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Chapter 10: The Outsider

Detective Blackhorse awoke determined to go and lay eyes on the woman whose name kept coming up in interviews with the townspeople. He wanted to see for himself if there was anything to their suspicions. Normally, he took accusations of witchcraft made against misfits and outsiders with a grain of salt. More often than not, they were baseless and born of bigoted thinking. People always feared and despised people they did not understand, who didn’t fit in. However, Detective Blackhorse wasn’t entirely sure that was the case this time. The memory of that ring of power surrounding Dakota Field’s house was still fresh.

He couldn’t be sure whether or not exhaustion had played a part in the growing sense of foreboding, which came over him, as he approached the deceptively cheerful looking house that night. The very trees around it seemed to radiate dark energy. Of course, Officer Schneider’s outlandish tales about evil spirits inhabiting trees might have been partially to blame for that impression. Detective Blackhorse wanted to visit again, in the light of day after a good night’s sleep and meet the mysterious woman whose name seemed to be on everyone’s lips and draw his own conclusions.

Blackhorse parked in the same spot, he had chosen on his first visit to the forest. Leaving his jacket in the car, he set off on foot, wanting to enjoy a few moments of peace and collect his thoughts. In the full light of a sunlit summer day, the forest seemed harmless. The gnarled trees took on a folksy, whimsical look. He half expected to see fairies flitting around. As Blackhorse approached the trees around Dakota’s homestead, he gradually became aware of a creepy sense of uneasiness. Was someone watching him? He paused and glanced around, straining his ears, but did not see or hear anyone. A rustling of leaves made him turn quickly, in time to see a squirrel scuttle away. He chuckled, silently chastising himself for being jumpy.

The trees nearing the clearing were progressively large and old, emanating energy from which he felt slight vibrations tickle the soles of his feet. He imagined their massive roots had been burrowing into the soil for centuries, gradually reaching deep into the crust and drawing on power emanating from the earth’s core. Standing at the edge of the clearing, Blackhorse looked up and saw that the trees around it formed a canopy over the home of Dakota Field, effectively filtering the cheerful sunlight which bathed the rest of the forest. The dappled shade turned windows into black holes and gave the weathered wooden house a cold harsh appearance. The garden to the left of her home was planted up with various herbs. Blackshear realized that he was looking at the home of a hedge witch and her guardian spirits resided in the towering trees.

Blackhorse was startled out of these musings by a growl quickly followed by a volley of threatening barks. The large Rottweiler previously corralled in the house came bounding out from behind it. Blackhorse resisted the urge to turn and run, knowing instinctively that as long as he didn’t step inside the ring of power and approach the house, then the creature wouldn’t cross the line still furrowing the dirt. As he stood watching the beast’s frenzied barking, Dakota seemed to materialize in front him.

Where had she come from? Blackhorse stood his ground, ignoring the dog lunging ever closer to his thighs baring its sharp fangs. Instead, he took in Dakota’s long black untamed mane, framing a surprisingly youthful face in soft waves. His gaze drifted down along her generous curves, over to the mocha skin of her arms taking in the tribal tattoos peeking out from short sleeves and through the summer weight crocheted shawl draped over them. Seeing that Blackhorse was unfazed by the dog, Dakota silenced it with the snap of her slender fingers.

“What can I do for you Detective Blackhorse?”

“You know who I am?”

“Word is out all over town. Everyone is talking about the Indian detective called in to investigate the slayings. The bodies were found in the woods, so I knew it was just a matter of time before you paid me a visit. No doubt, more than a few townies volunteered me as a suspect. Of course, I know nothing about it. I’m afraid you’ve wasted a trip.”

“Speaking of the word around town, folks are saying the victims were put to death because they owed you a debt which they refused to repay.”

Dakota laughed bitterly, “think about what you just said. If I went around killing people who owed a debt to me, then I wouldn’t be in business very long. Dead men can’t pay bills.”

“What kind of work do you do?”

“You tell me. I’m sure people have already filled you in.”

“So, you are a hedge witch.”

“If that’s what you choose to call it.”

“What would you call it?”

“I’m a herbalist. I make tinctures, poultices, medicated syrups and herbal teas. A lot of people in town can’t afford health insurance or expensive doctor visits. So, they come to me. Some of the same people who call me a witch and imply that I’m evil are actually patients of mine. Granted, many of them only come around when they’re in a bad way. Their eagerness to throw me under the bus just goes to show you that my…otherness will always make me a convenient scapegoat.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You stand there in your brown skin and you have to ask why? You might have a badge, but you’ll never be one of them. No matter how good you are at your job.”

