Farraday Road may have been my first novel, but it was actually outlined before any of my nonfiction projects. I was a student at Baylor University more than thirty years ago when I came up this story. I developed it at that time, but didn’t have three important elements I needed to complete it — experience, discipline and drive. Still I held onto the concept and finally in 2007 had the tools needed to finish when I started so long ago. The book is now a new release and has earned super reviews and great sales.
I have included the first chapter for you to preview.
Book 1 in the Lige Evans Mystery Series
A moderate shower gently peppered Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputy Mikki Stuart’s windshield. As she drove along the narrow blacktop of an anonymous rural highway, the slackening rain allowed her to relax. For hours the water had been beating against her car so hard the wipers couldn’t keep up. Now she finally didn’t have to squint to see. It was the first time since noon Stuart did not feel as though she was fighting a lopsided losing battle against an unruly Mother Nature.
With more than eight inches of heavy rain pouring out of the skies over the hills and into the streams, it had been a day and evening filled with drama and tension. For the last ten hours Stuart had rescued two teenagers swept into Little Creek trying to cross a low spot on Highway 289, checked out three other cars that had hydroplaned on wet pavement and spun into ditches, manned a flat bottom boat ferrying four families out of treacherous flood waters along Spring River, and inspected most every local bridge that was susceptible to being overcome by high water. Those inspections had led her to close six of the twelve. It was eleven o’clock at night, and she was on her way to one last bridge inspection, on Burns Creek just outside of Union. It was a Depression era, narrow iron structure, better suited for Model A Fords than four-wheel drive trucks, and the final one on her list. Though it was a relic from another age and carried a certain amount of danger for those crossing in foul weather, Stuart had put off inspecting Old Iron simply because the rural road it served only led to Farraday Cemetery. No burials had been scheduled there today, so she was certain no one would be using this unpaved county road, unless the dead themselves had been washed out of their graves and were looking for higher ground.
She figured that calamity highly unlikely, so she saved Old Iron for her finale.
The turn to Farraday Cemetery was hard to spot in the daytime; at night it was almost impossible to find. As she slowed to search for the weathered sign marking Farraday Road, the deputy thought back to another time when the old bridge was easy to find; an era when it welcomed thousands of cars and trucks everyday. Back then, spanning the lazy South Fork River, the bridge had been the most important highway crossing in the area. As a child Stuart had traveled over Old Iron countless times and each trip across the bridge seemed like an almost magical adventure. The bridge had a voice, one that groaned and creaked as its metal adjusted to each vehicle’s weight. There was a smell that went with it too, one of river water, fish, damp grass and dogwood trees.
And then there was the view. Because there were no real walls along its sides, anyone who cared to look out their car windows could see all the way up and down the river. They could spot Miller’s Ford and Engine Bend, where, in 1911, an Illinois Central train had jumped the tracks and plunged engine first into the clear waters below the Nobb. Old timers still spoke of that wreck as if it happened last week, and during low water part of the rusty, old locomotive could still be seen resting on the river’s sandy bed.
Now as she made her way back to Old Iron, all of the images of her youth and this bridge came to life. She remembered how the pavement that covered its roadway often cracked after ice storms. She recalled watching canoes float under it and fish hop in the river below. She remembered the feel of the water the time she had leapt off the old structure. She was seventeen then, and Elijah Evans, a boy in the senior class, had dared her to jump. Stuart had kicked off her shoes and dove from a center railing. Lije followed right behind her. That seemingly sophomoric escapade started a tradition. Soon jumping from Old Iron was a right of passage for high school seniors.
As traffic increased on Route 9, the one lane structure became a hazard, a spawning point for numerous collisions, as well as the bottleneck for countless slowdowns. Truckers and local businessmen complained; meetings were held. Heated debates followed. Still, everyone knew what the outcome would be; progress was going to win. Many of the area’s most influential citizens fought to keep it, embracing the bridge as an important, historical landmark. Petitions were signed, campaigns were launched and even the governor came to visit and talk about saving the old structure. But fifteen years ago the state overruled the passionate citizens and logic trumped emotion. The bridge was replaced with a state of the art concrete crossing.
