It occurred to me that my history on the job might have something to do with my outlook on this case. Ever since Salt Marsh, I’d been running into cases that somehow related back to it: girls kidnapped by a pervert no longer able to get his supply from Chris Martin, the involvement of the Vance and Harman clans with former Salt Marsh criminals like Clayton King, and now Chris Martin’s seeming interest in this case. But in each instance I allowed my obsession with the past to cloud the future, and perhaps this was happening again.
It’s hard to make oneself take a step back and look at life without the bias inherit in our own minds. I tried, and couldn’t shake the idea that somehow Chris Martin was involved more than I knew. He wanted to turn my nose toward Fairbanks for a reason that would benefit him, but so far her advice was shaky at best. She didn’t know who did the killing — because if she did, I had no doubt her people would vanish them from the face of the earth. But… my hate for Martin meant that I couldn’t see his involvement as being on the level. He even admitted it helped him.
The man didn’t know who did the killing. That scratched him off the list of people who mattered. Everything happening so far had been something for me to react to, and now it was time for action and decisive decision making. I stepped out into the cloudy day and walked purposefully toward my car.
Jake Creel either did it, or was being set up to look like he did. The victims so far were women in his life, which meant in the first case he was a derranged serial killer and in the latter it had something to do with one, or all of them. Dorothea Henry’s husband would make for a prime suspect if he’d started the rage killing with her.
There had been several people involved at the morgue, which meant either way the killer didn’t act alone. The only witness as of now, Cheryl Ruth Schaeffer, was in Schaefferville, and she wouldn’t talk to me unless and until the clan gave their go ahead — which was highly unlikely. My choices were to look for her, or to look for Jake Creel. And then something clicked in my head.
What if I found them together?
I drove out into the county with a lot of ideas running through my head, none making a lot of sense and most half formed. The men outside the Vance house nodded their heads at me when I approached up the drive on foot, hands out to show I meant no harm. At the door one of them went to frisk me, as I expected, but a female voice called them off.
It was Whit Vance, a woman who made the poor choice of marrying into the family and had to tolerate their abuseful approach to women until I came into their lives like a bundle of dynamite and changed forever the culture out here.
“He’s good,” Whit said.
She looked younger since her shit-bag husband was out of the picture, and she clearly had once been a hell of a stunner. She motioned me in, and I followed her to the kitchen table where we both took seats. Without asking Whit poured me some sweet tea.
“Roseanna is out, but I figure you might have known that,” Whit said.
“No, but you can answer my question. This Schaeffer girl that claims she saw Audrey and Ellen Henry arguing. Do you know anything about her? As near as I can find she isn’t a part of the main branch of the tree.”
Whit nodded. “I actually looked into her, when I first heard. It sounded odd to me that a Schaeffer would happen to be in town to see a crime given their… tendency to never leave those woods.”
I sipped my tea without expression. That should have occurred to me as well, but I didn’t want to admit it hadn’t.
Whit looked out the back window of the kitchen. Clothes hanging to dry rippled in the wind. She looked back to me.
“This one went to school up through junior high in town,” Whit said. “She’s the same age as Ellen Henry. That’s about all I know.”
“Then she knew Ellen. And she might have known Jake Creel.”
“Ron, everyone knows Jake Creel,” Whit said. “He was Prom King, he was the star running back, he was a great batter, ran the newspaper. My boy hated the kid, and most guys did. Rich, snotty, entitled — those are the nicer things I’ve heard.”
“Then it’s possible the killer will go after this Schaeffer girl,” I said.
Whit shrugged. “That’s your business, Ron. We don’t all chase murderers.”
“Thanks for the tea and the talk,” I said. “I’ll show myself out.”
I wouldn’t say that I flew toward Schaefferville, as I’ve actually flown before, but my car did get air on the bumpier roads as I launched it toward the house of Mama Schaeffer. Time felt like it was flying past me, though, and the sun seemed too low in the sky for what time it really was. I blew past the idiot Schaeffer’s trying to watch the red-dirt road that entered the forest.
They tried to catch up to me, but I knew the way now and I arrived at the matriarch’s house before their inter-woods warning systems could let anyone know. As I climbed out of my car and jumped up onto their porch I heard the sirens of the sheriff’s car in the distance — and approaching.
A young woman opened the door before I could knock, and she held a shotgun up at my face. She was perhaps nineteen or twenty, with a well-past due pregnant belly sticking out of the shirt she wore, and no shoes covering her dirty feet. Her black hair hung at the sides of her face, framing her near-crossed blue eyes. I wasn’t sure she’d be able to focus on me to hit me if I moved, but we were at point blank range.
“I need to talk to Miss Donna Leigh, it’s urgent, your cousin Cheryl Ruth is in danger,” I said — or rather, panted.
“Put th’gun down, guhrl,” Donna Leigh said, waddling up behind the young, pregnant Schaeffer. Car doors slammed behind me and I heard Clifford, Donna Leigh’s pride and joy, swearing up a storm. “Hold,” Donna Leigh said. Everyone froze and grew quiet.
The matriarch of the Schaeffer clan stepped onto the wood porch and looked me over, her face a blank mask, skin damaged by years in the sun. “Tell it,” Donna Leigh said.
“The person who has been killing people is killing girls that Jake Creel knows — whoever that is might also go after Cheryl Ruth, because she went to school with him for some time.”
Donna Leigh studied my face. “Y’ain’t wrong, but y’ain’t sure.”
“Come on, I risked getting killed in a misunderstanding just coming here. She’s not safe — and Jake Creel is missing.”
“He ain’t,” Clifford said. Donna Leigh looked at him over my shoulder, her blank expression changing to one of disapproval. I heard Clifford’s feet step onto the porch. “I seen ‘im.”
“Wore?” It took me several seconds to realize Donna Leigh actually said, “Where?” The sirens had reached us, and several more car doors opened and closed behind us.
“With Cheryl Ruth!” Clifford said.
And then it dawned on me.