Why hello, dear reader! Thanks for stopping by to check out my Mystery, Thriller novel, Skyveil. Here’s the hook: “Remmy Easton, a nomadic young woman burdened with a strange family curse, stands falsely accused of murder, but she is surprised to find that Lee Erikson, the young Texas Ranger tasked with interrogating her, has a curse of his own–the ability to know if someone is telling the truth or not–the only problem is, no one believes him.” You can read the prologue and first two chapters below. Enjoy, and let me know what you think or if you have any critiques in the comments!
The body drags and scrapes along the forest floor as white smoke and sparks swirl through branches and rain pours down. If it can be left close enough to the edge of the wildfire and the storm doesn’t extinguish the flames too quickly, perhaps it will burn to ash. It may even look like an accidental death.
As it bumps over roots and plows through fallen leaves and brush soon to be consumed, the body seems to grow heavier. Pockets of fire begin to appear on either side as the black, pre-dawn sky glows like a furnace, smoke lit to a hellish, simmering orange while strong winds moan through the forest, as if the wildfire is expelling spirits. Maybe just ten more yards—
This will have to be far enough.
“Hello…?” I mumble, cell phone mashed against my ear as I squint at my old digital alarm clock on the side table. I want to say mature, Godly thoughts are running through my mind at the moment, but they aren’t. It’s 4:09 AM. I am not feeling mature, and I am most definitely not feeling Godly.
“Lee? It’s Stephen.”
I jerk into a sitting position, blankets falling away. “What is it?” I say, heart pounding as I scrub my hand over my face. The last time I heard Sheriff Stephen Alderman, my friend and mentor since I was sixteen, sound this worried, it was my junior year in high school. Principal Hargrove had just pulled me out of fifth period Chemistry with no explanation, and escorted me into his office, where I’d found Stephen waiting for me, blue eyes sharp above his mustache, arms crossed, gun handle and badge flashing.
At that point, I’d begun contemplating all the possible meanings of the term, “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Instead of arresting me though, he’d said, “Lee, I need a favor.”
It would be a phrase I’d come to hear a lot.
“We have a situation,” Stephen says, voice terse and overly loud, as if he is pressing his mouth against the microphone and cupping his hand around the bottom of the phone. Now that I am more awake, I notice the roar of rainfall in the background. It’s still raining here too, clattering against my bedroom windows and humming over the tin roof above as it has all night, broken only by an occasional crack or roll of thunder. The storm kept me awake until around 3 AM.
One hour of sleep.
I try not to think about it.
I can also make out a different kind of roar and what sounds like people yelling. I can’t be sure, but the roar sounds like…
“Stephen, where are you?”
“Hill Country National Park. Southeast corner.” That’s just five miles north of Schoenberg. “There’s a wildfire.”
I’m up, phone on speaker and tossed onto my bed as I yank on my jeans and grab a pair of socks. “I’ll be right there—”
“Lee,” he says, and I stop at his tone. “We’ve got plenty of people here at the forest.”
Confused, it takes me half a second to realize the real reason why he called. I tense.
“I hate to do this to you right now, Lee, but I need a favor.” He sounds strained but firm. “There’s someone I need you to question about the wildfire. We think it was arson.”
Feeling the tension radiate up my neck, I hesitate for a fraction of a second, then say, “Understood,” and snap up my belt from the top of my dresser. At least they already have a suspect. That’s good.
“She’ll be waiting for you at the station.”
She? Arsonists tend to be male. And to get a blaze hot enough to turn into a wildfire in a rain-soaked forest…? She’d probably used explosives and accelerants at multiple sites. And she’s likely an experienced, repeat offender.
This is going to unpleasant. For both of us.
“Carter’s with her,” Stephen says.
I grimace. Deputy Carter Pearson and I have an…unfortunate history.
“I was thinkin’ I’d hire you as a consultant,” Stephen continues, “just like old times. The regular fee okay?”
I don’t want the county to pay me, but it’s the only way to make this legal since I’m currently on leave. “Of course.”
Stephen hesitates, then says, “You sure you’re in a good place to do this, Lee?”
Raw, sharp grief burns through my insides like acid, as if someone has just ripped open a recently crusted-over wound. I squeeze my eyes shut, heart pounding. Taking a deep breath, I wrest back control. I can’t do this right now. “I’m fine,” I say, slipping on a long-sleeved flannel over my undershirt. Actually, this is exactly what I need. Work. A distraction. Something to keep my mind busy.
“I know this would be hard on you even on a good day,” Stephen says.
He sounds like he is going to say something else. I pray he won’t.
He’s breathing on the other end, waiting for my response now. I don’t know what to say. We both know I am going to question her regardless of how difficult my current situation will make it, so I don’t reply.
After a moment, Stephen says, “You know I wouldn’t ask ya’ if it wasn’t an emergency.”
I pick up the phone before he can say anything else, and disengage the speaker, putting it to my ear. “I know.”
I pause. “Yes?”
We don’t speak for a moment.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I say, hang up, and sling my gun belt around my hips.
The rain won’t stop.
Usually, in my case, that’s a bad thing. But right now I’m praying it’ll come down even harder. Funny how life works that way.
Lying on a backless, wooden bench with ankles crossed and fingers threaded behind my head, I stare through bars fitted over a small square window at the water rushing down in silvery sheets, illuminated by the streetlight outside. The bars seem a bit much. I mean, really? Who could fit through that tiny space? But I guess it does go with the whole 1950’s western vibe the County Sheriff Office and Schoenburg Police Department building has going on. (I’m assuming Gilchrist county and the city of Schoenburg are too small for the departments to have separate buildings.)
Positioned high in the limestone back wall, the window looks particularly lonely, and I suddenly feel a strange compassion for it. I wonder who looked through it last, and if it was raining then, too. I also wonder how long it’s existed in such a depressing place (I’m guessing since the 1950’s), and what it must feel like for it to have everyone look at it and feel a sense of despair.
It’s a weird habit, I know, personifying inanimate objects, but let’s just say it’s my way of engaging more deeply with a world that often feels more dead than alive.
Plus, it’s fun.
I decide to christen the window “John,” after the disciple who penned the New Testament books, John and Revelation. He began as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” only to die alone and marooned on an island. Sure, my life isn’t always sunshine and roses, but it’s a cakewalk compared to his.
Besides, this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself falsely accused and stuck in jail. I just have to trust God. Stay positive. Not panic. Focus on the silver lining. It all worked out the last two times, and I know it will again.
“Ms. Easton,” says an oily voice from behind me.
I crane my neck around to see a short, thin man wearing khaki pants, a matching long-sleeved, button-down shirt, and a black gunbelt with a silver deputy badge pinned to his breast pocket. He looks to be a few years older than me and has intense dark brown eyes and brown hair combed over to the side in a severe, gelled part. Bony and about an inch or two shorter than my five foot eight, I feel bad for him because of it. Not because I think a man should be taller than me (what a silly and antiquated idea), but rather because I can tell it’s made him bitter and insecure.
On the outside, he appears professional, gentile, meek even, but I can see the boiling anger just beneath. Like a slithering mass of snakes twisting over each other under a blanket.
Yes, I’m naturally suspicious of everyone when I first meet them (not the greatest quality, I know, but let’s call it self-preservation), but Deputy Carter Pearson has creeped me out from the moment he arrived at the Forest Ranger Station. Within seconds, he’d volunteered to drive me here to await Sheriff Alderman’s questioning instead of staying to fight the fire. The entire ten minute drive here had been nails-on-chalkboard dead air. I’m a talker for sure, but even I’d been unable to find anything to break that silence.
Part of me wonders if it has to do with that blog post and subsequent interview I gave six months ago about Eric.
My eyes burn. I blink the feeling away.
Everything still reminds me of Eric, but the pain feels like a ghost inside of me now, a sort of echo of a grief God has helped me work through to the point of scarring over. But sometimes, like right now, I am certain a little fresh blood has seeped out.
The pain only strengthens my resolve. I’m not apologizing for what I said. I meant every word and don’t care who hates me for it. I’ll say it again. I’ll paint the sky with it.
“Hey, Deputy Pearson,” I say, tapping my toes against the air to an imaginary beat. “What’s up?”