“One of them?”

Dakota gave him a patronizing look, “We’ll always be savages to them. Nothing more than convenient scapegoats.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’ll answer a question with a question: how many of my accusers told you that they knew one of the murder victims?”

“I was already aware that they had a problems with all four of them. I’ve been interviewing people who called in complaints about them.”

“That’s not what I mean. They knew one of them on a personal level. Bet they failed to mention that, because one you find out they had an axe to grind, then they become suspects.”

“Are you saying that some people had a personal relationship with one of the vicitims?”

“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Herbert Simmons went to school in town for about three years, before his dad got a job a couple of towns over and they moved.”

“Now, how would you know that he was one of the victims, unless you were at the crime scene.”

“Nice try detective. I was nowhere near that crime scene. Didn’t have to go near it. The town grapevine is a powerful thing. Everybody knows Herbert was one of the victims.”

“The only way they would know that is…”

“If there was a leak down at the precinct. Yeah, you best get used to that detective. Everybody in town knows what the cops know. Hell, I’m sure half the town is already speculating about your little trip out here.”

“Is there anyone in particular who you know of that might have had a personal grudge against Herbert?”

“If I was to start calling off the names of everybody who loathed that man, then we’d be here all day. Not gonna lie; Herbert was a nasty piece of work. I know for a fact that Alice Barnhill had a grudge against him. She was a teacher, until Herbert got her fired. I’m on her shit list, because I refuse to enable her addictions. Let’s see, I know you questioned Helen Brown. There’s no love lost between the two of us either. Let’s just say, she was infatuated with someone who liked me better. As a teenager, she had an…intimate relationship with Herbert. This was long before he fell in with the wrong crowd and his life went off the rails. Still, he managed to get her knocked up, right before his folks pulled up stakes and moved away. Left her high and dry to cope with her shame and raise their child alone. Of course, that’s supposed to be a secret. So, you didn’t hear that from me. The official word is that the fool she duped into marrying her is actually the father of her child.”

The sound of approaching footsteps interrupted the interview. They turned and a squat, barrel-chested man waddled into the clearing, mopping his florid face with a white handkerchief. He began coughing forcefully, using the square of cloth to cover his mouth and then stuffed it into the right pocket of his overalls. Dakota turned and gave the man a sympathetic smile.

“Oh, good morning Ted. How have you been? I see your cough has returned. Let me whip up a little something for that.”

Blackhorse took the sudden appearance of a customer his cue to leave. He brought the interview to a hasty close and took his leave of them, relieved to escape the chilly shade and emerge back into the sunlight. He was eager to look into Dakota’s allegations.

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Chapter 9: Following a Thread

With daylight beginning to fade, Detective Blackhorse revised his previous decision to go down the list of suspects in order and selected a woman at the address closest to his motel. Weariness had settled on his shoulders like a heavy cloak. The sooner he got this next interview over with the better. After sleeping all folded up in his car, stretching out on a soft bed would be blissful. Blackhorse had no desire to go driving past the outskirts of town, in the gathering gloom, for an interview which would probably yield even less than the one he had just finished, only to be forced to navigate his way back to town via some unlit dirt roads.

Twenty minutes later, Blackhorse pulled up in front of the modest tract home of Helen Brown. He was trudging up the walkway, when the sight of billowing smoke sent him rushing around the side of the house. He fought his way through the junglelike backyard crowded with flowering bushes and pots of exotic looking plants to a clearing in the center. A woman was standing with her back to him, leaning over a metal trashcan and tossing leaves into a small bonfire. The breeze shifted as she turned, smoke shrouding her features and sending a billowing cloud into his face. She sounded startled.

“Who are you?”

“Sorry to barge in on you, but I saw smoke and thought the house might be on fire. I’m Detective Blackhorse I came to talk to you about the complaint you called in…”

“About Stefon and the other two savages. You cops are a day late and a dollar short aren’t you? They’re all dead.”

“To tell you the truth, I have been called in to investigate their deaths.”

“So, they were murdered. Is that what you’re saying?”

Blackhorse was distracted by a tingle crawling along his scalp, followed by a sudden sensation that the top of his head was lifting off. Helen’s voice seemed to come from miles away. He squinted against the smoke stinging his eyes and attempted to focus. She came towards, breaking through the smokescreen. In the waning light of day, backlit by the setting sun, Helen’s red hair and porcelain skin glowed in the gathering gloom.

