An Ice Cold Grave Page 23

I ran out of the barn and vomited. One of the ambulance drivers rushing in stopped to check on me, and I just waved my arm to indicate the interior of the barn.

After a few minutes, Tolliver came out. I was leaning against the peeling wood, wishing I were anywhere but here.

"He killed himself so you'd find him," Tolliver said. "So you'd find out what his father was doing."

"So I'd have a corpse to find," I said. "Oh, Jesus, he took such a chance. What if I hadn't come back?"

"What if Manfred hadn't decided he had to check the barn again?"

"Do you think Tom Almand's known where Chuck was all this time, since he reported him missing?"

"No, but I guess he didn't have a chance to come out here to check. That other counselor asking to see Chuck made Tom report him missing." Tolliver shuddered. "I never want to see anything like that again."

"He sacrificed himself," I said. I couldn't get my thoughts together. "And it was almost - almost - for nothing."

"He wasn't thinking good," Tolliver said in a massive understatement. "And he was just thirteen."

The stretchers went by, Manfred's first, his face white as death and his eyes open and blank.

"Manfred!" I called, just wanting him to know that someone who knew him was near, knew what he had done. But his face didn't change.

Tom Almand came out next, his eyes closed, his lips in a strange smile. He was now handcuffed to the stretcher by his good arm, and there was a bandage on the arm that had been shot. I hoped he'd been shot good, and I wondered if Sheriff Rockwell had been truly trying to hit his arm. It had been an alarming moment, but then, that was what law enforcement people trained for, right?

Maybe the arm was best. Maybe the people he'd wounded the most, or the survivors he'd wounded most, could get something out of his trial and conviction. Surely he'd be tried and convicted, wouldn't he? We could follow it in the national news. The media loves a serial killer trial, whether the killer being tried is gay or straight, black or white or brown. There's no discrimination in that field.

I realized I was thinking crazy, and I also realized we had no place here. But the two SBI agents were running across the back lane like the barn was on fire with a baby inside, and they weren't about to let us go. Stuart and Klavin weren't out of breath, because they were fit agents, and they stood right in front of us. "You're here again," Agent Stuart said. He had on proper gloves and an L.L. Bean heavy outdoor-guy coat, and gleaming boots that went halfway up his calves. If he didn't look like the little mountaineer! Klavin was a bit more downscale, with a battered waterproof coat that had seen several years of use and a knit cap that had earflaps.

"He killed himself," I told them. They would want to know.

"Who?" I thought Stuart was going to shake me, he was so anxious to know everything.

"Chuck Almand. He killed himself with a gun."

Klavin said, "Who was in the ambulance?"

"Tom Almand and Manfred Bernardo," Tolliver said.

They looked at each other blankly. "The kid's dad and the psychic's grandson," Tolliver said.

"She died last night," Stuart said.

"Yes, she did. And her grandson almost died today," I said.

"The last victim is alive," I said, and they were in the barn so fast you couldn't see them for the smoke.

"Why haven't they brought him out?" Tolliver leaned and looked in, but then he gave up. He didn't want to go in that barn again, and neither did I.

"Maybe they can't get him unlocked," I said. Tolliver nodded. That seemed reasonable.

"Wonder who he is," Tolliver said after a long moment. The weather might be much better than it had been, but it was still cold standing out there, and we had nothing to do.

I turned to Tolliver and hugged him. His arms slid around me, and we stood there in the bright cold day, clinging to each other. "We'll find out," I said, my lips against his neck. "It'll be in the papers, or on the news." The tortured body, slumped against the wall, the bloodstains everywhere. The poor dead boy on the floor of that miserable pit. Jesus, God. This is not what you intended people for.

I hadn't thought in Christian terms for a long time, and I was surprised to find myself thinking in them now. And I hadn't rebelled, either, hadn't had the "Why, God?" thoughts. Those were bad, those were pointless. Of course, I'd never found such atrocities, so closely linked, in adjacent graves.

"Chuck saved that boy's life," I said numbly. "He provided a dead body for me to find."

"Do you think he really cut up those animals?"

"Maybe his dad made Chuck do it, hoping Chuck would follow in his own footsteps. Maybe Tom thought if Chuck was guilty of something he'd be less likely to report his dad."

"Xylda seemed pretty sure Chuck did it."

"I'd hate to think she was wrong in her last big reading."

"Me, too." Tolliver sounded grim. "You think her loathing of him was what drove Chuck to tie everything up this way? I mean, everyone at the same time looking at him with such disgust, such dislike? And his dad acting right along with them. When he knew better, and the boy knew that."

"Chuck was a hero. He survived living with a father that killed boys for fun."

"But he didn't tell anyone."

"Maybe he didn't know, until the animals were dug up. Maybe then he realized his dad was the one killing the boys, or maybe Tom told him then. Like, 'Everyone thinks you're evil and sick now, so I'll show you something really evil and sick! Like it?'"

"Or maybe he knew all along," Tolliver said, more realistically. "Maybe he kept silent because he loved his dad, or was scared of his dad, or because he kind of liked torturing the animals and felt he and Tom were two of a kind. Maybe he even helped, with the boys. There must have been times it would have been handy to have an extra pair of hands. Some of the boys were big, and heavy. Football players. Adolescents who'd gotten their growth. Frankly, someone as little as Tom Almand, I don't know how he managed it."

"But Chuck put a stop to it." I buried my face in Tolliver's jacket. He ran his fingers through my hair, taking care to avoid the shaved spot on the left side of my head. He patted me. It was intensely comforting.

Finally they brought the last victim out. He was covered with blankets, there was an IV running already, and he was strapped to the gurney. His eyes were closed, and tears were leaking down his filthy face.

"What's your name, son?" Sheriff Rockwell was asking.

