Fractured Truth – Susan Furlong

I blinked, shook my head, and blinked again. Either I’d had too much whiskey, or a headless chicken hung before me. My eyes skimmed the skeletal tree branches bent with the weight of not just one, but several shriveled carcasses, their scrawny legs tethered together, claws curled under, white wings limp and splayed outward like the mangled helicopter blades I’d witnessed in Iraq combat zones. Underneath each, blood pitted the white snow, pooling in spots and seeping outward in spidery pink veins. This sight would’ve sobered anyone. “Sick bastards,” I said, not that my dog could hear me. Both maimed and rendered deaf by an IED, Wilco relied solely on his eyes and nose. Right now, his nose flared and twitched, as he strained against his lead. Wilco was a human-remains-detection canine. He had no interest in dead chickens. That meant one thing: He’d found the scent line to a dead body. My insides rolled with dread as I took a deep breath and brought the radio to my mouth. “I think we’ve got the location. Take the north branch until you see the first fork. Go left and continue about a quarter of a mile.

You should see my tracks leaving the trail. I’m on the ridge east of Higgins Falls.” As I spoke, the nylon cord of Wilco’s lead pulled taut and bit into my other palm. I pocketed my radio and focused on my dog. He lifted his black snout to fill his lungs with tainted air as he tottered on three legs, no longer letting his injury hold him back. Wish I could say the same. I rotated my left shoulder, and the burn scars that marred half my body pulled the skin tight. But those scars I could hide. Others weren’t so easy. Wilco let loose a low, mournful whine.

“Hold on, boy.” I leaned down and gave him a pat. He shook with excited anticipation of a successful find. The 911 call had come in a couple of hours ago. A cross-country skier found a mutilated female body in a small cave off the trail. He was too repulsed to give much more information, not even the exact location, and hundreds of small caves dotted the rocky ridges along this branch of the Appalachian Trail. So Wilco and I were immediately dispatched for search and recovery. Not many could stomach unearthing stiff and bloodied cadavers. But, thanks to Uncle Sam, I’d been conditioned for this type of work. Back in the war, at the height of combat, there was a great need for a “cleanup crew” or “bone patrol” or whatever lingo they’d thought up at the time.

And we took that need seriously, doing what we could to find our soldiers, no matter how ugly it got. And it was always ugly. Extreme desert heat quickly transformed dead bodies into swollen, stinking carrion. Now, in a true-glutton-for-punishment fashion, I’d signed up for doing that task again. This was my first homicide since taking the oath as one of McCreary County’s finest three months ago. Backtracking a little, I secured Wilco’s leash to a tree, double-checking a couple times to make sure he couldn’t get loose. He immediately began working himself into a frenzy, turning around and around, his nose low to the ground at first, then raising upward, high into the air, as if he was scooping up the scent. It felt almost cruel to hold him back from his quarry, not to allow him to achieve his ultimate goal of locating and alerting me to the dead body. But in the military, we knew the cause of death: bombs, bullets, rockets, and shrapnel. And we knew the source: the enemy.

Here we didn’t know and I couldn’t risk Wilco disturbing evidence. “Sorry, boy.” I ran my hand down the long side of his back, then stood and pulled up the collar of my parka, tucking my chin against the wind. The night before, a freak weather pattern blew in from the northwest, bringing several inches of fresh snow. It was still coming down in spurts and the elongated ski grooves left over from the cross-country trekker were already partially covered. I scanned the forest floor around me. No other tracks. A couple minutes later, Sheriff Pusser plowed down the trail, in the lead of the rest of the team. At six feet plus, an extra twenty pounds or so around his midsection, and a booming voice to match, “stealthy” would never describe my boss. He broke into the clearing with Officers Harris and Parks, and a handful of crime scene techs and motioned for them to stay back while he approached me.

He stopped about five yards away and raised his eyes. “What the hell? Are those . ?” “Yup. Chickens.” His face grew ashen, making his pockmarks more pronounced. After a couple beats, I cleared my throat. “You okay, boss?” He swiped his upper lip and slid his eyes my way. “I got a bad feeling about this one.” He reached into his pocket for a small plastic cylinder of cinnamon toothpicks he always kept on hand. He fumbled a bit before getting one out, then placed it between his lips and bit down hard.

