THE LAST TIME I was this close to Rudy Mayfield he was leaning across the seat of his dad’s truck trying to grope my recently ripened breasts.
I close my eyes, and for a moment I smell a teenage boy’s sweaty, horny desperation barely masked by Dial soap instead of the sweetish smoky reek of charred flesh mixed with the acrid odor of sulfur always present in this
poisoned ghost town.
“Who does something like that?” Rudy asks for the tenth time in the past minute.
It’s become his mantra, a numbing chant to help him cope with the impossibility of what he encountered this morning on his daily trek down this deserted road.
His dog, Buck, a shaggy, white sheepdog mix, raises his head from where he lays at Rudy’s feet and gives him a sympathetic look.
“You’re absolutely sure you didn’t see anyone?” I ask again.
We both glance around us at the buckled driveways leading to the crumbled foundations of a dozen missing houses, and the gnarled leafless trees clawing their way out of the softly simmering earth like giant hands of the undead. The bright orange rust coating of a child’s toppled bicycle fender is the only speck of color anywhere in the desolate landscape.
“My grandpa’s the only one who stayed at the Run who’s still
alive. Aside from me checking on him, no one comes here. You know that.”
“Well, obviously someone came here,” I point out. “That girl didn’t show up on her own and light herself on fire.”
Rudy’s face turns the same shade of gray as the faded blacktop beneath his feet. He swallows and stares hard at his impressive beer gut straining against an old undershirt spattered with various colored stains like countries depicted on a great white globe.
“We had a few good times back in school,” I say to him in as light a tone as I can manage under the circumstances.
The distraction works and he gives me a lopsided smile, the same one he used to give me in health class whenever our teacher said something obvious or useless, which was most of the time. He still has the same pretty green eyes half hidden in the shadow cast by the brim of his ball cap; the years haven’t dulled them.
“Yeah,” he says. “I never understood why we didn’t go out. I liked you.”
“Maybe you should’ve told me that.”
“I thought us doing it in my dad’s truck told you that.”
“That just told me you liked doing it in your dad’s truck.”
I still remember his surprise when I didn’t stop him. He probably thought it was my first time, and it should have been; I was barely fifteen and too young to be fooling around, but my mother’s robust sex life had aroused my curiosity at an early age. It had the opposite effect on my sister, Neely, who felt she knew everything she needed to know about the act from the many times we couldn’t avoid hearing it and the few times we peeked. She never seemed to have a desire to explore it on her own, but I wrongly believed my mom did it because she enjoyed it, and I wanted to know what made it so great that she’d prefer rolling around with naked, grunting men instead of playing with her kids or feeding them.
I hear a car approaching. Buck raises his head.
The road through Campbell’s Run has been closed for as long as I’ve been alive and is so shattered by potholes and overgrown with
weeds, it’s impossible to see from a distance. We left the gate open for the coroner, but it’s a state police cruiser and two unmarked cars that arrive first.
“I have to get back to work,” I tell Rudy as I bend down to give Buck a scratch behind his ears. “But don’t go anywhere. We might have some more questions for you.”
Corporal Nolan Greely comes walking toward me. He looks like the kind of big, solid, humorless trooper that makes a motorist’s heart sink when he sees him in his side-view mirror. He’s actually a detective in the state police Criminal Investigations Division and no longer wears a uniform but he doesn’t need to. From his iron gray crew cut and the slow, purposeful pace of his steps, there’s no denying he’s a cop.
He stops in front of me and looks me up and down with a face set in stone and a pair of mirrored sunglasses hiding his eyes.
“Hello, Chief,” he greets me. “You on your way to have tea with the queen?”
I’m in an iris blue skirt and blazer and a new pair of taupe patent-leather pumps I just bought at Kohl’s with a 30 percent–off coupon. The blouse I’m wearing is a bright floral print in honor of the sunny summer day.
“I’m supposed to be at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the VFW.”
His expression doesn’t alter. I can’t tell if he admires, pities, or envies me.
“I have to admit I was surprised you called me right away,” he tells me. “There was a time when we would’ve had to pry this case away from you.”
“I’ve decided not to waste my time and energy fighting the inevitable,” I reply.
“You mean me specifically?” he asks. “Or the entire state police force?”
I give him a slight smile.
“You, Nolan,” I joke. “If you were a superhero, that would be your name: the Inevitable. And your superpower would be always showing up, even when you’re not wanted or needed.”
“I’m always needed,” he says without smiling.
