She’s waiting for him at the bar in the town’s only worthwhile dive, and he takes the empty stool on her right, the two of them fitting together like long-lost puzzle pieces. He signals to the bartender, who takes his time coming over, and gives his cousin a good look.
“Hey, you,” he says.
“Hey,” she replies, looking back at him. She throws him a smile that goes out as fast as a match flame in the wind.
River orders a beer and waits for the bartender to leave him and Roz alone again before speaking. “Why the spontaneous visit?”
“Well, I don’t have a reason to be in Dallas, on account of I got my ass suspended for two weeks,” says Roz, before taking a drink from her glass.
“Damn. What’d you do?”
“Beat the shit out of a suspect. While he was in custody.”
“Did he deserve it?” River says.
“They always deserve it,” says Roz.
She’s a detective in the Dallas PD Criminal Investigation Department’s Assault Unit. Most of the cases the unit handles are physical or sexual assaults. Roz deliberately chose the unit when she made detective so she could go after rapists and woman-beaters.
“Is that suspension with or without pay?” River says, sipping on his beer.
“I’m gettin’ paid,” Roz replies. “Not that I care.”
“Well, if you don’t need the money, I’ll be more than happy to take it off your hands. I’m out of a job.”
Roz looks at her cousin. “Since when?”
“About a week ago. Company decided to lay some people off, I guess, and I was on the list.”
“Shit. I’m sorry. What are you going to do?”
River shakes his head. “I don’t know. There’s not exactly a whole lot of decent-paying work in town for a guy like me.”
He’s got a pronounced limp from his deployment in Afghanistan and no college degree. He may be smart and hard-working, but he’s also a gay black man in a predominantly white Texas town. He’s pretty good at hiding the gay part, but there’s no hiding his skin.
“I could try another oil and gas company,” he says. “I just don’t know if that’s what I want.”
Roz reaches into her back pocket and takes out her lighter, then digs a pack of Marlboro Lights out of her shirt pocket. She pulls two cigarettes from the pack, lights one in her mouth, and hands the other to River.
“Guess it is that kind of time,” he says and leans toward her, so she can light his cigarette for him.
Soon, the cousins are sitting in a haze, the glow of the neon lights behind the bar softened around the edges. They sit with their elbows on the bar top and their heads bobbing low between their shoulders. River tries to blow a smoke ring but only lets out a long plume toward the ceiling. Roz fiddles with her lighter, turning it over in her hands.
“Maybe it’s time to get out,” she says.
“Out of this place?” River replies.
“Out of Athens. I’ve never understood why you moved out here.”
River shrugs and takes the cigarette from his mouth, holding it between his fingers as he sips on his beer. “It’s not a bad place to live. Where would I move to if I left?”
Roz shoots him a look.
River gives her one of his own. “You know how I feel about big cities.”
“Dallas has suburbs,” says Roz. “Satellite towns. You could live in one of those.”
“Do you even like Dallas?”
“I don’t hate it any more than I do the rest of the world.”
Roz glances at the old TV set mounted above the bar, not far from where she and River sit, and the headline on the screen makes her straighten out of her slouch and pull the cigarette from her lips. “Hey, turn that up,” she says to the bartender.
The bartender raises the volume just enough for Roz and River to hear the broadcast. It’s the ten o’clock local news, covering the whole East Texas region. “The search continues for 15-year-old Jewel Gardner in Athens,” says the bleach blonde reporter. “Local police have not officially labeled the teen’s disappearance a case of foul play but also haven’t ruled it out. Jewel was last seen on Friday, November 9 around 10 o’clock at night. She was wearing blue jeans, a burgundy Athens High hoodie, and black sneakers.”
A photograph of a young black girl with her hair in braids appears on the TV screen next to identifying physical information. She’s 5’6, 140 pounds.
“If you have any information on Jewel Gardner’s whereabouts, please call the anonymous police tip hotline at 903-675-5459,” the reporter says, concluding the segment with a grimace of a smile.
Roz turns to look at River. “Did you know about this?” she says.
“Heard about it, yeah,” he replies. “I sure hope that girl is okay.”
“She’s not.” Roz drains her glass in one quick drink. “I’m going to talk to the cops, find out what they know.”
“What do you mean, why? It’s been a week, and that girl is still missing. After the first forty-eight hours, the chances of a missing person getting found alive nosedives, and more time passing makes it worse. Who knows if the cops around here are even capable of dealing with something like this properly?”
“What if they won’t talk to you?” says River.