Blackhorse took a step forward and recoiled at the sight of blood on her extended hand. He blinked and her eyes were clean. Blackhorse chuckled to himself, thinking that heat and exhaustion must be getting to him. The firelight must just have been momentarily reflected against her pale skin. Preoccupied by these thoughts, it took a few moments for Helen’s voice to register.

“I’m sorry Ms. Brown. I didn’t hear the question.”

“It’s Mrs. Brown. I’m a widow. I said, what’s so funny?”

“Oh nothing, would you mind if we stepped inside? It’s a little smoky out here.”

“What for? Those men are dead. As far as I’m concerned, it’s case closed on my complaint. So, I don’t see why you want to talk to me now…unless…unless you think I know who killed them. Let me save you some time. I have no idea who killed them. I can tell you that it wasn’t me.”

“I’m not implying that you know anything about their deaths. By interviewing people with complaints against them, I hope to learn more about them and what they were doing in town.”

“Oh, I can tell you why they were in town. Come on inside. It’s time for my son’s medication.”

They entered the house via the back door, passing through a sunny lemon yellow kitchen. She invited him to have a seat in the living room, while she went upstairs to administer her son’s medications. Blackhorse was looking at family photos on the mantle over the fireplace, when Helen returned. He spoke without turning around.

“Is this your son? He’s very good looking.”

“Thank you, that was taken before Huntington’s disease took its toll on him. Look, not to be rude but I have a lot to do this evening. Can we get on with the interview? You said you were trying to figure out what those men were doing in town. I can answer that question. They had come to town for the yearly psytrance festival.”

“The what fesitival?”

“Psytrance…haven’t you ever heard of psychedelic trance festivals? The one they have here is held out in the woods at night. From what I understand, there are a lot of different styles of psytrance music. At the festival here, they play darkpsy music. Its got this pulsing, repetitive, hypnotic driving beat that sends dancers into a kind of trance or meditation on the transcendence of death.”

“Let me guess, the attendees take drugs to…help them meditate?”

“Well, yes they take mind altering substances to deepen their meditative state. But it’s all natural like mushrooms, cannabis…”

“Opium popppies?”

“Some people might take those. The majority of the people who come down for the festival are harmless, mostly backpackers, cyber hippies, nomads living in vans, etc. Those three men that I called the cops on were bad people. They showed up here on a hot day. One of them asked for a drink of water. When I opened the door to hand it to him, he forced his way in and they robbed me. My son and I live alone here. We don’t have much and those three swarmed through here like locusts, eating up our food and taking anything of value they could get their filthy hands on.

Most things can be replaced, but they took my late husband’s watch it had a special engraved message on the back. It was like a little piece of him I could wear. Blackhorse felt awkward in the face of Helen’s naked grief. Outside by firelight, she had seemed younger, wild and free. In the well lit living room, he could see the worry lines creasing her high forehead and smudges of discoloration underneath her eyes. Blackhorse made a promise to do his best to track down the watch and return it to her. Not wishing her to revisit her grief any longer, he thanked Helen for her assistance and took his leave.

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Chapter 8: The First Snag

Detective Blackhorse sensed that Alice Barnhill was about to end the interview, before it even began. While he found her reticence a typical small-town reaction to a stranger, it seemed exaggerated. Was she trying to stonewall him? One look at her dilated pupils and he realized that she must have recently eaten, smoked or snorted some illicit substance.

Even if Blackhorse seized the upper hand and got her to submit to an interview, he would have no way of ensuring that what she said was factual and not some sort of drug-induced delusion. Attempting to follow up on a false lead would waste valuable time.

He was also a little concerned about Shirlene. Alice seemed agitated and paranoid enough, without him making it worse by attempting to interview her. The last thing Blackhorse wanted was for the woman to lash out at her child.

Since Shirlene had not been withdrawn and was chastened rather than flinching or cowering when Alice yelled, there did not appear to be any real threat of abuse. A lot of people spoke bluntly to their children. Most likely, Alice’s bark was a lot worse than her bite. Judging from her excessive yawning, she woukd most likely crawl back into bed as soon as he left.

He had no proof that Alice had taken an illegal substance. There were plenty of legal substances which could also dilate the pupils. So, all Blackhorse had was strong suspicion bolstered by the word of an underage child. Definately not strong enough probable cause for an arrest or even a lawful search and seizure.

