Connect · Exclusive Excerpt from "The Trail"

Exclusive Excerpt from "The Trail"

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C H A P T E R   T H R E E


TEN DAYS AFTER SHELLEY SYVERSON of Bryson City, North Carolina, was reported missing, her body was discovered several miles west of Fontana Lake. Sergeant Vickers of the Bryson City Police Department was in his chief ’s office, recounting what had happened.

“Some boys, teenagers with their dogs, discovered the body while walking in the woods. They messed with the pit she was buried in.”

Chief of Police Roland Stevens bit his lip. It had been a frustrating night. First there was a phone call from the father of the thirty-one-year old victim demanding to know why, in the ten days since his daughter was reported missing, nobody had searched that parkland. She had last been seen at a bar four miles away. The chief had to tell him that the medical examiner said she’d been deceased for that long. It wouldn’t have made any difference. But the father kept lashing out in his grief, “You should have found her!” To add to the chief ’s frustration, he had just received a call from the press wanting to know if this murder was related to the ones in Sylva and Rainbow Springs. They would be coming in for a statement. He needed to go over everything again with his sergeant to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.

“Messed with the pit how?”

“Well, Chief, the dogs found the grave and the dogs and kids dug her up partway. She was naked and bruised about the face. While I waited for you and the medical examiner, I looked all around, but didn’t find anything worth noting.” Vickers took off his hat and tapped it against his palm. Sweat stains blotched the inside rim. Before removing the hat, he 10 looked his fifty years. The bald head made him look sixty. “I’m thinking that this is similar to what happened in Sylva.”

The chief considered the comment and took a sip of coffee. Two carved duck decoys stared at him from a table by the window. He removed glasses from his round, heavy face and rubbing his eyes asserted, “You and I are going back out there now, and we’re not coming back until we find something.”

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THAT SAME HOUR, AT A convenience store twenty miles to the south, a six-four, heavyset man in his mid-thirties picked up a copy of the Smoky Mountain Times. The man, Paul Leroux, poured himself a large coffee, grabbed a couple of jelly donuts, and asked for two packs of Marlboros. He retreated to his Wrangler, expertly entered traffic while lighting a cigarette, and several minutes later, pulled into the parking lot of a tractor distributor. He parked at the end of the lot in the shadow of a huge John Deere and locked his doors. He wolfed down the donuts between slurps of coffee, tilted the seat back, and closed his eyes. It was Friday and he had called in sick two hours ago.

He gripped the folded newspaper in his lap. The front page showed a picture of a woman in a blouse and pants standing by a picnic table, beaming. He noticed she’d turned her head so as to not show the camera her birthmark. Below, the headline read “Staple’s Employee Strangled”. He had seen it on the news last night. “A brutal killing in Bryson City,” the reporter said, “the third area murder in fourteen months.”

Paul Leroux noted the sweat on his palms as he unfolded the newspaper, but his hands didn’t shake; not even a little. He’d been through this before.

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SERGEANT VICKERS AND HIS CHIEF stared at a two-foot deep rectangular pit beneath a pine. “What do you think happened here?” Chief Stevens asked. He poked around with his foot before getting down on his hands and knees.

“No signs of struggle,” Vickers said. “I figure he killed her somewhere else, then brought her out here. He must have had a shovel.”

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“Let’s think about that, Sergeant. You realize how far away our car is? Half mile? How’d he get her all the way here while carrying a shovel? There are no signs of dragging.”

“Somebody helped him?”

“He may have walked back to his car and come back with a shovel,” Stevens said. “Let’s have another look around.”

Stevens headed deeper into thickets on the theory the killer wouldn’t have disposed of anything back toward the dirt road where the squad car was parked. Soon they encountered too much undergrowth, and had to bushwhack. “Okay,” Stevens said, “you circle back west to the car; I’ll circle back east. Blow your whistle if you find anything.”

Twenty minutes later, Stevens heard three whistle blasts. He responded with one blast and headed toward the sound. He was pleased his sergeant remembered the routine. A minute later he heard three more short blasts and responded in turn. They did this two more times, until the chief was able to holler to Vickers. The chief arced around a windblown ash and spotted Vickers as he stood near a clearing, arms akimbo.

“Whatcha got, Vickers?”

Startled, Vickers jumped, then pointed to tire tracks on a patch of dirt. “These look fresh. Only a small four-wheeler could get this far in. We’re less than a hundred yards from the grave, I figure. I sight-measured it from that ash to the pines near the pit.” He puffed out his chest.

“Yep, these are fresh all right,” Stevens said. He pulled the camera from his knapsack and took several close-ups of the indentations treaded into the dirt. “Must have parked right here. Let’s go see, Andy.”

Andy, the proprietor of Andy’s Collision, considered himself a sleuth and assisted the local police from time to time. His specialty was tracking. Footprints, animal tracks, tread marks; if it made any kind of track, Andy had a good chance of identifying it. The men collected in his small office as Andy studied the pictures with a magnifier, toothpick tucked in his small mouth. He cross-referenced the book he’d pulled and moved back to the downloaded photos.

“Could be from a Jeep,” he said. “I see these treads on 4x4s.” The toothpick rolled to the other side of his mouth. “But I’ll need to get out there and take measurements. Are there tracks from both sides of the vehicle?”

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“Yes,” Vickers replied.

“That helps, getting the front or rear wheel-to-wheel side-width. But to really narrow it down, I need to get the distance from front to rear axle. The vehicle was parked, right?”

“Right,” Stevens said. “We suspect this guy left the vehicle for at least twenty minutes, given the distance to the grave.”

“Not very long, but maybe long enough. When a vehicle is parked, if it’s on damp soil like this, the weight of the vehicle will impress all the tires into the ground, which gives me my wheelbase.”

“We’ll bring you out there right now,” Stevens said.

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THE JEEP EASED OUT OF the tractor lot. After reading the morning paper, Paul Gaston Leroux convinced himself they had no evidence, but he felt vulnerable, and knew that after them finding three bodies in such short succession, his days here in North Carolina would be ending soon. He turned on the radio—Garth Brooks. He didn’t want to move. He worked at the furniture factory as a stainer. The pay was acceptable. He had managed to keep to himself in Franklin for three years and, despite the murders, felt settled for one of the few times in his life.

Leroux massaged his temple at a stoplight. He had not slept well last night. He couldn’t believe the body was discovered this soon. A twinge of dread returned. Christ, they never found a thing in Kentucky and that was nine years ago. Those goddamn dogs.

He tried to make up his mind on how to spend the day, and thought about going to a matinée. As the news came on the radio, he was startled to see a police car hidden in a turnoff. He didn’t reduce speed at all— just drove straight ahead. He obeyed speed limits and, as a habit, drove in the right lane. Too often he had read of the criminal brought down by the broken taillight, the expired inspection sticker, the out-of-date plate. Leroux knew that would never happen to him, and he smiled as he watched the trooper’s car shrink in his rearview mirror. He decided to go to the matinée and headed for the mall.

For all his smugness, Leroux was not aware that his passenger side mirror had been loosened by a pine branch he had banged into when he drove his latest victim into the forest. Nor had he noticed the small dent below the mirror.