D. A. Ratliff: A Clue

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A Clue

By D. A. Ratliff

Shiny gold bars.

Clay Jenkins caught his reflection in his darkened computer monitor. His eyes falling onto the newly pinned captain’s bars adorning his uniform collar. Detective Captain Clay Jenkins. He laughed. There were fellow cops from his early days with the department who would have laughed if they knew the rookie beat cop who seemed to have two left feet ended up as the commander of the homicide division.

He would have given his chances a big fat zero back then, but he had persevered. His goal to be a homicide detective pushed him forward. But one day during his second year in the homicide division, he had been called to a crime scene that changed him forever. One that haunted him still.

His eyes trailed this time to the bottom left drawer of his desk hidden by the partially filled boxes that he bought in to clear out his desk. The file was there. Every so often, late at night, or when the squad room was deserted, he would take out the folder and pore over it. But nothing ever changed. No one knew what happened to her. He didn’t know what happened to her. He needed to know.

Lost in thought, he was startled when Chief of Police Watson spoke from the doorway to his office. “Jenkins, what are you doing here? Didn’t I tell you to take the weekend off? Chandler is going be closing out things with his detectives over the weekend. Technically he doesn’t retire until Sunday at midnight, and your transfer doesn’t go into effect until Monday morning. Biggs has already replaced you as assistant commander of vice. So, go, take a three-day weekend, relax, fish, get some fresh air.”

“I should stay and get my files in order.”

“Don’t give me that. I know you have already done that. Get some R and R … you’re going to need it.” 

Knowing that he was going to lose the debate, Clay nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ll take some R and R.”

“Good.” The chief turned to leave but stopped. “Congrats, Jenkins. I have complete faith in you. This is your job.”

Clay sat at his desk for a bit, deep in thought. Was this his job? He wanted it, but he wondered now that he had it if he was up to the task. He had failed once, and that drove him from the detective division nearly ten years before.

Vice detectives, some working leads or covering the night shift, were straggling in and he decided if he was supposed to leave, he should leave. He rose, picked up his keys, then stopped. On impulse, he pushed the boxes under his desk and unlocked the drawer. Taking a deep breath, he took the thick file from its hiding place and walked out of the station. No rest and recreation for him. Time to revisit the past.

~oOo~

As he left the outskirts of the city about mid-day Friday, Clay powered down the driver’s window, allowing the fresh air of the foothills to flow into the car. He breathed in the fragrant aroma of pine and Linden trees and had to admit that he missed being outside of the city as much as he used to be. City and county services were combined under a merged government, and as a patrol officer, he had spent four years assigned to the lake region about twenty miles from the urban center. It was why he was assigned to the case when the call came that morning. He knew the area better than any of the other detectives.

As a vice detective and later assistant commander of vice, his work had rarely taken him out of the city. Maybe the chief was correct, perhaps a couple of days at a slower pace would be good for him. He had called an old friend who ran a hotel at the lake and booked a room. Dug out his fishing gear from storage in his apartment building, threw some clothes in a satchel and headed for Lake Spencer.

He glanced at the accordion file, resting on the passenger seat. He had brought along not only the file from his office but newspaper clippings and follow-up research he had done on the case. Foolish. Nothing would change, but he had never lost hope.

The hotel, a three-story white clapboard building, was located on the lake’s edge next to the marina. There was a wide veranda wrapping around three sides and a restaurant on the first floor. As he climbed the steps, memories from the day they were called to the crime scene flooded his thoughts. He had come here after the investigation to grab a bite to eat. Dave Newsome, the hotel’s owner, had known the victims. Shocked, Dave sought him out that night and provided a lot of insight into the family. But nothing that helped him discover what happened to Hannah or her father. They simply vanished.

After checking in and finding that Dave was out on an errand, he decided to get a sandwich to go. Might as well get on with what he came for — to visit the scene.

~oOo~

The house was about five miles from the marina. As he turned off the main road, he followed the dirt lane to the edge of the lake. Each click of the mileage gauge increased his tension. Get a grip, Clay. A homicide detective needs to stay focused. He scoffed. Not happening with this case.

