Playing Dirty - Chapter 1

by admin

When your job requires you to analyze the soil in minute detail, differentiating every subtle shift in color and texture, studying every stone for signs of man-made damage, you tend to stare at the ground a lot, even when you’re not working. While I had been waiting on the cavalry in the form of the Cabell County Sheriff’s Office, I had sorted out three plastic bottle caps, two cigarette butts and a few crunched bits of what looked like a tail light from the gravel berm in front of me. I’m a creature of habit, what can I say.

It was just after 8 in the morning, but the cicadas hidden in the tall grasses behind me were already in full thrum. June in West Virginia means that if it isn’t raining the air is so thick with humidity that you can only pray it will start soon. Crossing one mud covered boot over the other, I settled in against the guard rail hoping the beads of sweat forming on my arms and neck didn’t wash off my bug spray before it even had time to soak in. While I was checking Facebook for the third time from my phone, I heard a car coming and stepped away from the rail. I was ready to flag down the cops, but it was a false alarm, just an old man in a pick-up truck. The entrance to the Greenbottom Wildlife Management Area is almost completely obscured by the tall weeds growing between the road and the railroad track, and the thick fog that rolls off the river almost every morning doesn’t help. The parking lot can’t be seen at all from the main road, and even I, who have driven out here every day this summer, have to look for the rock slide on the other side of the road so I’ll know I’m close to the turn off.

I’m a contract archaeologist by trade; my firm has been hired by the state to survey their half of the property before it can be flooded and turned into wetlands. This was scheduled to be our last week of surveying and I had really been looking forward to typing up my final report and escaping the local mosquito population. Now, thanks to the events of the morning, it seemed a distinct possibility that my report was going to be delayed.

Two more cars passed, both speeding by on one of the few flat, somewhat straight roads in the area. Route 2 runs along the Ohio River between Huntington and Point Pleasant. If you’re thinking those towns sound familiar, think ‘We Are Marshall’ with Matthew McConaughey and ‘The Mothman Prophecies’ with Richard Gere. Those towns. They both sit on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River, and it’s a 20 minute trip along Route 2 to get from one to the other. Greenbottom is in the middle, but don’t expect a ‘Welcome’ sign. You won’t find anything but the park ranger and the old Jenkins Plantation Museum out here; the nearest ‘town’, and I use that term loosely, is a mile or two north. I guess you could call Glenwood a town, there is a post office. That the post office is located inside the local gas station shouldn’t count against it, should it?

I finally heard the wail of sirens, the harsh sound echoing off the hills and across the river valley. Sirens? I thought, really? After the first two sheriff’s cars came into view, I stood, gaping in amazement as the line kept coming. A black van appeared, followed by a state trooper, an unmarked sedan, an ambulance and bringing up the rear, not one, but two fire trucks. What the hell? I could almost guarantee there was no fire hydrant within a mile in either direction, and I was 99.999% sure that there wasn’t anything on fire at the site. I thought I had been pretty clear in my 911 call, but apparently it was a slow day.

The first car slowed for the turn and came to a stop next to me. As the power window came down an elbow immediately poked out, followed by a blonde head, “Grace Jackson? Are you the one in charge here?” He had to yell to be heard over the sirens of the other vehicles; they were now all lined up behind him, waiting to turn.

Oh yes, that was me, in charge of this nightmare. “Yes sir, I am.” I yelled back.

“Get in.” he said, jerking his thumb towards the passenger seat. I paused briefly, glancing at my mud covered boots. I should have been cleaning them off instead of wasting time on Facebook, but if he was going out there, he was going to get muddy too. Shrugging, I got in the car; it was his upholstery, not mine.

“Where to?” he grunted, putting the car into drive again and moving slowly over the badly maintained railroad crossing. Oh, we were going to test his shocks out today.

“Keep going straight, through the gate and you’ll see where our vehicles have been turning left into the field. The grass is flattened there.” The dirt road led to the river, but the field we’d been working was on the left, away from both the river and the swampy wetlands to the right. He had already spotted the flattened area and was turning before I could point it out to him. The shocks bumped and squeaked as we bounced across the field, the loud swish-swish of grass on the underside of the car almost drowning them out. Thankfully the other vehicles had started turning off their sirens, the ear shattering sounds falling silent one by one. He didn’t say another word as we drove, and I remained mute, not wanting to draw any undue attention to myself and the chunks of mud that were now laying on his floor mat. I chanced a brief glance at him. He was staring straight ahead, a slight frown marring his sharp but handsome features. You’re in a cop car, Grace, not a single’s bar, I thought, testily. Luckily, he didn’t seem to have noticed my perusal, and a minute later we came into the clearing. He pulled in behind one of our two vans and we got out just as the car behind us was pulling in.