A muscle in Roz’s jaw ripples, as she stares into the mirror peeping through the liquor bottles and old photographs on the wall opposite of her. “Then I’ll get answers on my own.”
River lifts his eyebrows but knows better than to argue with his cousin when she’s in this kind of mood. “Guess you need a place to crash for the night.” All of the tension in Roz’s body dissolves, and she looks at him again with a soft expression. “If you don’t mind.”
River half-smiles at her. “I could use the company,” he says.
Athens PD gives Roz their thin file on the Jewel Gardner disappearance without more than a little prodding. She half-lies about working the Texas Killing Fields cases and suspecting a connection.
River waits for her in Roz’s ’67 Mercury Cougar parked outside the station, watching the vehicles pass on the road behind him in his side mirror. He catches a couple of uniformed cops eyeing him suspiciously as they go in and out of the building, but having Roz with him puts his mind mostly at ease. Roz isn’t just a Dallas detective. She’s also a white woman, though she shares a Native American grandmother with River.
After ten minutes, Roz returns and climbs back into the driver’s seat with the manila folder in hand. “They got nothing,” she says. “This girl is fucked if we don’t find her.”
“We?” says River.
“You have something better to do?”
“I’m not a cop.”
“You don’t need to be. We’re not going to do anything a civilian couldn’t do. We’re just going to go talk to her family and friends and see if we can pick up a trail out there at the lake.”
Roz nods. “That’s where she disappeared.”
He tries not to imagine the fifteen-year old’s corpse in that cold water, milky white eyes open.
Roz starts the car, the engine roaring to life, and shifts gears. “If you don’t want to get involved, I can always take you home. But I could use the help,” she says.
They trade looks.
“All right,” says River. “But I’m counting on you to keep me out of trouble.”
“I think the best I can do is keep you out of jail,” Roz replies.
“Good enough for me.”
They drive out to Lake Athens with Roz’s notes from interviewing Jewel’s mother and best friend tucked into the case file, Jewel’s school picture clipped to the front of the folder. They find the spot where Jewel’s friend claimed she was last seen, though it’s only a best guess. Crime scenes always look different in the dark.
Athens PD has already searched the area, a five mile radius according to their report. Roz and River don’t see any glaring sign of Jewel’s abduction or any indication she was ever here. They find public bathrooms along the paved walking trail not far from where Jewel and her friends were hanging out, and Roz checks out the women’s bathroom, while River stands outside and smokes a cigarette.
The bathroom is small and dingy, with only two stalls and a concrete floor. She catches her reflection in one of the dirty mirrors above the sinks: surly, brown eyes and a short, lesbian haircut. She shines her flashlight on the walls and the floor, looking for blood stains and objects either Jewel or the kidnapper might’ve dropped. She doesn’t see anything, but Roz can’t shake her gut feeling that something happened here.
This is where a man ambushed Jewel, far enough away from the other kids that they couldn’t hear her scream. Maybe she fought back, or maybe the man knocked her out before carrying her to his car. He could’ve hidden in one of the darkened corners or in the other stall, waiting for one of the high school girls to walk in alone. Did Jewel see him before he attacked her? Did she try to call for help?
When Roz comes out of the bathroom, River’s staring at a white, teenage girl on a bicycle who watches him with sullen blue eyes. She looks seventeen or eighteen, rode hard and put away wet. She blinks at the two cousins, then turns her bike around and starts pedaling away, slow enough for them to catch up with her.
They follow the girl off the trail and down a skinny dirt path, keeping their distance. She peers over her shoulder at them more than once as she rides ahead, making sure they’re still behind her.
Roz and River stop when they see where she’s leading them, but she keeps going until she slips off her bike and leaves it capsized on the ground.
Dozens of Polaroid photographs flap in the breeze from yards of fishing line that zigzag through the trees. The girl used wooden clothes pins to secure the pictures to the line. The cousins watch her as she makes her way past several rows of images, clearly knowing what she’s looking for.
There’s an old Volkswagen van parked not far from the lines, the vehicle’s paint faded and chipped. It looks like it might not even run anymore, tires sagging a little into the soft soil. No sign of anyone else besides the girl in the camp site.
She brings the cousins a single Polaroid and holds it out to them. Roz takes it, and she and River look at the image: a Texas license plate on an unidentifiable car. The photo was snapped at night.
“Find the man who drives that,” the girl says. “He’s the one you want.”
“Did you see him?” Roz replies. “Did you see him take a black girl?”
