On the day the leaves began to fall, Jim Sparks hung himself from a rafter in his condemned barn. The sun was warm but the air was cool; a prophecy of winter in the breeze that shook the first honey-colored leaves from branches that would soon stand naked, all angles and lines, snow-draped modern art adorning the prairies.
Morning dawned sudden and crisp, robed in fog that crowned the fields with ribbons of silver and left geometric patterns of shimmering frost reflecting light like diamonds. But by the time the clock passed twelve, the afternoon had melted into a reluctant autumn warmth. It was the sort of day when you could not help but turn your face toward the sun; a day that could not be duplicated in a year of days.
And he killed himself.
The wind sighed audibly through the barn when Lucas Hudson stepped out of his tiny import, a rusty blue thing that had become a sort of inside joke in a town staunchly dedicated to everything domestic. Gravel crunched beneath his tattered sneakers, and he shielded his eyes with strong, surgeon’s hands as he surveyed the scene before him.
Jim’s property was a graveyard of gutted engines and frozen pizza boxes that seemed incapable of finding their way into the dented, metallic garbage can that lay half buried in the weeds beside his front step. The disarray stretched across five acres of unkempt lawn and sagging buildings bordered by an aging farmhouse against the eastern fence, and a grayish barn with peeling paint along a northwest line of poplars.
Lucas stood on the driveway and looked past it all. He leaned into the slight breeze, absorbing warmth through his sweatshirt, and watched the golden cornfields dance.
Everyone hated Jim Sparks, and the phone call that had summoned Lucas didn’t inspire the quintessential emotions of pity, regret, or even shock. Instead, he felt numb. Cold. It wasn’t surprising that the man who seemed to resent every aspect of his existence in this small town had finally done what many had always expected him to do. Truth be told, most people thought he’d simply leave rather than take the more permanent way out. But suicide accomplished the deed: Jim would never face another insidious rumor.
The sound of his name made Lucas start, but of course it was Alex. His friend had summoned him here, had torn him away from Jenna when they had actually been having a conversation—words exchanged that meant something. But it was impossible to say no to Alex Kennedy. He was a force of nature, a grown man with the soul of a child. It didn’t hurt that he was also the police chief, even if the title seemed a bit presumptuous for a village as small and sleepy as Blackhawk, Iowa. Lucas had often thought the decorous, hardworking citizens of his hometown would likely do just fine regulating themselves.
Alex loped across the sloping lawn, his usually grinning mouth set in a serious half smile to convey the gravity, the tragedy of the situation.
“Hey.” Lucas shortened the distance between them in a few long strides. He tried to return Alex’s wan smile, but it came out lopsided and faded the moment his mouth managed to take shape. Lucas knew he looked like he had tangled with shadows in some rough back alley, and he ran his hands through his thick, dark hair before stuffing them in the pockets of his gray hoodie.
“Thanks for coming,” Alex said, lifting an eyebrow but apparently choosing to ignore Lucas’s uncharacteristic dishevelment. He offered his own brand of sympathy in a quick thump to the back. “I know this is usually your only day off.”
“And I don’t usually act as coroner,” Lucas reminded him. But Alex didn’t bother to respond.
They walked in silence to the barn, a leaning affair with broken windows that snarled at the world through shards of glass clinging fanglike to the rotten frames. The midafternoon sunlight poured through wide cracks between each and every board and sprinkled dust across the shaded east-facing entrance. Though Alex called it a barn, the building in question had once been a stable, and the wide, high doors seemed to frame the past. Lucas could almost imagine the carriages, buggies, and sleighs that had long ago passed through the now sagging arches. It was surprisingly charming in its age and fragility. Never mind the squad cars, the haphazard yellow tape, the sounds of people talking gravely within.
“Why didn’t you call Elliot?” Lucas finally asked, pausing in the shadow of the haymow.
“Out of town. Vacation.”
“So who’s taking care of the morgue?”
“Someone croaks, we gotta send them to Fairfield,” Alex explained.
Lucas sighed. “You know, there are other doctors in town.”
“I think the Townsend brothers got their licenses in Mexico.”
Lucas’s laugh was a soft snort, but at least he laughed. “Oh, you owe me big, Kennedy. This is hardly in my job description.”
“Yeah, well, you know.” Alex lifted the heavy latch and pushed the door open, stooping to secure it with a rock the size of a small melon. The action didn’t necessarily shed light into the barn.
Lucas stepped tentatively into the shadow of the old building and gave his eyes a moment to adjust to the dusty, filtered light. The two town cops called to the scene were talking in hushed tones out of Lucas’s range of vision, but a quick scan of the inside of the slanted barn revealed as much clutter as could be expected from Jim Sparks. There was junk everywhere—piles of old firewood, small farm machinery, moldy hay bales.