In the end, Blackhorse allowed her to slam the door in his face and retreated to his vehicle. He climbd in and let out an exasperated sigh. Alice had barely let him talk, let alone get any questions answered. Yet, the encounter had presented a few potential avenues for investigation.

Blackhorse pulled out his notebook, wanting to jot a few things down. The little girl had said people around town believed that the victims had stolen something from the woman who lived in the woods. The woman hadn’t filed a police report like the others, but that wasn’t surprising. If Shirlene could be believed, everyone was convinced that she was an evil witch.

Blackhorse didn’t believe for a second that the woman had cast some sort of spell, but a dispute with the victims meant she might have had a hand in their deaths. If Blackhorse could confirm there was some sort of quarrel, then the mysterious woman in the woods would move from potential witness list to the list of potential suspects. He would hold off on interviewing her, until he could and determine whether or not the child’s story could be verified.

Blackhorse also wanted take another look at the crime scene photographs. He had assumed the drug paraphernalia found with the victim’s bodies was used to measure and prepare some form of heroin or cocaine. The fact that Alice’s pupils were dilated, rather than shrunken down to pinpoints, and all of the yawning indicated that she might have actually taken some sort psychedelic substance. Perhaps she had gotten it from one of them.

Blackhorse finished jotting down his ideas. He added a reminder to take the little girl’s advice and schedule his next interview with Alice at night. He fully intended to find out whether or not his suspicion about the psychedelics use was correct and what her issue was with one or all of the victims.

It was late in the day. There was only time enough for one more interview. Blackhorse started the car and drove off, glad to depart from the depressing little house at the end of the cornfield.

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Chapter 7: Pulling at Threads

The idea of ducking out of the summer heat for a mid-afternoon nap between cool sheets in an air-conditioned motel room was very inviting.  However, Blackhorse was determined to make some headway on the case, by nightfall.  He decided to see how many people on the list he could contact and interview.  One good interview could set him on the trail of the perpetrator.

Rather than randomly pick a name, he decided to start at the top of the list and work his way down.  The first address had him driving down a long rutted dirt road bordered with cornfields.  From a distance, the tall stalks with the bright yellow cobs peeking out were pleasing to the eye.  Actually driving along a narrow road lined on both sides by a mile of the eight-foot tall plants felt ominous.  Blackhorse felt hemmed in and was unconsciously relieved to reach the end of the line. 

The road dead ended at a ramshackle clapboard house which appeared to be even less inviting.  With no discernable path, he got out of the car and made his way across weed-choked grass past a rusting car up on cinderblocks to the porch.  He pulled open the rickety screen door, hanging crookedly in the doorframe, and was greeted by the headache inducing squeal of wood scraping against wood as the bottom scraped along a groove worn into weather-beaten floorboards. 

Knocking failed to bring anyone to the door.  Blackhorse turned and saw a dirty white truck in the driveway alongside the house.  Someone should be home.  He stepped over to the window beside the door and peered through a slight gap in the dusty sheets serving as curtains.  A small voice startled him.

“Are you looking for my momma?”

Blackhorse turned and saw a petite girl with long mousy brown hair on the steps.  He noted the backpack slung over her narrow left shoulder and realized that school must be out for the day.  She looked to be around ten years of age, old enough to have some knowledge of how things were, even if the full meaning of adult interactions escaped her.  Not wishing to seem intimidating, Blackhorse arranged a charming smile.

“Oh hello yes, I was hoping to talk to your mother.”

“Bout what?”

“I’m a detective following up on a complaint she filed with the police department.”

“Oh, you talking ’bout the run-in she had with that wierd guy from out of town.”

“Yes, that’s right.  Is she usually home at this time of day?”

“Yeah, she’s always home.  But, you ain’t gonna get her to the door knocking soft like that.  She sleeps pretty heavy.  Daddy calls it sleeping one off.”

“I see…I suppose it would be best to come back another time.”

“Any time you come, she’s gonna be sleep, unless you gonna come back at night.  Can I ask you something?”

“You can ask me anything,” said Blackhorse encouragingly.

“Why you wanna talk to her ’bout that now?  Didn’t somebody kill that man?”

“How do you know about that?”

“Everybody knows ’bout that, it’s all over town.  They say that witch killed him and his friends.”

“What witch?”

“The one that lives in the bent woods.  They say those men stole from her, so she took their souls to repay the debt.”

