Chapter 1: Strangers Come to Town
The town of Skidmore in Nodaway County Missouri, is a farming community with a population of 342. It sits on a hill above the Nodaway River, amid a acres of tilled fields. On the morning of July 16, 2019, Amber Haney yawned and raked fingers through tousled blond curls. Her shift at Rocky’s Pit Stop gas station had just started and she already wanted to go home.
Another late night at the Backwoods Bar and Grill had left her feeling dehydrated and more than a little hungover. That was nothing new. Amber had been working in Rocky’s Pit Stop since she was a teenager, usually in her current condition. She liked having a good time and made no apologies for it. There was precious little to do in a podunk town like Skidmore.
The morning rush ended with the start of first shift at the factories in town. All of the old fogies had also already drifted in for their morning cup of java and a newspaper. Amber decided to take a break. It should be dead, until the afternoon rush. She went to her favorite spot in the storeroom, for a cat nap. Amber’s eyes were barely closed, when driveway signal bell sounded to announce the arrival of a customer. She sighed annoyedly and got to her feet, expecting to find that one of her regulars had forgotten something.
In the storeroom doorway, Amber nearly collided with a man she had never seen before and was startled wide awake. The fogginess from her hangover abruptly cleared and she was fully alert. He had wide staring brown eyes, a mop of scraggly, greasy blond hair, and a long sunburned face with crooked nicotine stained teeth which reminded her of a scarecrow. The stranger was so tall that he had to bend slightly to make eye contact with her. She immediately distrusted his frozen smile and exaggerated way of talking.
As Amber peered around him, she saw three equally scruffy men prowling around the store. Shoplifting no doubt. He was probably on his way to check the storeroom, to see if the store was empty, when she had gotten up. The man prattled on, in an amateurish attempt to distract Amber, while his accomplices helped themselves to whatever items they could cram into their pockets and waistbands under oversized sweat stained t-shirts. He made no attempt to move out of the doorway, barring her path with a long arm stretched across to the doorjamb. She smiled and nodded, catching the man off guard when she quickly shoved past him.
He stepped towards her, looking as though he might again attempt to impede her. Amber sidestepped him, calmly striding over to the front door, pulling a ring of keys from her pants pocket and locking it. The stranger abruptly stopped talking, eyeing her cautiously. Without breaking her stride, Amber returned to her spot behind the counter, reached down and retrieved her boss’s revolver from it’s hiding place.
“I hope you and your…friends intend on paying for all the items jammed in your pockets and down the front of your pants. In fact, I’ll have to insist that you pay for the things you’ve stuffed down your pants.”
They laughed a little too loudly and too long, hoping that Amber was joking. She saw them eyeing one another, attempting to figure out their next move. The sound of her cocking the revolver decided them. In a rush, they approached the counter and began pulling packages from their pockets and waistbands.
Amber kept the gun trained on them while they scraped together the cash to make the purchase. She rang up the sales with one hand while the other aimed the weapon at them. When their purchases were complete, she backed towards the door, unlocked it and stood back to allow them to exit.
Amber stood at the glass door, watching them beat a hasty exit in their beat up dark blue van. She wondered where they had come from and hoped that was the last she would see of them. The town grapevine was alive and well. Yet, no one could say when the four strangers drifted into town. No one down at the Backwoods Bar and Grill had mentioned them to Amber. People shrugged it off. Every year, a few dark tourists and internet sleuths came to town, drawn by all the news reports and sensationalized crime shows recounting lurid details of unsolved murders.
Those visits were actually welcomed by the townspeople, as they brought in a little revenue for the struggling community. People never stayed very long, once they realized that people weren’t getting knocked off left and right. Ultimately, they found the quiet, slow pace of the town a disappointment and moved on, seeking sinister thrills elsewhere.
It didn’t take long for the townspeople to realize that the four strangers were different from most visitors. Rather than stay in the motel or at someone’s house, they camped out in the woods. At first, the strange men only came into town for groceries. Then, almost overnight, there was a spike in property damage and theft.
A litany of complaints were called into the nearby Nodaway County Sheriff’s office, resulting in the dispatch of Officer Sanders. He interviewed five of the townspeople, who had called in complaints. They directed him to the bent woods outside of town. He arrived late in the afternoon at the campsite for a cursory interview and found the dead bodies of the four drifters. Officer Sanders cursed under his breath and called it in to the sheriff.
Sheriff Stone realized that his department lacked the personnel and expertise to handle a big murder investigation. This was a job for the state police. Within the hour, Detective Blackhorse departed from the Missouri Highway Patrol Rural Crimes Investigations Unit (RCIU) and got on the road headed for Skidmore. He went straight to the crime scene, expecting to see investigators combing the area for evidence and taking photographs. Instead, Detective Blackhorse arrived to find one lone officer guarding the scene.