Pat StuartBooks and Columns
A Tyler Lowe Mystery
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 murders multiply, 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.
The Death of Hunt Country introduces Tyler Lowe, formerly long-listed for the US Olympic equestrian team, married to a wealthy Virginian, and the mother of three girls. Once her daughters were in school, she worked part-time for the Fairfax County Police, handling liaison with Federal agencies including the CIA. Then, a case gone bad put her in the hospital. When she finally recovered, she found herself divorced, custody of her daughters given to the paternal grandparents, and her horses sold. Now, living in Maryland and employed by the State of Maryland, she is on her way to regaining custody and putting her life back together. But can she?
Read a sample chapter below.
The gelding saw it first but only after he started his leap over the tall hedge. He twisted in mid-air. Head back, the whites of his eyes showing, he landed badly, scrambling. The rider stayed with him but tipped forward, weight down hard on his stirrups, barely saving himself from a painful connection with the saddle’s pommel as it rose under him, wondering what … ? He, too, had seen … what?
He pulled the now panicked horse around. “Dammit, Patches!” The words wheezed from constricted lungs.
The Adamswood jump field would have seemed quiet and empty under a mid-morning September sun if not for the hum of flies, the complaints of a few startled crows, the gelding’s snorting and half-rearing attempts to turn and run, all added to the rider’s own heavy breathing, Dense leaves and shadows flickered in a light breeze, blocking any hope at this angle of identifying whatever it was the rider had seen from above and that had his horse in such a state. Patches switched tactics and ran backwards, head high, managing to put thirty or more feet between himself and the hedge before Randall Adams booted him through a tight circle and to a stop.
Nothing. It was probably nothing, but he’d had the impression of a … a large doll … not a child.
Certainly, not a child.
“Come out,” he said and heard the uselessness of the words. Nothing moved. A doll … a mannequin, then. He was almost sure. Left behind after a game of hide and seek? A joke. A prank. 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 on the far side of the river. Not on this side, he hoped. But the river was low.
Why didn’t people pay attention to ‘No Trespassing’ signs, anyway.
Under him, the gelding was throwing his head sideways, hooves stomping, pulling on his bit, taking them away from the hedge in a slow but steady dance.
…a vulture rose silently …
“Patches, dammit. Stand still.”
The words croaked out. He cleared his throat. Something seemed lodged there.
A vulture rose silently from the balcony of a nearby judges’ tower to wing over the field, cross the river, and rise to soar in a large circle. If possible, the horse became increasingly agitated. The crows, disturbed by his abrupt arrival, had settled but had attracted allies, some circling and cawing above.
“Oh, hell!” He knotted the reins and vaulted off, releasing the horse, standing for a moment before walking back toward the hedge. Pounding hooves sounded, going away before he cleared his throat and used his cellphone to call the barn.
“I’ve sent Patches home.” The words croaked, and he had to clear his throat, again. “No. He didn’t have me off. There’s something—”
Impatient, he snapped, “Just ask the girls to put him away, would you?”
He had stopped some five feet from the hedge’s trimmed front. It rose like a wall in front of him, new growth sticking out, needing trimming.
Softening his tone, he added, “Patches was being an asshole, and there’s something I need to check. Come down with the Gator, would you? I’m in the hedge field.”
He clicked off; tucked the device in its holder on his belt. He could just see over the top of the hedge, the bar within it set at 3’6”, the privet trimmed at 5’. Or it would be. After a summer of neglect, six- to eight-inch twigs gave the privet a shaggy look.
The smell. He could smell it now. He’d been smelling it all along but blocking the knowledge. Familiar knowledge—the sweet smell of death. The smell of a corpse, of the barn when a rat died inside a wall, of body parts left in the heat, festering in fetid swamps … .
He wavered on his feet and blinked rapidly, pushing away images that didn’t fade despite the years and the drugs and the will. They’d made a home in his head, pushing into his conscious mind at the least provocation. They were there now, blocking his sight of the hedge. A wavering, milky white horizon seething with humidity like a belly full of maggots beyond pale, sage-hued marsh grasses that hid the dead … the torn flesh of recent fatalities lying over the bones of human history, here where east collided with west and north with south where the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers oozed their burdens out into the lands.
Had any army in history not fallen and moldered amongst those reeds? Bones on top of bones. A vast outdoor funerary. Iranian Shiites had been electrocuted in these waters by Sadaam’s Iraqis. British doughboys had slogged through here behind Arab mercenaries. The storm troopers of the Third Reich wisely by-passed this zone but left their dead—young, pale-faced Aryan boys from Stuttgart and Berlin, from Bonn and Cologne—on its peripheries. Arab Bedouins, Mohammed’s warriors, Roman legions, Persians, Janissaries, Turks, Slavs, Mongols and Americans … .