"Mel," the boy whispered. "Mel Chesney. From Queen's Table, up near Clearstream."

"Mel, how long have you been down there?" said Klavin, keeping pace on the other side.

"Two days," he said. "Two days. I think."

And then he said, "I can't talk about it."

I didn't blame him at all.

The boy had been there yesterday when we'd had our confrontation with Chuck. If Chuck had just told us then...but his father had come in, and maybe he simply couldn't. I wondered if Mel Chesney had been in the hole when the police were digging up the animals. Oh, God, that was too bitter to think about.

I was sure every law enforcement person on the scene was wondering the same thing. Mel Chesney had been down there for hours by himself and then with a corpse, thinking all the while he was going to be tortured to death. It was almost a miracle he hadn't died of hypothermia.

No one tried to stop us as we began going to the sheriff's car. But we couldn't go back to the cabin and get our stuff unless someone drove us. The sheriff said, "Rob, take them to the station." Rob Tidmarsh raised his forefinger to tell us he'd be one more minute.

Rockwell glared at us as if we were an annoying detail she had to clear off her slate before she turned her attention to more important things, and I think that was exactly the case. "We got to process this scene, and it's gonna take a while," she said. "You two go sit at the station, and when I can spare someone to run you out to the lake, I'll send 'em back to get you."

"Rob can't take us on out there?"

"Rob's going to pick up more film while he's at the station. The state forensic boys are going to be here as soon as they can get here, but we want our own pictures. Rob'll be coming right back here, and for now, this is the most important spot in Knott County. So you two are gonna have to cool your heels for a while."

We'd been doing plenty of that.

There was no help for it. No matter how irritated we might feel - and I for one felt plenty irritated - Rob was going to dump us at the station.

"Will they take the boy to the local hospital?" I asked the deputy.

"No, they'll take him on to the bigger hospital in Asheville," Rob said. "The SBI guys insisted. We got good doctors here." He sounded deeply resentful.

"I got good treatment here," I said. Admittedly, I wanted to be on Rob's good side in case we could get him to take us out to the cabin later. But it was the truth. I was willing to believe, a small town like this, the hospital wouldn't have the big diagnostic machines larger hospitals could acquire, but I seemed to be mending fine, and the nurses had been very kind, if very busy.

Rob relaxed a little.

There's always something strange about riding through town in a cop car when you're seated in the back with a wire mesh between you and the driver. It just makes you feel guilty of something, and you feel awfully conspicuous. When we pulled in back of the station and got out, the media swarmed around the back of the station wanting to know if we'd been arrested. Damn it. I wasn't in the mood to put up with this. I couldn't understand why the vicious swarm hadn't migrated to the old barn.

"We kept radio silence and used our cells," Rob said when I asked him. He seemed completely open now, and he made a point of walking by my side and holding open the back door to the station, making it clear to the watching reporters that I was in favor.

Inside, there was chaos. The news was spreading in the building and it was only a matter of time before it would flow outward.

Rob looked as if he didn't know what to do with us once we'd gotten to the sheriff's office, so he stuck us in one of the interview rooms, told us where the snack and drink machines were, and said there were some magazines in the waiting area if we wanted to go get them. He was obviously in a tearing hurry to collect the film and get back out to the latest crime scene, so we nodded and he took off.

There ensued several hours of boredom. We could have been on the road getting the hell out of Doraville. We could have been in bed together enjoying our new relationship, an idea that got Tolliver's vote. (I would have enjoyed some aspects of that, but truthfully, I was pretty sore in unexpected places, and my arm had been too busy for a cracked arm.) Or we could have been making money on another job. But instead, we sat in the drab room.

For a change of pace, we made a foray to the station waiting room out front. We commandeered all the magazines, bought junk food from the machines, and tried to stay out of the way.

After four hours, the sheriff came back. She, Klavin, and Stuart came into the room with a couple more chairs, and we went over everything all over again.

"And you really think this boy Chuck killed himself so you'd find the other boy?" Stuart asked for the fifth time.

I shrugged. "I don't know what was going through his mind."

"He could have written a note, he could have called us, he could have called you, for that matter, and said, 'My dad has put a boy in a hidden room,' and that would have solved the problem."

"That wouldn't have solved the problem for him," Tolliver said.

"He was an adolescent boy," I said. "He was full of drama and horror and guilt and sorrow. I guess he was trying to atone for himself and his father."

"So what do you think, Ms. Connelly? Do you think he tortured the animals willingly?"

"If he did, that enjoyment horrified him." I didn't think there was a simple explanation of Chuck Almand's behavior. I thought at the end he'd tried to do the right thing, but his thinking processes hadn't foreseen the possibility that he could come out the other side of the horror of his situation, come out and heal and recover. He just hadn't lived long enough to believe that he had a future after his dad's arrest, and he wanted his dad to stop killing. At least, that was the way I interpreted Chuck's actions.

They talked at us for a long time, trying to pry things out of us that weren't there to be gotten. "And don't tell anyone anything you saw in the barn," Klavin said. "Not until we get the case completely locked."

That was easy to promise. We had no desire to talk about what we'd seen.

I had some doubts that the case was all wrapped up, but I kept them to myself. After all we'd done, they still weren't going to listen to my speculations. But doubt niggled at me, and I had that feeling of incompleteness.

Now we had to find Manfred and his mother, who must be wondering what she'd done in her previous life to merit the punishment she was taking.

I asked the sheriff where Manfred was, and she surprised me by telling me he'd been kept here at the Knott County Hospital. He'd asked to stay here, she said.

"I can understand that," I said to Tolliver as we climbed into Rob's patrol car again. He'd finally been detailed to take us back to the cabin. "Otherwise, it would complicate his mom's life so much, and if he can get the care he needs here, that's better than moving him up to Asheville."

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies