Excerpt

Code of the Hills

Chris Offutt

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Code of the Hills , by Chris Offutt. Mick Hardin is back, but he's not supposed to be. He's planning on flying to France to celebrate his retirement. But a brief stopover at his sister's in Kentucky turns one thing into another, and soon, he's investigating a series of murders in the very hills he thought he was ready to leave behind.

Janice drove slowly to avoid jostling the plastic containers of food on the floor behind her seat. She had better ones at home, but her father was likely to use them for storing nuts and bolts. She brought him food twice a week and resented it—the cooking, the drive, the awkward struggle for a topic other than weather or his cars. It was a matter of proximity. Janice was the oldest of his four adult kids and the only one who lived close. She often wished he’d died before her mother. With his wife gone he’d turned useless and low. Nothing engaged him but working on cars and taking care of his chickens.

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At the turnoff for his holler, she tried to straddle the mud holes, an impossible task given their width. They were dry, which made her tires bounce harder. She had a choice with the last one—go through it at the rate of a drugged turtle, or crowd the edge and risk sliding through horseweed into the ditch. Janice never cursed out loud, but her mind flew with blue language. Eff it, she thought and pressed the accelerator, the old shocks scraping metal as the tires dropped into a four-inch hole.

The driveway piddled out into the hard-packed yard filled with five cars—three for parts, one he drove, and one he was working on. He hadn’t been to a store in six months. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d visited her. Maybe it was for the best, she thought. He smelled of sweat, cigarette smoke, and engine oil. His hands were black with grease embedded deep in the pores from decades of mechanical work.

She honked to let him know she was there, got out of the car, and opened the rear door. Sure enough, there was a pool of spaghetti sauce on the cardboard she’d placed beneath the containers. A second one had spilled lettuce onto the carpet, a salad she’d dutifully made, despite knowing he wouldn’t eat it. The lid to the pasta had slid under the seat and she decided to get it later. He wouldn’t care. He’d probably eat it with his fingers over the sink. She carried the food onto the porch, pulled the screen door with a finger, kicked it open, and entered. The familiar smell of her mother’s hand soap and lotion drifted under

the thicker layer of a man alone. The twined scents always reminded her of better days in the past.

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“Daddy,” she said. “I brought you some supper.”

She heard nothing, which meant nothing. He often napped in the spare room, her mother’s old sewing room. He hadn’t slept in his own bed since his wife died. Janice set the food on the counter and shook her head at the dirty dishes in the sink. She’d be the one to wash them. She called to him again, softer, in case he was sleeping, but the spare room was empty except for the narrow single bed and stacks of her mother’s fabric. Bolt ends she’d gotten on sale were leaning in a corner. Janice opened the curtains and lifted the window to relieve the room of stale air. Through the screen she saw her father lying on the ground.

She rushed through the house to the backyard, thinking that he’d had a stroke or a heart attack. She could feel her own heart pounding in her chest. He lay on his back as if taking a rest, a heavy crescent wrench near the curled fingers of his grease-blackened hand. The front of his shirt was matted with dried blood from a gunshot wound. She called the police and began washing the dishes. Nine-one-one was on its way, cops and EMTs and fire trucks. She felt bad for the previous way she’d thought about her father. It was too late now, she knew, but the guilt would live inside her for a long while, like a loose belt on one of the cars in his yard.

 

*

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Mick Hardin took his standard two-minute shower, toweled off in one minute, and spent two more getting dressed. His T-shirt was damp against the wet splotches on his torso but he didn’t care. He ran his hand over his head to comb his hair, which was already getting longer. He didn’t care about that, either. As of 2400 hours last night, he’d ended his status as a serving member of the United States military. He was no longer duty bound to care about anything.

He studied his freshly shaven reflection in the misty mirror. He was thirty-nine years old, still fit, with all his teeth and hair. Not much to brag on, but it was more than a lot of people. If he didn’t get too spendy, he could live on his pension for decades. Prior to resignation, he’d agreed to train new CID investigators in exchange for promotion and a commensurate raise. He’d done that for a year. Mick had been surprised to enjoy working with young soldiers but not enough to extend enlistment. He wasn’t a teacher, he was an investigator, and now he was unemployed.

Every action seemed significant on his final day in the army—the last shower, the last bed made, the last breakfast of runny eggs, hard toast, and dry potatoes. His final walk from the mess hall to the barracks. His last withdrawal from the bank on base—twenty thousand dollars in cash. Activity on Fort Leonard Wood continued as if nothing important was occurring. To all the other soldiers, nothing was, just another dull day in the service.

He carried a suitcase and a duffel bag to his truck. A corporal gave Mick his final salute, sloppy and quick, the perfunctory gesture indicating a hangover. At the main gate he nodded to the guards and drove north past the ubiquitous enterprises near all garrisons—pawn shop, pizza place, tattoo shop, strip club, and gaming center. Fast food and cheap motels. Fort Leonard Wood was in the Missouri Ozarks, pretty country that reminded Mick of home. He drove northeast to Saint Louis, where he got on I-64 for the long drive east to Rocksalt, Kentucky. The old truck ran well, a 1963 stepside that had belonged to his grandfather, the man who’d raised Mick deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Like all soldiers, he’d dreamed of this day since boot camp. Now it was anticlimactic and depressing. He was grateful to be spared a formal and tedious ceremony requiring stoic endurance. His career had ended with his signature on multiple forms. It was similar to divorce. In both cases, a significant portion of his life stopped abruptly with legal documents in a bland office. He underwent a quick sensation of doubt that he swept aside.

After serving four tours as a combat paratrooper he’d transferred to CID and spent twelve more years tracking down soldiers who’d committed violent felonies. Now he was free, truly free. Free from orders, war, and pressure. Free from emotional responses of victims and their families. Free from making an error with colossal repercussions—the wrong person arrested and a killer still at large.

Mick had a plan for his future, at least the first six months, but he was flexible, ready to shift with any circumstance. No plan survived first contact with the enemy, even if the enemy was civilian life. Affairs had not unfolded the way he’d previously imagined at his retirement—opening a boat rental business on Cave Run Lake and running it with his wife. Now Peggy was living with her new husband and their child. His mother and father were long dead, and the house he’d grown up in had burned to the ground. Mick was going home to a place that was no longer home.

He stopped for gas three times and made it to Rocksalt in ten hours, his speed hampered by the old truck. He’d been gone two years and the town appeared the same—few cars, no pedestrians, the traffic lights blinking both ways at the four intersections. He drove straight to his sister’s house. Calling ahead was not a habit with him, a problem at times for his CO, his ex-wife, and his sister. He’d grown up with no telephone and never embraced the widespread use of cell phones. His own was in the glove compartment, turned off. Arriving unannounced had its benefits, especially when taking into custody a young man trained to kill. He no longer needed to think that way but it was deeply ingrained, the same as vigilance toward suspicious objects by the road, a vehicle that followed for too long, or the quick motion of a furtive figure in the shade. The intensity of the habit had kept him alive in war zones. But he understood that it had severely undermined his marriage and he wondered if he was capable of maintaining a close relationship. Neither he nor his sister had ever been very good at it.

Linda lived in their mother’s house at the end of Lyons Avenue. It was tidier than his last visit two years ago, freshly painted with new gutters and downspouts. The setting sun glinted off the roof in a steady sheen that suggested new shingles. Maybe she’d gotten a bump in pay after winning the election to sheriff. He went to the side door, but his key wouldn’t open the lock. He walked to the front, used only by preachers, politicians, and kids on Halloween. That key didn’t work either. He double-checked both doors, then used a penlight to study the locks. They were shiny and new.

He drove to the sheriff’s office and parked beside his sister’s county-issued SUV. Hand on his door handle, he hesitated. He’d been locked into mission mode so severely that he’d overlooked a detail with negative potential. Two years ago he’d spent his last night in Eldridge County with Sandra Caldwell, who worked as a dispatcher for the sheriff’s department. He wondered if she’d been miffed by his sudden departure and subsequent lack of contact. The prospect of seeing her scared him more than facing a barred entry to a village in Afghanistan, knowing it was booby-trapped.

Mick considered calling the office to see if she answered, or calling his sister directly and asking Linda to come outside. Both smacked of cowardice, which he couldn’t tolerate. Sandra was probably married by now, or with any luck had quit her job. He left the truck and went to the sheriff’s office door, which was locked. He felt a quick sense of gratitude that the staff was gone. He banged on the glass until his sister emerged from her office and let him in.

“Lord love a duck,” Linda said, “look what the dogs drug in.”

“Hidy, Sis.”

“I saw you sitting out there. Getting up the nerve to come in, I bet.”

“Something like that.”

“Afraid of facing the music on how you treated Sandra?”

“What do you know about that?”

“You leave your truck in front of her house overnight and the whole town knows. Two years is nothing in Eldridge County. Same as two minutes anywhere else.”

“Is she mad?”

Linda laughed, a rarity in general, and led him into her office. It was as Spartan as ever—state and national flag, photograph of the governor, desk, filing cabinet, and guest chair. The wall held new adornments—an honorary commission as Kentucky Colonel, an award from the state for meritorious accomplishment, and a special commendation from the FBI.

“Two years,” she said. “You look pretty much the same.”

“You lost weight.”

“A little,” she said. “Bought a couple of new uniforms that’re supposed to streamline my verticals, whatever that means.”

“Well, it works.”

“Yeah, until I put on the vest.”

They sat looking at each other, not so much an evaluation as a willingness to accept. Each was the only family the other had. Despite their differences—many and extreme—they were loyal in the way of the hills.

“I went by your house,” he said. “Keys didn’t work.”

“I changed the locks.”

