PATE, IDAHO, AUGUST 1979
Dawn Winton was too young to be carrying dynamite in her hiking pack, but you didn’t argue with Dad. You obeyed. Slow obey is no obey.
“My pack’s full. You carry these.”
Dawn nodded fast before she could cry or refuse and stomp her foot and run into the house like she wanted. You didn’t do that around Dad, and definitely not when he was obeying the Lord. It was the Lord telling him to bring the dynamite along on their hike into the woods for Apocalypse Survival Week. Dad was thinking about that, not about his daughter’s safety.
Dad knelt down beside her and stuffed two faded red sticks in with the rest of her gear, wicks facing up and nearly poking out the top, as if to be lit on a moment’s notice.
Squinting hard against the morning sunlight as it broke through the landscape of pine trees, Dawn tried not to think about Dad or the dynamite. She kicked the dirt in front of her, but it was no use. She couldn’t stop imagining dynamite exploding on her back, how she wouldn’t live beyond eight years old because she’d die by dynamite today. Or maybe tomorrow. But certainly, she’d die by dynamite.
Dad had never brought explosives along before, but nobody could stop him. Mom, Dad, and Dawn all lived way out in the woods, in a tiny old cabin that no one ever visited, and the nearest town was a few miles away, down the mountain and into the valley some.
Dawn had wanted to run away to town ever since she was old enough to make sense of the idea, but she could never leave Mom, and Mom would never leave Dad, so Dawn was stuck, probably forever.
“You hear me, girl?” Dad said. “The kingdom of God suffers violence…” He paused before completing the verse and nodded at Dawn, signaling for her to finish.
“…And the violent take it by force,” she answered.
“That’s right, Dawny.” He pulled the strap of her bag so tight, she nearly fell backwards onto the seat of her pants. The dynamite was now sealed inside.
“Daddy, why do we need the dynamite?”
She felt him suddenly tense up behind her. It was a bratty, stubborn question, and Dad hated those. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She turned to see him rise to his full height, more than twice hers, from where he looked down at her.
“To be ready for the End of Days,” he answered. “You know that. When the apocalypse comes, we ain’t got but an hour, maybe two, ’fore the whole system falls apart and people start going crazy lootin’ and killin’ each other over food and simple supplies. That verse is proof the Lord knows it’ll get ugly, and He’s all for us defending ourselves against those with the mark of the beast.” He dipped his chin, got closer to her face, and narrowed his eyes. His hair was so dark and greasy. “Feels like I gotta tell you this over and over again. You forgettin’? Or bein’ willfully disobedient?”
Dawn hadn’t forgotten. The End of Days was more real than breakfast, lunch, and dinner. More inevitable than the sun tucking itself into bed each night. Dawn only had two jobs in this world: to be ready for the End of Days, and to make sure she was right with the Lord. The first job was easy—Dad had taught her how to hunt, fish, trap, skin, sew, chop wood, start a fire, find fresh water, tend a wound, siphon gas, wire explosives, even make a battery from scratch. Dawn had all the skills needed to survive. It was the second job, being right with the Lord, that worried her. What if she accidentally sinned right before dying—before she had time to repent? Did the Lord take that into account? The End of Days and the apocalypse were temporary because eventually she would die. But not being right with the Lord? That was for all eternity.
The best way to avoid such a mistake was by keeping Jesus inside your heart at all times. So, she pictured the door to her heart closed tight, with Jesus stuck in there. The dark cavern of her ribcage would no doubt be windowless, and the door would be thick like a bank vault and heavy, secured by a million locks, all of which would be so complicated that even Jesus couldn’t figure them out.
Sometimes when she thought on it too long, she felt bad for Jesus, being trapped in there all alone. But the truth was simple. If it came down to Jesus being stuck inside the cold darkness of her heart, or Dawn spending all of eternity in Hell, where the worm doesn’t die and the fire is not quenched, the choice was easy. Jesus would just have to make do.
“Look me in the eyes,” Dad demanded, his rank breath now too close to her face.
Dawn hadn’t even realized she was looking away. She met his gaze and lied, “I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m just forgetful, I guess.” In that moment of sin, she imagined the door to her heart cracking open just enough for Jesus to peek out. But she quickly repented, prayed for forgiveness, promised never to lie again. Thankfully, the door shut and locked quick enough to keep Jesus inside.
Dad grunted his disappointment with Dawn’s answer and marched off into the woods without her.
Dawn wiped the tears from her eyes and chased after him.
PATE, IDAHO, JULY 1989
Syl Dixon had only been back in Pate for a few weeks. A month at most, but it felt much longer. Time ticked by more slowly now that she wasn’t a detective and didn’t have a family to think about.