His mouth twists. I’m assuming at my informality. That or my cheerfulness.
Little known fact: the nonchalant, happy attitude is actually a front. A shield. I’m not being fake, per say; I’m protecting myself. As optimistic as I try to be, I’m usually only that way as a kickback against my own pessimism and the—let’s keep it real here—subpar circumstances I often find myself in. It’s like forcing yourself to climb trees to get over a fear of heights.
I think it’s also a form of control. I have so little control in my life, I try to grasp onto it wherever I can, starting with self-control.
Don’t ask me to admit that out loud to anyone, but there it is.
I’m assuming Pearson is annoyed with me because he’s the kind of person who isn’t attracted to an upbeat disposition, wishing to bask in its glow, but rather belongs to those who want to snuff it out.
I get it. Cynicism and misery feel safer. It protects you from disappointment. But there’s only so long you can survive in the dark without becoming someone who actively tries to make everyone else around you exist in the dark too. And that’s not someone I want to be.
“It’s time for your questioning,” he says, opening the cell door. I notice his hands are shaking. I wonder if it’s because of the events of this morning with the wildfire, or something else.
“You can call me Remmy, you know,” I say for the tenth time as I toss my legs over the cot and stand.
Holding the door open, he doesn’t respond, deep set eyes glittering like black marbles. As I walk up, he says, “Would you like to add anything to your…” it’s subtle, but it looks like the twist of his lips curve into the hint of a smirk “…statement before the questioning begins?”
The way he says statement makes me unsettled. Like it’s a trap of some kind, though I can’t imagine how that can be. I’ve done nothing wrong and once again the evidence will prove it, so the first thing I did when I arrived at the station, was write and sign a detailed statement. I have nothing to hide. I also decided not to call anyone yet, not Henry Ellingsworth, my lawyer, or even Quentin Blake, my agent. I arrived here at 4:05 in the morning. No one wants a phone call at 4:05 AM, especially Quentin. Henry lives in York City, New York, but Quentin lives on the west coast in Los Iglesias, and California is two hours behind Texas, so it’s 2:05 AM there. Even worse. The man gets too little sleep as it is. And I stress him out too much as it is. Especially after that interview.
So I’ll wait and see how the questioning with the sheriff goes. I’m assuming like all the other times I’ve been questioned or interrogated, it won’t be fun. But I’m not worried about it. The real thing that has me jumpy is the fact that the “incident” occurred within the borders of a forested national park. The location makes my predicament much worse. Not only is this what I’ve been investigated and temporarily incarcerated for before, but this time, because it happened on land owned by the government, if I’m convicted…
Arson will be a federal offense.
The door to the small interrogation room swings open, rattling the blinds against the door window, and a tall man, strong and broad-shouldered but whip-thin and lean like a swimmer, steps inside, muddy cowboy boots banging against the wooden floor with his heavy footsteps. A leather, western gun belt that makes me think of old John Wayne movies hangs low around his hips, and I notice his gun immediately.
Seriously? Is that really necessary? It’s like the bars on John. I must look threatening. Super threatening.
He seems young, probably in his mid-twenties like me, and I wonder how he became a sheriff so quickly. I’m guessing he was recently elected.
Well. This should be interesting.
I notice he wears no badge, which I think is weird. Maybe he forgot it.
Despite the sheriff’s youthful appearance, his face is haggard, bags under his eyes, sandy blond hair matted, likely as a result from the drenched western hat I saw him wearing earlier when Deputy Pearson escorted me in here. The shoulders of his thin flannel are dark with rainwater, shirttails hastily tucked into belted wranglers, which appear loose on him. Everything is wrinkled. It looks like he just rolled out of bed. And probably did. According to the clock above the door, it’s 4:27 AM.
Poor guy. He looks like he’s in serious need of an espresso shot. Or four.
Without looking at me, he blindly closes the door behind him, pinches the bridge of his nose as if to center himself, sighs, and holds up an open folder in front of his face filled with papers haphazardly stuffed inside. His forehead wrinkles and he flicks the folder down, looking at me over the papers. “Your name is Remington?” he asks, surprised.
