John Wolfe's second case, The River House coming June 1. Pre-order available May 1.
Todd Merrett, Mount Placid’s Chief of Police, sat in his recliner. His Black robe covered his checkered boxers and white T-shirt. The only light in the living room was the glow of the modest flat screen on the floor stand against the wall in the corner. The sound was low. The cheery anchor man spewed the morning’s headlines.
Good morning and happy Sunday to all of our viewers. I’m Chris Morris and the time now is 5:00. Hope everyone in the local area and surrounding counties has an umbrella, and rain boots. You know what they say about April showers.
Police are investigating a double homicide on the far East side this morning. We have very little details, but our field correspondent is on location as we collect more details.
The fourth annual Puppy Pace 5k is next Saturday. There’s still time to register to run. This is the largest 5k event in the state. All proceeds benefit local animal shelters. Bring your canine to the 5k.
These and more headlines are coming up on Mount Placid News; but first, let’s talk about the rain amounts over the next three days. Meteorologist, Charlie Wannamaker has more. Charlie?
Yeah, Chris. April showers is right, but this is going to be extreme. Our average rain fall for the entire month of April is just under five inches. Get this; we’re getting over three inches by Tuesday morning. We’re still about an hour away from the rain beginning and it will start light, but once it reaches Mount Placid, this system is going to hover over us for a while. We’ll have periods of heavy downfalls, so grab your umbrella on your way to church this morning. Tomorrow’s early rush hour is going to be a mess, I’ll tell you; it’s not going to be a nice day. Threats include heavy rain, flash flooding, pooling on the edges of the roads and interstates and the worst; for those of you in the low areas along the banks of the river, we expect the river to rise thirteen feet. That is not a good scenario for one-story homes.
Todd sipped from a steaming cup of black coffee and shook his head and muttered, “It’s not a good scenario for young ladies either, Charlie.” He picked up his cell phone and called the station.
“Police department, is this an emergency?”
He spoke quietly, “Paula, it’s Todd, good morning.”
“Good morning, Chief. What can I do for you?”
“I need Sergeant Spicer please.”
“Hmm, I just saw him a minute ago. Hang on, I’ll go find him. I don’t think he’s at his desk.”
Chief Merrett stood from his recliner and walked to his bedroom at the end of the hallway. He heard Sergeant Spicer’s voice through the phone, “I’ll get it in my office. Go ahead and put him through.”
He heard Paula’s distant response, “Okay.” She put the phone back to her mouth. “Chief?”
Merrett spoke softly so he wouldn’t wake his wife, Karen, “Yeah?”
“I’ll put you through now.”
The phone rang once. Todd walked out of his bedroom as Spicer answered, “Hey Chief, it’s Spicer. What’s up?”
“Is your door closed?”
He heard the phone clang on the desk, then the muffled sound of the door closing. A few seconds later, Spicer said, “It is now; what’s up?”
“Did you see the forecast?”
“Yeah, we’re going to have a busy few days.”
“Yeah, we are. My biggest concern is that river. It’s going to rise. They’re saying thirteen feet.”
Spicer was silent and Merrett continued, “You know what this means?”
He sighed and fretted, “Yeah Chief—I do.”
“Look, I want you to take one officer off patrol from each district. I want them rotating by the river house. They don’t need to go all the way to the end of the lane, but I want presence there. One of two things is going to happen. Either he doesn’t kill again because of our visibility or we’ll be close enough to get him this time. I want this fucker caught.”
“Chief, I’m not saying I disagree; but you know it doesn’t happen every time the river rises.”
“I know. That’s what makes him so damn good at it. Keep your distance. That’s my direction to all patrols. Keep your distance. I want to be close enough to move in, but far enough away to tempt this bastard. I’ll be in by 6:30.”
“Alright Chief. Anything else?”
Chief Merrett asked, “What’s the situation with the double homicide?”
“Same shit. Late night party. Some young dude got drunk and shot two of his buddies in a fight.”
