Thanks to Poolbeg Books, I have an exclusive excerpt from Carol Coffey's latest novel, The Pact. There is also a copy to giveaway. Enter via rafflecopter link at the end of the excerpt. Open INT and ends on 30th November. Good Luck!
The 5 a.m. call from Lieutenant Alex Kowalski had woken Locklear from a fitful night’s rest. For two weeks since his enforced vacation, the kind of sleep he was accustomed to had eluded him, nights of deep exhaustion when he would sleep soundly and escape the horrors of his waking hours. For it was by day that visions of the murdered – faces of men, women and children – haunted him until the perpetrators were caught and he sentenced the victims to the watery grey grave of his tormented mind. He was known in the department as a detective without a life, who spent what time remained to him trying to solve why others lost theirs and who had taken it from them. It was a life that even now, only a few years from retirement, he knew he did not consciously choose. In his drinking days, when his thoughts were ironically clearer, he believed that this life had chosen him. This life of structure, routine, of method – things he had not known in his youth spent travelling the country with his Native American, mentally fragile mother and her array of badly chosen boyfriends.
As he lay there he went over the information his boss had given him. He had worked under Alex Kowalski for almost thirty years and considered the man as near to a friend as he would ever want, or need. A Mennonite youth named Andrew Fehr had been found hanging in a disused barn on an abandoned farm, barely hanging on to life, Kowalski had said, apologising quickly for the pun that Locklear did not get. The small, tightly knit religious community would not comply with the local police, not even the local pastor who had miraculously found the young man struggling on a rope. The rafters were too high to climb without a ladder so a suicide attempt had been ruled out. There were fresh tyre tracks in the barn and on the dry dirt road leading to town so the boy had not been alone, at least not until he was strung up and left to die. The trooper, a man named Carter who would link up with him when he arrived, said the boy had some kind of mental disability and that the paramedics had said it would be a miracle if he survived, but if he did it was likely that the damage to his brain would mean he would be unable to say what had happened. Locklear felt that this was why Kowalski had chosen him for the case. He usually only dealt with homicides and the young man, at least for now, was still alive, but Kowalski had a good nose and knew this would suit him. He didn’t relish the idea of seeing or speaking to a living victim but the boy’s brain, he figured, was as good as mush so he was no better than a corpse. He preferred his cases cold, preferred to follow his own leads, preferred when there were no emotions to deal with and he could work on the hard facts.
Locklear lifted himself off his bed and took a cold shower. The July sun was already blazing through the windows of his apartment. He had lived in the tiny one-bed almost as long as he had worked for the Richmond P.D. It suited his needs in this life which were few.
After a brief tour of duty in the army, he had joined the police in South Dakota where he had been born and where his mother, in the throes of dementia despite her middle age, was seeing out the last of her days in a haze of confusion. He stayed to be near to her but found himself unable to visit, unable to see her in that condition. She did not know him and he had never known her. When she died he could find no reason to remain in South Dakota – he had no other family, least none that he knew of, so he wandered around from state to state, much like his mother and he had done together, until his money ran out, forcing him to take a post in New York in narcotics. The work of the division frustrated him – hours spent investigating small-time drug-addicted mules, while their bosses who hid behind legitimate businesses in uptown addresses, walked free. As each year passed, Locklear felt that he was dying inside, a slow death caused by inexplicable rage against an enemy he could not see. It was during these years that his heavy drinking began – initially as a way of finding sleep from the tormented thoughts that filled his every waking moment. Soon, his days were lost in a haze of legal bureaucracy and his long nights in drunken stupors. Four torturous years later, a chance opportunity to work on the murder of a narcotic crime lord had whet his appetite for homicide and he finally found his passion, his home. So, with an ease he did not think possible, he put the bottle away and bided his time.
When a job in homicide came up in Virginia, he did not even think about the upset of relocating on his life. He didn’t have very much to move.
It was almost seven by the time he took to the road for the three-hour drive to Dayton, a tiny farming village of Mennonites. Irene, his station’s secretary, had booked him into a hotel in the nearby town of Harrisonburg where he would pick up local trooper Carter and take a look at the site. His most recent trooper had thrown in the towel and had asked for an assignment as far away from his fractious superior as possible. The trooper had lasted five months – a record as far as Locklear was concerned.
