St. Petersburg, Florida
September 13, 2012
The last words he said to her: “Don’t embarrass me with this shit.”
In later days, months, and years, he will tell everyone who asks, and some who do not, that the last words from his lips to her ears were “I love you.” Sometimes, during sleepless nights, he can almost convince himself that it is true.
But as they walked out of their building and into the harsh Florida sun that September day, Mark Novak didn’t even look his wife in the eye. They were moving fast even though neither of them was running late. It was the way you walked when you were eager to get away from someone.
“It’s a leaked photograph,” he said as they reached the sidewalk. “She knows two things that would both be available through a single leaked photograph.”
“Maybe. If it is, wouldn’t it be good to know how she got it?”
“She’s not going to admit that. She’s going to claim this psychic bullshit.”
“You need to open your mind,” Lauren said. “You need to consider accepting that it’s a complex world.”
“You need to be able to have the common sense to identify a fraud when you see one.”
“Maybe she is a fraud. I won’t know until I look into it.”
“Nobody’s stopping you from wasting your time.”
She looked up at him then, the last time they ever looked at each other, but any chance of eye contact was prevented by her sunglasses.
“Mark.” She sighed, still patient. “Your personal understanding of the world doesn’t invalidate another’s.” Her last words to him. She’d stopped walking because they’d reached her car, an Infiniti coupe that was parked a block closer to the building than his Jeep. Here he had the chance for the customary kiss, or at least a hand on the shoulder, a quick squeeze, some eye contact. Here he had the chance to say I love you.
“Don’t embarrass me with this shit,” Mark said. He had a hand over his eyes, rubbing his face, and his voice was weary and resigned and the words were soft, and though now he likes to allow a few beers to convince him that she didn’t hear them, she did.
By the time he was behind the wheel of the Jeep, she was already at the end of the street, waiting to turn left onto Fifth Avenue and head for the interstate. The hole in traffic held, and he made it through just behind her. For two blocks they were together, and then they pulled onto I-275. The added height of the Jeep allowed him to see down into her smaller car, catch a glimpse of tan skin and blond hair that made her look like she belonged to the beach, which was true enough, as she’d grown up on it. Her eyes were hidden behind her sunglasses, so he never knew if she glanced in the mirror to look back at him. He likes to believe that she did, and that his face was kind.
For a few hundred yards he was tucked in just behind her, and then the interstate split. One ramp peeled right, north toward Tampa, and the other peeled left, south toward Sarasota. The Infiniti glided north. Mark turned south.
He wasn’t angry. He was annoyed. They’d known that there would be conflicts when they began working together, but so far those had been minor, and they were both happy to be part of the dream team—Innocence Inc. was doing the best pro bono legal work in the country, challenging death row, freeing the wrongfully convicted. Seventeen successful exonerations in just three years. Mark and Lauren knew that it was going to be their life’s work. Lauren would be playing at a higher level—what lay ahead for her was the actual courtroom, while Mark was part of the investigative team—but that separation was never a discord. If anything, the interview she was heading off to now stepped on his toes because it was lower-level work, and that would infuriate Jeff London, their boss. Lauren was driving to Cassadaga to talk to a self-proclaimed psychic about a vision the woman believed relevant to a death penalty–defense case. The woman had known two things she couldn’t have learned from media reports: the color of a victim’s socks on the night of her death and the fact that the victim hadn’t shaved her legs in several days.
Mark had told Lauren not to make the trip, and though the last words he’d said—Don’t embarrass me with this shit—were surely selfish, he didn’t think his argument was. Jeff London, who ran the show, did not have tolerance for bullshit. Psychics were high on the bullshit meter for most people, Mark had explained, but to Jeff, they were going to be off the charts.
He didn’t know that for sure, actually. They were off the charts for him but perhaps not for Jeff, and that was where the disingenuous, if not outright dishonest, portion of the argument existed. Making the debate personal seemed to weaken it, though, coming from his own experiences with cons and scam artists who preyed on the most desperate of people—the grieving—and Lauren would be quick to point out that bias, so he put it on London instead.