The blonde takes a step back. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Roz and River walk to the car with the Polaroid, and Roz runs the plate number, on the phone with Dallas PD. The vehicle belongs to one Adam Burke of Acrid, Texas.
On the road westbound that night, Roz and River ride in silence, trying to keep their cool. They’re both aware they should leave this situation in the hands of the Athens Police Department, aware they have no legal right to do anything to Burke short of Roz’s ability to arrest him—and even that is questionable.
“How are you really?” she says, twenty minutes east of Acrid.
River looks at her, and she glances at him.
“I’m lonely enough, I’m in this car with you right now,” he says. “I don’t mean that I don’t want to help you or be with you. I just mean, I know how south this could go, but I’m here anyway. How are you?”
Roz squeezes the steering wheel and clenches her jaw, eyes fixed on the road. “You know I’ve never been a happy person,” she says.
“Yeah. But that doesn’t answer my question.”
She hesitates, then says, “I was waiting for that piece of shit I assaulted. Waiting for weeks, months. I wanted to get my hands on someone. I’ve been trying to work the Texas Killing Fields cold cases in my spare time—and I’m nowhere. I’m nowhere, and who knows how many of those evil pricks are still out there, still raping and killing women. It’s all I can think about, River. I want to destroy them. And maybe this guy, Burke, is one of them. Maybe he’s been putting women in those fields for years, and Jewel is just his latest victim. Maybe she’s already fucking out there. I don’t know. I just know I want him. I want him all to myself.”
River lets the confession hang in the air between them for a while, processing it. He knows, without fully understanding, that his cousin is in some dark and dangerous head space. But he can’t blame her. The world is full of people who deserve revenge, and he’s one of them. Maybe that’s why he’s following her.
“You’re lonely too,” River says. “Always have been.”
Roz swallows and keeps her eyes on the road. “That’s not why I care about this.”
“Never said it was.”
They’re quiet for a minute, alone on the two-lane highway, headlights the only thing cutting through the dark for miles. Whatever they’re going to now, they’re going together. They have no one else.
River reaches over and lays his hand on Roz’s shoulder, heavy and gentle. She loosens her grip on the steering wheel.
Acrid, Texas rises out of the darkness along State Route 45, just north of Corsicana—the kind of place you visit in nightmares, alien but familiar, like a traumatic memory your mind erased but your body can’t forget. Its neon and fluorescent white lights glower against a starless, black sky, calling travelers to the gas station, motel, liquor store, grocery, and the unnamed bar lying in wait at the northern edge of town. There’s not a warm body or moving vehicle in sight, the silence interrupted only by the bulbs buzzing in the gas station canopy when Roz and River get out of the car.
A bell jingles when they enter the small convenience store, the sound splitting the air like a glass dish shattering in an empty room. They almost expect to find the cash register unmanned, the store deserted, but an older man in a faded striped cowboy shirt is sitting behind the counter, smoking a cigarette and poring over a newspaper. He looks up and watches them approach but doesn’t smile into his gray mustache, wariness plain in his eyes. He’s not wearing a nametag.
He checks his watch, as if he was expecting them and they’re late. “Can I help you?” he says, thick East Texas accent laced with west Arkansas. Roz goes right up to the counter, slaps the Polaroid down and pins it under her forefinger, pushing it across the countertop. “You know where we can find the driver of that vehicle?” she says.
The man looks at the photo, his expression unchanged. “You got a name?”
“Adam Burke,” says River. “The vehicle’s registered to an Acrid address.”
The man draws on his cigarette, then holds it between his fingers, lowering his hand to the counter. He holds up the Polaroid in his other hand and looks at it again, like he has to divine Burke’s location out of the image somehow. He glances from Roz to River and back again. “What’s he done?” the man says. “Won a sweepstakes,” says Roz.
The clerk doesn’t crack his somber expression. He knows exactly where Burke is. She can see it. For a moment, she wonders if he’s going to lie to protect the son of a bitch from a reckoning he can’t predict or imagine.
Instead, he prints out a scrap of blank receipt paper and writes something down on it, then gives it to Roz. She doesn’t even look at the note, maintaining eye contact with the clerk. “You want something for the road, cousin?” she says.
“Not from here,” River replies, standing close at her shoulder.
Outside again in the chilly night, they stop at their respective car doors, and Roz reads the note.
“Directions,” she says. “He gave us directions.”
They look at each other over the roof of the Cougar. One of the canopy bulbs flickers above them.
