Jake Murphy slung his legs off the bed. Cold wooden planks creaked as he walked through the bedroom, through the living area, and into the kitchen. He sat, pulled on yesterday's socks, his coveralls, and tugged his boots around his feet. Except for the low glare from the microwave clock, the kitchen and the house were dark as tar pitch.
The boards through the living room whispered. From the corner of his eye, Jake saw two bare feet, toenails painted red, though they looked black without light.
"How long you gonna be?"
Jake didn't look up at her voice. "Dunno."
"Should I wait up on you?"
"Nah, you and the boys go on sleeping. I'm just gonna go see how things look."
"Are you taking your gun and vest?"
Jake stood, stomped his feet to snug his boots tight, and crouched and pulled the legs of the insulated coveralls over the boot tops. "I'll bring my vest."
"You'll wear it?"
She was a ballerina in a crystal globe. Jake picked her up and shook her and kissed her lips and set her down and smacked her rear. "Vest is in the truck. I'll put it on just for you."
"Be careful, okay," she said. She squeezed his rear and patted it, looked up at him. She barely reached his chest. Such a huge woman in a tiny body. "You said somebody's shot, so be extra careful. You're a civilian now, remember."
"I'll be all right. I got my vest."
She didn't smile.
Walking down the steps, before the door closed and locked behind him, he called over his shoulder, "I'll be back later this morning, probably. Now come on dog, hop up in the truck and warm up that sniffer of yours."
Two deputies paced outside the church in front of two police cruiser, swinging flashlights back-and-forth and occasionally leaning down and placing markers on the ground between small steps. Their headlights turned the gravestones to white plaster slung to sharp black shadows stretching into the woods.
"Howdy, Jake," said one. He stepped forward holding his hand out.
Jake shook it, turned to the other deputy, nodded, shook his hand, and then stuck both hands in his pockets. He should have worn gloves. It'd only get colder as the morning drew on from the night, and dawn was yet four hours east of here. "They get that girl out of here okay?"
"Sure did. They beat the shit out of her and raped her good, looks like, then shot her in the shoulder. Taking her up to Lufkin, I think. That ain't the least or most of it, though. Come look. Watch your step, we're still marking it out."
The deputy turned and led Jake toward front of the church, where a Mexican boy lay face-down by the steps.
"I'll be damned," Jake said. "That the shooter?"
"Nope. Come look. Mind the cones. We're running out of markers, you didn't bring none, did you?"
Jake shook his head and clicked on a 4D Mag light. The deputy swung his light at their feet and the two of them baby-stepped along the line of orange and yellow markers.
"Mind your step," the deputy said. "Either he dragged hisself, or somebody dragged him. Can't tell. But his hip's shot to hell. Looks like a deer rifle, that's my guess, come out from the woods, hunter maybe. Entry wound's a finger hole, but the exit wound's big as my fist and took most of his hip bone with it. Look here's pieces of it, marked here, and here, and down yonder. Little bits of flesh and bone, looks like to me.
"And now looky here. We got another one lost his skull. We'll never identify this guy unless we get prints, but he's the shooter, had a little Ruger .22 rifle. What you think took his head off? Thirty ought six?"
"Something like that. Thirty-thirty, maybe, but a good sized rifle. Definitely not a shotgun." Jake painted the body with his flashlight and followed the exit splatter to the wall of the church.
"Got us some modern art there, don't we," said the deputy. "Maybe we'll get a ballistic out of it in the morning."
"Maybe." Jake's flashlight traced a line from the church wall to the body and into the graveyard, out toward the woods. "You been out there yet?"
The deputy shook his head. "We still ain't got all this marked out. Only been here fifteen minutes, and the ambulance just left not five minutes ahead of you. There's more though, and I bet we'll have one hell of a scene by the time we're through pacing it out.
"Look over here, behind the gas tank. We found this old boy's hand, most of it anyways, gun and all and some of his fingers. I bet he ain't got but a thumb left. Roland's coming around from the other side of the church, see his light there. We ain't found no more bodies, but we also haven't been out to the graveyard yet. Girl said she had a sister run off through the woods, that's why you're here. Mind your step. Them there's one of his fingers, looks like to me."
At the truck Jake lowered the tail gate and patted his hip and the dog jumped over the tailgate and onto the ground. Jake pushed the tailgate back into place and squatted in front of the bluetick hound. He clipped a long nylon lead to her neck and rubbed her ears. "You got any of the girl's stuff?"
The deputy pet the dog's head and said, "I ain't seen nothing of hers, yet. Think you can just pick up the scent?"
"Dunno. Without a starting point, she could pick up near anything, be off chasing a deer or a rabbit for all I know. Make some noise up here, I guess, maybe she didn't run off too far. Run those sirens every couple of minutes, see if she shows back up, or maybe we'll hear something out there."
"We got on the bull horn earlier. We'll do that, too." The deputy straightened and leaned into the radio on his shoulder. "Tabby, Davis here, you get a hold of Jackson, yet?"
The radio cracked. "Still not picking up. I'm going straight to his voice mail, now. Bet he turned off his cell."
"Figures. Lemme know soon as you hear from him."
"We'll be at lunch fore we hear from him," said the radio.
Deputy Davis shook his head at Jake. "Finally get something worth sheriffing, and we can't drag his lard ass outta bed."
The dog paced back-and-forth, side-to-side, inhaling snorting, doubling-back and then stopping. She sneezed, took a few steps and stopped again. She looked up at Jake.
"You got it, girl, you got something?"
The dog put her nose to the ground and took a few more steps into the woods and looked at Jake.
"Go on, good girl, you got it. Go on, now, whatcha got?"
She chuffed at Jake. She agreed. She put her nose to the dirt and began winding through the trees and underbrush with the confidence only a dog can muster.
They soon met a barbed wire fence, overgrown and bent to the ground in alternating posts. Jake played the flashlight down the fenceline, saw nothing of interest, and stepped over.
An old lawn mower handle stood up out of the waist-high underbrush. Small chunks of wood here and there, and cinder blocks and stacks of bricks on the ground, and a high-back chair buried up to the seat. The flashlight lit up the remains of the old colored church fifty feet from the graveyard. A live oak sprouted sharp fingers from the main sanctuary, the walls folded inward on the lower trunks.
Behind him, Jake heard the siren, followed by the bullhorn. The dog stopped and cocked her head back toward First Baptist, her flop ears raised. He let the dog listen, and then in the following silence he listened, too. He heard nothing more than the sounds an empty patch of woods should make.