“We have him, right?”
“Yeah, we got him. He’s all tore up about what he did. Apparently, the three of them were really close once upon a time. Now he’s getting sober, so he’s not as tough as he was when we first got there. Oh, you know him. It was the Brunner kid.”
“Shit. He’s been in and out of trouble for six years. I think we had him in cuffs when he was twelve. Maybe this will wake his ass up a bit.”
“He’s not a minor anymore.”
“No, he’s not—poor dumb fucker. Look, I’m going to let you go, so I can get ready. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“See you in a while, Chief.”
“Hey! Do me a favor. Put the river murders file on my desk, will ya?”
“Sure thing, Boss.”
“Later,” Todd said, before he ended the phone call.
He walked towards the double-pane window to the right of the TV and pulled the curtains open. He sipped his coffee and looked out from his two-story house on a hill. The bottom of his long driveway met the road that few traveled, unless there was an event at the park directly across the street. The amphitheater season was scheduled to open the first Friday in May. The distinct silhouette of the concert venue was the only sturcture that blocked his view of the one-hundred-foot-wide Placid River. The yellow lights from buildings high on the opposite bank reflected off the river in long lines and waved lightly with the right-to-left current. Most of the structures on those banks were higher and safe from the rising river. The same couldn’t be said for the properties two miles downstream or a mile upstream. The downstream housing was in a poorer part of town, and the upstream residents were wealthy.
Todd entered the station at 6:24. His uniform was pressed, his boots shined and every silver insignia on his uniform was perfectly placed, as always. Paula greeted him, but he only cast a hint of a smile and a lazy wave, then walked straight towards his office. The files he requested were on his desk. He closed his door, sat in his executive chair and stared at the closed folder that was at least four inches thick. He sighed as he tapped it with his forefinger, then put his hands on the arms of the chair and leaned back. There was a knock on his office window, which got his attention. Sergeant Spicer pointed to the folder, nodded his head, waved, then moved on.
Todd didn’t need to look at the pictures again. They had been burned into his memory, but every time it rained, he requested the file and flipped through its contents. He had to be missing something. He sighed again, leaned forward and opened the folder.
Victim #1: Claire Barnett – Recovered from the River on April 15, 2013, the second day of rainfall. The first photos were at the bend in the river at the amphitheater. She was face-down, and her blonde hair spread through the water, like steam wafting from a hot biscuit that was torn in half, then dissipated. Chief remembered the events clearly. Her torso bobbed with the waves of the light current.
The next few photos were of crews pulling her out of the water. Todd recalled that he, personally set up a blue flexible wall around Claire’s body to hide her from bystanders. The rest of the photos were close-ups of different parts of her body. From her feet to her stomach, there were no visible cuts, or lacerations. Her shins had bruises from when she kicked her murderer as she fought for her life. There were bruises on the sides of her neck and across her shoulders, and a solid ring around her neck where something strangled her. It was something thick enough to cause a distinct bruise, but thinner than a rope; roughly the size of a thin dog’s lead. Her eyes were glazed over and opaque.
He turned all of the photographs upside-down on the left side of the folder, then looked at the cause of death on the coroner’s report; homicidal drowning.
He flipped back to the photo that showed the bruises on the sides of her neck and cupped his hand towards the photo. The left side of her neck, as Todd viewed the photo, had a single bruise. The right side had four bruises. He rotated his right hand while he turned the photograph back and forth with his left hand and noticed how the bruises matched where fingers would have grabbed the front of her neck to force her head under water, so he could watch her lights go out when she stopped struggling.
Victim #2: Marie McDonough – Also recovered from the river at the bend by the amphitheater. Other than having dark hair, the events and statistics were very similar to what was in Claire’s file. Her body was also found after two days of steady rain.
There was a total of nine victims; all found similar to Claire and Marie. Five were found after two days of rain. Three of them were recovered after three days of rain, and one was recovered from the river after heavy rainfall for twenty-four hours.