Tall pines and flowering shrubs surrounded the two-story house. The yard sloped toward a small sandy beach and a small dock. He pulled onto the gravel drive and parked. He couldn’t move. He sat staring at the house, reliving that day.

The call had come into the detective division at 9:30 am on a Wednesday morning. Uniformed officers had been called to do a welfare check on a family because the father had not reported for work. What the officers found prompted the call to homicide. He remembered Captain Bridge’s ashen face when he sent them to the scene. A family brutally murdered.

Clay reached for the file and withdrew a photo. It was worn, not from age, but from the multitude of times he had held it, hoping to understand what he thought was a clue left behind, a child’s sand pail, pink with yellow polka dots. Yet it meant nothing. Or nothing that he could understand.

Forcing himself to exit the car, he walked along the pebbled stone path to the front door. The adult female victim’s sister had vowed to maintain the house and had done so. A caretaker saw that the grounds were mowed and trimmed, flowers thriving in containers, the inside immaculate, but no one had lived in the house since the family died. The sister had given him a key. A key he kept on his keyring as a reminder. He unlocked the door and stepped inside.

Cool air from the air conditioner flowed across him, and he stopped for a moment. While the air was clean, he could smell death. That coppery smell of congealing blood so vivid in his memory that he could taste its metallic tang. He walked to the kitchen, where the first victim was found. The wife, Holly Mason, thirty-six, was lying on her back, her throat slashed. The theory from the blood spatter was that the killer approached from behind, cut her across the neck, and spun her to the floor. 

He stepped carefully as he left the kitchen, shaking his head at his stupidity. There was no blood to step in, but he couldn’t find the courage to step where he knew it had been. Continuing toward the small family room, he paused in the doorway. Three children had been found in the room, single knife cuts across their throats. The scene still made him sick to his stomach. One of his fellow detectives had thrown up on the spot. He knew none of them would forget the sight of a two-year-old boy and two girls aged four and five lying in pools of their own blood.

While they were dealing with the scene inside, uniformed officers searching the grounds had found another body, the father, in the boat shed which sat next to the dock. The adult male victim, Brad Mason, had been brutally murdered. The coroner’s report had listed twelve stab wounds to his chest and back as well as his throat cut. Whoever killed him wanted him good and dead.

Only hours later, when they located the next of kin, did the detectives learn there was another child, an eight-year-old girl. The mother’s sister, Jane Bertram, begged them to find her. They had tried. Ten years later, she was still missing, and he was still trying.

He walked across the sloping back yard toward the boathouse. Conscious of the photo in his shirt pocket, he stopped in mid-reach for the lever door handle. The door was as it had been that day. Pale gray paint, peeling on the edges, the slatted upper door, and rusting hardware, now a bit more worn than ten years ago. What was missing was the pink pail. In the photo, it hung from the door handle. Now, it rested in a box in the evidence room.

The eight-year-old’s name was Hannah, and her aunt informed them that her biological father gave her the pail when she was two, only weeks before he and her mother divorced. The man who died was her stepfather, and from all that he had been told, Hannah was devoted to him and him to her. He pulled the photo from his pocket. What had always concerned him was why the pail was hanging on the handle? It was out of place.

He wandered out of the boat shed and sat on a wrought-iron bench on the dock. The crystal blue water sparkled in the early summer sun. He missed coming here but hadn’t returned since the case was suspended for lack of evidence. His instinct convinced him that Hannah’s biological father had committed the murders and kidnapped her, but the trail had gone cold.

Why had he come here? He had to admit he didn’t know. But for some reason, he felt anxious as if something was going to happen. Probably just anxiety about the new job. Not convinced he could lead a team of homicide detectives. After all, he couldn’t find a young girl.

Walking back to the house, he thought of what Hannah’s aunt Jane had said to him the last time they spoke.

Clay, I cannot bring myself to change a thing in this house. My sister was finally happy with a man who adored her and all their children. I need to believe I will have Hannah back someday. So, until then, and she decides what to do with her house, nothing will change.

He locked the back door, and as he turned to leave by the front door, he spotted the dog food dishes. There had been a new puppy in the household, who also disappeared. He smiled. Jane didn’t give up on Hannah or the dog. He wasn’t going to either.