He was driving south on the Sunshine Skyway, and the bridge was living up to its name, the sun angling through the windshield and reflecting harshly off the Gulf of Mexico. He fumbled for sunglasses, couldn’t reach them, and almost lost his lane. A horn blew, and he corrected fast and didn’t blame the other driver for the middle finger that flashed. It had been close to a wreck, and it had been Mark’s fault. A car accident was not going to help the celebration he planned for tonight, and that was already staggering.
At the tollbooth, he finally had a chance to grab the sunglasses, and he also plugged his phone into the charger and, for an instant, thought about calling Lauren. Thought about imploring one more time: Let’s just enjoy the weekend and you can think about it. We can talk about it. And if you still want to do it, then go on Monday.
He didn’t make the call, though. He knew they’d work it out later. They had the whole weekend, and they had rented a beach house on Siesta Key, a getaway they couldn’t afford but had still decided to splurge on. A diving trip loomed, the activity that had brought them together. The first time he’d seen his future wife, in fact, she’d been underwater.
“The hell with it,” Mark said, accelerating south. Let her learn her lesson on the wild-goose chase, and let him learn to keep his mouth shut. Working with your spouse wasn’t easy, but it was easier when the work was a passion project. There were far more good days than bad, and most of the time they were able to leave it at the office. This weekend, he would make sure that they did.
He had the beach house ready for her by late afternoon. It was a gorgeous place, the crushed-shell drive shaded by thick palms, the back deck looking out on white sand and the sparkling waters of the Gulf beyond, private in a way few areas on the Florida coast were. He eyed the chaise longue on the deck and thought that it would be a fine place for some starlit sex. The deck would cool down by evening, particularly with that breeze off the water, the palms kept things private, and the sound of the waves would be just right.
Shouldn’t have said it, he thought then. Shouldn’t have risked ruining a good night with a prick comment like that.
He’d make it right, though. He’d keep his mouth shut while she talked about the crazy woman in Cassadaga, and he would apologize for his parting shot. In this place, it would be hard to hold on to anger for long, and Lauren was never one for that anyhow.
He read on the deck for a while, fell asleep, and woke at five with the sun in his eyes. Time to get to work on dinner. He’d stopped in Sarasota to buy food and a few bottles of wine, and Lauren had promised to be there no later than six. He made a Caprese salad—her favorite; this was sure to help take the edge off—and opened the wine, and at ten to six he preheated the grill. He even set a pack of her cigarettes and an ashtray on the deck, a clear gesture of apology because he was always bitching at her to give up the habit. Beside them he set a small plastic disk—her diving permit from the first trip they’d taken together, an outing to the Saba National Marine Park in the Caribbean, where she’d given him his first lessons. She’d talked her father into bringing him, insisting that Mark would make a great instructor one of these days. That had been the weekend of their first kiss, and he’d retrieved the permit from her bag at the end of the trip and saved it. Overly sentimental? Sure. But she’d brought that out in him when he’d thought nobody ever would. He carried no artifacts with him from the West, and most of his life had been spent there.
Beside the old tag, and weighed down against the wind by her ashtray, were two tickets for a return trip to Saba. He’d pushed the AmEx card toward its limit with that one, but you passed the bar only once (ideally) and Mark—who’d grown up in a family where six months of steady work was considered a rarity—was determined to recognize Lauren’s achievement. Still, he was certain the old permit tag and not the pending trip would mean the most. He’d taken the tag because he couldn’t believe he’d be able to hang on to her—there was no chance of such a blessing for him—and he’d wanted something tangible to remind him that he’d been granted at least that one weekend.
That had been five years ago.
At six she wasn’t there, and he didn’t want to put the steaks on the grill if she’d been held up, so he called to check on her ETA. The call went straight to voice mail, and he left a message: Our place is beautiful and so are you. When will you be here?
He called again at six thirty, and then at seven. Voice mail, voice mail. By the third message, he couldn’t keep the irritation out of his tone.
At a quarter to eight, he put a steak on the grill, cooked it, and ate it alone on the deck, tasting nothing but anger. It was one thing for her to ignore his advice; it was another entirely to allow it to ruin a night that was supposed to be special.
It was eight thirty and the sun was easing down behind the water when the anger began to ebb toward concern. Lauren wasn’t a grudge holder. She always wanted to talk emotions out, a habit that ran so contrary to Mark’s style that it felt like listening to a foreign language. Even if the lunatic in Cassadaga had delayed her, she would have called by now to issue a mea culpa and tell Mark when she’d make it to the beach.