As he drove along Route 64 he went over the details he knew so far. He knew from previous cases that it took no more than six minutes for a person to die from hanging so the chance arrival of the local pastor was suspicious and not miraculous. He reasoned that the pastor must have been present when the crime was taking place – but why string the boy up and then save him? And if he wasn’t in the actual barn, if he was watching from nearby, why let the person commit the crime? Why not stop it? At the junction on 64, he took a right onto the 81 and thought about the victim. Why would someone harm a mentally deficient youth, especially in a religious community? The idea that the perpetrator was unknown to the youth, that the crime was committed by a stranger, was out of the question. Someone had put time and thought into the crime – and emotion – possibly hate – but why? Why not shoot the youth? It was quicker so there was less chance of getting caught. Unless the killer, or would-be killer knew that even if he – or she – was seen, no one in the community would tell.
As he pulled up in front of the large police station, he already knew that this was going to be a frustrating case where nothing made sense and clues led nowhere ... for now. As he pulled back the door into the reception area, he knew immediately that the trooper sitting at the desk farthest from the door was Trooper Carter. Even from a sitting position, Locklear could see that the trooper was tall and lean – an ex local-team baseball hero, now retired and no doubt teaching junior league on Saturday mornings to a brood of kids.
Locklear waited while Carter, who had his back to him, threw a small ball back and forth against the wall while he talked on the phone.
“Sure did ... poor kid was almost dead ...”
Locklear flashed his ID at the man on the desk and then stood silently as Carter revelled in what was probably the most exciting thing to happen around there in a hundred years.
“Yeah ... I did an examination of the scene myself ... got the big boys coming down from the city to tell us how it’s done and do what we did all over again.”
“Yes ... sir ... can I help you?” Carter spluttered, standing to attention.
Locklear had seen hundreds like Carter over the years. Not-too-bright troopers good at the local police stuff but useless as shit when it came down to serious crime.
“Hope so ... I’m one of the big boys come down to tell you how it’s done.”
Carter blushed. “Ah, I was just kidding – that was my wife Virginia – she’s chuffed I’m working on this – telling her friends and that – so I was just ...”
Locklear took a better look at the man who would be his partner in this investigation. He guessed Carter to be around thirty years of age, yet there was more innocence to his bright blue eyes and thick fair hair than a man of his years had a right to. Despite his height, Carter looked like a boy in a police uniform.
“Your wife’s name is Virginia? Seriously?”
Carter blushed some more. “Yeah, her folks are immigrants. Loved the place when they got here and I guess they wanted to show their appreciation of this fine state, you know?”
Locklear nodded at his genial partner, although he didn’t know. He rarely understood what ordinary people did in ordinary circumstances.
Carter looked the tough-looking plainclothes detective up and down, trying to make out where he was from. He hadn’t said enough to place an accent but he wasn’t from around here, that was for sure, so he already knew there’d be trouble. People here didn’t take too kindly to strangers poking their noses into things they didn’t rightly understand. But the face told a lot. The criss-cross of fine broken veins across his bulbous nose told a story of drinking, past behaviour by the look of things. His dark-brown eyes did not match the pale colouring of his face. He could tell Locklear had once been a handsome man before the ravages of drink set in. The detective had high, hollow cheekbones and a strong jaw line. A furrowed brow told of a man who had spent many years outdoors but his hair was the most interesting, thick and straight, a little on the long side for a police officer and still jet-black for a man of advancing years, suggesting some mixed blood – Native American he would have guessed but mixed up with enough white people to have given him skin no darker than what came naturally from too many years in the sun.
“Well, trooper, are you going to stare at me all day or are we going to Dayton?”
“Guess we’re going to Dayton, sir.” Carter had seen enough. For the next few weeks, or months, depending on how drawn-out the investigation was, he would be second fiddle to a possibly half-Indian ex-alcoholic who already had him pegged as an idiot country bumpkin cop.
The town of Dayton, which lay just over five miles away, had clearly become an extension of Harrisonburg as the larger town sprawled towards the pretty village. Only a small green belt divided the two towns but the change in landscape during the twelve-minute journey was obvious. Large, middle-class houses gave way to worn-down clapboards. Fast-food joints and express coffee houses disappeared and were replaced by fields dotted with cattle and sheep, milking parlours and an air of poverty. Carter had insisted, albeit politely, that the pair travel in his police car which the locals of Dayton would recognise.
After a brief ride along the John Wayland Highway, Carter turned right onto Mason Street and right again into the parking lot of an impressive faux-Georgian building which seemed at odds with the dilapidated houses that surrounded it. The two-storey building of bright brick was adorned with five marble pillars and large-paned windows that gave a stately, almost regal look to the rural police station.