And yet, a few reminders of the former glory of the Timmer Ranch clung to the landscape like artifacts from some era beyond memory. There was a brass plate with the name Philadelphia etched in sweeping strokes above a corner stall. And two long, curved bale hooks, covered in rust that could be mistaken for ancient blood in the dying light. Reaching to touch a lone harness that was draped from a nail near the door, Lucas caught a whiff of leather. And then he made out a clearing. Between an old tractor and the first animal stall, a body hung limp and motionless only two feet off the ground.
Lucas maneuvered around an abandoned axle and surveyed the scene before him. Jim had knotted a pretty handy noose; the spine traveled across the front of his throat and tossed his head back at a grotesque angle. His face was a cruel shade of bluish purple, and his tongue lolled thick and offensive out of blood-speckled lips. A rickety wooden chair lay upturned and off to one side of the body that swung almost imperceptibly like a broken, bloated pendulum. And the beam itself, the rafter that held Jim Sparks in death, ran bent but sturdy from one end of the barn to the other, cutting a crooked line that seemed to say, “At least I can do this.” Lucas suddenly felt tired. He was expecting horror of nightmarish proportions. What he got was something altogether pathetic and horribly, wretchedly sad.
“How did they find him?”
Alex made his way past Lucas and stood with his forearms on the half wall of the stall in which Jim dangled. He looked like a spectator at a county fair, examining the qualifications of a late entrant. “He didn’t show up for work last night. You know he works the late shift at the plant in Fairfield? Well, some guy that splits his hours got ticked that he didn’t show and decided to come by and give Jim hell. The barn door was open, swinging in the wind . . .” Alex looked over his shoulder at Lucas. “He called the city office from his cell phone and took off. Can you believe that? Called the city office, not 911.”
Lucas smiled faintly, aware that in spite of his seemingly gruff disposition, Alex was a teddy bear in disguise. Lucas had it on good authority that his best friend got choked up watching Disney movies with his daughters, and he didn’t believe for a second that Alex was as nonchalant about the grisly scene before him as he tried so hard to convey. “You okay?” Lucas asked him, dropping his voice conspiratorially.
“Fine.” Alex shrugged.
“Seems like a bit of a cold thing to say.” Lucas sloped an eyebrow. “There’s a dead man hanging a few feet from your nose.”
“I don’t see you crying,” Alex huffed.
“Fair enough.” Lucas sighed. They obviously weren’t going to have a brotherly heart-to-heart, and since he didn’t know what else to say, the clock ticked off a few seconds of awkward silence. Finally Lucas passed a hand over the five o’clock shadow along his jaw and swallowed a groan. “Let’s get this over with so that I can go home.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Alex muttered.
Lucas still felt hesitant but joined Alex at the stall. “Was there a suicide note?”
“Not that we’ve found. There’s not much in here and we went through the house already. Couldn’t find a thing of value. You know, I think we’re going to have to torch the whole place. Jim Sparks lived like an animal. Honestly, you should see the shit he has in there. Garbage piled high . . .”
“Signs of a struggle? You know, unusual scratches, flesh under his fingernails, extra footprints in the barn?”
Alex snorted and indicated the numbered red tags that littered the barn floor like macabre confetti. “You telling me how to do my job, Hudson?”
Lucas held up his hands in defense. “Never. I’m just saying, I think it’s pretty obvious it was a suicide.”
“Look, it’s my job to treat the entire farm like it’s a crime scene right now. This is a homicide until we can prove otherwise. Do I have to bag the hands for a forensic team? Or are you going to do your job?”
Lucas never got a chance to respond. As if on cue, two cops emerged from the darkened tack room that was half hidden behind a sagging row of whitewashed bee boxes. They held out a camera to Alex. “We took pictures. But only because Kennedy made us,” the younger one said, winking at Lucas. “I think it was a waste of time. Nice to meet you, Dr. Hudson.”
They shook hands, and Lucas smiled even though he could tell Alex was irritated by the cavalier way his cops insisted on handling the situation. Blackhawk was a small town, but Alex took his job very seriously, following the letter of the law with admirable diligence and an almost old-world sense of honor. Well, to a point. It seemed there was sometimes a little wiggle room within the defined code. But it took a veteran to know when to bend and when to stand firm. The two young men who rounded out the police force were nothing but rookies. Kids, really. Two boys who grew up within Blackhawk city limits and knew little more than the character and quirks of the 2,587 people who called their wooded corner of northwest Iowa home. Their world was finely bordered.