Old Iron was removed, but a host of local citizens would not allow the vintage monument to be discarded into the scrap heap. The patchwork quilt of memories spawned by the old bridge was simply too strong and precious. Thus money was raised through raffles, donkey basketball games and bake sales, and the landmark was saved and moved fifteen miles from Salem to Farraday Road, where it replaced a low water bridge on Burns Creek. Even though there was rarely a reason to go down that old road, many old timers occasionally took Sunday drives over the sixty foot span to reconnect with their past and a new generation embraced the rarely used structure as a favorite parking spot on dates—it was a great place to watch the submarine races, they said.
As Stuart headed toward the structure she had no concern about the possibility of the bridge collapsing. Over the past seven decades, every engineer who had examined Old Iron had declared that no flood could ever take it down. She knew it to be as solid as St. Peter himself. Old Iron was the unmoving rock on which they could all depend. Stuart was confident that long after every other bridge in the area had been torn down and replaced, Old Iron would be welcoming new generations of Arkansans. Still, the rain that had blanketed the hills on this late October day surely would have filled the stream to overflowing. That meant the usually placid and clear Burns Creek would have been transformed into an angry torrent of dirty water flowing above its banks and covering the bridge’s roadbed. If this was the case, Old Iron would have to be closed until the floodwaters receded. Except for those resting in the graveyard, no one would probably notice the roadblock on this ungodly night.
It was just past eleven when the deputy found the faded Farraday Road sign, turned her Crown Victoria squad car off Highway 9 and directed it down the narrow, muddy road leading to Old Iron. The rain had now eased to the point where she could switch the wipers to slow, but the night was still so void of light it was difficult to see anything not directly illuminated by the car’s headlamps or an occasional burst of lightning. Slipping along at thirty miles an hour, her tires tossing muck up to the top of the Ford’s fenders, Stuart strained to find the ruts she needed to hold her traction. It was a task that took her complete concentration. About a half of a mile from the main highway, just as she cautiously directed the car around a slight curve, something caught her attention. She lifted up on the gas pedal, avoiding her brakes for fear of sliding, and rolled to a stop in the middle of the road. Stuart lowered the front passenger window and stared out into the blackness.
At first she thought her eyes, the night, the long hours she had worked had played a trick on her. She saw nothing but what should have been there, hundreds of rain soaked trees. But as she turned on her spotlight and pointed it into that same area, something out of place sprung out of the blackness to meet her. Almost hidden by a large mulberry bush was a late model Ford Explorer. At first glance nothing seemed too unusual about the vehicle; it appeared that someone had taken the bend too quickly, lost traction on the slick surface, slid off the road and gotten stuck axle deep in the red clay. If this were the case it would be no different than the accidents she had dealt with earlier in the day. But this time something didn’t feel right. Seeing no signs of life in or around the vehicle, Stuart reached to her right, flipped on her emergency lights and pulled her radio microphone from its resting place on the dash.
“James, you out there?”
Fulton County was small and the department was more like family than coworkers, so Stuart rarely used formal radio protocol. Sheriff Wood hated it, and continually warned her about following proper communication procedures, but Stuart, usually by-the-book, didn’t change. She might employ the “legal” language when speaking to state troopers, but with the locals she saw no reason to use anything but her native tongue, accent and all.
Stuart yanked her flashlight out from under the seat and slipped into her raincoat. A familiar voice greeted her through the radio’s speaker.
“Yeah Mikki,” James Simpson finally shot back, “just pulled into the courthouse. What do you need?”
“Got an SUV in the ditch not far from the Old Iron, on the 9 side. Looks like the Evans’s.”
“Be no reason for him to be out that way. Hasn’t been a burial out there in weeks, so that car could have been there for quite some time. Probably a hunter got drunk and lost control. Anyone in the car?”
“Not that I can see,” Stuart returned, “but I’m getting out to check. Stay close, I’ll let you know what I find.”
“Okay,” came the disinterested response.
Stuart stepped out into the light rain. As she sloshed through the muddy puddles, she became the consummate cop, carefully shining her flashlight’s beam all around the SUV, checking out every element of the location for potential signs of danger. She saw nothing even remotely threatening, but she still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.
Stepping across the stream of dirty water that filled the ditch, she directed her beam into the Explorer’s interior. She noted a woman’s purse, a black leather briefcase and a half empty Coke bottle. Checking the handle, she discovered the car was unlocked. After carefully opening the passenger door, she again noted nothing unusual out of place. Closing the door, she moved forward and touched the hood. It was still warm.