“What are we doing here?”
Carter shrugged. “This is where your incident room will be.”
“I know that! I meant what are we doing here now? I’ve got to take a look at the goddamn site! Now!”
Carter did not move. He stared hard at the sergeant as the broad smile slowly drained from his face. “Sir, you ought not to take the Lord’s name in vain – especially around here.” He sat a while longer, unease rising through his lean body. His fingers twitched around the bulk of keys hanging from the ignition but he did not turn the key.
Locklear watched as each muscle in the trooper’s jaw jumped.
“What is it?” he asked, almost shouting without meaning to.
“You’ll see,” Carter replied quietly, turning the patrol car slowly right onto Mason Street and out of town.
As they neared the site, Locklear sat bolt upright in his seat.
Carter stopped the car and lowered his head as though he was looking for something on his lap.
The barn and the entrance leading to it, which was the scene of the crime and Locklear’s only real hope of figuring out what had happened, was occupied by about fifty people, each stomping over the evidence that he needed to see. The police tape which cordoned off the area had been torn down and two small Mennonite boys were using it as a tug-of-war rope.
Locklear opened the door of the car and was greeted by singing, the soft hum of the voices of Mennonite women spread through the small group. The men stood silently, nodding, their heads bowed and their lips moving without sound. The crowd did not look entirely as Locklear had expected them to. Some of the women were, as he knew was customary, dressed in long, plain grey dresses and white lace bonnets and the men were dressed in black waist-coated suits and white shirts, but most of the people present were dressed in plain clothing, ordinary clothes which were no different to what would be worn in any farming community.
At the entrance to the barn an old Mennonite man of around eighty, in traditional dress, sat in his horse-drawn black carriage, the only buggy to be seen among the pickups and station wagons parked haphazardly around the lot. Locklear noted the body language of the man. He was the only one who did not appear to be praying and his stone-like facial expression gave him the air of a man who did not want to be there.
Locklear moved his gaze to the centre of the crowd, none of whom had taken notice of his arrival. The man holding the Bible looked like just about every preacher he had seen on television, clean cut and freshly shaven with the bright clear eyes of a clean-living man. Dressed in modern clothes, the middle-aged preacher stood around six five with a shock of thick, blond hair. He looked up briefly from the tome and smiled broadly at the visiting policeman before returning to his prayers which Locklear noted were in what sounded like German. Low German it was called, he remembered.
Locklear, aware that he was being ignored, suddenly exploded. “God dammit!”
Carter rushed from the car, grabbing him by the arm.
“Sir, be careful not to upset sensibilities here. They mean no harm. Praying is all they’re doing.”
“Praying all over my goddamn crime scene!” Locklear spat as he marched closer to the crowd.
“They don’t see it that way. They answer to no one but the Lord.”
Locklear swung round and glared at Carter. “Are you one of them? Are you?”
Carter looked to the ground. “No, sir. I’m Baptist but ...”
“Well, then do your fucking job and help me get these people off my crime scene.”
Locklear’s language finally roused the attention of the congregation. He looked towards the now hushed crowd which parted without fuss, freeing the path of the preacher.
Locklear could feel himself tense a little. He had no experience interviewing so-called holy men and did not know what the correct protocol should be.
The preacher threw out his right hand.
“Willkamen,” he said.
Locklear searched for insincerity in that one word but found none. He didn’t take the outstretched hand.
“Snackst de Platt?” the pastor asked.
Carter moved forward and shook his head. “English, Pastor Plett.”
“I’m Pastor Plett – Henry – and this is my wife, Rachel.”
Locklear watched as a small dumpy woman, dressed in a long grey dress and a white bonnet covering her blonde hair, moved forward, smiling as she walked through the crowd of worried faces.
“Welcome,” she echoed. “You’ve come from Richmond. We’ve heard of your arrival. Please come to our house after prayers for sustenance.”
Locklear thought for a moment. “Heard of my arrival. From whom?”
Rachel Plett now looked as worried as her husband’s small congregation. She glanced nervously over Locklear’s shoulder at Carter who had not taken his eyes from the dusty ground, now trampled by fifty pairs of uninvited feet.
“Pastor,” Locklear began as gently as his angry mood would allow, “this is a crime scene. None of these people should be here. I need everyone gone right now so I can find out what happened here.”