Alex’s frustration was understandable, but Lucas didn’t feel like hearing a speech. Before the police chief had a chance to lay into the uniformed boys, Lucas said: “Let’s get this over with. I’m documenting, you guys have to take him down.”
“You might want to take a few moments to investigate the circumstances and, seemingly obvious or not, try to determine cause of death,” Alex prompted with a grunt. “And, of course, you’ll want to confirm that he is, in fact, deceased. I can’t do that, you know. The coroner has to.”
Lucas felt his shoulders stiffen. “Get me something to stand on,” he said, his words sharp and just a little too hard. He had acted as coroner on only a handful of occasions, and they had all been run-of-the-mill, small-town stuff. An elderly lady who died in her sleep. A middle-aged man who died of a withering cancer in hospice care. Lucas was an excellent doctor, arguably wasted on the monotony of rural life, but this was unprecedented. Jim had knocked him a bit off his game.
It took awhile to find something that would work for him to stand on. There were no ladders, no boxes that looked even remotely sturdy. All that was available was the same chair that Jim had used, and after a few moments, with a heavy sigh, Alex righted it beneath the body. He held out his hand before it, palm up, and backed away so Lucas could do his job.
The barn seemed to shift as Lucas climbed onto the chair, but he couldn’t tell if it was because the rotting piece of furniture was old and feeble or because the reenactment was making his head spin. He paused a few seconds to get his balance, and did everything he could to avoid looking directly at the body before him. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned to face Jim head-on.
With deft fingers, Lucas probed the rigid neck. It was cold and still, smooth-firm like molded plastic. No pulse, no breath, no life. Rigor had already begun to set in. Bending a little, Lucas took Jim’s hands in his own and studied the stiff curve of his thick fingers. Nails bitten down to the quick, tobacco stains creating muddy rivers in the whorls of his fingerprints. He was a nail-biter, a smoker, but beyond the obvious, his hands were clean. There were no wounds, no sign of a struggle, in fact, no indicators of anything beyond his bad habits. He wore no wedding ring, no watch on his wrist to mark the bittersweet passage of time.
Lucas sighed. “He’s dead,” he confirmed unnecessarily. “No signs of struggle as far as I can tell.”
“Death by asphyxiation?”
“I’m pretty sure his neck is broken,” Lucas said. “But I’m not entirely sure how. He didn’t have far to fall, and it takes at least a four-foot drop to break the neck.”
“Maybe he jumped,” Alex guessed, pointing to the high platform of the hayloft about them.
“Then what was the chair for? More likely he just really wanted to get the job done. He threw himself with some serious force.”
Alex seemed to consider something for a moment, but apparently it was too implausible to imagine that foul play was involved. “Let’s just get him down,” Alex said. “I think our best bet is to have two men on the ground to hold his body. I’ll cut the rope.” He produced a bone-handled hunting knife, originally ivory-colored but now stained tea brown and anything but police issue. “Let’s do it.”
Lucas and Alex switched places, and the police chief began the slow process of sawing through the thick woven rope.
Progress was slow, and made even more tedious by the utter silence that amplified the dull scratching of the knife. Each piece of rope that spun off the homemade noose made a soft snick that seemed like an echo of the sound Jim’s neck must have made when it broke. Lucas saw each pop as a snapshot of Jim’s sad life: his beat-up, mustard-yellow Chevy truck, the stray mutt that followed him around for a few weeks until it was mangled by a car, the bottles of Black Velvet that he bought on the first Monday of every month. The imaginary scrapbook was so sad, so rife with loneliness, that for an aching moment, Lucas’s arms longed to encircle Jenna. The specters that haunted the shadowed barn drew his attention like a magnet, but Lucas gave his head a hard shake and focused his attention on Alex so that he didn’t have to wrestle unseen demons.
Alex was completely engulfed in the task before him as he adjusted his weight on the chair in order to get at the rope with his other hand. His movement on the worthless piece of furniture tossed the balance to one of the shorter back legs and the flimsy chair began a teetering roll on three legs. Lucas hopped off the stall gate and made a lunge to steady Alex, but he was too far away and past the point of rescue. In an instant, Alex counterbalanced, grabbed for Jim’s body, stopped himself in horror, and went flying backward off the chair. As he hit the ground with a nauseating thud, the three men maneuvered around the now swinging body of Jim Sparks and crouched down to offer help that was too late.
Alex was grimacing and clutching his right elbow, but he assured everyone he was fine, punctuated with a few choice words and “Get the hell away from me.”
“Come on, Alex,” Lucas coaxed, “let me take a quick look at you. Did you hit your head?”