Impossible to forget. The smells. The colors. The glare and bugs. The rotting land with its rotting burden.
He’d worn ear mufflers, occasionally taking fire, giving unremitting fire. His own M16 had grown hot despite the A2 barrel modification. His hands had burned. His shoulders had ached. Mud had oozed into one boot and caked his toes. The boom of canon, the racket of small arms had vibrated his brain. He’d felt it shivering within his skull or had that only been the chattering of his teeth. Then, there’d been the painful sense of frozen flesh thawing, a full-body ache.
…men fell, wounded, dead …
Men fell … wounded, dead. Near and far. Had it been his imagination filling in the blanks or had their screams penetrated his ear protection and the racket and roar of guns? He could hear them still—the agony of their wounds and their fates clinging to his ears much like the tattered remains of their uniforms must still cake their rotting bones.
It had been so long ago. But how long is forever?
They’d caught the once-elite Iraqi troops trying to get away. They’d caught them with their vastly superior American numbers and their incredible American firepower. They’d trapped them. They’d killed in their hundreds and then their thousands—bodies of the dead seeming to melt in the heat as they fell, swarmed by insects, food for vultures and crocodiles. The stench.
It had been a massacre.
The wall of green in front of Randall Adams wavered, darker than marsh grass. Not marsh grass.
He looked at his gloved hands and made himself blink; had to force his eyelids down over parchment dry eyes.
Both hands. Reach forward, he told them. Reach and pull back the branches.
Red fur. A fox tail. His breath came out in a rush. Not a child, then. Not human. Just a dead fox. He pulled in a deep breath and regretted it, the cloying smell caking his mouth.
He put muscle behind his hands, parting the branches, having to strain to see down into the heavily shaded, cavern-like space inside and under the privets.
The urge to gag rose from his belly and was as quickly quashed. He’d done that often enough. He’d denied the evidence of his own eyes often enough, too. It was a useless exercise. Instead, he straightened to run a gloved hand over his forehead, wiping away sweat that threatened to blind him as surely as his memories. It helped. Movement helped.
“Get it over with, you ass,” he mouthed the words. God knew, he’d had more than his fair share of ‘getting things over with.’ There was nothing for it, but … .
He dropped belly down on the ground, his vision of past trauma fading as twigs pricked at exposed cheeks, his gloved hands reaching forward to part thickly leaved branches. A fly landed on his upper lip; another crawled under his sunglasses to touch an eyelid. He blinked violently and lifted a shoulder and turned his head to brush them off, sweat heavy under his jumping helmet and catching in his eyebrows. The crows cawed.
He swished his hand at a swarm of flies, but they were only out-riders, barely interested in him, the host focused on what he now could see. Flies tip-toed over his fingers. One bit his neck. Their humming news of food jammed his hearing.
“Dear, God,” he muttered, an ache growing in his stomach again, thickening his throat, and rising to his head. “Dear God in heaven.”
The ancient privets had been planted at six-foot intervals—four to a fence to mature into an 18’ span, the outside edges allowed to grow into trimmed 3’ square boxes rising 12’ above the ground. Underneath, over the past century, the lower branches had died back, upper ones feathering out and down to exploit the sun. The result, when properly trimmed, made a solid-looking barrier that seemed to rise from the ground. In fact, the lower portion was just a screen covering the cave-like interior.
…Entrails. He recognized them …
Adams lay there, trying not to breathe. Entrails. He recognized them; stared at how they’d been pulled almost out of the slit belly of a fox, fresh red and black, seething with flies, both fox and its crawling entrails lying in the arms of a very still, very … . He propped himself on one arm and used the opposite hand to brush a blanket of flies from the little head, then awkwardly pulled off a glove to check the neck for a pulse.
The skin felt soft and warm under his callused hand. Soft, warm, alive? But no hint of a heartbeat; no hint of breath, of lungs inhaling and exhaling. A boy?
His vision wavered and swam, the swarming of flies became the hum of mosquitoes, the traumas of the past threatened again to overwhelm him. He knew them well, had fought them, had succumbed to them, had pushed them back with drugs and therapy.
“You’re as good as cured,” they said.
Except you’re never cured. The memories never go away. Only retreat and wait to remind; to assume a new life.
He coughed, then choked as a fly entered his mouth, and his sight cleared.
