When the body of a televangelist’s grandson is found on a Maryland horse farm clutching an eviscerated fox, Tyler Lowe, a state investigator struggling to regain custody of her daughters, finds the case escalating in hours. With the grieving religious congregation transforming the boy into a saint and land developers and animal rights’ activists hovering around the edges, the situation explodes, menacing Tyler’s custody prospects and her very life.
This novel is set against and explores the decline and transformation of old Maryland amid the excesses and predations of social and economic change.
Read a sample chapter below.
The gelding’s eyes rolled to expose whites, his nostrils flared, and he twisted in mid-air above the hedge. The forward momentum created by a thousand pound animal traveling at thirty miles had been converted into upward and vertical momentum to clear the high hedge, which he would have done easily if the twist hadn’t destroyed the rigidity of his spine and thrown him off-balance. He landed badly, front hooves scrambling, hind end settling, hocks compressing, rear hooves digging into the turf in an effort not just to regain his balance but to launch into a run.
The gelding’s fright/flight instincts had taken over.
The rider, too, had seen something. What? It took five strides to regain control and haul the animal around. What?
Except for the hum of flies, the gelding’s pawing and snorting, and the rider’s own heavy breathing, the Adamswood jump field lay quiet and empty under a mid-morning September sun. Dense leaves and shadows flickered in a light breeze, blocking any hope at this angle of identifying whatever it was he’d seen from above and that had his horse in such a state.
Patches reared and whirled. Rand Adams booted him around to face the hedge again but failed to stop the animal running backwards.
Nothing. It was probably nothing, but he’d had the impression of a child in there.
“Come out,” he said and heard the meadow sounds suck his words into its morning chorus.
He cleared his throat and opened his mouth to shout, then snapped it shut. Futile. It would be futile.
Nothing moved. Sometimes river rafters stopped for picnics or children from the trailer park on the opposite heights played among the rocks at the foot of the bluff.
Why didn’t people pay attention to ‘No Trespassing’ signs, anyway.
Under him, the gelding snorted, had stopped going in reverse, but was throwing his head sideways, dancing and pulling on his bit.
“Patches, dammit. Stand still.”
A crow rose cawing from the balcony of a nearby judges’ tower to wing over the jump field, cross the river, and disappear.
Before the caws faded, the horseman had turned away, his mind smudging its conclusions as though by blurring them they might be erased. It was nothing. There was nothing under the hedge but a bed of bed of dead leaves and twigs and bird feathers. Maybe a dead raccoon or a possum. That was it. A possum.
The horse suffered from no such denial; if anything becoming increasingly agitated. The crow came back with allies to circle the field.
“Oh, hell!” The man took a firm hold on the horse, ran up his stirrups, knotted the reins, secured them under the stirrup irons, and vaulted off, releasing the animal and walking back to the hedge. Pounding hooves sounded, going away as he used his cellphone to call the barn and give Jordan a heads-up that Patches would be coming in without a rider.
“No,” he said. “Just something I want to check in the hedge field. Come down with the Gator, would you?”
He could smell it now. His hand took its time putting the cellphone back in its pocket. A dead possum. Just a dead possum. But it couldn’t be left there.
He dropped belly down on the ground to edge his way beneath snagging branches. Not a possum. Fur. Hair. Skin. 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.
He swished his hand at another fly, but it was only an out-rider, the host focused on what he’d wanted to see. Flies tip-toed over his fingers. One bit his neck.
“Dear, God,” he muttered, an ache growing in his stomach, thickening his throat, and rising to his head. “Dear God in heaven.”
He slid back into the sunlight to sit up and wipe the back of a hand over his mouth. Sweat dribbled off his eyebrows. He removed his helmet, and swiped his forehead and eyes before thinking of something he really had to do. There would be questions. Many of them. And, most likely, accusations.
Cellphone in hand, he went back on his belly and snapped off a dozen pictures. Now, what? Out of the sun. He needed to get himself out of the sun so he could see the cell’s display.
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 the visible bit of river frontage between the field’s many solid jumps, their wings and some of their centers sculpted from boxwoods.
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 where deep shade made a cool little oasis.
He did the 911 call next.
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, it was a nice day, and the sidewalk tables were all occupied when she entered to see a line at the order counter. She lifted a hand in greeting.
The deli owner, dressed in her daily uniform of flowery scrubs, sat behind the cash register. She mouthed, “The usual?”
Tyler shouted, “To go,” and crossed to the drinks’ cooler. Cold air enveloped her arm and chilled plastic filled her hand as she extracted a bottle of water and walked to an empty table, nodding to several colleagues as she passed, receiving smiles and offers to join them. “Lunch behind the wheel today,” she said and, “Just waiting for a sandwich.”
