blood in the dirt
by F.X. James
Mallory stood with the sun searing his withered neck, his hands hidden deep in the shade of his back pockets. He’d left his hat back in the cruiser and could feel the giant star working cruelly on his ever-expanding bald spot. Turkey vultures swooped back and forth high above on arcs of sweltering air. Hicks was fumbling with the camera, a new model. Mallory took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and put it in the corner of his mouth. He kept it unlit. Hicks finally figured things out and began taking picture after picture, moving slowly around the small female corpse, careful not to stir up dirt or overturn a rock that may yet prove to hold some clue.
Mallory wiped drops of sweat from the corners of his eyes. He was tired and hadn’t made love to his wife of twenty years in over six months. Didn’t know if he could anymore. At night he would often wake to the sound of her pleasuring herself, a sound he never had much fondness for. Their only child, a boy, died in infancy twelve years ago, and there were no more to follow. Mallory figured they wouldn’t have been particularly good parents anyway.
“Well fuck me sideways,” Hicks exclaimed, squatting beside the small body, the back of his shirt soaked with sweat, his unruly ginger hair matted damp against his square skull. “Goddamn, but ain’t it hotter than hell today?”
Mallory didn’t respond. He used a thumbnail to dig out a chunk of something lodged in his upper teeth, eyed a dark shape as it swooped down to alight on a nearby fencepost. He watched as Hicks awkwardly moved his heavy bulk, the camera held against his dull flat face, the young dead body he focused on entrapped now in a two-dimensional permanence, the naked flesh already blistered and swollen in the merciless heat.
“Shit, back when I was a kid in Louisiana,” Hicks began, unshackling yet another of his tedious anecdotes.
Mallory plucked the unlit cigarette from his mouth and licked his thin lips. “I don’t wanna hear none of that,” he said softly. “Just go on about your business and get them pictures done, son. We ain’t out here to fuck around any more than we have to.” Hicks shot a hard look at his superior; Mallory looked right back. The fat youth blinked twice and turned back to his work. Mallory did not like his new deputy much at all.
Later at the station, Mallory sat at his cluttered desk and phoned Rebecca. She picked up after the third ring and hacked wetly in his ear. Mallory flinched.
“Hey,” she said.
“What’s going on?”
“Well, we got us a dead girl here, real young. I don’t know when I’ll be home.”
Silence followed like it often did during these work calls. He heard her yawn, pictured her lounging around the place in one of her thin summer nightgowns, the pale blue one perhaps, scratching the heavy meat of her upper arms, the phone pressed lightly between her clavicle and jawbone.
“Whatever. I may go out later.”
Here it comes, he thought. Here comes the constant show. The tireless act.
“I may go out and I dunno when I’ll be back.”
He had no fight in him for this, not a lick of it, not anymore. Couldn’t she see that? Let her do what the hell she wants, he thought. She will anyway. If she’s out fucking other men, then good for her. Good for them, too.
“Do you even love me anymore, you fuckin’ shit?” she said.
He didn’t believe he did and hadn’t for a while, but said nothing. He sighed and set the phone back in its cradle after she hung up on him and put another unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Hicks was listening indiscreetly in his chair nearby, his thick fingers laced behind his broad head, his belly stretching out his regulation shirt, large dark stains in the armpits. Mallory really didn’t like him much at all. He shook his head and stood, wondered how much a lawyer would cost him. Get this goddamn coffin sealed once and for all, he thought. What the hell else was there left to do?
“What do we have?”
Hicks tipped his chair forward and plucked a sheet of paper from his desk.
“Not much. Just some young kid. No more than thirteen. Sexually violated in both vagina and anus, it appears. But semen only in her anus. Both wrists broken. Dislocated lower jaw. Clumps of hair missing. Something going on with her left eye they haven’t figured out yet.”
Mallory scratched his head, rolled the unlit cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. He didn’t want to think much beyond this, but knew he had to, knew that’s what they paid him to do, though of late he dearly wished they didn’t.
“Okay,” he said.
“Maybe she was one of them workin’ gals from the Stillwater ranch.”
Hicks shrugged. “I dunno. Just figured we’d’ve heard something by now if she was local.” Mallory wasn’t so sure. There were plenty of local kids who were nothing more than collateral damage, the quickly forgotten residue of cohabitating madness.
“Not a thing on,” Hicks went on. “No ID, no clothes, obviously. No bag, no nothing. Her fingerprints ain’t in the system. No surprise there. She got good teeth though. The expensive kind. So I guess that proves she ain’t from here, huh?” He laughed alone. Mallory shaking his head, thinking, she could be from anywhere, you fat fuckin’ fool. People travelled. Especially the young and the abused; they moved all over the goddamn place. He did so himself back in the day, back before the war gave him a number for his name and set him to killing folk he had no issue with. Back before marriage held him stuck here like a rock.