Yes, I share my name with a gun and a fictional con man played by Pierce Brosnan in that old 80’s TV show, Remington Steele.
Ironically, I’m a pacifist and I hate guns.
My whole moniker situation might’ve irritated most people were they in my shoes, but I like irony. It turns unfortunate circumstances into an inside joke between me and God. If you can’t laugh at the dark things in life, the dark wins.
At least the sheriff’s surprise at my name means he hasn’t googled me yet. That’s a plus.
“Yes,” I say, waiting for the inevitable gun or fictional character remark. Surprisingly, it doesn’t come.
“Hm,” is all he says. Popping the folder back up, he keeps reading.
His decided lack of talkativeness doesn’t make it easy to get a read on him, but my initial impression is he’s chill, confident, and thoughtful. He’s probably one of those “walk softly and carry a big stick” types, as Teddy Roosevelt said. Hopefully that doesn’t mean he’s a chauvinistic manchild. A lot of guys who try to be the strong silent type project that to hide their insecurity.
Shuffling through the papers, he steps forward and hooks a foot around the leg of the lone chair across the table from me, deftly pulling it out without looking at it before sitting down with a surprising amount of grace. After lowering the folder to the table, he continues reading, occasionally mumbling or rubbing his forehead as he flips through the pages, one elbow on the table, head propped up by a fist.
I stare at him. It’s a dare. I know he can feel my eyes on him. Several long seconds pass. Most people would’ve looked up by now. But he doesn’t. For all intents and purposes, at the moment I may as well be a potted plant.
I don’t like being ignored. Least of all by men.
I take a deep breath, trying to bury my bitterness.
Think the best, Rem.
It’s Eric’s voice in my head. He “talks” to me all the time lately. I know it’s part of the grieving process, but thinking the best is something he taught me years ago, and it stuck.
This guy isn’t Eric, but I can still give him the benefit of the doubt, right? He’s probably just tired and trying to focus. “You can call me Remmy though,” I say brightly.
Without pausing or looking up, he says, “Mm.”
I continue to stare.
His chair creaks as he adjusts his position.
I sigh really loudly.
He flips another page.
“So do I just call you ‘sheriff’ or what?” It comes out as combative and sarcastic. I’m already out of patience. He hasn’t even introduced himself yet, and at this point it feels like he’s purposefully ignoring me.
He looks up, startled. “What?”
My anger falters at his genuine surprise. “Aren’t you Sheriff Alderman?”
Well that explains a lot. But what is he doing here instead of the sheriff? He’s obviously not a deputy or a cop—no uniform.
He cocks a thumb over his shoulder toward the door. “Didn’t Deputy Pearson inform you? Sheriff Alderman is at the forest fire with the rest of the deputies, police force and fire department, the NPS, and anyone else they could wake to try and extinguish the blaze before it spreads any further.”
He sounds a little angry.
With me, I suppose.
The injustice at his judgmental assumption chafes. Sure, I’m not exactly a saint in that arena myself, but sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly down, it seems like my whole life has been one long string of false accusations after another. I don’t know why I keep trying. Or maybe I do. I guess it’s just a masochistic-level, bad case of bullheaded hope.
Hope unfulfilled makes the heart sick.
This is a verse from Proverbs that God often brings to my mind. It’s a reminder that I should be careful with my expectations because hope’s tricky like that. There’s a reason why it was at the bottom of Pandora’s Box.
He rubs an eye. “I’m Lee Erikson from the Company F Division of the Texas Rangers, here from Welman as a consultant, and I will be conducting your interview until the sheriff returns.”
“You’re a Texas Ranger?” I say, surprised and pleased. I’ve never met a Ranger before and not being a Texas native, I am instantly intrigued. “As in—” I pretend to fire at him with finger guns accompanied by, “Bang! Bang! Bang!” Then I blow invisible smoke from each “barrel,” “holster” them, and grin. I’m not trying to make fun of him, just break the tension and formality.
Okay, maybe I am making fun of him, but just a little. It’s a playful poke.
Lee’s eyes are still sleep deprived, but right now they’re flint. Maybe he isn’t in a playful mood. He doesn’t say anything defensive though, so I jump in with another question. “Where’s your badge?”