Pate had certainly grown over the past twenty seven years. The silver mines were mostly closed, abandoned. And then there were the portraits, or pictures maybe? She didn’t know what the hell to call them, but they littered the fronts of homes. Framed images of people—always people, never landscapes or animals—hung next to mailboxes and house numbers. They could be black and white, or sepia from age, it didn’t seem to matter. Syl had even seen a few framed Polaroids. Nobody would tell her why the pictures were outside, and it wasn’t for lack of asking.
Gran’s house was the same as she remembered it though. And that’s why she was back. To clean up the property and list it for sale. The old house was paid off, and there was time. Syl was probably going to be in Pate awhile. After all, Carl had moved Lucas to Florida after the divorce; they weren’t in Spokane anymore, either. Not that it mattered. Lucas could live down the street, and she probably wouldn’t take a step toward visiting him anyway. She’d considered calling him many times since she moved here, but the closest she came was staring at the phone on the wall, unable to lift the receiver off the hook.
Syl drove her unmarked 1987 Crown Victoria with windows down—fast, always too fast—along the empty two-lane road.
Just follow the river, Pate sheriff, Roger Mock, had said.
So that’s what she was doing. Following the river at the base of these steep mountains, driving toward what would soon be sunset. Syl glanced periodically at the empty passenger’s seat, where her chicken-scratched note fluttered in the wind underneath the latest Michael Crichton novel.
Directions to one abandoned Lucky Dog Mine, where the body was found.
Pate County had so many abandoned silver mines. Some bigger than others, but there was no way she’d find this particular one without detailed instructions to get there. Roger had given them to her over the phone earlier today.
Syl had been turning down Roger’s attempts to convince her to join their small police force ever since she got here. She never had any trouble shooting him down. The most recent rejection of his offer happened in the cereal aisle of the only grocery store in town.
“You become a cop right out of high school?” Roger had asked as an opener. A jab at her height, of course. So predictable. She was more than used to those comments. It was too big an idea for small minds that a woman who didn’t break five-feet tall could join the police, become a detective.
“Just after sixth grade, actually. A child prodigy,” she’d said, reaching for a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
He had chuckled. “I like a woman you can razz without upsetting her. Most women are so goddamn touchy about everything.”
She had rolled her eyes before turning around to face him.
Roger immediately asked her again if she’d be interested in joining the small but mighty Pate Sheriff’s Department.
“No,” she’d said. “I gave up policework.”
He gave her his card, which he’d already done three or four times, and said she could call him if she changed her mind.
She gave up policework, and yet, here she was, on her way to meet Roger at a crime scene. To give him her initial opinions on the body they discovered inside Lucky Dog Mine.
It would have been wiser to say no, but something about being back in Pate worked on her as the weeks dragged on. The first six years of her life—the years she spent here—had always been sort of a blank space in her memory, but now she was recalling things. Nothing concrete, more like feelings that came and went. Even though the house had been a rental for over twenty years, it was the same burlap weave wallpaper upstairs. The same smell of cigarette smoke, seeping from the drapes—Gran’s smell. The same yellow-splashed kitchen. These sensory details surfaced a question she’d previously spent little to no time on.
What had happened to Gran all those years ago?
Syl’s parents were already dead by the time she was six, and Gran was her guardian. But then Gran vanished.
It wasn’t like this dead body in the mine was connected to Gran’s 1962 disappearance, but after weeks of boredom in this tiny town, and zero motivation to organize Gran’s shit, Syl’s mind had naturally gravitated toward the mystery, and the pressure to find answers had built up exponentially since that day in the cereal aisle. So when Roger called today, she found herself saying yes. And now here she was, telling herself that helping him out may lead to opportunities to poke around about Gran without anyone realizing it.
Syl arrived at the spot where the piece of paper said to go. Two regular vehicles and a police cruiser were parked by the river. Across the water, Roger stood, messing around with that ball cap he always seemed to be wearing. It had an old Seattle Mariners logo, an upside-down trident in the shape of an M.
She slammed the door of the Vicky and walked across the little footbridge toward him.
“Any trouble finding this place?” Roger asked.
“No, not at all. It’s not like there’s another mine around here anywhere.”
Roger chuckled at her sarcasm and quickly turned to lead the way like they were running a relay race and she was passing him the baton. It made her feel like some newbie. Someone he had to make sure knew their place.
Syl jogged to catch up with him. “Look, I’ll tell you what I think, but that’s all. I don’t want to be involved with any sort of investigation.”
“You’ll change your mind once you get eyes on the body,” Roger said.
How the hell do you know what I’ll do?
Syl held the irritation in, and stayed close to him the whole hike up to the mine’s entrance. They walked in single-file silence until Roger finally spoke.
“It’s Alex Conder.”
“I don’t know who that is.”
He stopped walking. The man was seriously out of breath, and no wonder. He was at least twice her age and his rotund belly sat above a formidable ass and thin legs that didn’t look capable of supporting the weight. Roger unwrapped a piece of gum and balled up the foil wrapper, shoved it into his pocket. “You’re a Dixon.”