Before she’d pulled her chair in, the deli owner had been replaced at the register and seated her flower-strewn figure on a chair opposite. Large red and yellow daisies on a blue cotton fabric climbed her shoulders. Smaller ones outlined the open neck. She said, “What’s wrong? You look like you belong on a slab at the mortuary.”
Tyler smiled. “Yeah? That good? How about this weekend? Did you decide to come along with us?”
“Is it the dead boy on the news?”
“You know what I really wanted today?” Tyler unscrewed her bottle cap. “That new entree on the poster in the window. But I wasn’t sure about eating it in the truck.”
“Flaky pastry layered with seasoned meats and cheese,” Millie said, kissing her fingers. “But you’d have been out of luck. Louie’s making it up every morning and, so far, we’ve been sold out before noon. Delicious. I’ll set some aside for you whenever you want.”
“I’d like that.”
“Probably not. Depends. I might be out of the area for the next few days.”
Millie’s long hair lay in folds under a net, while the tight skin of her face and her wide mouth were free of makeup–something she didn’t need with her features habitually dressed in a beaming interest in others. But there was nothing bright or lively about her present concern for her friend.
“That’s what I was getting at,” she said. “I heard two of your state cops talking about you in the order line—don’t know their names but it’s corned beef on rye for one; ham and cheese with American mustard and whole wheat for the other? Something about the governor wanting you? It’s been on TV, too. The grandson of a televangelist found holding a gutted fox. Both of them deader than dead.”
“Six degrees of separation? There’s not even three.” Tyler said. “I don’t suppose you’ve figured out who done it already?”
“The TV says—”
Tyler’s cellphone buzzed and Millie stopped there while Tyler pulled the device from her belt, checked an incoming message, then lay the cell on the table. “From Mace,” she said of her lawyer. “Even he’s heard.”
“You could turn down the assignment and say ‘no.’ It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“It’ll be all right.”
Millie accepted that as the closing remark it had been meant to be, and for the next few minutes they finalized plans for the weekend which included hauling their daughters and their horses to a pony club rally. The details settled, Millie stood up, looking toward her prep line.
“About finished?” Tyler asked of her sandwich.
“Give it another minute or two. Someone came in with an order for an entire office just before you, and you saw the line.”
As Millie returned to her post, Tyler took a drink from her bottle. She wore her usual work-day summer uniform of polo shirt and jeans over short boots. Her belt on a narrow waist held a cellphone and her badge on one side and a case containing a few items she considered essential on the other—hand restraints, lipstick, tissues, credit cards, and a driver’s license. Like Millie, she’d wrapped her hair onto the back of her head, hers held with two tortoise shell pins.
Around her, chairs scraped, people laughed, and cutlery clattered against plates and bowls—all bits of lunchtime normality at the Silver Spoon. As was a brief conversation between Tyler and Millie Rasmussen, Millie being a neighbor on a five-acre farmette next to one that Tyler rented.
A very large man hefted his bulk off a chair on Tyler’s right and squeezed past her, saying, “Pardon me.” He was followed closely by a man in a baseball cap, tennis shoes, jeans, and suit jacket who took Millie’s just-vacated chair, sliding a greeting card and pen in front of Tyler. “Give me a signature, would you, Lieutenant? It’s for Dutton. His birthday’s next Thursday.”
Tyler found an empty corner on the card and scrawled her name.
“You talking about this fox hunt murder?” Aron Shandy, another Maryland state homicide detective, appeared alongside Bruce Layfield. He, too, wore a suit jacket, but his matched his slacks. “We didn’t think you’d take it.”
Tyler closed the card and handed both it and the pen back to Layfield.
“We’ve been talking about it,” Layfield said.
“You’ve got a custody hearing in less than a month, don’t you?”
Tyler said, “I was just mentioning to Millie that the six degrees of separation theory might have been true before the digital age gave us social media, but it’s dead wrong now.”
“You’re saying we should butt out and mind our own business.” Shandy pulled the chair the big man had vacated over to Tyler’s left and seated himself. “What we’re wondering,” Shandy continued, addressing Tyler, “is how you being the lead in a murder investigation’s going to look to a family court judge? A working mother doing white collar crime is one thing. But one who chases killers? That’s what we’ve been asking ourselves.”
The Cutting Edge
JJ Adams drove the 4×4 electric vehicle with its over-sized tires past the bait shop, past the long shed roof that covered rows of fox cages—all 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 about over.
Today the necessity and expense of trapping and chipping every fox they could find didn’t rankle as it usually did. She barely gave the foxes—ricocheting about their cages—a 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, 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 strip 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 Edge—the 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 face—the 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 the chair’s familiar contours. 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 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 visible—Savior 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 silent—JJ 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. “I’m not saying there’s a connection but … did you know? Lizard’s back.”