When Billy Hudson came screeching into the sheriff’s department on the night of August eighth, his cherry red Firebird came within a hairsbreadth of sideswiping the prized Cadillac belonging to Sheriff Andrew Lutz.
When he heard the squealing of tires, Sheriff Lutz looked up from the outdated magazine he had been absentmindedly thumbing through. He saw the fender of Billy’s Pontiac come swinging towards the driver’s side door of his Caddy, and was out of his desk and halfway through the station in one swift, fluid motion.
What the blazing hell was Billy thinking, Lutz thought with a look at his scuffed metal watch. It was barely minutes into Saturday morning, and Lutz’s first inclination was that the young man had been drinking. What kind of drunk driver willingly drives himself into police custody?
Before the wheels of the the Firebird had come to a full stop, the driver’s side door swung open and Billy Hudson tumbled out, falling to his knees before stumbling back to his feet.
“They’re dead!” Billy shouted breathlessly as he struggled for balance. “The McGuire’s, I think they’re all dead!”
Lutz’s mouth was already open to chastise Billy for nearly smashing in the door of his Cadillac, but at Billy’s words his jaws snapped shut with an audible click. Lutz took note of the scene before him.
He had been sheriff of Richmond County for more than ten years, having won reelection twice after Sheriff Bradley retired back in ’75. In a county with forty thousand inhabitants spread over four hundred square miles, he spent most of his time on the highways, and so was well acquainted with Billy Hudson and his group of gearheads. Billy was a polite kid, always respectful, but that wasn’t always the case with the young people of the town.
The local teenage boys were entirely obsessed with their cars, and could often be found on one lonely country road or another late at night, drinking and drag racing and having a generally wild time. They weren’t bad kids necessarily, there just wasn’t much else to do in an area that was almost entirely given over to corn and soybean fields. At least once a month, Lutz or one of his deputies would have to go out and disperse the group once they got too rowdy and began blasting the speakers on their stereos loud enough to wake the long-suffering farmers in the area.
With a sinking heart, Lutz thought he knew what might have happened. “Which one of you hit them? Where is the accident?” he reached for the walkie-talkie at his hip, but Billy shook his head vehemently, “No one hit them sheriff. We weren’t racing tonight. Stu Lennox is in deep shit with his Daddy for wrecking his brand new Ford and --”
“Get to the point, Billy!” Lutz growed.
“Sorry, sir,” Billy’s began talking so quickly his words tripped over one another as they raced to get out, and he had to take a deep breath before continuing. “No one was racing tonight, Sheriff. I was out with Molly Greene, she lives over in Oakville. We went to the drive-in, and I took her home. On the way back I wanted to -- I decided to take old Highway 99. I like how peaceful it is out there at night.”
Wanted to disturb the peace by revving up the Pontiac away from the troopers on the state highway is more like it. Sheriff Lutz thought but didn’t voice aloud.
“Anyway, I was over by the McGuire place, you know that big patch of woods out by that farm? I was driving out there and I-- I thought I saw something cross the road. Like a dark shadow, bigger than a bear. Scared the shit out of me. I nearly lost control of the car.”
“There aren’t any bears around here son.” the sheriff replied skeptically, “Sure it wasn’t a deer?”
“It wasn’t no damn deer, sir. It moved like a cat, but it was hunched and sloping like a bear. I only saw it for a second, but it definitely wasn’t any deer I ever seen. It was taller than the roof of my car!”
What nonsense was this? Lutz ran a hand through his dark, thinning hair and looked down. It was then that he noticed the blood spattering Billy’s dusty workboots and the hems of his jeans.
Backing slowly away from the young man, Lutz edged his right hand ever so closer to the revolver holstered at his hip. He began eyeing the red Pontiac for dents and scratches, assuming this story of an animal was nothing more than misdirection. Finding none, he turned carefully back to the young man, maintaining a distance of ten feet.
“Okay, Billy. You’ve got about twelve seconds to start making sense before we start to have a problem. Why are you saying that the McGuire’s are dead? Whose blood is on your shoes, son?”