“I’m on leave.”
Something like pain flashes across his face, but it’s gone so quickly I’m not sure if I gauged his expression correctly. “Personal reasons. Now Ms. Easton—”
“How did you become a Ranger so young?”
One side of his mouth pulls down slightly. “I’m older than I look.”
There is something about the way he says it that makes me think he gets teased for this often. “What are the requirements then?”
His eyelids lower in outright annoyance for the first time, but hey, at least he’s not ignoring me anymore. He says, “You have to be in excellent physical condition and have an outstanding record of at least eight years experience with a bona fide law enforcement agency, engaged primarily in the investigation of major crimes.” It sounds memorized.
As Lee speaks I notice his lip color stands out against his deeply tanned skin. On him it doesn’t look feminine, just defined. They’re almost a coral shade, surrounded by light blond stubble. He probably rushed over here without shaving.
I don’t blame him. Not only did he have to wake at an unseemly hour, but shaving your face everyday must be exhausting. Not to mention, it’s your face.
“Is that all?” I say, an eyebrow quirked. Despite my sardonic response, I’m impressed.
“No,” he says, but doesn’t take the bait.
“I’m assuming you have to be male too,” I mutter, already mad at the answer I know I’m about to receive.
I like Texans so far, even if they’re a little too proud of themselves, but there are some flaws in their rural culture I’m not particularly fond of.
“The first woman to serve as a Texas Ranger joined in 1993,” Lee says, holding out and emphasizing the syllables of the year.
Pleasantly surprised and admittedly chastised, I ask another question, even though he is about to say something. “So what did you do for the eight years experience?”
“Police officer; texas state trooper,” he answers curtly, as if just to get me to stop talking, then says, “Ms. Easton—”
“Why were you already in Schoenburg?” Now I’m consistently interrupting him, but I can’t help myself. The last several weeks of nothing but solitude and silence out in the forest really tested my sanity. While it strengthened my relationship with God, giving me hours upon hours to talk to Him (or yell, depending on the day), at this point I’m absolutely starved for human conversation. Personifying inanimate objects can only do so much, and Lee just so happens to be the one who crossed my path. I almost feel sorry for him because of it. But not enough to stop talking.
“Welman’s hours away,” I continue, “and I only just got to the station twenty minutes ago.”
Instead of answering, Lee closes the manila folder with a snap, leaving several pages sticking out all over the place. It makes me want to reach over and shake them into order, tapping the folder against the table until all the papers are invisible.
Seeing that I’m looking at the folder, Lee slides it aside and leans forward, setting his forearms on the metal table and clasping his hands, truly looking at me for the first time.
I mirror his movements as a challenge.
His eyes bore into mine, unmoving, unflinching. It’s a weird thing to think, but somehow it feels like he’s looking at my soul. It only makes me stare back with the same intensity. The moment stretches on but I refuse to look away or blink. In fact, I don’t know if I can look away.
His gaze appears to deepen even more, and he asks, “Did you voluntarily or involuntarily start the fire that occurred this morning in the Hill Country National Park?”
Shocked only for a moment by his cut-to-the-chase start to the interview, plus the oddly specific delivery, I maintain eye contact and say, “No.” I involuntarily caused the circumstances that led to the fire…but it wasn’t me who started it.
“This morning in the Hill Country National Park,” Lee says, “did three instantaneous lightning strikes hit three trees in a circle around your campsite within an approximate radius of 100 yards, causing them to explode, which started the fire?”
It’s what I reported in detail in my statement. Because that’s exactly what happened. “Yes,” I say.
A flicker of something I can’t decipher flashes in his eyes. “Is every detail you wrote in your statement this morning true and nothing but the truth?”
I continue to stare at his eyes. He stares back, both of us unblinking, but I notice the blood drain from his face.
Finally, after what seems like a whole minute but couldn’t be more than a few seconds, Lee looks away and leans back, expression concerned, confused, and unsettled. “I believe you,” he says quietly.
That’s it for now. I hope you enjoyed it, and stay tuned for updates! Blessings, friend.
(Unfortunately, I have to add this…)
Unpublished work © 2018, 2019, 2020 Mandy R. Campbell