Just another wreck, she tried to convince herself, as she continued her inspection. Satisfied no one was in the SUV, she quickly studied the area around the vehicle, spotting several footprints—they had to be fresh, otherwise the rain would have erased them—leading up the sloping grade to the Explorer’s right. If this was an accident, why would they try to go up the hill? Standing beside the Explorer, Stuart studied the prints more closely. Maybe they needed to get on top of the rise to get cell phone service?
Her years of hunting had taught her a great deal about tracking. There appeared to be at least four sets of distinct footprints on the hill. Moving her light back to the car, she studied both sides of the SUV. Only two people had exited the vehicle. After flashing her light around the immediate area, she discovered the other prints originated across the ditch about ten feet in front of the vehicle. The stride length indicated all of these folks had been in a hurry. That washed the cell phone reception theory down the tubes. Stuart sensed that whatever it was she was investigating, it was anything but a minor accident.
Standing rigidly beside the Explorer, she followed the jumbled tracks with her eyes as she moved her flashlight to her right. It was obvious the trek up the hill had not been an easy one. There were numerous signs of slipping and falling, and Stuart noted a woman’s high heel stuck in the mud. Why would someone leave a shoe? Twenty yards up the rise her light caught something else obviously out of place. From where she stood, it looked like a piece of clothing. The signs of a panicked flight became even more obvious. When this crew blazed a trail up the hill, they left scores of broken branches and numerous ankle deep holes in the wet soil, as if the ghosts of the cemetery were on their tails.
Twenty feet from where she had spotted the clothing, her light illuminated a haunting sight. Resting awkwardly on the muddy slope was a body, motionless, half-hidden by a sycamore tree.
For the past few minutes Stuart had been operating on hunches. Now it was time to examine the evidence, fully assess what she was dealing with and determine how she could safely investigate what she knew was no longer a simple mishap. This transition was not an easy one to make. Now every sound seemed to signal a kind of danger the rural deputy sheriff had never had to consider. Suddenly she felt extremely vulnerable and this tightening element of fear forced her senses to become sharper. She could now hear Burns Creek, its channel full, rushing along the base of the valley. She heard the brush of her wipers against her car’s windshield. She noticed a smell that hovered in the air like smoke. Why had she not noted it before? For the first time her nostrils filled with more than just the wet woods, and she caught a hint of gunpowder. A second later Stuart tasted it in the air, and its taste turned her stomach into a hot pit of fire.
Sliding the flashlight over to her left hand, Stuart reached down and undid the snap on her holster. She pulled her pistol from its resting place and took a deep breath. Her heart was racing too fast, beating too hard, her lungs were burning and her eyes were seeing images, ghosts maybe, that were there one moment, then gone the next.
She thought of her two children, both teenagers. Scott was a junior and looking forward to basketball season. Jennifer was fourteen and just beginning to flirt with boys. They were great kids, independent, self-sufficient, and they could pretty much take care of themselves. But she wanted to experience the proms, homecomings and graduations. She didn’t want to die on a lonely Ozark hill.
But what if that were my kid? What if that were me?
She knew what she should do, but knowing and doing were much different in nature and practice. Beyond the dead in Farraday Cemetery, there was no one to witness if she chose self-preservation over duty. What difference did it make? The person was surely dead. Yet another force, one that she couldn’t shove out of her mind, kept her feet glued to the ground.
Dear God, please help me. I can’t do this.
With her succinct prayer came a memory. Something about “the least of these.” A Sunday school teacher had taught her that it was a part of living out faith to reach out to those in need. In fact, that was why she had become a cop. Stuart sensed an unseen protection wrap around her and knew it was time to place others first, to put that old Sunday school lesson into practice. Maybe this is why she was here on Farraday Road on this October night. Maybe this calamity needed her training and her faith, and without them both, perhaps she could not have been ready for this moment. So now, even though she still wanted to run, she held her ground as her eyes drew a sharp, steady bead on the unmoving form halfway up the hill.
Though most of the torso was bathed in shadow and darkness, what Stuart could see confirmed the person lying face down in the mud was a woman. She was not moving. Stuart straightened from her crouching position and hurried back to her radio.
“We’ve got a possible homicide,” she said. “Get me an EMT team.”
“Got one that just left an accident a couple of miles away. They’re just beyond Union. I’ll have them there in a matter of minutes.”
“And get out here with backup. Something’s very wrong on this hill.”
“What do you mean, backup?” James said. “What do you mean, very wrong?”
“Everything you’ve got and get it here as fast as you can. I think we have a crime scene with casualties.”