Something was wrong.
He thought of the near miss on the Sunshine Skyway then, the way he’d almost lost control of the car as he reached for his sunglasses, and for the first time he felt true fear.
He called every five minutes until ten o’clock. Voice mail, voice mail, voice mail. Sometimes he left a message, sometimes he didn’t. The call trail would later be used to clear him as a perpetrator of the horrors that had already happened in Volusia County, but he didn’t know it then. All he knew was that he’d gone from annoyed to worried to terrified.
He found the name of the psychic in Cassadaga, but she had no phone and so, short of his driving out there, her name wasn’t going to do him much good. He sent a text message to Jeff London, trying to remain low-key: Hey, Jeff, any chance you’ve heard a report from Lauren this evening?
Jeff answered immediately: No. Thought you guys were supposed to be doing the romantic weekend. She find a better offer?
Could be. I live in fear of it.
As well you should, Markus, Jeff responded.
Mark sat on the same chaise longue that he’d imagined he would be sharing with Lauren by now. Everything was as he’d pictured—the stars were out, the breeze was fresh and warm, the palm fronds rustled, and the waves splashed gently onto the sand. Everything was in place but his wife.
“Please call,” he whispered in a voice that belonged more to a prayer than anything else. He was draining the battery on his phone, checking the display over and over as if it might refute the silence and show a missed call. “Please, Lauren.”
She didn’t call. He did, yet again, and he said “I love you” to her voice mail, and so this much is true about the last words: he said them. He just didn’t realize he was saying them to a cell phone that lay in the bottom of a water-filled ditch and that the first bullet had entered his wife’s brain more than three hours earlier.
His mouth was dry and his legs felt unsteady when he stood and walked down to the beach. He took deep breaths, tasting the salty breeze, telling himself that it would be fine. There would be a story to it, sure—a flat tire in the backwoods, something like that—but it would be fine. They were young and they were healthy and so of course things would be fine, because this was promised to them, wasn’t it? They had more time. They had more days.
A beam of light passed over the dark sand then and tires crunched on the crushed-shell drive and he was so relieved he could have fallen to his knees. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
He hurried up the deck steps and through the house, thinking that none of it mattered, not the argument or the missed dinner or any of it, nothing mattered except that he was going to pull her into his arms. Then he opened the front door and saw that the car waiting there wasn’t his wife’s.
It was the Sarasota County sheriff’s.
January 24, 2014
It was snowing in Indiana.
Mark had boarded the plane in sunshine and seventy degrees, and two hours later it touched down in swirling winds that whipped snow around the tarmac. It was just beginning to accumulate, a dusting in the distant fields. The ground crew wore face masks and gloves. Passengers were pulling heavy jackets down from the overhead bins. When the flight attendant handed Mark his thin cashmere blazer, he realized that it might have been prudent to check the forecast. The truth was he didn’t even own anything like what the others were putting on. He hadn’t been north of Atlanta in five years now and hadn’t intended to be again. He’d seen enough blizzards in his youth. When he’d left Montana at seventeen, he’d hoped never to see snow again. Never to see a lot of things again.
The car waiting for him was a Ford Escape, and he was grateful to see it had all-wheel drive.
“How bad is it supposed to get?” he asked the rental attendant at the exit booth as he pulled out his driver’s license. The attendant was also wearing a wool mask and gloves. Everyone here was dressed like they were prepared to rob a bank.
“This? Just flurries, my man. Not bad at all. You’ll be fine.”
“All right.” Mark put up the window fast because the snow was landing on his lap and he was freezing already. Brought back memories: an April blizzard howling out of the mountains and across the plains, Mark searching for his mother in the snow, finding her half frozen and fully drunk. He’d left her three weeks later, taking only a backpack and a small wad of cash secured with a rubber band.
He pulled away from the airport and got on the highway, bound for Garrison, Indiana, on a fool’s errand while back in Florida, the board of directors for Innocence Incorporated gathered to discuss whether they had to terminate him or if a suspension and pay cut would suffice.
“Get the lay of the land and a sense of the players,” London had told him, shoving a small case file across the desk, “but mostly, just get the hell out of my sight. I’ll be in touch once the board has met.”