I made the universal hand motion for ‘follow me’ and waited for him to walk around the car then led him to the edge of the pit where the rest of my crew stood. “Down here,” I said, pointing into the half meter deep hole. “We found him this morning when we took the tarp off.” Doors slammed and engines shut off as the other vehicles pulled up, their occupants joining my crew at the edge. For one brief moment the silence was interrupted only by the caw of a blackbird and the tic-tic-tic of a cooling engine as we all stared down at the dead man’s body, face-down in my perfect 2 meter pit.

There was a brief discussion amongst the officers in the other cars and my deputy, and shortly afterwards my crew and I were herded towards our vehicles for our statements. Over the course of the next hour we were fingerprinted and interviewed by an Officer Gardner and had a fabulous photo shoot of our muddy boot soles with Deputy Shumaker while the medical examiner took a couple hundred photos of the body and the area around it. “What idiot dumps a body on our site when there’s a friggin’ swamp 500 yards away?” This from my Assistant Field Director and best friend, Missy Abrams, as she settled down at the portable picnic table we used on site for our meals and occasionally as a desk.

“They just really wanted to screw up our timeline?” I responded, sighing as I ripped a few paper towels off the roll we’d found in the van, wiping the fingerprinting ink off my hands. I tore a few more off to wipe the sweat off the back of my neck before handing the roll to Missy. The fog had burned off and the sun was in full force by now, the humidity increasing by the minute. Mark Richards, another member of our small crew reached around me for the roll, ripping off a few sheets for himself.

“It’s not like there isn’t a lovely river right behind us either.” he said, straddling the bench next to me. “Whoever stashed the body here must have really sucked at hide-and-go-seek.” He scoured his calloused hands with the towels, making a face as the ink refused to come off his fingers.

Troy Morgan, our photo guy and the best artist I’d ever worked with, came sauntering over to join our little ‘persons of interest’ party. “Have a seat Troy,” I said, “we may be here a while.”

Shaking out his long greying hair, he pulled it back into its customary pony tail, and then settled his straw cowboy hat back on his head. I had always been jealous of his long super-straight hair. It never frizzed. Ever. Instead of taking a seat, he walked towards the back of the van where we kept the coolers. “I need some water. Anyone know if we have any Doritos left?”

“Unless Missy ate them all, I think there’s still a bag in the back.” Mark quipped, ducking as Missy threw her wad of paper towels at him.

“You know it’s a weakness, don’t judge!” she laughed, reaching for my used towels for more ammunition. With her big grin, bibbed overalls, wide brimmed straw hat and the red hair which she kept in two braided pigtails, she looked like she was straight off the set of ‘Oklahoma’. I couldn’t help but smile at their antics.

“Grab our lunches out of there Troy,” I yelled over to him “Lord only knows when we’re going to be allowed to leave.”

I was happily munching on my peanut butter and honey sandwich when movement to my right made me turn; Mr. Tall, Blonde, and Silent was making his way back over to us, but stopped when he saw me watching him. He crooked his finger at me and then turned back towards the pit without waiting to see if I would follow. “Apparently I’ve been summoned.” I told the group, rolling my eyes and taking one of the bottles of water Troy had brought back to the table. I took a long drink, tucking the cap into one of the pockets of my cargo pants as I made my way back towards the crowd at the pit.

“Ms. Jackson, we’re going to need to know if you or anyone in your group can identify the victim. The M.E. has turned the body over, we’re almost done here.” I took another drink of the ice cold water, turning from my examination of his unsmiling face to look at the body. I inhaled, momentarily forgetting that I had a mouthful of water, and almost choked to death right there on the spot. He used the palm of his hand to thump me on the back a few times, “Ms. Jackson, are you alright? Do you recognize this man?” He sounded genuinely concerned as I struggled for breath, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the man lying on the ground in front of me, mud drying on his face and clothes, a bullet wound in his chest. Did I recognize him? Hell yes I recognized him, I’d wasted three years of my life married to the bastard.