Harris joined us. “Looks like a butcher shop out here.” Pusser frowned. “Did I call you over here, Harris? Watch yourself. I don’t need this scene contaminated.” Harris swallowed hard, his cold eyes piercing me, like it was my fault he’d puked all over our last homicide scene. No one moved, waiting for Pusser’s command. But he just stood there, sucking on his toothpick and staring at the dead chickens. I spoke up. “Hey, Sheriff.

My dog’s going nuts. The body can’t be far. The skier said she was in a small cave. Probably below us.” “Okay then. Let’s go check it out.” He turned to Harris. “You stay here with the rest of these guys until we can figure out the best way to approach the scene.” Harris swore under his breath and shot me one last glare as he stepped back to the others. Harris hated me—wussy-ass guys like him always do—but like with death, I was no stranger to hate.

As a female in the Marines, or even more so as an American soldier on foreign soil, I’d earned more than just my stripes as I faced down old-school chauvinists. But hatred had hounded me long before the military. It started at birth. During the Great Famine, my nomadic Irish ancestors migrated here, looking for work and a place to preserve their itinerant culture, but somehow ended up settling in this backwoods area of Appalachia. We’re known as Travellers, or Pavees as we call ourselves. Gypsies, knackers, or pikies, as others sometimes call us. I’ve been called them all. And worse. But prejudice poisons both ways. Most Pavees despised “settled” or non-Traveller folks.

Sometimes it was difficult to discern “who hated who” the most. Which is another reason Sheriff Pusser hired me. I was to be a liaison of sorts. I glanced back at Harris’s icy stare. Easier said than done. * * * Pusser and I half climbed/half slid down the slope, stopping about a hundred yards down in front of a small cave. Sweaty from the descent, I loosened the collar of my jacket. Cold air hit the nape of my neck and sent shivers down my back. Something in me shifted, and fear rose from my gut, worming its way through my body. Pusser must have felt it, too.

His hand moved over his weapon, his fingers twitched. He lifted his chin toward the cave, where a symbol marked the entrance. “That’s one of those satanic things, isn’t it?” “Yeah. A pentagram. It’s used in witchcraft and other pagan religions, too.” I pulled out my flashlight and stepped forward into the cave. A musty smell mixed with a coppery tang stung my nostrils. “Chicken blood.” Pusser looked at me. I shrugged, hoping I was right.

But I wasn’t. As I bounced my beam around the rocky walls, I hit on something in the back of the cave, where the rocks formed a natural shelf. The girl. I moved forward, careful not to disturb too much of the cave floor, avoiding any previous tracks. Extinguished and half-burned candles surrounded the body and more symbols smeared the rocks above her, dark and dripping along the edges. Deep crimson. Her head was turned toward the wall, hair covering most of her features. Her shirt had been torn open exposing a now blackened wound in her chest cavity. I stepped back. “‘Graaltcha Mary .

’” Part of a prayer I’d memorized as a young Pavee. Comfort from the past. “What did you say?” “Nothing.” Shelta or Gammon, as some called it, the Traveller language of my childhood. It spewed unbidden from my lips at times. I stepped forward again. Behind me, Pusser spoke into his radio. “We’ve got her. Tell the photographer to bring down the strobes. It’s dark.

And no one comes in until I give the okay.” He disconnected and spoke to me. “I’m coming forward.” I glanced over my shoulder. He used his light to pick out my tracks and mimic my steps. “The dirt’s soft. The forensic guys should be able to lift shoe prints.” I nodded and reluctantly turned back to the victim. She was fully dressed, long skirt tucked under her knees, heavy tights, and calf-hugging boots. I focused again on the wound.

Blood had spewed from the gaping hole in her chest, oozed over the rock edge, and flowed into fractured etchings to form a pool of dried blood on the floor below. “I’ve never seen a stab wound like this.” “Looks like one single thrust. No hesitation, clean penetration.” Pusser was right behind me now, looking over my shoulder. “And not much of an entry angle. The killer was standing over her.” I pointed to the edges of the wound. “This shape is odd.” “Because there’s no fishtail, no dull side of the wound.