But Alex was already getting up. “I’m fine. It’s just that piece of—” He shrugged off their steadying hands and swung back to kick the toppled-over chair. As his foot made contact with the seat, a sharp crack split the air and was almost immediately joined by Alex’s yelp. The chair hadn’t moved.
Lucas joined Alex and bent down to see what had held the piece of furniture so tightly in place. “Foot okay?” He asked quietly.
The chair was sticking out at a forty-five-degree angle to the ground. The back left leg had dug a deep gash in the hard-packed earthen floor of the barn and was now securely rooted in between the dirt and what looked like a thick tree branch.
“Looks like you’ve got quite a bit of leverage,” one of the young officers quipped from over their shoulders.
Alex didn’t respond to the jab, but leaned in closer to the foot of the chair and carefully dusted dry earth off the branch.
“So there’re roots underneath the barn. Big deal.” The other rookie cop turned away and proved himself gutsy enough to grab Jim’s body and stop its dancelike sway.
“I don’t think it’s a tree branch,” Alex mumbled. “Too far away from anything growing nearby.”
“Sounds ominous,” Lucas quipped.
“Mysteries R Us.” Alex waved him closer. “Take a look at this.”
Lucas crawled down on his hands and knees and studied the object. It was barely peeking out of the ground, a hint of grimy hardness in a parallel line with earth. Only a couple of inches were exposed, but Lucas could tell that it extended far beyond eyesight and deep underground. Dirt worn as smooth as cement banked both sides—if the chair hadn’t disturbed its hard-packed grave, the incongruity beneath the barn floor might have never surfaced at all.
Reaching out a tentative hand, Lucas brushed the dirt away with his fingertips, revealing a grayish white surface that was comparatively smooth despite tiny pockmarks that dug minuscule basins across the exterior. He clawed at the dust with his nails until they began to split, then he turned to Alex with a sigh.
Alex handed it over without a single cynical comment.
Lucas scratched and dug, prying chunks of earth away with each vicious slash. Within minutes, he could tentatively wrap his fingers around it. He pulled gently. It didn’t give an inch. Pulling harder produced the same effect: nothing.
“What do you think it is?” Alex cut in.
In the corner of his mind, a shadowy thought was beginning to materialize in smoky, elusive wisps. Lucas brushed more dust away, touched the object again, and realized with a paralyzing jolt that the doctor in him had always known what it was. His subconscious perceived it even when his mind refused to believe. “Oh, God.” Lucas whispered it—a prayer, an invocation, a heartfelt, aching plea—because he knew . . . he knew what lay beneath the feet of the community’s infamous outcast.
“Lucas, come on, don’t get all melodramatic.”
It was through a fog that Lucas managed to mumble, “I think we’re looking at Angela Sparks.”
A tangible quiet descended on the barn. Disbelief, thick and poisonous, choked each man as they stared at what they now knew to be a bone. A human bone. Moments trudged by before Alex found his voice. “I thought Jenna was helping her get out of town.”
Jenna Hudson was deep water. Mysterious, flowing, dark. She had stormed into Lucas’s life late in his residency and had affixed herself indelibly, ineradicably in his mind before she ever made it to his heart. Jenna, with her baggy jeans, piled hair, bare feet. She wore her own skin as if it was an afterthought, something that she had just tossed on as she swept out the door. She claimed him without meaning to, without really seeming to care if he was hers. But he was, and from the first moment, she knew it.
Jenna was all eyes. Blue so bottomless it was navy, almost black. And it was those eyes, in the face framed by curls that appeared to flow out of everything that was her, shadowy enough to be coal, that demanded all of Lucas. He had never been in love before, and he never bothered to question if he even knew what love truly was. He simply married her.
The first time Lucas told Jenna that he loved her, they were getting groceries. It became a Sunday ritual early in their relationship; the resident and the social worker, too busy during every other imaginable hour even to contemplate something as unnecessary as grocery shopping. And yet they found themselves spending hours as they discovered new delicacies, chased each other down aisles, and intentionally avoided every bargain. Their cart overflowed with chocolate cherry bordeaux ice cream, thin wedges of expensive cheeses, sprouted wheat bread trucked in from the organic bakery downtown.
Jenna was standing over the vine-ripened tomatoes, touching and carefully pressing and easing the chosen few into a clear plastic bag on the day it finally happened. Lucas was leaning over the grocery cart, indulging in his new favorite pastime of simply watching her.
“You know I love you.”
It was a casual statement, and Jenna didn’t even seem to notice. He thought about saying it again, about reaching over the tomatoes to touch her, make her feel his skin pressing against her hand, maybe even pull her close. He didn’t. It wasn’t until she had fastened the bag with a green twist tie and gently laid the crimson treasures in the bottom of the cart that she said, “I know.”