Before Blackhorse could respond, the door was opened by a disheveled looking woman raking her artificial red nail tipped fingers through a tangle of bottle blond hair.  Her red rimmed eyes raked across his face, before fixing her daughter with a withering glare.  The little girl immediately dropped her gaze and shifted from one foot to the other uneasily. 

“What have I told you about talking to strangers,” snapped the woman.

“Uh ma’am, I’m Detective Blackhorse I’m here about the complaint you filed with the police department.”

“So, you decided to give my little girl the third degree without my consent?”

“No ma’am, it wasn’t…”

“Shirlene, what was he out here grilling you about?”

“Nothing mama, we was just talking about the bent woods witch.”

“Get your little ass in the house and start on your homework!  I’ll deal with you later.  As for you detective whatever-your-name-is, if I ever catch you giving my baby the third degree again I’m gonna file a formal complaint!”

“I wasn’t interviewing her ma’am.  We were just chatting.”

“Chatting?  Chatting?  Is that what you people call it now?  Know what I call it?  Entrapment!  If you wanna know something, you come and ask me directly!  Don’t be pumping my little angel for information!”

“Yes ma’am, I would like to hear more about your complaint.”

“I ain’t gotta tell you nuthin’!  Besides, that fool went and got himself killed.  He’s the devil’s problem now!”

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Chapter 6: Lack of Evidence

Detective Blackhorse remained unbothered by Officer Schneider’s dirty looks. Without missing a beat he said, “I came to see the crime scene photos and the evidence you collected at the scene.”

“It’s down in the evidence room,” spat Schneider.

He reared back in his seat with arms crossed, making no move to show Blackhorse the way. No matter, the precinct was small. Blackhorse would find it on his own. It was better that way, he would be able look through everything without Schneider looking over his shoulder. In short order, Blackhorse found the evidence room, flashed his badge to the officer behind the service counter and signed the log to gain entry. He took a seat in the small cinder block viewing room and received a medium sized document box.

Blackhorse hesitated before lifting the lid. Any evidence collected inside could either help or hinder his investigation. Knowing Schneider, the latter would most likely be true. One look at the crime scene photographs quickly confirmed Blackhorse’s suspicions. They were in focus, but taken from distorting angles which failed to clearly show the victims’ location within the crime scene.

There were no photographs documenting the area from which the syringes, drug scales, pipes and plastic bags had been collected. So, there was no relationship established between the evidence to the victims. All of the drug paraphernalia may as well have come from somewhere else. If the case went to trial, they would have to rely on Office Schneider’s testimony as evidence that those items were found at the crime scene.

The photographs made it impossible to get an accurate perception of the bodies’ positioning. With no head-to-toe photographs, there was no indication as to the probable cause of death. For all Blackhorse knew, the victims had gunshot wounds in a part of the body which was out of frame. He would have to wait for the medical examiner’s report.

If Schneider’s handiwork was any indication of the quality to be expected from the medical examiner, then Blackhorse would be grasping at straws. He felt his composure slipping, with the realization that Schneider had screwed him over yet again. He slapped the photographs down on the table and shoved his chair back from the table, unable to sit still any longer.

Blackhorse stood and began pacing back and forth, cursing forcefully under his breath. Four men were dead and Schneider’s juvenile pissing contest was going to result in a killer getting away with murder. Accepting this case had been a mistake. Blackhorse thought about calling his superior, then thought and…tell him what, that you want to be taken off of the case because Schneider is being mean to you? That’ll go over like a ton of bricks. Just thinking about it made him feel foolish.

Blackhorse reminded himself that he had accepted the assignment, because he liked challenges. You got what you wanted, now suck it up and figure out how you’re going to overcome this challenge. Blackhorse sighed and sat back down, deciding to take a closer look at the scant evidence. There were at least photos which included each victim’s face. Blackhorse arranged them in a row, recognizing them from his dream. Though he had never met them in life, it was strange to see sightless glassy eyes in their still faces, after interacting with them in the dream.

He rooted around in his laptop bag and retrieved his magnifying glass. Several moments of close examination yielded very little. There was no obvious bruising or discoloration of the skin. He did not see any indication of bullet or stab wounds, no crushing injures. The men whose eyes were closed looked peaceful, as though they had simply fallen asleep. There were dishes strewn about, but that wasn’t unusual at a campsite. Blackhorse lay the magnifier down and sat staring at the photographs, until his vision blurred.

