BENEATH STILL WATERS

Beneath Still Waters by Cynthia GrahamBENEATH STILL WATERS

by Cynthia A. Graham

The swamps and bayous around Cherokee Crossing, Arkansas have always been dark and mysterious, but on this summer day two boys stumble across the remains of a baby girl, headless and badly decomposed. Hick Blackburn, a reluctant sheriff with a troubled past is called to the scene. With nothing to go on except the baby’s race and sex, the task of discovering who she is and how she died challenges all of Hick’s investigative skills. But Hick faces a deeper challenge. The vision of the infant has left him shattered, a reminder of a war crime he has tried to lock away, a crime that has begun to eat away at the edges of his life, destroying him one relationship at a time.

With the aid of his deputies, Hick will begin to piece together his investigation, an investigation that will lead him to question everything. As he is forced to examine the town he grew up in, he will come to terms with the notion that within each of us lays the propensity for both good and evil. His investigation will turn up lies and ignorance, scandal and deceit, and the lengths a mother will go in order to hide her shame.

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Chapter 1

Hick Blackburn pulled his hat far over his light eyes, trying to shut out the silver sun that flickered and blinked on top of the slough’s black water. The trees were heavy with summer leafing and close, suffocating in their density. Mosquitoes and gnats buzzed around the brush that lined the shore and frogs were beginning their night choruses as dusk began to smudge away the daylight. He surveyed the murky pond once more, and then turned his attention back to Billy Ponder.

“You say it was caught in the brush?” he asked.

Billy nodded. His clothes hung damply from his skinny frame. He scratched a mosquito bite with his foot and told Hick, “Jimmy and me was commencing to string the wire across the slough, to keep the hogs from wandering off. We started on the other side and had just passed from the deep part to the western edge when he stepped on something.”

“And it was the infant?”

Billy’s face grew visibly paler. He licked his lips and his eyes darted to Jimmy Scott, inconsolable in the back of a pickup truck. “Yeah,” he answered. “It was the baby.”

“You say it was on this end of the slough?”

“Yes sir,” the boy answered. He cracked his knuckles and there was a tremor in his voice. “The water’s so dark you can’t see the bottom. He didn’t know what it was ‘til he brought it up.” Here his voice faltered and he shifted his glance, again, to his friend.

The young boy in the truck bed sobbed, distracting Hick for a moment. “What time was it?”

“Right around five o’clock. We been working all day and was just about done.”

“And there were no clothes, nothing on the baby that could identify where it might have come from?”

Billy shook his head. “No, sir. She was naked when he pulled her out of the water. Then he screamed and dropped it. At first, I thought it was a snappin’ turtle got him the way he was blubbering and carrying on. Then I seen her floating there and we got out of the water fast and ran to Jimmy’s house. His daddy pulled the baby out and then went and got Deputy Kinion.”

Hick wrote this information on a pad of paper. “Jesus,” he thought, “Roy Michaels was sheriff for forty years and never dealt with anything like this.” He pushed his hat back and ran his hand across his eyes and forehead trying to make sense of what he had heard. Reading it over again, he decided the boy could offer no more help. He closed the barely used leather book with a snap.

“Who do you think she is?” Billy asked in a small voice.

Hick scanned the water, trying to make sense of where the child might have come from but something in the boy’s voice made him pause. The magnitude of the day’s events suddenly occurred to him. What a gruesome discovery for two fourteen-year-olds. Awkwardly, he patted Billy’s shoulder. “Unfortunately, we may never know. You guys gonna be okay?”

Billy managed an unconvincing, “Yeah.”

The town’s doctor, Jake Prescott, made his way over to the edge of the slough, trudging through the thick muddy grass. A short, heavy man, the heat did not agree with him. He paused to wipe the sweat from his neck with a handkerchief and removed a fat unlit cigar from his mouth. “Damned mess is what it is,” he told Hick as they walked together toward the tent set up near the slough by Adam and Wash, the town deputies. “Son of a bitch, Hick, how long you been sheriff?”

“It’s a year this month.”

Dr. Prescott stopped and looked up at him. “Has it been that long already?”

“Days like this make it seem even longer.” Last June, Andrew Jackson “Hick” Blackburn became the youngest sheriff ever elected in Cherokee Crossing, Arkansas. The outcome shocked the young man, then only twenty-one-years-old. His name had been put on the ballot as a sort of joke, the other two deputies urging him on. But they had been deputies long enough that each had made enemies. Hick was new, fresh with the novelty of just arriving home from World War Two. This helped him to edge out the two older deputies…the closest election in years.

Wash Metcalf and Adam Kinion were already waiting in the tent. They had worked for Sheriff Michaels and were seasoned veterans. Most things didn’t bother them, but this was particularly unsavory.

“I ain’t never seen the like,” Wash told him. Wash Metcalfe had been deputy since Hick was a child. Hick had always known Wash. He and Sheriff Michaels had been good at their jobs. They had broken up hog stealing raids, gambling joints and moonshine stills, but in Cherokee Crossing infants were buried, not tossed into the slough. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Wash took his handkerchief and ran it across his balding head with a trembling hand.

Bracing himself, Hick moved to the examining table. On it laid the remains of a girl, badly decomposed and headless. His stomach turned queasy, heat enveloped him. It rushed to his head at once and he closed his eyes, fighting to get his emotions under control. He had fought in Europe and had seen plenty of death, but this brought back images he wasn’t prepared to deal with. He rested his hand on the table to steady himself and his eyes caught Jake’s concerned expression.