Henry Plett’s face darkened. “Your name, sir?”
The pastor seemed to hesitate, then said, “Your Christian name?”
Locklear grimaced. He never told anyone his first name. It resulted in too many questions. Only Kowalski knew it and he was not likely to repeat it.
“I am not a Christian,” Locklear replied defiantly, hoping to put an end to the probing.
Quiet murmurs grew up from the crowd but the sound he heard loudest was the groan emitted from Carter’s mouth.
“Mr Locklear, we are here to pray for young Andrew. He is much loved in our community.”
“Then let me do my job. Let me find out who tried to kill him and get off this godd–” He stopped before using his favourite curse word. “Please leave so I can do my job.”
Pastor Plett looked at his congregation and beckoned for them to leave. Slowly, men, women and children, even the very young ones, filed silently past him, most with eyes fixed on the ground. An occasional woman glanced at Locklear nervously.
When the last of the crowd had driven off the dusty lot, Locklear surveyed the ground. Scores of tyre tracks criss-crossed the ground around the barn and on the roadway that led into the farmyard, making it impossible for him to figure out the type of car that was present when Andrew Fehr was hanged.
He hunkered down and spread his fingers across the dry earth. Lifting a small piece of soil, he smelt it and held it in his hands. He was never sure why he did this. It was instinctive. It was in his blood. Each time he did this something stirred in him. He loved the earth, the soil, and if his work didn’t keep him in cities it would be here, in nature, that he would live and breathe. But there weren’t enough murders in the countryside to keep him alive and so he lived among tall buildings and concreted ground where soil was absent and the only trees he saw were plastic offerings in the entrances of foyers.
He stood and walked towards the barn and through its open, weathered wooden doors. Inside, bales of mouldering hay lined its sides. He could hear the quiet footsteps of a nervous Carter behind him. He looked up at the long beam that ran across the middle of the large barn. There was nothing that the boy could have used to climb on, not even the hay which was little more than dust, obviously forgotten by whoever had packed it there.
“I took photos of the tyre tracks and of the rope,” Carter said. “They’re with forensics in Harrisonburg.”
Locklear did not reply. It didn’t look like he was going to be able to trust Carter and he had already decided to ask Kowalski to send another outsider to help with the investigation.
“You think that boy climbed up here and tried to hang himself?”
“No, sir,” Carter replied quietly.
“Then ... what do you think happened?”
Carter stared blankly at Locklear. “I don’t rightly know, sir.”
“Yep, I was afraid you were going to say that, Carter.”
Locklear ignored the question and made his way out of the barn to take in the vista. The abandoned farm was more rundown than he had imagined it would be. A small, dilapidated farmhouse faced the barn, its back to the road, giving the area a sense of old-world isolation. There was no glass in any of the windows and the front door was missing. A torn fly-screen screeched eerily in the wind as it moved backward and forward on its rusted hinges. The farm was situated on a high hill and as far as the eye could see the soil was parched and lifeless, sheltering only a few tufts of dry patchy grass. Locklear scanned further and noticed a small holding set on lower land adjacent to the farm. Its grass was a deep green and fat milking cows grazed in the lush pasture. A tiny house could just about be seen as the land dipped steeply away. It was a simple scene but even in the distance the neighbour’s farm appeared to be well kept compared to the wasteland on which he stood. What, he wondered, could make two adjoining farms look so very different?
“Who owns this farm?”
“It belongs to the Fehrs.”
“Why aren’t they farming it?”
Locklear grunted. For a man who was teamed up with him to supply local knowledge, Carter seemed, or pretended, to know very little. Locklear threw down the soil he was still holding and, as he moved back towards the car, he noticed a tall man standing in the dried-out scrub at the entrance to the farm. A brown-felt cowboy-type hat was pulled down, shielding his eyes. From the clothes he wore Locklear could tell the man was young – light-brown boots over dark-blue jeans and blue-check shirt. As they passed he made no attempt to move and even Carter, who seemed so at ease with the unusual community, visibly tensed.
“Who was that?”
“Luke Fehr,” he answered quietly.
“The victim’s older brother.”
“Gotta talk to him,” Locklear said, looking back into the scrub for the man but he had already disappeared from view.
“Oh, he won’t talk to you, sir. Luke Fehr doesn’t talk to anyone.”
The Pact is published by Poolbeg Books and is available in TPB and ebook format. You can order your copy HERE.
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