The truth of it was that his boss didn’t want to risk Mark’s speaking personally to the board. The questions they would ask—How can you reconcile your actions with the mission of this organization?—were not questions London could afford to have Mark answer.
Thus Indiana. You wanted to keep the live grenades out of the room when you could.
He had to leave the interstate almost immediately, and then it was onto state highways blasted by strong gusts of wind as he drove first across flat farm country and then into unbroken, old-growth forest, heading southeast. He was surprised by how wooded and steep southern Indiana was. The flat fields around Indianapolis had fit with his vision of the state, but these forested hills did not. He’d been on the road for two hours before he reached Garrison and rolled into the downtown square—which was literally a square, with a courthouse at the center and storefronts on the sides facing it, like a Hollywood set for a middle-American small town. Cue up the John Mellencamp. The square had buildings on only three sides, though. The fourth was an empty expanse, leaving the downtown feeling unfinished, as if somewhere along the line, the people who’d settled here had decided they’d made a mistake. Street signs promised him that the sheriff’s department was just a block beyond the courthouse. Step one. The case started wherever the file ended.
This was what he knew from the case abstract that Innocence Incorporated had provided: In September of 2004, a seventeen-year-old girl named Sarah Martin had entered a recently opened tourist cave called Trapdoor Caverns with her boyfriend with the intention of teenage romance. Noises spooked them, the boyfriend went to check things out, and the girl hid, but she did too good a job of it. When the boyfriend returned, she was missing, and he ran out of the cave and reported that she was lost. Security cameras validated his story and his timeline. There was no indication of criminal activity. Searchers had no luck finding her. Then a man named Ridley Barnes, whose reputation underground was without peer but whose reputation above the shoulders was not as impressive, pulled away from the search party. For days, he was considered as lost as Sarah. Then he returned, hypothermic and raving, carrying the girl in his arms. She was dead, handcuffed and beaten. Barnes initially claimed that he’d spoken with her, but when the coroner’s time-of-death assessment called that into question, he said that he must have been mistaken. When asked to take police to the place where he’d found her, he said he couldn’t remember where it was or even come close to locating it again. He then explained that he had no memory of finding the body. After that, he decided to stop talking to the police entirely. Ridley Barnes had not given an interview in the past decade.
This was what Mark knew of it. What he cared about it: nothing. There was no point in investing emotionally in this one because he’d be called off it within days. He knew it, and Jeff London knew it. Still, he had to go through the motions.
He hugged the blazer around himself and blew on his palms as he walked down the street to the sheriff’s office. It was adjacent to the Garrison County jail, which was the largest building in town. That suggested promising things about the community. Inside, three empty chairs stood beside a soda machine and a bulletin board filled with pictures of local people with active warrants. They were all white faces. Across from this was a pane of tinted bulletproof glass, and a uniformed woman stood behind it.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m hoping to speak to whoever handles your homicide cases.”
“You’re reporting a homicide?”
“No. I’m inquiring about one.”
“Sarah Jean Martin. From 2004.”
Her face froze. When she spoke again, it seemed to take effort. “Is this a media inquiry?”
“No.” Mark took out his wallet, found a business card, and slid it to her through a slot in the glass along with his investigator’s license, which was still active, though in jeopardy. She studied both and said, “Florida, eh?”
“Explains the coat,” she said, and then she hit a button and the door unlocked with an electronic buzz. Mark pulled the handle and stepped through and she met him on the other side. “Follow me. You can speak with the sheriff.”
“Dan Blankenship. Don’t know much about what you’re getting into here, do you?”
Her age and her lack of interest upon his arrival had suggested that she was waiting to get her pension and walk out the door, but now there was a little spark, and it had come from Sarah Martin’s name.
“I’m here to learn,” Mark said. When they reached the sheriff’s office, the door was open, and she entered without knocking, the way you did only after you’d worked with someone for a long time.
“Dan? This gentleman wants to talk with you. Markus Novak. He’s from Florida.”
“It explains my coat,” Mark offered, to save her the trouble.
The sheriff was a tall man of about sixty who looked like he should be advertising pickup trucks. His hand completely enveloped Mark’s when they shook. When they were alone, the sheriff sat down and leaned back in his chair as ice blew against the window behind him, a sound like tiny claws working to get through the glass.