He had slept fitfully, cramped up behind the wheel of his car overnight. Blackhorse was still tired. The ancient looking air conditioning unit in the evidence room struggled to contend with the rising heat of the day, which permeated the small room. It made him drowsy. His eyes slid shut and he was suddenly asleep, his dream self still sitting in the cramped evidence viewing room.

Inexplicably Blackhorse stood, stepped into the narrow corridor and made his way to the holding cells. The guards were nothing more than shadowy, featureless figures standing on either side of the door. Blackhorse made his way along the walkway looking into the jail cells. One-by-one he spotted the four victims among other prisoners, gazing intently through the bars at him.

Blackhorse was about to speak, when a door slammed somewhere along the corridor outside the evidence viewing room and startled him awake. He thought about the dream. Had all four victims been arrested? Schneider hadn’t said anything to him about it, but then again the man was as useless as a rotten tooth. That was just the kind of information he would withhold. Blackhorse shoved the crime scene photographs back into their folder and dropped the file in the box. Blackhorse pulled out his laptop, booted it up and accessed the precinct database.

He realized that he couldn’t search the database without the victims’ names. Blackhorse needed more information. He checked and found that no report had been filed. Blackhorse supposed that he could go upstairs and ask for the victims’ names, but Schneider was the last person he wanted to ask for anything. He was in no mood to play games and couldn’t even be sure any information he received would be accurate. Schneider would probably make him waste even more time searching the database with the wrong names or misspelled names as payback for embarrassing him, in front of his boss.

Blackhorse decided to try the sheriff, catching him in a generous mood, thanks to his earlier compliment, and quickly gleaned that the four strangers had not been arrested. However, the precinct had received several complaints against them. Blackhorse took down the names of the citizens who had phoned in complaints and searched the database for their contact information. He was disappointed to find that none had the same initials as the ring he found at the crime scene. Nevertheless, any one of them might have a motive for murder.

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Chapter 5: The High Road

A tow truck was pulling up, as Detective Blackhorse strode back to his car. It was clear from the driver’s sleep swollen face that he had rolled out of bed earlier than usual. The man was grumpy and uncommunicative. That suited Blackhorse just fine, he was in no mood to make small talk. His mind was going a mile a minute, as he attempted to figure out how he should proceed.

What he wanted to do was punch Officer Schneider in the face, until his arm got tired. Blackhorse had to talk himself out of it. Overreacting would be playing right into Schneider’s hands and lay the groundwork for them to call in a complaint to Blackhorse’s superiors. The last thing he wanted, was to get yanked off of the case and have to go home with a black mark on his record. That would cause him to lose favor. That reckless act would be used against him, every time he put in for any kind of promotion. Blackhorse knew that for a fact, because he had made much smaller mistakes in the past which his supervisor never let him forget.

No, Blackhorse would not give Schneider the satisfaction of knowing that his prank had upset him. He also wasn’t going to sink to Schneider’s level of pettiness and tattle to Schneider’s superiors about it. Instead, he would take it as a lesson learned about watching his back around him. The best revenge would be to solve the case quickly, with little to no help from Schneider.

They arrived at the auto repair shop and the mood of the tow truck driver, who turned out to be the mechanic, had not improved. He gruffly informed Blackhorse that there was no car available to him for use, while his was being repaired. The mechanic refused to even speculate as to how long the repair might take. Realizing that losing his temper and snapping at the man would likely result in a lot longer than necessary wait in retaliation, Blackhorse left and walked to the nearest diner. He took his time over breakfast and was gratified, when the mechanic called to tell him that his car was ready.

Twenty minutes later, Blackhorse pulled up in front of the Nodaway police precinct. He turned off the engine and sat for a few silent moments, reminding himself to stay calm regardless of what anyone inside might say or do to him. Blackhorse grabbed his laptop bag, walked in, flashed his badge to the receptionist and kept walking. Schneider was in Sheriff Stone’s office and greeted him effusively.

“There he is! I was just telling Sherriff Stone that you’re running late ’cause you had a bit of car trouble and got stuck in the Bentwoods all night. It’s a shame nobody could go and get you. If I wasn’t tied up with another case, I’d a been more than happy to pick you up. The switchboard was closed, by the time I got back, so I didn’t hear about it till this morning. We wasn’t sure if you’d show up or hightail it back home,” guffawed Schneider.

“Oh on the contrary, I used the extra time to perform a thorough search of the crime scene,” said Blackhorse serenely.