She didn’t say it back. She didn’t have to.
By the time Lucas proposed to her, Jenna still hadn’t managed to utter the words, but it didn’t matter. He knew how she felt, or at least he was convinced enough to believe that his love was enough for them both.
He asked her to marry him the day her grandmother lost her driver’s license. After her mother died, Jenna lived with her grandmother, Caroline, in a tiny flat that was closer to Milwaukee than Chicago. She drove over an hour each way just to get to work at the hospital. But her commitment to Oma dictated that she stay with her as long as she could care for the spunky eighty-five-year-old.
Lucas was with Jenna when she got the call that Caroline had been in an accident. The hospital where she had been taken was a good forty-five-minute drive, but Lucas and Jenna abandoned their date and sped to her side. The accident turned out to be a fender-bender, and Oma suffered no more than a bruised knee where her leg slid into the console inches from her seat.
When Caroline saw her granddaughter, the tears that were threatening to spill trailed one at a time down her wrinkled cheeks.
“Oma, why didn’t you stop at the stop sign?” Jenna asked.
Caroline’s answer solidified what they had known for some time: “I thought I stopped. I mean, I stopped in my mind.”
The officer who arrived at the scene pulled Jenna aside and gave her Caroline’s driver’s license.
It was in the kitchen of the flat, after Caroline had bathed and relaxed enough to fall fitfully asleep, that Lucas got down on one knee. It felt strange, even to him, as the cold of the linoleum floor seeped through his jeans and into his very bones. Jenna was sitting with her legs under her in an uncomfortable wooden chair, warming her hands on a cup of black coffee and looking into its depths as if answers waited for her in the dregs.
He hadn’t planned it this way. They were supposed to be bundled up beneath the lights of Navy Pier overlooking Lake Michigan. Her cheeks would be pink from the wind and a scarf would be knotted at her neck as she said something playful to him. He would have taken out the ring when she wasn’t looking. She would have turned away from the water and found him there. She would have laughed and said, “Yes.”
Instead, she raised tired eyes to look at him almost sadly. She asked, “What are you doing?” And he said it again, “I love you.”
It was the first time he saw her cry. Jenna put out her arms and he shuffled over to her, still on his knees. She wrapped herself around him, legs and all, and held on as if she was afraid of being swept away. “Are you asking me to marry you?” He was shocked to hear the disbelief in her voice.
“Yes,” he said.
She said it back. “Yes.”
When they moved to Iowa to follow Caroline, Lucas left the city with no regrets. She was with him, all five foot two inches of her, and nothing else mattered. They moved into a century home on the outskirts of a town that boasted no more than one grocery store and enough gossip to last at least a hundred lifetimes.
Blackhawk was nestled against the hills that marked the border between Iowa and South Dakota, and the muddy Big Sioux river ran a trembling line between the trees less than a stone’s throw from the invisible marker of the official city limits. The cobbled main street of Blackhawk’s picturesque downtown ambled past pretty houses with Dutch lace curtains and a hodgepodge collection of small-town amenities. There was a crumbling brick bank, an equally dilapidated police station, a café, a tiny library that specialized in interlibrary loans. But Blackhawk’s claim to fame was a trio of antiques stores that boasted sagging shelves of what Lucas considered junk, but which people came from miles around to admire and procure for dusty corners in their own homes.
The streets were cracked, the trees ancient and gnarled, the people reserved. Blackhawk was nothing to write home about, situated in the proverbial middle of nowhere. Sioux Falls was a forty-five-minute drive away. Omaha could be reached in two and a half hours, Minneapolis in four. But the Hudsons weren’t known for doing anything halfway, and they threw themselves into their new life with the same passion they directed at everything else.
Jenna started Safe House, a domestic violence aid center that specialized in helping victims of abuse begin new lives. Lucas was always stunned by the number of women who saw Jenna every week. Bustling metropolis or quiet village, violence seemed to know no boundaries.
And Lucas himself, making what he believed would be a temporary adjustment to small-town life even more easily than his wife, joined Blackhawk’s medical clinic and worked alongside two other doctors diagnosing strep throat and setting broken bones.
For the first few years, Lucas felt like he was camping, on vacation from normal life. Or on an extended mission trip like the three months he had spent just outside of Tegucigalpa, giving wide-eyed orphans their first taste of medical treatment. They had hated the needles. But then two years in Blackhawk turned into four, and four into eight, until a decade had passed and then a momentous dozen years—one-third of his life—and he was officially a small-town resident.
It wasn’t necessarily the life he had always dreamed of, but Jenna was the woman he had always dreamed of.