Not waiting for a reply, Stuart tossed the mike into the seat, leaped the water filled ditch and sloshed up the muddy hill, her steps splashing red Arkansas clay all over her uniform pants and slicker. She was on a mission; she hurried past the woman’s shoe, and a man’s overcoat, continuing to slog up the slope until arriving at the body. Falling to her knees in the mud, she grabbed the woman’s wrist, noted the body was still warm and felt for a pulse. There was none. Grabbing the victim’s left arm, Stuart eased the woman over onto her back.
Though the woman’s face was caked in mud, Stuart saw a massive, gaping head wound. She felt bile rumble in her gut, but forced herself to look even more closely at the fatal injury. The woman had been shot at close range, probably from the back as she tried to flee her killer. As so much of her forehead had been blasted away, the shot would have caused instantaneous death.
Reaching under her raincoat, she brought a dry handkerchief from her pants’ pocket and wiped away the blood and mud from around the woman’s nose and eyes. The face that emerged from this quick clean up confirmed what she had guessed just seconds before. She knew her. The victim was her friend.
A close friend.
“Oh Lord, it’s Kaitlyn Evans.” she whispered. “Kaitlyn, what happened to you?”
The roar of a truck’s engine suddenly drew Stuart’s attention away from her dead friend. Automatically she reached for her service revolver, but before she had a chance to move, emergency lights flashed through the trees; the fire department’s EMT team had arrived. She pulled back from her high alert mode and watched the truck park behind her car. The vehicle had barely come to a complete stop before two paramedics jumped from the cab, spotted Stuart’s flashlight beam and rushed up the hill towards her.
“What happened?” Thomas Griffin said as he stooped to examine the body.
In the silence Stuart heard the rain falling on the leaves of the sycamore tree, the rumble of Burns Creek and the idling ambulance. It had been generations since the local courts had even prosecuted a case of manslaughter. In this area, doors were rarely locked and violence was mostly limited to the local football field. She couldn’t fathom it. Kaitlyn had been brutally assaulted. Why? She was the kindest person Stuart had ever known—that the town had ever known. Stuff like this didn’t happen here.
It was Griffin’s stunned partner, twenty-five year old Tammy Nagal, who finally found her senses and her voice. In a whisper she said, “Anyone else?”
Stuart woke like a bolt of lightning. Why hadn’t she thought of that? Yes, there had to be someone else. She shone her light up the hill. A quick visual inventory of the landscape showed no signs of a struggle beyond where Kaitlyn had fallen and died. Still she knew at least three more people had been here, she had seen their footprints in the mud, so where were they now?
Stuart quickly replayed everything she had done and observed since arriving at the scene. She had noticed no one along the road or on the slope, yet she had smelled gunpowder on the hill and she had found both the SUV’s hood and Kaitlyn’s body warm, so these events were recent, maybe just minutes old. Shining her light to a point below Kaitlyn’s form, she noted two sets of prints that appeared to be leaving the body in the direction of the road.
“There should be another set of tracks,” Stuart said.
“There are four sets of footprints in the mud going up the hill,” she explained, shining the light on the muddy trail leading to Kaitlyn Evans’ form. “There is only one body, but if you will look at the tracks going back down the hill you will see that only two people left this spot. What happened to the other person? There has to be a third person.”
Stuart glanced back toward Nagal. Driven by a hunch, she worked her way back down the hill towards her car. Standing in the middle of the road, the night bathed in the glow of the two vehicle’s emergency lights, she bounced her flashlight’s beam back and forth along the ditch. A dozen feet from where she had stopped to first view the wrecked Explorer, Stuart spotted something almost hidden beside an old tree stump.
“Over here,” she cried out as she hurried to the spot. As she pushed through the heavy brush to the spot, she fell to her knees, landing in a half a foot of muddy water. She shone her light into the face of a man whom she had known since grade school.
“It’s Lije Evans!” she yelled to the medical team as they rushed toward her.
Griffin got there first. He stooped over and hurriedly checked for a pulse. There was none. A few seconds later, Nagal arrived on the scene. The team then automatically went through the steps of searching for other signs of life.
“He’s still warm,” the female EMT said.
“He’s not been here very long,” Griffin said. “Do you think we arrived soon enough to use the AED?”
“Only one way to find out,” Nagal said, “Let’s get him out of this water and into the wagon.”
While the two women wrestled Evans from his muddy resting place, Griffin hurried back to the ambulance to retrieve a body board. When Griffin returned, the three rolled Evans on the board and hustled him back to the truck. After getting the man out of the weather and onto a gurney, Griffin ripped open Evans’s shirt.