Back at the marina, he took the fishing pole and tackle from the car, rented a boat and headed out onto the lake, hoping to clear his thoughts of Hannah. Three hours on the lake and he caught four bass, but Hannah was always on his mind.

He returned to the dock and took the fish to the hotel kitchen where they would clean and prepare them for his dinner. After a quick shower, he headed downstairs to find his friend. Dave Newsome was at the front desk.

“Dave, good to see you.”

“Clay, how are you?”

“Okay, caught some fish, want to have dinner with me?”

Dave agreed, and an hour later, they were finishing a fish dinner and a few beers. Dave sighed. 

“I know this place holds bad memories. You know Brad ran the boat repair shop here. Everyone liked him, loved Holly and the kids. Even after all these years, they are still missed by the regulars. Lots of times, people will ask if Hannah was ever found.”

“Not that I didn’t try. When Hannah’s biological father simply disappeared, and the case was suspended for lack of evidence, I hired a private detective to try and find him. He tried for years. Nothing.”

Dave shook his head. “Maybe it will just never be. Let’s hope she’s happy somewhere.”

After dinner, Clay sat alone on the lake’s edge, restless. Deciding that relaxing was not for him, he decided to return to the city. Time to get back to work.

~oOo~

Saturday morning, he had breakfast with Dave before loading the car and heading out. As he reached the main road, he started to turn right toward the city. But a need to return to the house kept gnawing at him. He turned left.

Nothing had changed since yesterday. The house stood silent, keeping the secret that only it knew. He walked back to the small dock and sat on the bench. He needed to face that he would never find her. He needed to let Hannah go.

A crunch of tires on gravel drifted toward him, then stopped. Seconds later, a dog barked. He stood and turned toward the house, just in time to see a black Labrador Retriever racing around the corner.

He was rooted to the spot as a young woman followed the dog. His heart thumped in his chest. She had strawberry blond hair like Hannah. As he tried to find his voice, she spoke.

“Hello. I … I … who are you?”

“I’m Clay Jenkins. May I ask your name?

 “I’m Hannah Clark … uh… Mason. Did you know my family?”

He walked toward her, desperate to gather her in his arms but didn’t for fear of scaring her.

“Hannah, do you know what happened here?”

She nodded, her shoulders trembling. “I do now. I thought they gave me to him. That they didn’t want me. That’s what he said.”

“I was one of the police officers who investigated what happened to your family. I’ve been looking for you all this time.”

Hannah ran to him and began sobbing. “I didn’t — I didn’t know what he had done. He told me that my mother didn’t want me anymore. Then a year ago, he got sick, and he died two weeks ago. I found a letter he wrote to me. In it, he confessed what he did. That he killed them all to get me. He showed up in the boathouse when I was with my dad, the man I loved as my dad. Daddy ordered me to leave, and I went outside with Buster, who was a puppy then. I heard noise from inside like they were fighting, but then my real dad came out, blood all over him and told me that we were leaving and that I couldn’t take anything with me.”

Buster, the dog, snuggled up against her. “I ran to get my pink bucket, I carried it everywhere. I wanted to take it and Buster, but he said I couldn’t have both. I couldn’t leave without Buster, so I hung the bucket on the door for my dad to find, so he’d know what happened.” Her voice cracked. “I didn’t know they were dead.”

“Where have you been living?”

“A little town in Northern California. After I found the letter, I loaded the car with what I could and came here. I needed to know what happened to them.” She gazed at the house. “I didn’t expect to find the house, but I stopped at a gas station to ask, and the clerk knew exactly where it was.”

Clay wrapped his arms around her. “You are safe now. Do you remember your aunt, Jane?” She nodded. “You aren’t alone. She has never given up hope and kept the house here for you. Would you like me to call her?”

“Yes … would you?”

He placed the call and broke the news to Hannah’s aunt. They agreed to meet at the hotel that evening. As he listened to Hannah’s excited voice as she spoke to her aunt, he realized he needed to get her pink polka-dotted pail out of evidence. 

Hannah was back.

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Please visit D. A. Ratliff’s blog, https://thecoastalquill.wordpress.com/ and her Facebook author page, https://www.facebook.com/D-A-Ratliff-594776510682937/

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