The smile hardened on Schneider’s face and his eyes narrowed. Blackhorse was amused by the uneasy look Schneider shot at Stone.

“That was a waste of time. Like I told ya yesterday, I already went over the crime scene with a fine-tooth comb,” boasted Schneider.

“Well, apparently you missed a spot.”

“That’s impossible! I even documented everything with pictures,” said countered Schneider.

“So, you found the ring and chose to just leave it at the crime scene?”

“Ring? What ring? There wasn’t no damn ring,” blustered Schneider.

Wordlessly, Blackhorse reached into his pocket and opened his left hand to reveal the gold ring he had discovered. He leaned forward, so that both men could get a good look. Schneider snatched it.

“This looks like a high school class ring. I’ll bet it ain’t got nothing to do with the murders. Hell, this coulda been laying out there for a year or more.”

“I thought you said people avoid going to the Bentwoods. Either way, it was at the crime scene so, it’s evidence and should have been collected. We can’t just assume that it is immaterial.”

Schneider started to sneer, saw how impressed Stone was and his expression became discomfited. Blackhorse kept his expression bland, to conceal his glee. Schneider looked down at the ring, trying to think of a way to save face. He glared at Blackhorse.

“So, what’s a ring gonna prove? How you even gonna figure out who it belongs to? There must be five folks in town with the same initials. Everybody around here goes to the same high school. If you ask me, trying to figure out who this belongs to would be a big waste of time.”

“You seem to consider a lot of investigative protocols a waste of time, like thoroughly processing a crime scene. Sheriff Stone was wise to call in the Rural Crimes Investigations Unit.”

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Chapter 3: Dirty Tricks

Detective Blackhorse took his time surveying the crime scene, attempting to mentally reconstruct the murders. An hour later, he felt that nothing more could be gleaned onsite. His back was beginning to ache from bending over and the sun was beginning to go down. Blackhorse stood and stretched, before returning to his vehicle. Behind the wheel, he turned the key in the ignition and discovered that the engine was dead. Mystified, Blackhorse popped the hood. Within seconds of peering underneath, he saw that the spark plug wires were ripped out.

“That sonofabitch Schneider sabotaged my cruiser!”

In his haste to retrieve his cellphone, Blackhorse nearly dropped it. He pulled up the phone number for the Nodaway County Sheriff’s office, placed the call and waited impatiently for it to go through. An operator answered and tersely informed him that Officer Schneider was out on a call. Blackhorse requested a tow and she sounded doubtful about the chances that anyone would arrive before the next day. Blackhorse held it together long enough to disconnect the call, then angrily let loose with a stream of expletives.

Blackhorse paced around, until he calmed down. The dim recollection of hearing two car doors slam, when Schneider left him, suddenly made sense. The first had been the hood of Blackhorse’s vehicle slamming shut. Now, the reason for his lame ghost story was glaringly obvious. Blackhorse shook his head disgustedly at Schneider’s childish, spiteful behavior.

As a Detective in the Missouri Highway Patrol Rural Crimes Investigations Unit, Blackhorse had been subjected to any number of dirty tricks. Residents of every small town he rolled into considered him an outsider and didn’t take kindly to him nosing around in their “business.” The moral obligation to catch criminals always took a backseat to the opinions of the bigoted folks in charge, who were offended by his brown skin.

Breaking through those barriers was always a trial. Blackhorse sighed annoyedly. It looked as though he would have to prove himself yet again, while simultaneously hunting down a murderer. He took stock of his situation. The daylight was quickly fading into twilight. By moonlight, he could navigate the long winding road back to town on foot. But somehow, Blackhorse knew that Schneider would view that as a cowardly act and him the loser of Schneider’s little pissing contest.

It was beneath him to stoop to Schneider’s level. But, if there was to be any hope of earning respect or gaining any modicum of cooperation from the Nodaway County Sherriff’s office, then Blackhorse would have to meet and overcome whatever challenges came his way. So, it looked as though he was would be spending the night in the Bent Woods. Blackhorse climbed back behind the wheel of his vehicle and reclined the seat thinking, What’s the worst that can happen?

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Chapter 2: Mares Nest

Officer Schneider was siting behind the wheel of a police cruiser chain smoking with the window down. On approach, Detective Blackhorse could see cigarette butts littering the ground. He bent down to look into the driver’s side of the cruiser and Officer Schneider glared up at him.