“Mommy’s old ones finally give out?”

“No, they worked.”

“Somebody start bothering you over the job?”

“Not your business,” she said. “Nothing to do with the job.”

“Wrong choice of man?”

“Again,” she said. “As usual.”

Linda shifted in her chair and stared out the window at a small maple. Nothing was happening out there. The humidity draped the leaves with weight that made them droop. Mick knew the topic was over.

“Thanks for taking care of my truck,” he said.

“I thought I’d see you when you picked it up.”

“I couldn’t get away from work. That’s why I hired Albin to haul it to base for me. Cost a pretty penny.”

“Albin’s mixed up in a murder case.”

“Albin? That boy wouldn’t hit a lick at a snake.”

“He’s not a suspect. Got a hell of an alibi, too. He was racing at the dirt track in Bluestone. Couple of hundred witnesses.”

“How’d he do?” Mick said.

“Took second. Johnny Boy said he’d have won if Pete Lowe was in the pit.”

“Don’t know him.”

“You won’t get a chance to. He’s the victim. Somebody shot him down in his yard. Daughter found him.”

“Well,” Mick said. “I’m off the clock now. But if it was me, I’d look at family and friends. Then any woman he was involved with.”

“Yep, then neighbors.”

Mick nodded.

“You’re getting good at sheriffing,” he said. “A regular Nancy Drew.”

“When are you due back?”

“I’m not. I’m out.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Yep. Terminated. Retired. Separated from service. It’s a complicated process with all kinds of steps. Right now I’m in a period the army calls ‘transition to civilian life.’ Supposed to be difficult.”

Linda leaned back in her chair, swiveled it one way, braced her feet against the floor, then spun all the way around. She had a big smile at the end of the chair’s rotation, as if the spin had obliterated the years. Mick hadn’t seen the joyous side of her in a long time. It was worth the trip.

“Damn!” she said. “Twenty years went fast. You here for good?”

“I’d like to stay with you for a few days, if you ain’t caring.”

“Okay.”

“Then I’m moving to France. Got a six-month lease.”

“What? Why France?”

“I speak enough of it to get by. Can’t talk to a banker or understand a word on the phone, but I can order food and go to stores.”

“Do they talk English?”

“They say they don’t, but a lot do. When they hear how bad my accent is, most folks switch to English.”

“Do they sound like Pepé Le Pew?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “The whole country is filled with cartoon skunks. You know what I never understood? Why a French skunk had a Spanish first name.”

“Reckon you’ll have plenty of time to figure that out.”

Mick nodded. He’d missed talking to his sister, to someone who knew him well. The only others were dead or no longer in his life. There was plenty of precedent in the hills for brother and sister to live together in the family home, but it wouldn’t suit him—or her. Both were too fixed in their ways. On the other hand, his presence might prevent her from changing the locks to keep a man out of her house. But it was none of his business.

“Seriously,” she said, “why are you here?”

“To say goodbye to you, Sis.”

“Nothing else?”

“I’ll put my truck in storage somewhere so it doesn’t sit in front of your house. It might not go with your new locks.”

Linda snatched a sheet of paper from her desk, crumpled it quickly into a ball, and threw it at him. Mick shifted his head and it flew over his shoulder.

“Used to,” he said, “you’d have thrown a paperweight.”

“Yeah, well, time affects everybody different. We’re getting mature.”

“I’ve never known you to be philosophical.”

“It’s the job,” she said. “I used to think everything was simple, black and white, legal and illegal. Now it’s a lot more complicated. What’s lawful, what’s justice, and what’s best for the community. Sometimes they overlap but not often enough.”

Mick nodded. Two years was the longest period he’d gone without seeing his sister. He wondered if it had been a crucial time for her. When change happened, it was incremental. Then the results appeared suddenly like the overnight success of a musician who’d been playing gigs for fifteen years.

Mick gestured to the framed certificates on the wall.

“What’s all that?” he said.

“The usual bullshit.”

“Then why put them up?”

“Politics, Big Bro. Never know who might walk in here.”

“You’re learning.”

“Yeah, the hard way. Made some enemies, too.”

“As long as your friends have more juice than your enemies, you’re doing good.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to know who’s who in that book.”

“It’s more like an Etch A Sketch than a book,” Mick said. “Remember those? Turn it upside down and shake it and the screen goes blank. That’s politics.”

Linda took a set of keys from her purse, removed one, and slid it across the desk.

“I’ll meet you there later. I’ve got to wait for the night dispatcher and do paperwork. There’s half a sub in the fridge.”

“Maybe I’ll eat with Johnny Boy,” he said.

“He’s at the Bluestone Speedway talking to people who knew the victim. It’s race night and they’ll all be there. Easier than traipsing around four counties hunting them down.”

He picked up the key.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Don’t be messing with my stuff.”

He nodded, grinned, and left.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Code of the Hills © 2023 by Chris Offutt. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.




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