Yet. This was no battlefield. This was no war.
Or, was it? War takes many forms. He’d learned that. And a body in this place at this time … holding a gutted fox. Coincidence?
“Boy?” he said out loud, his lips barely opening to keep others of the dense swarm out. “Boy?”
He gagged, controlled himself, took an involuntary deep breath, and regretted it.
What must be done, must be done. He spat.
Chin resting on a thick layer of debris, his mouth and nose now almost buried in compost, he reached for a wrist and held it. Double-checking. Doubting. Would he feel a pulse over the heavy beating of his own heart?
He didn’t need that confirmation. He could see … .
He dropped the wrist, rose on one elbow, and reached around the bloody fox to rid the face of flies again and gently stroke the skin as he might sooth a child into sleep. His hand paused as the features came clear and he actually saw them; revealed.
“Oh, no … .” He spoke aloud, his mouth open. “Oh, my God.” He wasn’t aware of scooting backwards into the sunlight or of sitting up. Then, he wiped his lower face, and spat out dirt a fly and dirt.
What could have happened here? Recognition summoned new speculation and a firm conclusion.
This could be no accident.
Sweat dribbled off his eyebrows. He removed his helmet and sunglasses and swiped his forehead and rubbed his eyes, trying to focus.
Time passed, marked only by the buzzing of flies, the beating of his heart, and the mud of the colors and images that impeded thought. It made no sense. Coincidences like this don’t happen.
No accident. No accident.
At one point he dropped back down on his belly, separated the branches, and double checked his first identification.
No dream, either. And, Jordan would be here … he checked his watch … should already be here.
…he went back on his belly …
Decisive, now, gloves off and cellphone in hand, he went back on his belly; barely parted the branches to push the cell forward. Awkwardly, trying not to look but having to lift the cell up into the inside branches and rise on his elbows, he snapped off a dozen pictures from as many angles as he could without burrowing deeper into the hedge or moving the bodies. Now, what?
He sat back. The cell’s screen showed only a blur in the full sunlight.
Out of the sun. He needed to get himself out of the sun so he could see the cell’s display, and he wasn’t going under that hedge again. Never.
Trees had encroached several feet into the field along a strip he’d never bothered to have mowed, the first of them only 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—like the one sheltering the boy and fox—sculpted from ancient boxwoods.
Nothing was out of place. Nothing offered a clue to explain what had happened here. He took several steps toward the river, hoping to see a row of boys’ faces below the bank—boys hiding and waiting to see their friend found; boys who had killed the fox, gutted it, and … . No. Not with this boy. Reason, however, didn’t stop him from walking close enough to the bank to see that it held nothing but rocks, dirt, and roots. Beyond, the river rushed along its narrow late season course, leaving wide strips of dry rocks to either side.
He had to get ahead of this thing. There was much to counter and much to protect.
His strides lengthened, taking him under the thick canopy of a tulip poplar, startling a small green snake. It slithered across an open bit of ground and disappeared under a gnarled root where deep shade made a cool little oasis. He had to get a handle on this nightmare; had to get the order right.
He did the 911 call first.
His second call was to Maryland’s governor.
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 the popular deli to see a line at the order counter and her friend, Millie, behind the cash register.
She lifted a hand in greeting before scanning the people-crammed room for an empty chair, while wondering why she was in a place like this. Why would a ranch girl from Wyoming willingly expose herself to crowds and noise of such intensity? Ridiculous and undoubtedly self-destructive on some level. But it dropped her thinking into another loosely related groove. Had women from other centuries managed to cross as many social and cultural boundaries as those of today?
Putting her own problems in an historical perspective could be balancing.
On the other hand, Millie Rasmussen, the deli owner and Tyler’s neighbor, was a case in point. She’d grown up on a hard-scrabble farm in Arizona, had three years of useless undergraduate work in micro-biology before marrying a handsome no-goodnik of the worst sort—a gambler. He’d taken her on a roller-coaster ride around the world, finally landing her with two children, in debt, and in Maryland before committing suicide. Millie had fallen back on skills honed as a young adult trying to claw her way out of poverty. From the wreckage of the gambler’s estate, she’d rescued enough to buy a run-down property, bring it up to code, and put her early experiences as a short-order cook to work.
Millie mouthed, “The usual?” over the heads in the line and pointed at an empty two-top backed into a corner by the drink coolers.
Tyler shouted, “To go,” and edged her way around and through both standing and seated customers to the cooler. She and Millie had a lot in common. Not the poverty or the superficial stuff but a lot of the rest of it.