“He’s been shot in the gut,” Nagal noted. Griffin and Stuart nodded, but said nothing. After securing the paddles and making sure the AED was ready, Nagal called out, “Clear!” Evans’ body reacted to the sudden jolt of electricity, but then sank back to the gurney in a motionless heap.
“Nothing,” Griffin searched for a pulse.
“Do it again,” Nagal said.
For a second time Evans’ chest heaved upward as the powerful blast raced through his body, then fell back.
“It’s been too long, it’s no use.”
Nodding, Nagal leaned back, the paddles still in her gloved hands. “You’re right.”
“Maybe the injury was simply too destructive,” Griffin offered as he more closely examined the exit wound in the man’s stomach.
“I think it’s timing,” Nagal replied. “It doesn’t look that bad to me.”
“So do it again,” Stuart said.
“It’s no use,” Griffin tried to explain. “It would take a miracle now and I’m no miracle worker.”
“This man’s my friend,” Stuart said. “I’ve known him all my life. I will not let him go without a fight. You do your job and keep trying while I pray for a miracle.”
Griffin, exhausted, shrugged his shoulders, moved away from Evans’ body, and Nagal again applied the paddles to the man’s chest.
“Clear!” She called out, this time there were no signs of urgency in her delivery or tone.
Maybe the old wife’s tale is true; maybe the third time is a charm. Maybe Nagal could work miracles or perhaps Stuart’s prayers had gotten through, because as the electrical charge lifted Lije Evans’s chest from the gurney, his mouth opened, his lungs expanded and he gasped for air. Suddenly there was a heartbeat. Suddenly there was life.
“He’s alive!” Nagal shouted, her voice echoing out of the truck and all up and down the hills that lined Farraday Road.
“He’s alive,” Stuart said, before adding a whispered, “Thank God.”
Reaching for his kit Griffin replied, “Okay, let’s keep him going. Tammy, we’re going to have bleeding, we need to deal with that and we have to get him stabilized. Let’s get an IV started.” Continuing to spit out orders, he looked over at the deputy, “Mikki, alert the hospital to have a trauma team set up and waiting for us. We might be able to save him after all.”
Leaping from the ambulance, Stuart hurried to her car and made the call. A minute later, as the EMTs turned their vehicle around and hurriedly headed into the rainy darkness toward Salem, the deputy again shone her light up the hill. What in the world happened here? Her beam once more fell onto Kaitlyn’s lifeless body. Who on God’s green earth would want to kill Kaitlyn and Lije Evans? How did Lije get to the bottom of the hill?
For the first time in more than an hour, lightning was flashing, one blast after another, followed by rolling thunder that exploded with such fury that it shook the ground. As the storm broke loose, Mikki Stuart, muddy, confused and wet, turned her gaze away from the body and peered down the road in the direction of Burns Creek. On an impulse she jogged the fifty yards to the bridge. The closer she got to the stream, the harder the rain fell; soon it was crashing to the earth in buckets, huge wet drops hitting the ground so hard that the impact was flinging mud three and four inches into the air. In her thirty-six years of life Stuart had never experienced such a downpour—it was as if all the energy in the universe had been unleashed at once right over Burns Creek. Still, for reasons she could not comprehend, she ducked her head and kept running. Something drove her to see Old Iron.
Her jogging slowed as the rain found its way under her slicker and soaked her uniform. Finally too tired to continue, Stuart stopped and aimed her beam toward the crossing. Her jaw grew slack and her legs turned to jelly when the structure’s steel girders did not bounce her flashlight’s beam back her way. Chilled to the bone, Stuart pressed closer to the creek. When she was less than twenty feet from the stream she once more shone her light upon on the crossing. A single glance confirmed the bridge from which she and Lije Evans had once jumped was not there. Not yet fully believing what her eyes saw, Stuart moved closer to the roaring stream. It was only when the rising waters were licking her shoes and a white hot bolt of lightning had fully illuminated the night skies that she fully accepted the reality that lay in front of her. The waters had torn Old Iron from its anchors. It was nowhere to be seen.
On one unforgiving October night, as the cold rain pounded and a once calm creek roared, Mikki Stuart realized nothing in her world would ever be the same again. At this moment, as she looked at the void where Old Iron had once securely rested, she doubted if the sun would even come up in the morning.
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