“I was trying to tell you, Sheriff. I was driving out on old Highway 99, and I saw this big hulking shape cross the road. I don’t know what it was sir, honest. But it spooked me bad enough that I damn near skidded out. When I finally got the car stopped on the shoulder, I looked around, but whatever it was had disappeared into that patch of forest next to the McGuire plot.
“I figured the same as you, sir, “ Billy continued, “Thought I was just seeing things late at night. But then in my headlights, I could see some kinda liquid on the road. Like oil...except when I looked again it wasn’t oil. It was blood.”
“Is it possible this animal or whatever you saw could have been wounded?” the sheriff asked.
“That’s the first thing I thought too, sheriff, and I hopped out of the car and grabbed my Winchester rifle out of the trunk. Figured I could at least put the poor creature out of its misery. But when I got closer to the blood on the road -- when I got closer, I--” Billy started stuttering, and it was as if all the strength in his legs gave out. He sank almost gracefully to his knees, his oil-stained blue jeans sinking into the soft grass of the station’s lawn.
“Out with it, son. What did you see?” Lutz asked. He was trying to be patient but it was also imperative that they get to the scene of any crime as fast as possible.
Billy took a deep, shaking breath. “An arm, sir. On the side of the road, just beyond my headlight, was a lady’s arm. Ripped off at the elbow. It was still wearing – still wearing a wedding band.” At this Billy started shaking so badly the sheriff thought he might be on the verge of having a seizure.
He looked around for a moment, baffled at the turn of events his previously peaceful evening had taken. Then he squatted down on his haunches next to the trembling young man. Out of habit, Lutz sniffed the air around Billy Hudson’s head, almost hoping for the tell-tale whiff of whiskey or gin. But there was nothing.
Lutz turned and walked back into the sheriff’s department. “Clarkson!” he bellowed for his senior deputy. A moment later, Henry Clarkson’s head popped out of his small office, “Sheriff?”
Thank goodness it was Clarkson on duty tonight. Clarkson was a calm and capable officer, excellent in tense situations. The only African-American on the force, Henry Clarkson had a booming voice and a deep barrel chest that could be used to great effect on unruly suspects, but he also possessed a logical mind that ticked through every possible scenario before taking any action. Thank God it isn’t Miller, Lutz thought again, this time in relief that it wasn’t his younger, jumpier deputy sharing the station tonight.
“Is the cruiser gassed up? Good. Grab the rifle and the shotgun and get some flashlights as well. We’re going out to Highway 99; something may have happened over at Bud McGuire’s place.”
An additional benefit, Clarkson followed orders without peppering him with dozens of questions. The deputy nodded shortly, and turned to do as asked. In the meantime, Lutz went back outside and squatted down next to Billy Hudson, who was still kneeling on the lawn, his head in his hands. Lutz’ mouth had a sour taste and he longed for a cigarette.
“It’s okay, Billy. You did good, son. It’s okay. Just breathe,” Andrew Lutz murmured this litany over and over, remembering as he did the way his own father used a similar technique to calm skittish horses. Sure enough, after a minute or two Billy Hudson’s breathing began to slow, and the rigid tension along his spine relaxed. Billy took one or two more slow, rattling breaths and looked up at the sheriff.
“After I found the arm, I went into the house,” he said with grim resolve. “I – I can’t explain it, sir. But something -- horrible happened in there. I’d like to go home now please, if that’s okay.”
Sheriff Lutz wanted to tell Billy Hudson that he could go home, have a hot shower and a stiff drink, it was not meant to be. “Sorry, Billy. We need you to show us exactly where all of this happened. There aren’t any lights out there, we’ll drive right past it in the dark.”
A flicker passed over Billy’s face, like he was choking back tears, but his jaw tightened and he just gave a short, hopeless nod.
Lutz called his junior deputy at home, rousing him out of a deep sleep with orders to haul his ass over and man the station while the two senior men went to check on the McGuire’s.
Then the three of them piled into the sheriff’s cruiser and headed north to Highway 99.