Cold air enveloped her arm and chilled plastic filled her hand as she extracted a bottle of water and slid onto a chair at the two-top, nodding to several colleagues before she sat.
A moment later, Millie dropped 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, “God, Tyler. You look like you belong on a slab at the mortuary.”
…on that dead boy thing…
Then, she added, “But I don’t blame you. I heard you’re on that dead boy thing.”
“That’s why you’re eating on the run?” Then, she added, “Couldn’t you duck this one?”
“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, leaving her questions unanswered and accepting the change of subject. She kissed 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 one 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 all over the TV, too. The grandson of a televangelist found holding a gutted fox. Both of them deader than dead. Governor taking a personal interest. Sending an investigator she’d personally recommended hiring.”
“Six degrees of separation? Some days there’s not even three.” Tyler said, glancing around at her colleagues. “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 laid the cell on the table. “From Mace,” she said of her lawyer. “Even he’s heard.”
…Just say ‘no.’….
“You should turn down the assignment.” Millie’s mouth made an O of surprise at her own blunt, instant, and unsolicited advice. Then, she laughed and tried to soften the moment by quoting the banality: “Just say ‘no.’”
“It’ll be all right.”
“That’s what Mace will tell you.”
“Yeah.” She changed the subject, “About this weekend.”
Millie accepted that and for the next few minutes they discussed and finalized plans for the weekend which included hauling their daughters and their horses to a Pony Club rally. For the moment, the girls belonged to different clubs, meaning that their teams would be competing against each other. Which didn’t much matter the way the U.S. Pony Club was organized. Competition was more about personal growth against standards than about comparisons. Still … Tyler’s girls were fiercely competitive. Millie’s less so. Tyler’s daughters worked hard at their riding, spent their spare time in their grandfather’s barns, and memorized their equestrian knowledge manuals. Millie’s less so. Much less so.
Tyler wasn’t sure how she felt about that, but she thought she understood the reason. Millie’s girls had been toddlers when their father died … killed himself … and had grown up in a stable environment. No pun intended, but horses were a hobby for them, not a safety net. Tyler’s daughters had been abandoned by their father, had almost lost their mother to an attempted vehicular homicide, and were now the objects of a custody battle.
But that was almost over. The good news was that Millie was her neighbor, their daughters’ ages and skill sets were closely matched, and the girls were becoming friends—something that Tyler hoped might ease her daughters’ transitions when she regained custody and they came to live with her full time.
Settling details about the weekend took only minutes. That done, 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—state ID, hand restraints, lipstick, tissues, credit cards, a roll of cash, 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, the noise continued unabated—chairs scraped, people laughed, and cutlery clattered against plates and bowls—all bits of lunchtime normality at the Silver Spoon. As had been the brief conversation between Tyler and Millie Rasmussen.
A very large man hefted his bulk off a chair on Tyler’s right and squeezed his way toward the door, sucking in his gut to let a motor pool guy named Aaron Shandy pass. Aaron made it to her table and said, “You gotta sec?” He sat down in 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.”
“You know, Aaron,” Tyler said, “I’m not sure you’re making it clear enough what team you support.”
“Huh?” Then, he looked down at his tee-shirt. “Oh, yeah.” He was dressed in what for him could have passed as a uniform made up of a Baltimore Ravens’ cap and tee-shirt with jeans and work boots. He varied that by season with an assortment of Ravens’ jackets, shirts, sweatshirts, and sweat pants, not to mention a collection of Ravens’ caps.
Tyler found an empty corner on the card and scrawled her name as Aaron said, “You gotta give up cheering them Broncos. They’re a lost cause.”
“You telling Aaron about this fox hunt murder?” Another Maryland state homicide detective, loomed over Shandy. Despite the heat outside, Bruce Layfield wore a suit jacket, one that matched his slacks and didn’t cover his hip-holster and service revolver. Layfield always carried. Always.
Tyler closed the card and handed both it and the pen back to Shandy.
“We’ve been talking about it,” Layfield added. And, “We’ve also been trying to remember. Don’t you got a final custody hearing in less than a month?”
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.”
Shandy scraped his chair back, said, “Huh?” Then, he looked at Layfield and added, “Never mind. You guys work it out.” He left.
Layfield leaned over, which put him way too far into her space. She could smell sour tobacco on his breath and almost feel his revolver an inch or so from her shoulder. He spoke with a smile, his lips curving, but his eyes judging. “You gotta wonder how you being lead in a real murder investigation’s going to look to a family court judge? Kind of outta your league, anyway, isn’t it?”
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