This is an excerpt from the fifth book in the Winnebago County Mystery Series.
“You killed my friend.” I hit the 2 on the phone to replay the message. “You killed my friend.” I’m sorry. So very sorry, I mouthed. It was the fourth time that morning I had been drawn back to the muffled voice that accused me, held me guilty, with four short words. You. Killed. My. Friend. The caller–I couldn’t tell if it was a male or a female–didn’t name me specifically, or say who he or she was. But the message was sent to my voicemail and was personal nonetheless. I felt compelled to keep it to myself for a while. More correctly, between the caller and me. You killed my friend. Did he or she somehow share in the same grief I couldn’t shake?
My sadness was persistent, and at times I was afraid it would consume me, swallow me whole. It had been months since I had blindly led the man I was dating to his death, but that tragic moment in time was never far from my conscious, subconscious, or unconscious thoughts. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t know how to live with the burden.
Many people assured me, some over and over, that time was the great healer. And I had to believe the weight of guilt would lessen, but I knew my life would never be the same. The other thing people tried to drum into my brain was that it wasn’t my fault. I almost believed that on one level, but on another level, which caused persistent gnawing at my heart and gut, I was convinced my police training and innate skills should have alerted me of the danger ahead. By the time I sensed something was hinky, it was too late to stop the rapid chain of events that resulted in the death of two men. Eric Stueman’s was at the hands of an evil man. The evil man died by mine.
It was like watching the videos of Twin Towers going down on 9-11. I knew it would be exactly the same no matter how many times I viewed it. Yet the part of me that didn’t want to believe it had really happened hoped if I watched it one more time the ending would be somehow different. That’s the way it was every time my mind’s eye watched Langley Parker shoot Eric. No matter how much I willed for a different ending, it never varied one iota. The images in my brain had become my nearly constant companion, along with the smell of fresh salty blood mixed in with sweet blossoms in the warm late Spring evening air.
Winnebago County Sheriff Dennis Twardy had pulled me off the road as a supervising sergeant, and assigned me the special duties of helping in the evidence room, checking outstanding warrants on offenders, and any number of other details the department was backlogged on. When I was at work, I forced myself to be focused. When I was with family and friends, I was coaxed from my grief for short periods of time. When I was alone, I fell apart as often as not.
I had added Doctor Kearns, my psychologist and new best friend as number 8 on my speed dial. The only professional–or his voicemail, at least–I had access to by hitting two buttons. Since I hadn’t slept through the night for months, he’d talked me into getting a prescription for a sleeping aid from a medical doctor. I’d done as he suggested and had the unopened bottle sitting in my bathroom cabinet, in case. I chose to self-medicate with wine in the evenings instead. A glass or two or three dulled the pain, but didn’t allow me slip into a dreamless, guilt-free night which I didn’t feel I deserved anyway. I had no idea what I had to do, or how long it would take to pay the penance that would get me out of my personal prison. I hoped one day Doctor Kearns would pull a rabbit out of a hat, something brand new, and he’d say something that would magically help me forgive myself.
My cell phone rang midmorning. It was Detective Elton Dawes, my mentor and dear friend. I forced myself to sound mildly cheerful so he wouldn’t pry into what was wrong. “Hey Smoke.”
“Got a lot going on in Warrants?”
“You know it never ends around here.”
“Tell me about it. You heard Weber call me out to his suspicious circumstances call?”
“I did. How suspicious are the circumstances?”
“I’d go with quite suspicious at this point. We’re don’t really know the extent of what we got. I’d be obliged if you’d come out here. We’re up to our eyeballs and it seems that half the guys I usually count on are off deer hunting.”
A wave of panic rolled through me. “Smoke, I . . .”
“Sheriff says you’d be putting your talents to better use on this case than in the office. If you’re ready to get back out here, that is.”
“What have you got?”
“A woman. Dead a couple of days, it looks like. Skin and bones. Waiting on Melberg and the crime lab team which is only Zubinski, with Mason out today. The chief deputy hasn’t found anyone to reassign yet, but he’s still working on it. Weber will fill in as long as he can.”
I sucked in a breath and blew it out, mentally ordering the feelings of fear and anxiety to leave with the expelled air.
“The closest address is twenty-two-nineteen Quinton Avenue, in Swedesburg Township. We’re in a private woods next to in the Jeremiah Madison County Park off County Two, a quarter mile in. A guy found her after the morning deer hunt.”
“Man. Okay. I’ll be out there in about twenty.” I disconnected and glanced at the clock on the office wall, hoping reading the time would give me a sense of urgency that would propel me into action. Ten-fifteen, Friday morning. The start of a long, sad weekend for the victim’s family. That thought spurred me and got me moving.