Hicks stood and put his hands on his heavy hips. “Not on the kid, no, but I’m getting married tomorrow, boss, remember? Getting myself set. A damn good woman too. You remember her name?” Mallory didn’t. He was bored with his overweight and overly chatty deputy, had been from the first day the red-headed fool transferred here six months ago. He shook his head in an act of faux apology, shrugged slightly. Let that be answer enough.
“Yeah, well it don’t matter much either way. I gotta be heading home now.” Hicks said. He coughed into his hand to garner Mallory’s attention. His boss looked at him. “Some kid went and got herself fucked and killed and there ain’t a goddamn thing we can do for it. Not a thing. This world’s a fucked up place, boss, just like you always said it was.”
That night at home, Mallory sat out on the porch, his fifth cold beer in hand, another unlit cigarette in his mouth, a fat yellow moon painting the dead fields before him in pale and morbid tones. Mosquitoes whined and zapped his ears but he gave them little heed. Rebecca had come home drunk not long before, reeking of sweat and cigarettes and late-night need. She came and sat beside him, putting a hand on his forearm, her nails dragging softly through the silver fur there, the little digs. He nodded at this gesture that for too long lacked any meaning. She slurped her white wine noisily.
“That bad, huh?” she said.
He turned to her, wondering what she was really thinking, what she truly wanted beyond news of the death he dealt with most days, the agony of all those people removed and unknown to her. She smiled and it meant little to him, sitting so close to her like this, it meant almost nothing, like the plight of the Amazon.
“What do you want?” she asked, the words thick and slow, a slight churlishness behind them. “What is it you want me to do to help us survive this? Tell me, baby, I’ll do it. I swear to Christ I will.” Jesus, he thought. Jesus Christ above, he thought, just let me go, woman. That’s all. Just let me go.
In bed, she reached for him and he felt lost, unmanned, weakened by the force of her need. Nothing stirred beneath her busy hand and in short time she sighed heavily and cleared her throat and turned on her side, her large rump taking most of the sheets. He touched himself later when she was snoring, the softness between his legs still shriveled and ineffectual, just another broken part of a greatly troubled whole.
In the morning she was gone. In the kitchen he drank his sweetened black coffee and called the office. Helen at the front desk told him there was nothing new. No claims on the girl. And yes, of course, the FBI had been contacted. She told him Hicks stopped by on the way to his wedding, dropping off a warm bottle of dirt-cheap champagne and a dozen stale donuts. Mallory laughed at this and told her it might be best to leave the donuts be. She told him to drive fast with his eyes closed. He told her he loved her too.
Driving to the office, he saw farmers and their mortgaged machines toiling in the holds of golden fields. He watched the road beneath him ripple with heat and saw the flattened husks of dead things all along the way on either side and could not name but one of them. He hated the summer.
The medical examiner, Arthur, called just before lunch, and said he’d found pieces of broken glass in her vagina. Brown glass from a beer bottle, he figured. Two toenails missing from the right foot as well, plucked off after death, he believed. The hematoma on her left eye was caused by suction. Looks like the killer gave it the good old college try but failed to suck her eyeball out. Mallory sighed. Arthur had nothing more. He asked how Rebecca was and when he and Mallory would go out drinking again. Mallory said she was fine and that the last time they went out drinking together he had to use up three sick days to recover. Arthur laughed and called his old friend a pussy before hanging up.
Agent Marcus Strickland of the FBI called just before four. He told Mallory they had nothing on the girl, which was rare, he admitted, considering she was white and clearly well cared for prior to death. Mallory thanked him and promised to call if they discovered anything new. Strickland said he’d do the same but that Mallory shouldn’t hold his breath. Kids went missing all the damn time, he told him, and most go unclaimed.
Mallory said goodnight to Helen and left the office a little before six. He went outside and dropped his hat and gun belt on the passenger seat of his Toyota 4Runner, then took off his beige shirt and silver badge and dropped them on the seat, too. He reached in and slid the gun from its holster, emptied it into his palm and locked the gun in the glove box. He dropped the shells in the cup holder and covered them with the shirt. He then put on an old workshirt he had in the backseat and crossed the street to the Twilight Lounge, where he sat at the bar and ordered whiskey straight with a beer chaser. People nodded at him over the next hour but said little and let him be. He repeated his order five times before he left, leaving the young barmaid with the red hair and tattooed neck a generous tip.
