Indianapolis Police officer Denny Hawkins rolled his cruiser through Northwestway Park shining his prowl light past the dormant playground swings when the beam caught a shape, white and confusing, on the ground just before the tree line. Hawkins tapped the brake, refocused the light, and sat and stared for a long moment. There was something familiar about what he saw, but he couldn’t properly make out the featureless pile. He took his foot off the brake and rolled closer.
The lone word came to Officer Hawkins’s mind. He thumped the cruiser into park and stepped out, one hand wrapped around his six-battery Maglite, the other resting on the butt of his Glock .40 duty weapon. He walked closer, his feet making a slight crunching sound on the grass, crisp with frost. He passed his light over the pile, and what he saw made his mouth go dry. There was a racing in his chest and a sickening drop in his stomach. Sweat popped along his back and crotch as adrenaline hit him hard. It was a woman’s body, or parts of her body, naked in the night. He almost retched, then shined the flashlight around the vicinity. He stood and listened. All was quiet and still. He was alone. Finally his hand came off his weapon and reached for the radio mic on his shoulder and he found his voice.
“Fifty-two thirteen, I’m mobile at Northwestway Park, request assistance at my location. I’ve got a ten-zero . . .”
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
“Say again,” dispatch came back.
“I’ve got a body—I think it’s all here. Victim is unidentified white female. Request Homicide Unit and coroner.”
Movement in the pin oak on the hillside caught Frank Behr’s eye. He stood hidden in thick trees on a low rise two hundred fifty yards away, scanning the underbrush above the shallow bowl of a meadow. Gray and stealthy, the whitetails picked their way down toward the good feed, and the horizontal lines of their backs broke the vertical pattern of the trees. Behr felt the nerves along the still-healing left side of his collarbone call out in protest as he slowly raised his Remington 870 Express and used the four-by scope to get a better look. The deer were all doe. Even the controlled movement of his lifting the gun was enough to give them pause. They stopped, three of them, their heads perfectly still, save for their ears, the insides twitching white as they rotated around to capture a telltale sound. Behr stood there, gun steady, watching. After a long moment the deer continued, in serpentine fashion, down toward the edge of the meadow. When his arm started to throb, he lowered the gun.
Over the next half hour several more doe and a pair of forkies came out of the trees and began their evening graze. Behr waited. He’d been doing this a long time, and he was familiar with the habits of whitetail. The cagey big bucks often let the young ones, and the doe, go first. There was no change for several long minutes until, like a gray ghost of the forest, the senior buck of the herd became visible far up the hill. He was out of range and in the shadows of deep cover.
Behr carefully slung his Remington and pulled a pair of old antlers from his belt and began clacking them together. The rut was on, and he hoped to rattle the old boy out into the open looking for a fight. Behr slid a plastic tube up out of his coat and blew a breath into it, causing it to emit a low grunt. He saw the buck look in his direction, but felt the silhouette of his six-and-a-half-foot, two-hundred-forty-plus-pound frame was broken up enough that the buck couldn’t see him. As long as the wind didn’t change, Behr had a chance.
The buck picked his way down to the edge of the meadow, stopping behind a brake of prickly ash. Behr gave a final knock and scrape of the antlers, then tucked them into his belt and raised his Remington again, snugging the butt onto his shoulder. The last rattle had caused the buck to lift his head and scent the wind, and Behr finally got a clear look at the old boy’s rack. He was a ten-pointer with thick beams and a wide spread. Bramble slightly obscured the shot, but Behr was able to put his crosshairs square on the deer’s chest. He held. If the buck continued into the open and quartered broadside it’d be ideal, but this was a good shot, and one Behr had made before. He clicked the safety off and let out a slow breath, closing the valve on the anticipation and the pity and all other emotion in his chest. When hunting, a cold, clean killing edge is best. He was ready. The ideal time came and went. He should have squeezed. But something made him wait. He watched the deer for a long moment. The moment continued as the buck ticked forward a dozen more steps. Behr felt his mind drift.
Trevor. Six months old now, but one day I’ll be standing on a hillside like this with my boy, teaching him the ways of the woods, how to shoot, how to hunt.
Behr refocused his eye and the reticle. Then he saw the buck flinch, and a millisecond later the boom of another slug gun echoed off the hillside. The deer in the field scattered, and the old boy’s head whipped to the side and he disappeared into the foliage.
The crack of breaking branches and the thick chunking sound of hooves knocking against downed trunks reached Behr in his spot as the buck, hit and hurt, careened heedlessly into the deep timber.
Behr waited a few minutes, until he saw the blaze orange of Lester’s cap, atop a suit of Mossy Oak Break-Up pattern, make its way like a bobbing cork above the bramble, then he started down the hill and across the meadow to where he’d seen the buck plunge into the trees.
* * *
Behr reached the deer first and found him in a clearing, rolled up on his left side, face plowed into a carpet of dead leaves. There was a small hole just behind the shoulder that oozed only a trickle of blood. It was a near-perfect shot. Lester made the clearing seconds later, breathing hard.