The river flowed from North to South, and there were thirty-eight houses the stretched the banks of the river to the North of the amphitheater. Twenty-seven of them were large homes, owned by wealthy people. The farthest one, that borders the grounds of the nature preserve, was a mile and a quarter North of the outdoor venue. Average income families occupied the other eleven. During each case, Todd’s team questioned the residents of every home. None of which, has ever seen a body floating down the river. His best conclusion was that the victims were drowned so that they would sink to the bottom, then carried downstream by the strong current under the surface. The right bend in the river at the amphitheater was sharp and there was a support wall that started at the edge of the structure’s foundation. To the North of the support wall, there was a natural river bank. That’s where the bodies surfaced. Bits of flesh swirled around at the sharpest part of the bend.
Chief Merrett could have stared at that folder all day. Some days, he did. For as many times as he flipped through the contents of the file, he was no closer to securing evidence to support what he already knew. The young, single anesthesiologist in the modern multi-level home at the end of Rivers Edge Lane, was the one committing the heinous acts. Dr. Brent Cooper purchased three lots at the end of the lane when the previous residents died. Betty in August. That was six years ago, then her husband, Herb, in January a year and a half later. Two members of their extended family cleaned up the property the best they could, between January and the end of June. When they put the house on the market, it sold within a week. Dr. Cooper was supposed to close on the house on a Saturday. Strong storms passed on Friday morning. Lightning struck a transformer at the edge of the property, which started a fire in a large detached garage. The flames were so big, it melted most of the siding on the main house, some twenty feet away from the garage, and blew a softball-sized hole in the electrical box in the second lot. The house on the third lot was condemned. Herb had started tearing it down before he passed. When the executor’s realtor contacted Dr. Cooper to inform him of the damage to the property, he requested the current caretakers collect quotes for repairs and turn them over to him, then delayed the closing for three weeks.
It never made sense why a wealthy young man would purchase three properties that were nearly destroyed by the fire, along the Placid River. Not to most people, anyway. It made perfect sense to Todd, and he was determined to get the evidence to convict him.
Just before he closed the file, he jotted a note on a small, yellow pad of paper:
Claire - recovered from the river two months after Mr. Cooper completed the construction of his new home. Home designer and contractor are people he knew from Washington state, where he lived before moving to Mount Placid.
When he finished writing, he tore the small sheet of paper off the pad, and stuck it to the cover sheet inside the file. He touched the photograph of Claire from when she was alive. Somehow, to rub his thumb across her image made her more human; more real than just a case of a dead girl pulled from the Placid River.
He reached for his desk phone and pushed a button, called out, “Spicer,” then let it go.
“Everybody available right now?”
“For the most part, yes. All the patrols are pretty quiet right now. Adams wrote out a speeding ticket, but that was probably an hour ago.”
Todd looked at the wall clock in his office and thought, Damn. I had no idea I sat here that long already. He looked around his waist, then reached to his shoulder where his walkie talkie usually was. He leaned towards the phone and pushed the button again, “Will you bring me your walkie?”
“Sure chief, I’ll be right in.”
Sergeant Spicer came into Todd’s office and handed him his two-way radio. “All personnel, this is Chief Merritt, I need you all to listen up.”
Each officer listened closely for Chief’s message. The ones on patrol, turned up the volume on their walkies to hear over the sound of the wipers on delay. Two of them, that weren’t in their cars, were partners that just finished breakfast. Both of them turned their radios down in the restaurant and leaned their ears close to their shoulders to hear.
“If you haven’t seen the forecast, it’s supposed to rain for the next three days. You all know what that means.”
Before he continued, he thought of his transmission through police scanners all across Mount Placid.
“Everybody change to internal, 10-18.”
“10-18” wasn’t the internal channel. It was the code to let everyone know this was urgent. He waited for a full minute and continued, “If I’m right—and I think I am—we’ll be recovering a body from the river on Tuesday or Wednesday. Unless—"
The partners put cash on the table, left the restaurant and waved at their waitress on the way out.