Adam Burke lives at the end of a long, winding, dirt road east of town, the house hidden behind a cluster of hackberry trees. No neighbors or outposts of civilization in sight. He doesn’t even have a street name or a sign. Roz and River follow the road as far as Roz thinks is safe, headlights switched off, tires rolling slowly over the gravel. They leave the car behind them in the road and walk the rest of the way, shrouded in darkness, watching the shadows move. It’s so quiet, their every footstep sounds like an announcement of their presence, and they can only hope that if Burke’s home, he’s not listening. They don’t need to comment aloud on what they’re both thinking: whatever happens out here, they’re on their own. Miles away from the nearest police station, the nearest hospital, and other human beings. No one can hear Jewel calling for help. No one can interrupt Roz and River punishing Adam Burke. No one can save them if Burke overpowers them.
When Roz and River finally arrive at the house, they find it completely darkened. It looks abandoned, except for the old sedan parked in the driveway. The license plate matches the homeless girl’s Polaroid. The house is a small two-story without a fence or a front yard or a garage. They head for the back, Roz leading River with her personal sidearm drawn and ready. They try to move as quietly as they can, and she keeps her eyes on the house, watching for movement inside.
The backyard doesn’t look much different than the front: overgrown grass peppered with weeds, the hackberry trees wrapping around the western side of the house, and the lot stretching into the obscure distance unbounded. There’s nothing in the yard except an old wooden shed with a metal roof.
River points to the sign of Jewel’s presence, and Roz stares it down like it’s a wild animal ready to eat her alive, one she has no choice but to kill. A thick chain and a padlock on the shed door.
Pushed up against the back of the house is a workman’s table with ominous-looking tools hung up on the wall above it and piled on the shelf below the tabletop. Roz looks for a big set of pliers but doesn’t find any, resisting the urge to kick the table in frustration. She searches the yard with her eyes as if the pliers might appear out of thin air, then forgets them when she notices an ax on the wood pile stacked against the other half of the house wall.
She grabs it and brings it to River, who’s watching her with the kindling of fear in his eyes.
“He better keep it sharp,” she murmurs. “Don’t start swinging until the lights come on.”
She turns around and starts heading for the back door of the house.
“Roz!” River whispers. “What am I supposed to do?”
He looks lost now, and it occurs to her that even though he’s a war veteran, he hasn’t dealt with anything like this before.
“Take her back to the car,” Roz tells him. “Whatever happens, don’t let this motherfucker put his hands on her again. I left the keys on the driver’s seat.”
River looks even more bewildered at the idea of leaving Roz behind in this hell hole, but she means every word she says.
The screen door creaks as loud as a horn when she opens it. The proper door is unlocked, and she slips inside, leading with her gun. Everything outside the present moment and her immediate surroundings evaporates, her hearing suddenly sharper, her eyes quickly adjusting to the dark. She doesn’t even think about River and Jewel now. Her world shrinks to this matchbox of a house and Adam Burke—the thing she’s been hunting her entire career.
She stalks through the kitchen and the living room, ready for him to spring into her path at any moment, the safety switched off on her Colt. The shadows and shards of starlight filtering through the windows rustle around her, like spirits occupying the predator’s lair. Every step she takes is deliberate, careful, quiet.
Burke is not asleep on the living room sofa or in the recliner. He’s not in the small bathroom on the ground floor. She stops at the foot of the staircase and looks up to the landing at the top, knowing he must be up there, maybe dead asleep or maybe waiting for her.
Outside, River looks for the first light in the house windows. He hasn’t heard a sound from inside the shed. He’s so afraid, the back of his neck tingles. His breathing is shallow. Is he about to find Jewel’s dead body in that shed? Is his cousin about to get herself killed?
Roz climbs the stairs, taking her time, hearing and feeling the steps creak and shift beneath her. Her skin prickles, fine hairs ready to rise. She watches the shadows move against the wall of the staircase, eyes fixed on the second floor above her as she fears some sign of Burke waking.
When she reaches the landing, she stops and listens for any noise ahead of her. She can’t see much in this darkness, but she can make out at least three doors: what must be two bedrooms and a bathroom. She picks one of the doors to try, guessing it’s the master suite, and tries her best to slide her feet over the floor without picking them up much.
She closes her hand over the door knob, her gun in her other hand, and slowly twists the knob, pushing the door open just enough to slide her arm into the room and find the light switch on the wall.
River sees a light come on in the upstairs window, and his breath hitches. He turns toward the shed and says, “Jewel? If you’re in there and you can hear me, don’t be afraid. I’m here to help you. I have to break the chain on the door to get you out.” He grips the ax in both hands, palms sweating, and starts swinging. The ax blade colliding with the chain sends a loud, metallic clang and rattle through the night. He looks over his shoulder and up at the lit window, hoping like hell that Roz doesn’t need saving.