“Hot damn,” he said over a lip full of Copenhagen when he saw what he’d collected.
“Well done, Les,” Behr said and gave him a whack on the shoulder. In his late sixties, Lester Dollaway was the father of one of Behr’s old college football teammates, Des, a reservist who’d died in Afghanistan five years back. The hunting trips had been a long-standing tradition between the three of them, and Behr hadn’t considered ending them just because his friend was gone. That first year when it was just him and Les pulling permits had been difficult. The pain in the older man’s darting black eyes was almost unbearable. Things had gotten easier with each passing year. A native Iowan, Les lived only an hour away from where they were now, and he knew all the landowners and got permission to scout in the spring and hunt in the early winter season.
“It’s the last day,” Lester said, taking off his cap and rubbing up his steel wool hair. “I can do this if you want to get on over the hill and look for them forkies or something.”
Behr gave some thought to his $400 nonresident antlered deer license that would go unfilled.
“Nah, I’ll help you and we can drag him down together.”
“It’ll be dark before long,” Les said. “You won’t get a shot.”
“I thank you.”
“Want me to dress him?” Behr offered and pulled the drop point skinner off his belt.
“If it’s no trouble,” Lester said. “These damn eyes . . .”
Behr nodded and removed his coat, then pushed up his shirtsleeves. “Seemed fine when you squeezed off on this old boy.”
He rolled the deer onto his back and made the first cut from sternum to crotch, his blade parting the white belly fur and whiter layer of fat beneath it before the red of muscle and blood leapt forth. Once the buck was opened up, Behr reached up into the warmth and wetness of the cavity and removed the organs. After splitting the pelvis, Behr cut the heart free. It came out thick and heavy and purplish in his hand, and he set it off to the side before he tilted the carcass downhill to drain. As the garnet fluid soaked into the dry ground, Behr looked at the battered forehead and broken brow tine on the old buck.
“See the Roman nose on this one? He was a fighter,” Lester said.
Behr absently rubbed his own nose with his upper arm. Had he not liked his shot? he wondered. He’d made many as difficult and some much more so. Maybe he’d seen too much gunfire recently, or perhaps an awareness of the damage a gun like the one he had brought could do was still just too fresh. He wasn’t sure and it didn’t matter. He hadn’t fired and hadn’t filled his tag after four days of hunting.
“Couldn’t believe you didn’t take him before he came on down toward me,” Lester said. “You’re in for some meat after I get him to the butcher.”
“Thanks, Les,” Behr said.
“Hell, you rattled him right in.”
Behr used the remainder of his water bottle to rinse the blood and gore from his hands and forearms. Lots of guys wore rubber gloves when field dressing these days, to prevent picking up infection, but not Behr. It wasn’t how he was taught. And he’d yet to catch a disease from a deer. He couldn’t say the same for people.
The sun throbbed crimson and dropped down over the hill, flattening out the light in the meadow to a pale purple as they each took a hind leg and dragged the deer a half mile to Lester’s truck.
It’s happening again . . .
The words come from a place deep within him. He feels that stuff down there, bubbling and stirring, as the thing inside him that is other looks to push up and outward. He has to take it for a ride.
It’s happening again and before long the red curtain will come down once more . . . Soon.
So soon it is almost confusing.
He should be at work by now, but he finds himself turning toward Irvington instead. He’ll have to make up the time on his own.
His bosses just want results, they care less about his coming and going and being punctual as long as the work gets done. And he has seniority. Besides, he doesn’t know this neighborhood. Yet.
The streets are filled with cars this morning as people go to their jobs, the sidewalks populated with mothers and their children on the way to school, along with the occasional jogger bundled in a sweatshirt moving down the road, blowing cold clouds of breath. He rolls along, as slowly as he can without getting in the way, without becoming noticeable.
He turns the corner onto East Lowell, and sees a lone woman walking. In her late twenties or early thirties, she has blond hair streaked with light reddish brown the color of ground cinnamon. She isn’t out for a healthful stroll, he can see by the cigarette in her hand and the black leather jacket and jeans that look like they were worn to a bar the night before.
Dirty girl, dirty girl . . .
He slows, trolling behind her for a bit. She is petite, with a light stride. Young.
Go to work. Now. A voice inside tries to instruct him. But it is weak. Certainly not strong enough to win out, and it will soon
He no longer feels the car around him. All is silent. He is flying, floating along next to her. He is near her, with her, of her . . .
Finally, his senses return. The steering wheel is in his hands, the seat beneath him, and the pedals under his feet once again. He speeds up and pulls abreast of her for just a moment before continuing on, her presence and her location filed away automatically in his mind. A certain fluttering sensation arrives in his gut—the one that comes along when he’s found a new project.
Hello, Cinnamon . . .
Congrats to Kathleen P., Judy O., Michelle A., Pat P., Valerie R., and 20 other members of the Read It Forward community! Their entries were selected at random to win an Advance Reader’s Copy of Signature Kill by David Levien.
Make sure you’re subscribed at the top of this page. You’ll get an exclusive email from us every week with info on how to enter our Read It First giveaways.