“Where the hell you been? I was beginning to think I was gonna have to set up camp,” he snapped.

“I came as soon as the case was assigned to me,” replied Blackhorse stiffly, annoyed by the rebuke.

The men eyed one another for a few silent moments. Officer Schneider made no move to get out of the cruiser. Detective Blackhorse could feel his irritation mount and strove to keep his voice neutral.

“Where is the crime scene?”

Schneider took a leisurely drag off of his cigarette and blew the smoke up towards him. He slowly climbed out of the cruiser and flicked the burning cigarette at Blackhorse, prompting him to take a step back. Schneider ground the butt out with an expression conveying his hearty wish that he was instead grinding his heel into Blackhorse’s face.

Wordlessly, Schneider walked off. He halted at a clearing several yards away. Beside him, Blackhorse looked around and observed a tent, a cooler and some camping gear strewn about. The ground was furrowed in several places. Blackhorse didn’t attempt to mask his irritation.

“Who the hell disturbed the crime scene, before the investigator could get here and take pictures?”

“The crime scene investigator is already here.”


“You’re looking at him.”

“You? But the Nodaway…”

“Team ain’t coming. Sheriff Stone called and said they wasn’t needed. I got it all under control.”

“Ok then crime scene investigator, where the hell are the bodies?”

“They’re already on their way to the medical examiner’s office. I had no way of knowing how long it would take you to get here. It was getting late. I couldn’t just leave the bodies out here exposed to the elements. Besides, I knew wasn’t nobody coming into the Bent Woods to pick up no bodies after sundown.”

“Don’t tell me the medical examiner’s office closes that early.”

“Nah, it’s these woods. Don’t nobody with any sense come up in here, when it starts getting dark. Why do you think I’m the only one out here? Nobody else was willing to wait for you.”

“Why is that?”

“You act like you ain’t never heard of the Bent Woods.”

“Why do you keep calling it that? This forest isn’t named the Bent Woods.”

“Not officially no…an outsider wouldn’t know what the folks in town call it.”

“Ok, I’ll bite. Why do they call this place the Bent Woods?”

“You got eyes ain’t you? Don’t tell me that your keen powers of detection overlooked how gnarled and bent these trees are.”

“I noticed…so what? It just means they’re old.”

“Some of ’em are centuries old I hear tell. Those are the ones that used to be hanging trees, back when the town practiced frontier justice.”

“Frontier justice?”

Schneider nodded, a leering smile slowly spreading across his face. Blackhorse wasn’t sure what to make of the sly expression. Is he pulling my leg? I’ve never heard any of this before. Schneider took a step towards him, speaking in low tones, as though he were fearful of being overheard by the contorted trees.

“The townsfolk used to string up all manner of outlaws, natives, and slaves. They say over time, all that rage and misery infected the trees and caused them to grow deformed. Others say the spirits of the damned reside in these trees. Several folks swear they seen them come alive after sundown.”

“Alright, you’ve had your fun. Enough with the campfire ghost story. Let’s get back to the crime scene. Did you at least take photographs, before they moved the bodies?”

“Of course I did. I know how to do my damn job! I took detailed photographs of the bodies and the scene. I also tagged and bagged the evidence.”

“Then why is all this stuff still here?”

“I only bagged pertinent evidence. This trash ain’t got nothing to do with the murders.”

“At this point, how do you know that for sure? Are you psychic? Let me get this straight, you intend on just leaving all this stuff out here?”

“Of course not, I thought you wanted to get a feel for what the crime scene looked like.”

“Then you should have left the bodies where they were, until I got here!”

Schneider stifled the obscenity that sprang to his lips. He abruptly turned on his heels and walked off, not trusting himself to speak. Blackhorse paused in the act of crouching to examine the furrowed ground more closely.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“Back to the office. I got work to do. Can’t stand around here all day holding your hand.”

“What about the photographs and the evidence you bagged?”

“Everything is at the office,” he snapped.

“How long will it take for the ballistics report to come back?”

“There ain’t gonna be no ballistics report. Those men weren’t shot.”

Blackhorse was so taken aback, he momentarily forgot his irritation. How did someone manage to murder four presumably able-bodied men without a gun? He crouched and was minutely examining the pattern of furrows in the soil, when he heard what sounded like a car door slam. A few moments later, the sound registered again. Blackhorse was too preoccupied to wonder what Schneider was doing. His only thought was, I’m glad that bastard is leaving.

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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.