“Florida. Bet you wish you’d picked another day to visit us, eh? Another month, even.”
“It’s a little brisk out there.”
The sheriff smiled. His eyes didn’t. Mark thought that he probably politicked just fine, as evidenced by his elected position, but probably was pretty good police too. He looked at Mark’s business card and said, “The death-row outfit. I’ve heard of you. Only case we’ve had in thirty years that landed anyone on death row has already ended in an execution. I’m afraid you’re a bit late.”
“Actually, our case doesn’t have a conviction yet, or even charges. The victim’s name was Sarah Jean Martin.”
Without even moving, the sheriff seemed to contract, as if something inside him had opened up and pulled in his exterior strength to fill the void.
“Sarah,” he said.
“Yes. She went missing in a cave ten years ago and it was assumed she’d gotten lost until a man named Ridley Barnes brought her to the surface in handcuffs, is my understanding.”
Blankenship blinked at him as if to refocus. He had the look of someone who was pretending to be interested in a conversation at a party while really eavesdropping on a discussion carrying on behind him.
“That’s your understanding,” he said.
“Is it incorrect?”
“Who brought you into this?”
“We received a proposal from Ridley Barnes. I’m just vetting it.”
Blankenship’s professional demeanor vanished and his eyes went from unsmiling to unfriendly.
“Ridley himself.” His voice was tight. “That makes sense. Been too long since people hurt over Sarah, at least visibly, at least so he could enjoy it.”
“You think he killed her.”
“He killed her, yes.”
Mark withdrew the original letter from his folder and passed it across the desk. “Tell me what you think of this.”
“I just did.” Blankenship made no move to take the letter.
“Read it,” Mark said. “Please.”
Blankenship accepted it with distaste and then began to read it aloud, in a voice filled with contempt.
I am writing first of all to say how much I appreciate the goals of your organization. I think that it fills a hole, as there are not, as you say, sufficient funds or resources to properly pursue cases in rural locations. There are people all around this town who would tell you that I have benefited from just such a situation. I don’t think they are correct, though. We’re all the same in this town when you get right down to it, me and the ones who hate me and all the other people who have simply cared about that girl and what happened to her. We are all the same because we live with the not-knowing.
The sheriff looked up. “Now, ain’t that touching? Ridley, he’s feeling all of our pain. Carrying it, apparently. This story come from his pen or from the Gospels themselves?”
Mark didn’t answer, and the sheriff cleared his throat theatrically and returned to reading.
We live with that every day and we think about it every day or at least some of us do. And while some people think that if things were known then I would be in prison or maybe in the electric chair, I would just like to know what happened, the same as them. That’s all that I want to know. My question is the same as theirs—did I do it?
I expect that you will take the opinion of most people who read anything about this case, which is that I’m a liar or a crazy person because I would know if I did it. I had given up on ever explaining that but then I came across some things in a book and I thought maybe this would explain my situation better than my own words ever could. So I hope you read it and consider it and then maybe consider talking to me. Here is what was in the book, which is called Blind Descent, by a man named James Tabor.
Supercaves create innate dangers as well, warping the mind with claustrophobia, anxiety, insomnia, hallucinations, personality disorders. There is also a particularly insidious derangement unique to caves called The Rapture, which is like a panic attack on meth. It can strike anywhere in a cave, at any time, but usually assaults a caver deep underground.
And, of course, there is one more that, like getting lost, tends to be overlooked because it’s omnipresent: absolute, eternal darkness. Darkness so dark, without a single photon of light, that it is the luminal equivalent of absolute zero.
I can’t tell you anything I experienced better than those words do it. That bit about The Rapture. You’d have to have a jury of twelve people who’d lived through it to believe me. There might not be twelve people alive who have been through such a thing as what I endured down there. But here’s the deal—it’s never going to get to a jury until we know what happened. And whether it helps me or hurts me, I can’t take that anymore. The not-knowing. I just can’t take it, and I’d rather go to prison and know that I belonged there than live another day in my own skin wondering what happened. So that’s what I’m asking you for. I don’t have money. You say you don’t need money. That you only need cases that deserve attention. Well, this one always did. Still does.
I’m hoping you can tell me if I did it.
