Today's Reading


We don't have a lot of murder in Lincoln County. The long stretches of open road provide us with more than our share of high-speed vehicular deaths, the images of which can haunt your dreams, but there just isn't a lot of people killing other people on purpose. When we do encounter it, it's never like this. This is something from hell.

The crime scene is monstrous. The victim, retired FBI agent Ralph Atterbury, has been skinned, mostly on his arms and thighs, and strips of various lengths and thicknesses lay like lasagna noodles on the floor around the recliner to which his naked seventy-four-year-old corpse is bound by two blue ratchet tie-downs, like the ones people use to secure a new fridge in the bed of a pickup. The straps are as tight as they possibly can be, boa constrictors around tiny mice, feeling every last heartbeat of their prey.

His face, nose, and lips have been blowtorched, his nipples blackened like cinders. His fingers, all broken, are folded back in a horrible, twisted wreckage, and most of his teeth have been pulled and lie floating in a mug of cold coffee next to bloody pliers on a nearby end table. In this entire nightmare painting, it's the sight of the teeth that sends an icy shudder down my spine. Imagining the pain he endured and the horrific screams that must have followed is a little more than I can handle at the moment, so I will let those things come to me at night when I am alone.

The blood still smells of metal and is plentiful. It's all dried up now, even the purge that has oozed from what's left of the victim's mouth and nose, indicating he has been dead for a few days. He's also bloating from the gases that have leached out of his dead organs, and the smell of the sulfur in his body is especially overwhelming. The rate of human decomposition is fairly predictable but depends on temperature, moisture, pH, and oxygen. While it's cold and dry outside, as February tends to be here, the heat in the house is only speeding the rot. I check the thermostat on a nearby wall and see the furnace is on full blast. Jesus, did the killer turn up the heat?

It's a level of torture I've never witnessed, and that includes what I've seen the Taliban do. So, I have to ask, "Tuffy, until Mr. Atterbury here, what was our most violent murder?"

My best deputy suddenly drops to one knee, and I silently call on the Gods to keep her from retching again. The first time triggered a chain reaction around the room. Thankfully, she is genuflecting only to get a better angle on ex-agent Atterbury, her camera clicking every few seconds, occasionally firing off a quick flash followed by the little popping noise that invariably follows as it recharges.

Tuffy Scruggs is one of my twelve officers at the sheriff's department and my lead sexual assault investigator. This looks like the furthest thing from any kind of sex crime, but everyone in the department wears a bunch of hats, and Tuffy is meticulous. She's built more like Dick Butkus than Dick Tracy, and from the back you would be hard-pressed to guess her gender, especially when she's in uniform like she is now.

I watch her deep in thought, in her crime scene booties and gloves, her thick, tightly wound sandy curls glistening from the sweat of her perspiring scalp in the overheated house that smells of burnt flesh and murder. Always über-efficient, she had the exterior of the residence taped off before most of the team arrived, not that anyone expects a lot of rubbernecking and foot traffic from the public way out here. Tuffy values good habits, which is the biggest reason I appreciate her.

"It was that domestic in Alamo in 2014," Wardell Spann finally answers for Tuffy. He's scanning the living-room carpet with his flashlight for more blood, as if that will somehow provide the clue to solving the case. "April, I believe. Old Mexican shot his wife three times and then hung her."

Wardell is my only lieutenant in the department, the product of an unhappy marriage of convenience, specifically the consolidation of the City of Caliente police with the county sheriff's department, a deal finalized last month. I know he feels like the unwanted stepchild in this arrangement, and I don't really begrudge the man his displeasure. As Caliente police chief, Wardell had ten years on me, a fact he shares with the rest of the county's electorate whenever he gets the chance.

I say to him, "He was Dominican, not Mexican." I don't consider myself particularly woke, as I understand the term, but still, calling someone Mexican just because he's brown is a bit tiresome. Wardell is a flat-out racist, and out in the high desert of eastern Nevada, where about two black people live at any given time, you might think he would be in good company, but not so much anymore. People here are pretty twenty-first century and generally accepting of others, which explains why Wardell will never be sheriff.

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