”
“Not just dead. But with his guts pulled out.”
“So, you do know something about it. I thought you would.” Donna wielded the dryer in one hand and the brush in the other, working the one through and the other over JJ’s hair.
At the next station, Emily was running her hands through her customer’s hair while the customer talked about a wedding and a new hair style. Both of them were focused on the customer’s image in the station’s mirror.
Donna lowered her voice. “Lizard’s back.”