Todd paused and took a deep breath. “Unless we get this—” He considered the hefty fine if he said “fucker” on the radio. “guy before he does it again. I want a patrol around the clock at the end of Rivers Edge Lane. I want you close enough to move in, but far enough away so that we’re not obvious. When it’s time to move in, go 40, 10-4?”
Everyone knew that he meant a silent run. They would move in on the river house without lights or sirens. He turned to Spicer when he let go of the button on the side of the radio, “I want Matthews in a boat, yes?”
Matthews was their only undercover officer who had been on the force for 3 years and no one in that little town suspected he was anything more than a friendly citizen. He had a long beard and was as fit as a man could be. As far as the general public knew, he was self-employed and made a living out of woodworking from the shop in his detached garage.
Chief continued on the radio, “I also want one patrol around the hospital on Wednesdays. That’s when the suspect is there. And I want one more around his office, next to the hospital. Any questions?”
After a brief pause, the radio began to beep with responses, “I’ll take his office building.”
“Yeah, Chief, it’s me.”
“Okay, great. Thank you.”
“Chief, it’s Baker. I’ll take the hospital on Wednesday. The other days, I’ll be on Rivers Edge.”
“Anybody else?” he asked.
Silence fell across the radio, other than the rumbling brown noise that came from the speaker.
“Alright, if anyone else wants to volunteer a shift, let me know; otherwise, I’ll assign the rest.” He paused again. “10-4?”
They each responded over each other, “10-4, Chief.”
Sergeant Spicer asked, “Chief, you want me to—”
Without looking at Spicer, Todd interrupted with, “You’re dismissed. If there’s nothing else, I need my office.”
“Yessir,” he said when he stood and left the office.
Todd watched like an eagle until he saw that Spicer was out of sight, then fully extended his keyboard drawer, removed it from the guides and set it on his desk. It tipped forward. He looked up again to see if anyone was coming. The mouse, that was to the right of the keyboard slid forward and onto his desk. He glanced out his doorway again and along the frosted window to look for silhouettes. He turned his palm upwards and reached towards the middle of the bottom of the desk, but still couldn’t find it. He pulled his hand back out and moved his chair away, then bent over to look. There it was. The reach was uncomfortable and he slid his palm along the underside of his desk again. He paused when he felt it, then stood up to close his door that Spicer left open and locked it. When he sat back at his desk, he looked along the windows to his office one more time. He sat back down, reached towards the middle of his desk and pulled the business card away. The clear tape that secured it to the desk came with it. With only a glance, he sat it on top of his desk, behind the tilted keyboard drawer. It was a white card with black numbers on it, but no name. He pulled his cell phone from his hip and dialed the number.
His eyes darted from side to side as the line rang three times. When the call connected, he wasn’t greeted, which is exactly what he expected, then softly whispered, “Suspect.”
A digitized voice came from the other party. “Yes.”
“Mount Placid, TN. Anesthesiologist. Dr. Brent Cooper. The end of Rivers Edge Lane. Nine victims have been recovered from the river, near the amphitheater.” He described the rest of the details, then waited for a response. Neither party spoke for a full minute, but Todd knew he shouldn’t make a sound.
Todd tapped his desk and hesitated when he saw the silhouette of a person walking by the frosted glass of his office. When it was clear, he said, “Now.”
The call disconnected and he returned the mysterious business card to the underside of his desk. Exactly fifteen minutes later, he received a notification on his phone through a text message with a link. Under the link was a message, Do not reply. He touched the link with his forefinger and a contract opened. He scrolled as he read every word. When he reached the bottom of the contract, he completed the digital signature on the last page, then touched the small rectangle with the word, “Submit.”
Dots flashed on the bottom of the message window until another message appeared.
This call never happened. The contract doesn’t exist. Stay the fuck out of my way. You’ll be notified when it’s time.
As he looked at his phone, another notification appeared on his screen that read, Message thread deleted.