“Dixons and Conders go way back.”
“I moved to Spokane as a kid. Haven’t been back since.”
“Right,” Roger said. He returned to walking. “Male, forty-six years old. Works construction, family man. We know it’s him, and he wasn’t brought here against his will.”
“Why do you say that?”
Roger turned and pointed to a beat-up truck parked right next to Syl’s. “That’s his rig. Hen verified it, although he didn’t need to. We all know it’s Alex’s.”
God, if he made her ask every time he name-dropped, she was going to lose her mind.
“Ed Hendon. He’s new to the force. He and Dan MacCarel both. My last two guys were up for retirement at the same time over a year ago. I was too. We all joined upon returning from the war. Department’s too small to have a full-time detective, so we take turns on rotation. But my rookies aren’t ready yet.”
The only thing in that statement Roger hadn’t already told her was that the rookie’s name was Hendon. The fact that they didn’t hire detectives was the main reason she turned him down in the past. Investigating was actually interesting to her even though she was pretty shitty at it. But going back to patrol? Never would she ever. Especially in this boring small town.
“Cause of death?” Syl asked.
“That’s a problem.” Roger removed the ball cap and wiped his bald head with a quick hand. His face was red, his breath ragged.
“Because it doesn’t make sense. Hendon said it looks like Alex died of starvation.”
“Okay, and that doesn’t make sense because…?”
“Because you can’t starve inside of twenty-four hours. Alex was home with his kid last night. Kyle was in bed when his dad turned on the TV to watch a program.”
Syl’s mind stalled a bit. It felt like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Then she stepped in front of Roger. He was going way too goddamn slow.
“By all means, lead the way,” Roger said, annoyance plain in his voice. But when he didn’t try to keep up, she knew she’d done him a favor. Now the man could go at his own pace.
Syl reached flat ground outside the mine’s entrance well before Roger. Two other cops hung around, smoking. They tossed their cigarettes and stamped them out as soon as Roger came into view. One of them had a thick, black mustache.
“Body’s pretty far in, sheriff,” Mustache Cop said once Roger made it to the top. Then he pulled the arms of the locked gate out, and the slack created a space below. Mustache Cop crawled under the fence.
Roger grunted something unintelligible and spit out his gum before unclasping a key ring attached to his belt. He gave the other two cops a look she’d been on the receiving side of one too many times. You idiot, why didn’t you think to do this? The padlock came loose, and the gate swung open. The other cop handed them orange hardhats.
“Be careful,” Roger said, giving Syl a flashlight. “These abandoned mines aren’t exactly safe to run around in. Most been sitting for at least a decade. Some of them, like Lucky Dog here, much longer.”
Inside the mine, every splash of July sunshine was gone. Lucky Dog seemed like a big, rocky tunnel. Drip, drip, drip, was all she heard, along with four sets of feet shuffling around. Roger led, Syl came next, and the two cops followed behind her. Nobody said a single word. No jokes, no macho banter. She shivered, then tripped over something, but caught herself before a tumble. She pointed her flashlight at it. Railroad tracks?
Roger heard the commotion and turned around. “Ore cart tracks. Watch out for those too.”
“Thanks for the heads up.”
Roger chuckled again.
Every step took them deeper into blackness. How far were they going?
“Should have put up shop lights, Hen,” Roger said.
“With what electrical outlet?” Mustache Cop—apparently Hen—said.
Roger shimmied out a shrug that Syl doubted the cops behind her could see. “Use a generator or something. Figure it out. Job’s all about problem solving.”
The air coming from deeper inside the mine was frigid.
“You cold?” Not-Hen said directly behind her.
“I can run back to the cruiser and grab you my jacket.”
“No, I’ll manage.”
A mumble came from the end of the line. It was Hen. He said the other cop’s name, Mac. Something about Mac looking for a reason to bail. Mac said shut up, and then quiet returned.
“Sheriff,” Syl said, “Who in the world came in here far enough to find the body?”
“Some EPA guy. There’s a few of them around town, starting that mine cleanup project. One’s a glutton for punishment, apparently. Was asking around about which mine was creepiest, and someone told him Lucky Dog. Locals know all mines are creepy this far in, so I’m not sure why Lucky Dog came up, specifically. Anyways, that guy happened upon Alex. Scared him shitless, but I guess he got his cheap, small-town thrill.”
Hen and Mac laughed, and it echoed throughout the mine.
“The timing’s odd though. What are the chances he’d come so close after Alex came? Did you question him?”
“Course.” Roger was defensive, but she ignored it.
“Poor guy didn’t have any clue who Alex was, or really even what month it was. He was in such bad shock, the hospital didn’t want him traveling home to Boise yet.”
Seemed like a big reaction over just a dead body. Sure, it was a harrowing experience, especially your first time seeing one, but not enough to make you lose your mind like that.