I’m betting he used a double-edged knife.” He shrugged. “The ME will be able to tell us more.” I pocketed my own light and pulled a ballpoint pen and a pair of gloves from my pocket. “Focus your beam on her face, will you?” I snapped on the gloves and leaned forward, using my free hand for balance, as I slid the pen under her hair, lifting it just enough to see her features. I flinched and stepped back. Pusser put his hand on my shoulder. “Callahan?” I heard the worry in his voice. He thought my PTS had kicked in again. “You okay?” I nodded.

It wasn’t past horrors—red bits of bodies blown into the air, searing skin, burning flesh —that made my heart jackhammer now. It was the present . and future. “She’s a neighbor of mine. Just a girl.” Pusser mercifully moved the light off her dead white skin, her glazed eyes, and scanned it over the improvised ritualistic altar, the burned-out candles, the blood-scrawled symbols. “A Traveller?” “Yeah.” I bit my lip over the questions clawing at my thoughts: Was she chosen at random, or were we looking at a hate crime against Travellers? And the bigger question: Was this just the beginning? CHAPTER 2 Maura Keene’s mother opened the door before I knocked. She looked from Pusser to me, her eyes questioning ours for a brief second before they widened with pain. Her hand flew to her womb, clutched at her blouse, and twisted the fabric into a tight ball.

No one had spoken a single word, yet she knew. A mother always does. Still, words needed to be spoken. Harsh truths delivered softly and with compassion, but blunt enough to leave no room for questioning or denial. I steeled myself and delivered the news no mother should ever hear. “I’m sorry, Ona. Maura is dead. Your daughter is dead.” She gasped and retreated backward into the small confines of their camper. I stepped up and followed, reaching out to provide comfort.

She batted my hand away. “No!” “Ona.” “No. No. No!” Pusser stepped around me. “You should sit down, Mrs. Keene.” She allowed him to gently guide her into one of the benches flanking a small pop-out table. I slid into the bench next to her and placed my hand on her shoulder. This time, she didn’t pull away, but leaned into me.

Her shoulders heaved, once, twice . and the sobbing began. After a while, Pusser pulled a pad and pen from his shirt pocket. He cleared his throat. “Where’s your son, Mrs. Keene?” She looked up, her face raw with pain. “I sent him out looking for Maura. I was worried when she didn’t come home.” “When did you see her last?” he asked. “Yesterday before school.

” Yesterday? That can’t be right. I leaned in closer. “Over a day ago? Are you sure, Ona?” She stared at her palms, her expression blank. “Ona?” She looked my way. “What do you mean?” I spoke firmly, trying to break through the shock. “Today is Saturday. Saturday evening. Didn’t Maura come home after school yesterday?” “No. She was going wedding-dress shopping with a friend after school, then staying overnight.” She pointed through a partially drawn curtain to a work uniform, laid out neatly on a flowered bedspread.

“She was supposed to work at the diner this morning. I was expecting her home to change.” “Who was the friend?” “The Joyce girl. Winnie. Winnie Joyce.” Her expression shifted. “When she didn’t show, I called Carol. That’s Winnie’s mother.” I nodded and she continued. “Carol thought the girls were planning to sleep over here.

There must have been some misunderstanding. But . I was sure she said . ” Her hand flew to her mouth. “Did they . did they get in a car accident?” I looked to Pusser for help. He offered nothing. I looked back at Ona and drew in my breath. “No. Maura’s body was found in a cave up by Higgins Falls.

She was murdered.” She recoiled and pressed a fist to her lips. “Cherpyra!” Shelta for “You lie!” A guttural sound erupted from her lips. My muscles tightened at her fierce glare. “Ma?” Eddie, the son, pushed through the door. “Ma? What is it?” He stood rigid in the doorway, his thin shoulders curved inward. He had the same dark hair as his sister. It fell forward, low on his forehead, partially concealing thick brows and dark, round eyes on his acned face. He was seventeen, Maura’s twin, but seemed younger. Much younger.

Ona grew quiet. She straightened her shoulders and steadied her breath, summoning the strength to be strong for her living child. Eddie looked from his mother to Pusser, his features hard and accusing. “Where’s my sister? Where’s Maura?” Ona pushed against my arm. I stood to let her by, and she went to her son, grabbing him by the shoulders. She lowered her chin and looked him directly in the eyes. “Our Maura’s dead. She’s been murdered.” Eddie pushed back, his features wrenching with pain. “Murdered? But who?” “We’re trying to figure that out,” Pusser said.

He looked at Ona, prodding. “You said she was wedding-dress shopping. So Maura was engaged?” Ona slumped to the side of the doorway, her face ashen. Eddie stiffened. “Yeah. To Nevan. But what’s that have to do with anything?” Pusser jotted the name down. “Nevan?” “Nevan Meath.” Eddie’s mouth tightened as he spoke. He was sucking it up, trying to be tough, strong, but the tremble in his hands gave him away.

“Nevan is our friend. He would never hurt my sister.” I stepped between him and Pusser, trying to soothe Eddie’s emotions. “That’s not what we’re saying. We’ve just got to check out all the angles.” “Angles?” He picked at his lip as he spoke. “You mean ‘suspects’? Nevan’s a suspect.” Pick . pick . a spot of blood burst forth.

He swiped at it, then stared down at the red smear on his fingertip. “Something you want to tell us, boy?” Eddie’s head snapped toward Pusser. “No. Why?” Pusser stared at him. Eddie shifted, crossed and uncrossed his arms, then wheeled and bolted out the door. I followed. “Eddie. Stop!” But he was already halfway across the yard. As he ran past Pusser’s Tahoe, Wilco erupted in snarls from his cage in the back of the cruiser. Eddie, startled, scrambled to keep his feet under him, disappearing between the neighbors’ trailers.

“Let him go.” Pusser came up behind me. “We need to find the Meath kid, while things are still fresh. See what the Joyce family says, too.” He was right. We could catch up to Eddie later. I rolled the tension from my shoulders, inhaled the cold mountain air, and took in my surroundings. The sun was slipping below the late-winter horizon. Low hues of diffused gray gave way to slivers of brilliant orange and yellow that cast a warm glow over the snow-blanketed ground. A pretty sky and clean snow didn’t change things, though.

Bone Gap was nothing more than a glorified parking lot: a conglomerate of trailers, mobile homes, motorcycles, souped-up muscle cars, and jacked-up trucks, all haphazardly arranged and crammed into a rural backwoods holler. Hicksville to most outsiders. Home to us Pavees. I looked back at Ona’s place, a sky-blue, yellow-trimmed tag-along camper, barely big enough for a weekend getaway, let alone a permanent residence for a widow and her two children. One child now. The sound of Ona’s sobbing leaked through the camper’s thin walls and filled the night air. “I should go back in there. She needs someone to sit with her.” “Call someone. Your grandmother, maybe.

Or the priest. You’ve got work to do. Finding justice for Maura.” Justice. Pusser had no idea how strong our clan’s sense of justice could be. I pulled my collar tight against a sudden breeze. There was movement in the trailer next door. And the one next to it, too. Curtains shuffled and blinds parted as neighbors peeked through backlit windows. Pusser was looking at me, frowning.

“What is it?” “You remember that fatal car accident a few years back?” “Head-on out on Highway 2? Two men died.” “Yeah. Rory Keene and Cormac Meath. Eddie and Nevan’s fathers. Two women widowed, two families without fathers. That’s when the families became close.” Pusser frowned. “Bound by a common loss. And now, more loss, but even worse this time. A kid, child really.

” “Word will be out soon about Maura’s death. When people hear the way she was killed, the wicked brutality . ” I glanced at Pusser’s pockmarked face, stoic and void of any real emotion. No way was he going to understand this. “Maura was young, pretty, about to be married. She comes from a good family who’s already experienced a horrific tragedy. What happened to her wasn’t right.” “Nothing we deal with is ever right. You know that, Callahan.” I rotated my neck, rubbed at my marred, war-burned skin.

Yeah. I know that better than most. “You don’t understand.” “Then explain to me what you mean. And do it fast. We need to talk to the fiancé.” “Eddie’s right. Nevan didn’t do this. This wasn’t one of us. No Pavee could do what was done to that girl.