Outside, the evening heat nearly strangled him. He staggered to his truck and slid in behind the wheel, fumbling for his keys, bobbing his head back and forth like a pigeon, saying, “Yeah yeah yeah. Oh yeah.”
Mallory drove fast and howled into the thick night, wanting his anguish to reach the stars. He howled for the dead girl and for the agony of life cut short. He howled for Rebecca and for himself. He howled with fear. He howled for all the answers he could not find. He howled from a deep well of ignorance and guilt. He howled for the lack of words, for the inadequacy that numbed him like stone, for his resilient self-hatred.
At home he found her waiting like he knew he would. The dog came to him on ancient legs, giving off a dominant bark, stringy tail slicing the stagnant air. She was sitting on the porch, smoking, glass in hand, empty bottle on its side by her foot. The moon was hidden and the dead fields beyond their home could not be seen. He hated this land, left to them by her father. Hated that he married into it and had no desire or ability to work it. He saw only blood in this dirt, blood and suffering. This dead earth once brought to life by the sweat of countless slaves. The incommunicable misery this place has known, he thought, and still does.
She stood as he approached and opened her bathrobe. She was naked beneath, her breasts large and lopsided, the nipples on each thick and brown. Two dense rolls of pale fat sat above the dark thatch of her sex. Her heavy thighs were woven with a tapestry of tiny blue veins and dark hairs. He went to her for lack of choice or understanding or simply because of too much drink. He fell to his knees and pressed his mouth to her center, inhaling the rich familiar musk there, his tongue quickly parting the wet folds of flesh he’d known for far too long, the dog coming over in its own slow time to sit and watch.
In the morning his head was split with fire. He heard her in the kitchen humming to herself. He sat on the edge of the bed and took the thick purple head of his penis between his fingers and pressed to open the hole. There was a tackiness all around the crown and a strong scent of her. “Fuck,” he said, and flopped back on the bed. Now he was for it, he thought. Now from this foolish act would come meaning he could not acknowledge, significance he’d long since ignored, a need that was hers and hers alone.
In the kitchen, she smiled as he ate, and it made his food tasteless. The dog flopped at his feet and birds sang their morning melodies from the backyard foliage. He managed to get two pancakes and a cup of black coffee down before he was done. He would call a lawyer later today, he thought, as she smiled and smiled. The first damn lawyer in the book.
He called Helen from the hallway phone as he was knotting his tie, telling her he’d be in a little later. He was driving back out to the site first, he told her, just to see. No, nothing specific, just looking again. She reminded him that Hicks was out for the week on his honeymoon, and this gave Mallory a tiny morsel of joy to start his day. He promised Helen he would stay close to the radio.
When he was sitting behind the wheel with key in hand, she came to him again, her robe cinched tight this time, a flat smile molded to her face. He wound the window down, slowly. She ducked her head in and kissed him on the cheek.
“I’ll make us something nice tonight. Anything you have in mind?” He looked down.
“What?” she said. He shook his head.
She lifted up her tangled hair, twirling the strands. “I know you were drunk, you fool!” she snapped. “I know that’s why it happened. Jesus Christ, give me some goddamn credit here, will you?” She stood back from the vehicle and crossed her arms beneath her breasts. A light wind riffled her hair and he could see the natural dark of her roots. She looked down the drive behind him, her lips rubbing together. If she cries, he thought, I’ll get out and shoot us both. I swear to god I will. “I just wanna talk,” she said, still looking to one side. “I just want us to sit and talk for once. That’s all. Can we please just do that much?”
He pressed the key home and turned it. The engine caught. “Sure we can,” he said, forcing a small smile. “Sure.” He left her there and backed down the dirt drive.
He stopped for gas and coffee on his way to the site. Emma was working the cash register, and she smiled when he came in and tipped his hat to her, asking after her daughter’s kids and making big eyes at a photo of a newborn boy she showed him. He asked after Frank and she told him still no change. He said that was a damn shame and wished there was something he could do about it. She said she knew and thanked him for it and would tell Frank he asked after him. Mallory touched his hat and said goodbye and took his coffee and drove off up the road.
He’d known Emma since he was a boy. Did a year overseas with Frank, her eldest, where they endured together in utter terror to kill nameless men who muttered strange words and moved throughout the jungle like ghosts.
Both men returned home broken and redesigned. Mallory’s wounds took on the shape of savage dreams that kept him awake night after night for years to come, but his body remained intact. Frank’s arms were blown to shreds by an explosive device set beneath the body of a dead Marine. Back home he took to drugs and alcohol, living a subterranean life in his parents’ basement, not able to hold down a job or a conversation. He was drunk with a shotgun resting in his lap the last time Mallory visited, the bright metal hook of one of his artificial arms slotted into the trigger guard. He told his old killing buddy to never come back.