The shape of a man waits under the blanket on the bed, not stirring even in the room’s bright light. Roz draws closer, pointing her gun at him, and once she stands at the bedside, she can see him: Adam Burke, lying on his back in a drunken sleep. Empty bottles clutter the night table and the floor around it. She checks her watch: quarter to eleven.
Roz points her gun at Burke’s head. If she kills him in his sleep, she’ll never know whether he’s one of the men who put bodies in the Texas Killing Fields along I-45. If she wakes him up, things could get dangerous. She’s got a pair of handcuffs on her; she could force him downstairs into the kitchen, restrain him, and torture him all night for answers. For pleasure.
“Hey!” she barks, voice raised. “Wake up.”
Roz kicks the bed. “I said wake up! Now!”
His eyes wander behind the lids. She presses the gun right against his neck, and a cold shock runs through her body.
He rolls his head toward her, opens his eyes, and sees her.
He bolts up against the headboard, ignoring the gun, gaze fixed on Roz. “Who the fuck are you?” he says “What are you doing in my house?”
“If you want to live, you better do everything I fucking tell you,” says Roz.
River hits the chain with the ax again, but it still doesn’t show any sign of breaking. He looks up at the house’s lit window but can’t hear anything. Then he realizes he’s trying to break into the shed the hard way. He starts chopping up the door itself, the weathered wood falling apart like tender meat. He keeps going until there’s a gaping hole in the middle of the door, pulling the loose pieces of wood away and tossing them on the ground.
Once enough of the door has been cleared for him to enter the shed, he drops the ax and takes out the mini flashlight he brought with him, shining it into the shed’s pitch black interior before stepping inside.
Adam Burke grabs Roz’s gun with both hands and yanks it away. She fires as he seizes the weapon, the bullet blowing out the window with a loud BANG! SMASH! She refuses to let go of the gun, tumbling into the bed with Burke. They wrestle around like two cats in a fight, the gun goes off again, and he throws her off the bed and onto the floor. She loses the gun, landing on her belly.
“You came to the wrong fucking house, bitch,” Burke says, feet hitting the floor on the other side of the bed.
Roz is about to slide under the bed when she sees something there she never would’ve expected: a long, metal pipe. Maybe a piece of the bed frame Burke never bothered to install.
River finds Jewel Gardner in the shed, curled up in the back corner, staring at him in terrified silence. She’s dirty, dressed only in a bra and jeans,
barefoot with dried tear tracks down her face. She’s hugging her knees to her chest. “Hey,” he says, trying to use a gentle voice, lips flickering with a forced smile. “I’m River. I’m going to get you out of here.”
Roz reaches under the bed, hand closing around the pipe.
Burke comes around to her, pointing the gun at her, his bared teeth glistening.
She scoots under the bed, then back out again from the foot, springing up behind him.
Just as he turns toward her, she strikes his forearms with the pipe, and he drops the gun with a yelp. She swings the pipe at his head, his neck whipping around at the impact.
River carries Jewel out of the backyard and down the dirt driveway, past Burke’s car, jerking on his good leg under Jewel’s weight. The girl keeps her arms looped around his neck. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t cry. She must be in shock. He’s too worried about the gunshots he heard to feel anger or relief for the girl. All he can do is focus on getting to the Cougar where it waits out of sight, a little ways down the road.
Burke lies on the floor, knocked out cold. A huge, red-purple welt starts to swell across the left side of his face and head, blood surfacing through the abraded skin. Roz’s heart races in her chest, adrenaline surging through her body, and she looks at him, feeling the heft of the pipe in her hand. She turns out the light and waits for her vision to adjust to the darkness again, to the starlight coming in through the broken window. She takes a few steps up to Burke’s side, grips the pipe in both hands, raises it above her head, and brings it down on him.
She hits him again and again, until the muscles in her shoulders and back and arms burn, his blood hot and viscous, splattered across her clothes and face and bare neck. She hears his bones break, his skull crack and cave in, his flesh splitting open in dozens of little places. She doesn’t stop until the roaring void inside of her goes quiet, until the hunger disappears.
She lowers the pipe to her side, chest heaving, and for a split second as she looks down at his formless silhouette, she feels the urge to get down on her hands and knees and drink from the puddles of blood that surround him. Put her mouth on the gaping wound where his face used to be and suck.