“Here we are,” Roger finally said, his blade of light swinging inside a cavern. “Be extra careful with your steps now. There’s a steep drop-off.” He shined his light where the rock floor stopped. Then he went up to the edge, and bending down with some effort, because his gut made him front-heavy, Roger picked up a rock about the size of a golf-ball. He tossed it into the hole, then turned to Syl, waited.
“Is something supposed to—” Syl began.
“Shh.” Roger said.
Syl stuffed down more irritation.
Hen and Mac were motionless, arms hanging at their sides like scared kids.
Roger shined the flashlight on his silver wristwatch.
Syl started again. “Sheriff—”
He put a finger up to silence her, and she gave a loose sigh.
The tiny sound of a rock hitting water.
Roger brushed his hands together. “That’s how far the drop is.”
Holy shit. Syl chewed the inside of one cheek. That was indeed one hell of a drop.
Hen pushed through Mac and Syl to reach Roger at the front. “This way,” he said. They all followed him along the wall to the left of the cavern.
Yellow evidence tape came into view, and Syl ducked under it when she got there. Roger stayed outside the perimeter.
Inside the small, cordoned area, there was a corpse laid out on its back. She inched closer, shining light directly on the face. It was shriveled up, severely decomposed, but not like typical body decomposition. The skin was pulled taut around protruding teeth, and it looked like rawhide. The corpse’s Wranglers were still belted loosely around the waist, and a white crew neck tee too big for the body’s remains hung loose enough to expose an emaciated shoulder. The eye sockets were empty, mouth wide open as if caught in a scream.
“Looks like he’s been dead for years,” she whispered. “Forget starvation, this looks like a fucking mummy.”
Nobody commented. Syl tried to reconcile what she saw with the information she’d gathered so far.
“Alex Conder was seen yesterday, okay, but are you sure this is him?”
Roger squatted next to her, staying outside the tape. “Alex was accident prone. Cut that one off with a band saw in his high school shop class—” Roger flashed the light on the spot where the corpse’s left pinky should be. “Cut that one off with a table saw just a few years ago.” He pointed to the space where a right index finger was missing. “So sure, maybe it’s not Alex. But then it’s some guy nobody knows, who happens to have two fingers missing in the same spots as Alex. And drives his rig.”
“And you’re positive he was seen yesterday?”
“That’s what his wife said on the phone. I’ll take you over there tomorrow, and you can ask the kid yourself.”
“Hen, did you take any photographs of the scene before tromping all over?” Syl asked.
She snapped pictures, and the flash filled up the whole space. Since she gave no warning, they all groaned for their eyes.
“Did you call the coroner?” she asked.
Hen shook his head.
“Make that happen. You’re responsible for the scene until he comes.”
He looked at Roger for interpretation.
What was she doing? She wasn’t in charge here. Didn’t want to be in charge. But now here she was, doling out orders.
“Oh, God,” Roger mumbled and shook his head.
She knew why. Since Hendon was a rookie, making him responsible for the scene was the same as making Roger himself responsible for it without having to ask him to do it.
“Tough break, sheriff,” Syl said, smiling to herself. Then she began setting up evidence markers. The least she could do was get them started by gathering evidence and preparing the site for the coroner. Then she’d be done with it.
“There’s some blood here. I want to know what blood type,” Syl said. “Hard to tell if Alex has any cuts. Could be the attacker’s.” She placed a yellow marker labeled “3” next to the drops of blood on the ground.
“Hen, your bag,” Syl said, reaching for it. She rummaged around and found a pair of tweezers, used them to retrieve something from the corpse’s chest. Holding it up, she said, “Let’s test fibers. See where this came from.”
“Lab’s in Boise, eight hours away,” Roger said. “It’ll be days—weeks—before you hear back from them on blood type, let alone fibers.”
Roger smacked his gum so loud that she had to grit her teeth to keep from saying something. His nervous energy was over the top.
“What’s wrong?” she finally asked.
“Hate these damned mines.”
“Yeah, my grandma hated them too.”
Syl had never been inside one, and that had been Gran’s doing. Even when it was Grandpa offering to take her on a tour of his workplace.
“I’m sure she did,” Roger muttered. Syl wanted to ask more. Why would he say that? What does he know about Gran? But it wasn’t the time.
“By the way, you didn’t set up an outer perimeter either, Hen,” Syl said. “The mine entrance should be taped off. Why isn’t it?”
“Was locked, so I figured it didn’t matter. Nobody would come this far in anyway.”
“Right,” she said. “Nobody like Alex Conder would ever venture inside. Or the press. Hell, when they find out—”
“I got it,” Roger interrupted. He reached down for the roll of yellow police tape. She would have sent one of the rookies, but he was gone before she could protest.
Copyright © 2023 Steph Nelson