The sheriff said the name with a disgusted drawl, then spun the letter back across the desk to Mark the way you’d flick a greasy fast-food wrapper into a trash can.
“You guys must have more money than brains if that letter from that loon was enough to bring you up here.”
Mark couldn’t very well tell him that nobody would have considered sending someone up here if Jeff London hadn’t wanted to get Mark out of sight, so he just said, “Why so convinced that he killed her?”
Blankenship began to tick off the points on his fingers but never made it beyond the first one; as his anger grew, his counting stopped. “Because he’s the only one who knew that cave well enough to hide her in it. Then he decided to bring her back because it covered his ass. We had other experts searching in there, and they worked in a team. Ridley Barnes decided to go it alone and vanished in the cave. For a few days there, we figured he was as lost as she was. Then…” Blankenship’s jaw tightened. “Then he returned, with her body. She was wearing handcuffs and had been for a while.”
“Cause of death?”
“Hypothermia. Classified as a homicide investigation because Sarah died after being abducted. She didn’t die of the cold in that cave because she’d gotten lost. She had some help.”
“Had she been sexually assaulted?”
Blankenship swallowed and looked away. Mark thought the display of discomfort was odd in a man who’d spent a lifetime in policing.
“My point is, somebody had kept her alive for a time. Maybe wanted to keep her alive much longer. You know the kind, like that guy in Cleveland, the one who had the girls in his basement for, what, ten years? Hell, maybe Ridley couldn’t get it up and took out his anger on her. That happens. Guys blame their own victims.”
“Why would he produce the body if he’d succeeded in hiding her so well?”
Blankenship looked down at his right hand as he curled it into a fist and then loosened it, as if it were a required exercise, some sort of stress release that allowed him to exhibit the demeanor he wanted instead of the one that threatened.
“Because Ridley’s a game player. Because he’s a sick son of a bitch who got a kick out of the idea that by rescuing his own victim, he’d give the prosecutor a hell of a hard time using the physical evidence against him. And that is precisely why we never got a conviction. Never even got it to court. The DNA results, her blood on him, all of that? Well, he did carry her body through a cave, didn’t he? Reasonable doubt.”
“It is reasonable,” Mark said. “But you don’t buy it.”
“No, I certainly don’t.”
“Because he claimed not to remember where he’d found her, or how. Because later he refused to speak to us. And because when he first emerged from the cave, he told us that he’d heard her voice and followed the sound to locate her.”
“It sure does. Right up until the coroner gave us a time of death that completely contradicted Ridley’s story. She would have been dead before he found her, but somehow he still heard her last words?”
Mark thought, Don’t embarrass me with this shit. He said, “What were the words? What did he hear her say?”
Mark was confused. “That’s what Barnes heard the victim say, or that’s what I should do?”
“Both,” Blankenship told him.
“He’s a deeply disturbed man. He’d told other people things about the cave that summer, including the following highlights: The cave had a soul; the cave did not like intruders; the cave required that anyone who entered it demonstrate respect. Unwelcome visitors, he said, would be treated harshly. Here’s another gem: If you spent enough time in the cave, if you listened to it carefully enough, you’d learn what it required of you. If you performed those tasks, you’d be granted powers that would travel with you back to the surface. You liking the way his mind works so far?”
“Not especially. But when I ask about motive, I mean a direct connection to the victim.”
“I’m well aware of what a motive is, Mr. Novak. Ridley had no direct connection to Sarah Martin beyond the fact that she worked at the cave as a tour guide all summer when he was working there exploring new tunnels and holes and pits. She was a beautiful young girl and he was a disturbed and lonely man.”
“So no motive.”
Blankenship looked at Mark as if he were wondering whether he could justify arresting him on charges of aggravated annoyance.
“I’ll tell you what you ought to do right now, Mr. Novak,” the sheriff said, getting out of his chair and unfolding to his full, impressive height. Mark was six foot, and Blankenship towered over him. “Don’t waste my time questioning me about motive before you’ve even met the man. Go visit Ridley Barnes. Talk to the wrongfully accused old boy in person. Then you give me a call. You tell me after meeting him if you really think this one is worth your time and dollars. You tell me what you think about motive.”