” “How can you be so sure?” The yonks (or “wayward”) among us—scammers and thieves—had earned a certain reputation for all Travellers. And rightly so. Our society had its share of issues. But this type of evil? I couldn’t accept that. I looked back at the Keenes’ front yard and the statue of the Virgin Mary placed front and center, in a place of great reverence, and surrounded by colorful plastic flowers, even in the winter months. The same could be seen in front of almost every trailer, mobile home, and camper in Bone Gap. A homage to our faith. A fervent, deeply felt faith that dictated the very moral fabric of our culture. And the threads that bound that fabric were the family and clan code. Murder rarely happened among Travellers.

When it did, it was dealt with inside the clan, swiftly and mercilessly. “I just am. No Pavee did this. I’m sure of it.” Pusser rocked back on his heels, snow crunching under his boots. “We’ll see.” * * * “Nevan’s not here.” Mrs. Meath spoke to me through the barely cracked door of her double-wide mobile home. Her drawn face looked washed out in the glow of the porch light.

We’d come straight to their trailer, while Pusser sent one of the other deputies to the Joyce residence to question Winnie. Barking erupted from several large dog kennels positioned along the tree line on the edge of their lot. The Meaths earned extra money breeding dogs. Lurchers mostly. A fast, intelligent mix, usually between a greyhound and some sort of herder, and the best hare-coursing breed around. “Do you know where we can find him?” “No. ’Fraid not. He’s a grown boy. He doesn’t always tell me where he’s going.” I looked toward the side of the mobile home.

A security light bounced off the chrome accents of Nevan’s jacked-up Silverado. I shifted and wedged my foot between the frame and the door. “When are you expecting him back?” She wouldn’t meet my gaze. “Can’t be sure.” Something wasn’t right. I’d known Kitty Meath most of my childhood. Her oldest daughter, Riana, and I were the same age. When we were younger, a group of us girls used to come over and play with Barbies in the back room of this very trailer. Riana was always the boss of Barbie world and of our group. Her doll was the most beautiful, married the prince and lived happily ever after, while my doll became the ugly underling—a precedence I could never shake.

“Mrs. Meath. Kitty. Don’t you remember me? Brynn Callahan.” “I remember you.” I glanced over my shoulder to where Pusser stood, then looked down at my dog, tethered at my side. Both watched intently. I pressed her. “Can we come in?” “I’m ’fraid now’s not a good time. Sorry.

” She backed up, preparing to shut me out. Pusser’s hand shot out and clanged against the metal door. “Maura Keene is dead, Mrs. Meath. And we need to talk to your son.” Anger sparked in her eyes. Not surprise, not shock, not sadness, but anger. She’d already known Maura was dead. But how? “I told you he ain’t here.” Pusser stepped forward.