“What can you tell me, Doc?” he asked with forced calmness.

The doctor pulled out a clipboard and proceeded. “It is a female, Caucasian with the umbilical cord still attached. Mind you, it’s very hard to make any kind of determination. The body is macerated; the skin is slipping.”

“Exactly what is it you’re trying to determine?”

His eyes met Hick’s over the clipboard. “There’s a good chance this child was a live birth.”

“Son of a bitch.”  Hick’s mind raced with the implications. “Is there any way to tell how she died?”

“The good news is she was not decapitated.”

That was a relief. For a brief moment, he thought they might be dealing with a maniac. “How do you know?”

“See up here, around the neck,” the doctor said pointing his cigar at the place in question. Hick forced his eyes to follow the cigar but his stomach flopped and he felt suffocated. He had never seen a headless body; it took all of his resolve to pay attention to the doctor. “That was not done with a knife, or sharp object. It is rough and uneven. I believe the head was eaten off by turtles.”

“The hell you say,” Adam said in disgust, turning away from the table and wiping his mouth roughly with the back of his hand.

“I do say,” the doctor returned.

Hick glanced up at Adam. He had been deputy for a dozen years and his brother-in-law for eight. In all that time Hick could not recall Adam being shaken by anything. But, above all, Adam was a family man. It would be impossible for him to remain detached with four little boys of his own at home. Hick turned his attention back to the child on the table. “Is there any way to determine how long she’s been here?”

“Can’t really say for sure. The body bloats and decays more quickly in water. It could be anywhere from a week to a month.”

“You know of anyone around town expecting during that time?”

“Oh, plenty,” the doctor answered. “Would you like me to check on the ones I know…see how they’re progressing?”

“That would be a help.”

“Well, then,” the doctor told him gathering his equipment and putting his light colored jacket back on. “I’ll let you know.”

“There’ll be a coroner’s inquest on this tomorrow. I know it’s a good drive to the county seat and it’s short notice, but they ain’t gonna want to wait with this one. Is that okay with you?”

Jake’s eyes went back to the child. “I’ll be there… just say when.”

The doctor turned to leave with Adam and Wash close behind. Hick lingered behind in the tent and glanced back at the child. Impetuously, he touched the tiny hand. It was clenched in a fist, cold and perfect. He felt his eyes smart and blinked, quickly looking away.

“He’s here again,” Wash called into the tent.

Hick looked up. “Murphy?”

Wash nodded.

Wayne Murphy, the town’s newspaper man, was a meddlesome pest. “Great. Every detail will be splattered all over the paper tomorrow. I want him the hell out of here. You tell him it’s a possible crime scene and he don’t need to be poking around.”

Wash left and Hick covered the child with the sheet. He stepped out of the tent and joined the doctor in the chilly twilight that was descending on the slough. Dan Scott, Billy’s father, spoke with Adam as Billy joined Jimmy in the back of the pickup truck. Hick watched as the men shook hands and then Dan drove off with the two boys in back of the truck. They were both staring out at the slough.

“Poor bastards,” Hick said shaking his head.

“It must have been a terrible shock,” the doctor agreed. “A damned shame about the child…and so senseless, too.”

“Let’s not jump to any conclusions,” Hick cautioned. “I’ll send the baby to your office for the autopsy.”

The doctor nodded, but added, “But if it was murder…why?”

“Why indeed?” thought Hick as he drove home later that evening through the darkness. The moonlight dimly showed through the clouds, barely illuminating the rows and rows of cotton on each side of the dirt road. His nostrils flared as the sweet smells of turned earth and impending rain wafted in through the open windows.

He took his hat off, setting it on the seat beside him and ran his fingers through his hair. Why kill a baby? Perhaps it was just a stillborn that someone had buried on their own property and dogs had dug up. Certainly, they should have notified him, but really that was not a crime. But one fact nagged at him. He hadn’t heard of anyone losing a baby, especially one near full term…it was a small town and things like that did not remain quiet. It appeared the slough was a secret grave, an intentional hiding place of some closely guarded shame.

He stretched and undid his tie, unbuttoning the top button. It had been a long day and it promised to be a long investigation if the coroner deemed a crime had taken place. Such a tiny child to cause such a huge commotion.

He found a cigarette and lit it. He only smoked when alone and troubled, and tonight he was both. He inhaled deeply and let the smoke come out slowly from the corner of his mouth. His eyes remained fixed on the beams of the headlights illuminating the gravel road before him. The grinding of gravel under the tires was as monotonous as the scenery, but the occasional loud clink of a rock flipped against the car kept his mind from wandering too far.

He shook his head and tossed the cigarette from the window, feeling a familiar sense of uncertainty swell around him. This rawness was unwelcome. His moments of self-doubt seemed to be coming more often and darker, blacker than before. When he was younger, there was nothing he couldn’t do. That was before Belgium, before the marches in the rain with one hundred pound packs, and the discovery of the dark farmhouse…

He forced himself to put those thoughts aside. It wouldn’t do to dwell upon the past. He hated to admit it, but he hoped the coroner would declare the death to be by natural causes and put the whole thing to rest. He put his hat back on, pulling it far over his eyes, knowing full well this was not a case he had the ability to solve. To find the killer of a child, a nameless, faceless infant…that would be impossible.