“Well, I’m not reluctant to ask for your help this time,” I explain. “I have a good bunch of guys working for me, but none of them are prepared to deal with this.”
“Worst I’ve seen. I think she’s a teenager.”
I reach down and slip off my shoes.
“I can’t walk back there in heels,” I explain, “and I don’t have a pair of practical shoes with me.”
Again, I can’t tell if Nolan admires, pities, or envies me.
We start walking toward the site. Nolan motions at the two crime scene techs that arrived with him. They head toward the body in their duty uniforms of cargo pants and polo shirts with the state police badge embroidered over their hearts carrying their cameras and evidence kits. I motion at Colby Singer and Brock Blonski, the two officers on the scene with me. After initially examining the body and waiting as they stumbled away and threw up, I sent them off to look for bloodstains, footprints, or any other kind of evidence.
Blonski and Singer are rookies to police work and life in general. They’re in their early twenties and both still live at home, although Blonski recently made the bold move to an apartment above his mom’s garage. I hired them about a year ago. The only dead body Singer’s ever seen prior to this girl was his grandmother who was dressed in her Sunday best lying peacefully in her white-satin-lined casket. Blonski was first on the scene at a traffic fatality a few months ago. It wasn’t pretty, but it was nothing like this.
“Have you ever been here before?” I ask Nolan.
“Once on a dare when I was a kid.”
We stop next to a snarl of fallen barbed wire.
“You can’t get over that in your bare feet,” he says to me.
“I did it before.”
Without saying another word, he grabs me around the waist and swings me in the air over the wire.
“That was humiliating,” I comment once I’m on the ground again.
“I would’ve done the same for a man,” Nolan assures me, “only I rarely run across one performing his duties without shoes.”
I ignore his dig. I’ve been in a male-dominated profession for my entire adult life. I’ve experienced every kind of alienation, sabotage, and harassment the Y chromosome has to offer. Most of it isn’t sincere; it’s simply expected. I save my disgust for the true misogynists.
The mine fire that destroyed the town of Campbell’s Run began several miles belowground more than fifty years ago before finally making its presence known on the surface ten years later when a sinkhole opened up in a backyard, releasing a cloud of steam rife with the rotten-egg stench of sulfur. The hole turned out to be three hundred feet deep and the temperature inside it turned out to be almost twice that number. Soon afterward, a little girl’s rabbit hutch was swallowed up, then a birdbath. One morning the handlebars of a prized Harley were found poking out of a ten-foot-long ragged slash in the owner’s driveway.
All of the town’s residents were relocated except for a few holdouts like Rudy’s grandfather, who refused to go and somehow managed to remain living here while all around him his neighbors’ empty houses were torn down, roads were barricaded, and warning signs went up.
The only other building left standing was the white clapboard church. The government didn’t have the nerve to tear it down. From where I’m standing now, it’s hidden around a bend in a road and I can glimpse only the weathered gray cross at the top of its spire, but I can picture the rest of it clearly: a simple forgotten sanctuary, the once bright red paint on the front doors almost completely worn away except for a few stubborn strips.
I was out here a dozen years ago when Rudy’s grandfather called to tell us someone had stolen the church’s stained glass windows. I worked that case hard while everyone around me considered it a waste of time. I was more successful than I imagined I’d be. I discovered the thieves were professional antique scavengers working out of New York, but I was never able to come close to an arrest or track down the property. Here those windows were miraculous bursts of color and faith in the midst of
bleakness. Now they’re in the summer homes of the filthy rich and go underappreciated. I feel personally violated every time I think about it.
I step gingerly over the scorched ground, fully aware of the dangers beneath my feet, while Nolan stomps heavily behind me, daring it to give way.
Where the fire burns hottest, more than a dozen smoldering gashes have opened up. Dead trees have broken loose from the weakened soil and fallen over. Their exposed roots remind me of the tangled legs of dried-out spiders that Neely and I used to find in our attic.
In one of these fiery holes in the ground, someone has stuffed a dead girl.
Nolan and I stare down at her.
The top portion of her body has been badly burned. Her eyes are open and staring in surprise out of a face that looks as if it’s been slathered in barbecue sauce and overbaked until it’s begun to crack and flake. Most of her hair is gone, and the damage to her skull is obvious. I highly doubt she survived those blows. Hopefully they were inflicted before she was lit on fire.
“We’ve searched the area and the road. There’s no sign of blood from those head wounds. She must have been killed somewhere else and brought here,” I tell him, needing to fill the silence. “It’s been dry lately, so unfortunately, no footprints, no tire tracks.”