I ducked out of his way. “Where is he?” “Like I said. He’s out. I don’t know where.” A door slammed at the back of the trailer and dogs erupted into a barking frenzy. Pusser stiffened. “He’s making a run for it.” I reacted first, bolting from the porch with my flashlight in hand, Wilco’s leash in the other. I reached the backyard with Pusser on my heels. He yelled over the Lurchers’ barking, “Do you see him?” I bounced my beam over the backyard: an old picnic bench, a birdfeeder, a lopsided swing set… “No. Nothing.” Behind us, an engine roared to life. I turned, ready to run back, when a popping sound came from up ahead. I panned my light, caught a flash of movement. “There! Heading into the trees.” I unleashed Wilco and took off in pursuit, whipping branches clawing at my face, tearing my hair, my boot-clad feet sliding on the snow. I stumbled, fell, got up again. I spied Wilco running like an arrow, darting between nearby tree trunks. He’s not trained for pursuit, attack, or anything other than sniffing out dead bodies, but he loved fun and games. Like a late-night romp through the woods. I stopped. Panned my light again. Nothing. I’d lost him. Pusser caught up to me, leaning forward and panting into his radio as he relayed Meath’s address. The dispatcher responded, “Roger that. Backup in progress.” Pusser disconnected and sucked at the air like his life depended on it. “Damn kid. If I catch him, I’ll—” “Shh!” I held up my hand. A faint whimpering noise came from our left. It grew louder. Footsteps crunched over the forest floor, approaching quickly. Pusser relieved his holster strap and rested his palm on his weapon. Wilco trotted back to my side and stood by, alert and on watch, with both his ears and nose twitching. I grabbed ahold of his collar and aimed my flashlight in the direction of the sound. A figure approached. Pusser’s stance stiffened. He drew his weapon. “Get your hands up, Nevan. Now!” “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot. I’m hurt.” It wasn’t Nevan’s voice we heard, but Eddie’s. Pusser lowered his gun. “What the hell? Where’s the Meath kid?” I thought back to the engine I’d heard roar to life. Eddie bounded from the shadows, holding his eye. He hunkered down and whimpered like an injured pup. Blood trickled between his fingers. “My eye . ” “Let me see.” I raised the flashlight. “Move your hand.” He did. I recoiled and gagged. A piece of a twig, about half an inch long, protruded from Eddie’s eye. It’d impaled the iris. “Son of a—” Pusser was back on the radio, calling for an ambulance. I took Eddie’s elbow. “Do not touch your eye. Do you hear me?” He cried out, pushed me away, and sank to his knees. “No, you don’t, Eddie. Get up.” I yanked him back to his feet and pulled him through the woods. He stumbled on, half crying and half babbling. “It hurts…. I can’t see. ” “Shut up, boy.” Pusser was losing it. The only thing he hated more than the woods was exerting himself. Not to mention being duped. “You did this to yourself. Didn’t no one ever tell you you’re not supposed to run from the cops?” Somehow we made it to the back, to the trailer, where Eddie collapsed on the snow and balled up in pain. The Lurchers broke into wild barking. I flashed my light their way and saw Wilco prancing along the perimeter of their cages, tormenting them with his freedom. Then I turned my beam to where Nevan’s truck was parked earlier. Gone. That was the engine I’d heard. Pusser swore, looking at the same empty parking spot. “You were the decoy.” He stood over Eddie. Eddie balled up tighter. “No. No.” “Like hell you weren’t.” Pusser squatted and got right up in his face. “You know what I think? I think you and Nevan were in on this. You helped him kill your sister.” “No. I would never hurt—” “Was it your idea or his?” “No. You’ve got it all wrong.” Pusser leaned closer yet, shouted, “Someone plunged a knife into your sister’s heart, Eddie. Your buddy, Nevan? And now you’re covering for him?” Eddie clenched in tighter. His chin was buried against his chest, arms over his head. “Look at me, boy.” Pusser grabbed him by the wrists and ripped his arms down. I moved in closer and trained my light directly on them. The twig in Eddie’s eye twitched as the boy shook, crying out in pain. Pusser was out of line. Too aggressive. Where was that ambulance? Pusser gripped his shoulders. “Why’d you kill her? Were you strung out on drugs? Or something else? What type of sick stuff are you into?” “Hey. Easy, boss. He’s injured.” Eddie went limp in Pusser’s grip, his mouth slack and dripping drool mixed with streams of tears and blood that traced lines down his face. His left eye was almost swollen shut around the wooden projectile; his right eye round and glazed with fear. “You’re wrong. You’re wrong.” “Then why’d you come warn Meath?” Eddie blubbered. “Because no one would believe . Nevan didn’t kill my . ” A siren sounded in the distance. Pusser shook him. “You’re a liar, Eddie.” With each shake, Eddie’s head snapped back like a broken bobblehead. He screamed out in raw pain; then he went quiet and limp. I grabbed Pusser’s shoulder. “That’s enough. Let him be.” Pusser stood and wheeled on me, his eyes flashing. “He knows something.” I leaned in and lowered my voice. “You’re crossing the line. The kid’s in pain.” “Oh yeah? And what about Maura Keene? You think that girl didn’t suffer? There may be even more girls we don’t know about. Have you already forgotten what we saw out there today?” I swallowed hard and squeezed my eyes shut against the image of Maura’s young body—raw edges of flesh, blackened blood splattered on pale white skin—all of it burned into my memory along with the war-torn bodies of countless dead soldiers, all too young, all gone before their time…. “No. I haven’t forgotten. I never forget.

.

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