Mallory drove the roads at speed with the windows down. It was already warming up to be another scorcher. He sipped his coffee and tried to think about the dead girl, but Rebecca, naked and wet, her greedy mouth pressing against him, kept forcing her way in. He knew she’d slept with other men, knew he’d driven her to it through his neglect and her lack of choice. He wondered if it was love that ever brought him to her, kept him at her side for so long. He couldn’t remember. She took charge of their relationship from the start and he never questioned it. Like a stray dog suddenly given shelter and food, he settled in and stayed. He hated that he’d gotten so mean to her over the last year, but goddamn, she niggled him so. She wanted what he could no longer give, perhaps never had given. He wanted what she refused to allow and likely never would.
He pulled over some distance before the site and got out and walked along a ditch, hearing the crickets go crazy and seeing long blades of grass part as snakes and other critters fled from his presence. The county hired only two full-time law enforcement officers, Mallory and Hicks. But there were also two part-time “deputies” available on call, Spencer and Holden. Both military retirees with ill-fitting uniforms, frail limbs, and no guns. It was Holden who waved as Mallory approached.
Mallory nodded and stood alongside the old man. He took a cigarette from his front shirt pocket and slipped it in his mouth, rubbed a tender spot at the base of his spine. “How’s it going?”
“How’s that, chief?”
Mallory looked at Holden. “I said how is it going?”
“Oh, not so bad,” Holden replied. “Had us some rubberneckers come by earlier, but it weren’t nothing. Just folks being folks is all. You out here for another look, chief?” Mallory said that he was. Holden nodded and plucked something brown from out of his ear, examined it, then flicked it to the ground. “How’s a thing like this happen, chief? A little girl like this?” Mallory nodded. “Well, I’ll tell you what,” the younger man said. “I believe it happens all the time these days, and likely happened just as much back in the old days too. Just no one said too much about it back then was the only difference I can figure.” Holden didn’t like that for an answer and said as much. Mallory told him he didn’t like it much either. Mallory left the old man to his thoughts and stepped over the sagging yellow police tape and walked away. As he walked he thought back to his youth, hunting woods like these with his father, the early morning fog lifting like a heavy gray curtain, his father’s bald spot gleaming in the pale light. Mallory hated hunting, hated killing things. Still did.
He stopped when he could no longer see Holden and pressed his back against a tree, palming the rough bark. His mouth was dry and his fingertips tingled against the tree’s ancient skin. He closed his eyes and tried focusing on the task at hand but couldn’t do it. Rebecca invaded once again, her fierce strength claiming him still, even out here with death at hand, though dead was dead, and nothing was to be done now but know its cause.
Mallory took the cigarette from his mouth and crumpled it against the tree, the white and brown flakes spinning to the ground. He looked in the direction of the site, just a few more yards ahead. Most victims like this are abducted and killed by people they know, often a relative, or a close friend of the family.
Rebecca’s masturbation had become almost comically loud over the last few years. Did she believe her increased volume would somehow rekindle Mallory’s desire? He wondered what it would take for him to never hear such sounds again.
He moved from the tree and trudged on, questioning why he was here, with the body gone and the ground already examined and reexamined. Did he expect to find something others had missed? Some glaringly obvious clue that had not appeared in one of fat boy Hicks’s snapshots? Mallory did not believe he would.
He held out his arms as he walked, lightly touching the trees he passed. He thought of his own dead child, his boy, imagining what kind of man he would have become had he lived. The sun moved above the sparse treetops and reached down to Mallory, running shafts of wet heat across his brow. At the site, he stopped and hunkered down. He reached for another cigarette, but his pocket was empty now. He tasted his thin dry lips. Someone had recently taken a child to this spot, had defiled and destroyed her, then rendered her gone. Mallory had nothing to go on. He was tired and so goddamn angry. He closed his eyes and Rebecca came forth as the victim, naked and dead, stretched before him in old and foolish supplication. He was nothing, he thought, for thinking this, neither cop or spouse or lover or friend. He dropped his chin and gave his thinning crown to the warming sun, his sadness to a dead and unknown child, and his fear to all that was yet to come.
F.X. James is a pseudonym for an old nomadic soul who escaped from the stony shores of England nearly thirty years ago. In the time that followed he has held down a hundred menial jobs in a dozen different countries. Now (for reasons he cannot fathom) he lives like a hermit on the plains of South Dakota and has had prose and poetry published throughout North America.