Nolan kneels down to get a closer look.
“I think whoever put her here thought she’d burn up and disappear,” I go on, “and when she didn’t catch on fire, he doused her in some kind of accelerant. Then there’s this.”
I gesture at a comforter streaked in bloodstains and black burn marks we found in a bank of weeds.
“Chantilly pattern in corals and oranges with a turquoise medallion overlay. I’m pretty sure that’s from the Jessica Simpson Sherbet Lace collection. You can find it at Bed, Bath and Beyond.”
Nolan looks up at me with his unreadable reflective eyes.
“I was shopping for some new bedding recently,” I explain. “I didn’t get that,” I further justify myself. “It doesn’t look like she was allowed
to burn long. Maybe someone tried to put out the fire with the blanket.”
“Could be the killer felt some remorse, or could be someone was with him who couldn’t stand to watch,” Nolan contributes. “How’d Mayfield find her?”
He doesn’t say anything else. My officers and I stand by while he continues to stare intently at the dead girl from behind the black depths of his glasses.
Even eerier than the landscape is the absence of any noise. It’s a perfect June day and not a single bird is chirping, not a fly is buzzing, dogs aren’t barking and children aren’t calling out to each other. No one is mowing a yard or playing a radio or wielding a power tool.
“How do you want to get her out of there?” I ask Nolan.
She’s only a few feet down, but there’s no way of knowing how fragile the earth is around her and how deep the chasm might be beneath her. There’s also no way to know the extent of her burns and the resulting condition of her body. If we try to pull her out, she might come apart.
Nolan finally stands back up.
“One of us needs to get down there to help hoist her up,” he says. “We can tie a rope around whoever goes. I’ve got two troopers with me, but they’re big guys.”
He sizes up Blonski, who has a stocky, no-neck weight lifter’s build, then Singer, who’s tall and lanky, then me.
“Do you weigh more than him?” he asks me.
“No,” I reply sharply.
“You sure? He’s skinny as a stick.”
“He’s six-two and a man. I weigh the least. I’ll do it.”
“You’re wearing a skirt, Chief,” Singer ventures hesitantly. “And you don’t have any shoes.”
“Yeah,” Blonski chimes in. “Shouldn’t we wait for someone with the proper clothes and equipment who knows what they’re doing?”
“Who knows what they’re doing?” I repeat in a tone that puts an end to any further argument.
I take off my jacket and slip a rope under my arms while the men hold the other end. I’m not worried for my safety, but I am worried about my blouse. I hate the fact that I’ve been caught off guard unprepared to do my job, but in all fairness to me, this is not my job anymore. I have an office now with a comfortable chair and a Keurig: I’m a coordinator, a schedule maker, a form filer, a public relations maven, a handshaking figurehead. I’m the first female police chief in the county. I cling to this knowledge in an effort to maintain some dignity as I descend into a muddy hole to retrieve a corpse.
I try not to think about the girl or to look at her until I absolutely have to. The hole is hot and steamy, and I also try not to think about the earth around me falling away, exposing the leaping flames of hell a mile beneath my dangling feet.
I wedge myself against one side and reach out to grab the body around its midsection. It looks as if the fire didn’t spread below her hips.
The sight of her young bare legs sticking out from a pair of cutoff shorts makes my throat tighten. Miraculously one of her flip-flops is still on one of her feet. Her toenails are painted neon pink, and an anklet made of sparkly hearts glimmers in the black dirt.
I gently pull her toward me, ignoring the sound, smell, and feel of seared flesh and bones, and try to imagine the girl she once was before her heart stopped beating and her soul fled. Did she like school? Did she have a lot of friends? What did she want to be when she grew up? Did she ever get to do it in a pickup truck?
None of us speak once we have her laid out on the ground. We stand around her in a protective circle and silently share our individual grief. Tears are acceptable in even the most hardened police officers in situations like this. They’re all thinking of sisters or daughters. I’m the only one who sees myself.
I’m the first to look up and away from the dead girl and this dead town to the lush green waves of rolling hills on the blue horizon, and I feel the familiar ache that always comes over me whenever I’m faced with ruined beauty.
One by one, the men turn away, too, consumed for a final moment
by their private tortured thoughts before returning to the practiced numbness that enables them to do their job but unfortunately can’t shield them from their dreams.
Our sleep will be haunted tonight by those legs that even in death look like they could get up and run away from here.