“Fair enough,” Mark said, knowing that Jeff London would be furious with him for letting the interview end so abruptly but not caring because Jeff didn’t want this one anyhow. As the sheriff had aptly observed, the case didn’t even meet the standards for Innocence Incorporated. Jeff had exiled Mark up here, and all Mark had to do was play out the string and wait to be summoned home.
“Let me show you out,” the sheriff said. They left the office and walked back down the hall and to the main door.
“Where are you staying?” the sheriff asked.
“Haven’t decided yet.”
“Really? All the way up from Florida without a hotel reservation?”
“Didn’t realize it was peak season in Garrison.”
The sheriff gave a wan smile as he opened the door. “I suspect you’ll find a room still available. And you let me know what you think of Ridley. Be mighty curious to see how he tugs on your heartstrings.”
“I’ll let you know. Say, whatever happened to the kid she went in there with? The boyfriend. He still around?”
That provoked a thoughtful nod. “Evan Borders. He’s a treat. There were plenty of police who had a hard-on for him ahead of Barnes in that case. Not because of the evidence. More because of the…character, I suppose you’d say.”
“His daddy was trouble, and Evan and the Leonards, his cousins, they carry on the legacy. The three of them run round here like a pack of feral dogs looking for things to snap at. But they pale in comparison with Ridley. He may be a true sociopath.”
Blankenship scrutinized Mark and said, “Mind if I ask you a question?”
“You’re in the pro bono investigation business, am I right?”
“I would think a man finds himself in that line of work because he cares. No offense, Mr. Novak, but I don’t get the feeling that you give a damn about this.”
“Until I know whether we’re taking a case, I try to keep my emotional distance,” Mark said. “It’s tough to get invested in one when you might be pulled off it. Make sense?”
“I suppose,” the sheriff said, but he didn’t seem satisfied with the answer. “Something you need to consider, whether you want to preserve your, um, emotional distance or not: Sarah matters to people here. The people you’ll be talking to? They don’t have that distance, son.”
“I’ll keep that in mind when I see them,” Mark said.
“You be careful what doors you knock on around here, Novak.”
“That a threat?”
“Not in the least. You’re just…not acquainted with the place yet.”
“That doesn’t sound like a real warm endorsement of your hometown, Sheriff.”
Blankenship looked off to the darkening sky above the old limestone courthouse.
“Real storm’s coming tomorrow, you know. If you were to want to go back to the Sunshine State, tonight would be the time to fly out.”
“Going to get that bad, eh?”
“I don’t put much stock in forecasts, personally. There’s some calling for ten inches of snow here, others are saying it’ll be warm enough to keep it mostly rain. Like I said, I’ve learned not to trust them. Just to be ready. You learn the same in Florida, with the hurricanes and whatnot? Or do you trust the forecasts down there?”
“We still talking about the weather?”
The sheriff gave a humorless smile. “You’re a symbolic man, are you?”
“Good, because I like straight talk. And I’ve given it. The weather is the weather. The warnings are the warnings. If I were you, I’d pay attention to both.”
He’d have to speak with Sarah Martin’s family at some point, and part of him wanted to have that done before he met with Ridley Barnes. It wasn’t a large enough part to win the day, though. He knew the family already in ways that they wouldn’t understand, and he wanted to protect them until the last possible moment.
Instead, he drove out of town, following the GPS directions to the address Ridley Barnes had provided. He called Jeff London while he drove and got his voice mail.
“Jeff, it’s Mark. Local law wasn’t real happy to see me, and they’re curious why in the hell we’re up here when nobody was charged, let alone convicted. I’ve got no answer for that. I don’t like being put in a position where I’ve got no answers. I know you’ll say I earned my ticket here, but these people don’t understand that, and it’s not fair to them. I don’t want to sit down with that girl’s family and lead them on. Consider that and give me a call, please.”
Ridley Barnes lived about nine winding miles outside Garrison in a single-story house with faded stone walls and a slouching roof. Undulating fields spread out in every direction, broken stalks of wheat protruding from the snow. Smoke rose from the chimney of the house and blended into the gray sky. By the time Mark was out of the car, the front door was open and a man in jeans and a hooded Carhartt work coat peered out at him.
“You Ridley Barnes?”
“Then I’m not lost.” Mark went up to the porch. Ridley Barnes watched him suspiciously. He had long, unkempt gray hair and a matching beard. His blue eyes seemed bright against it.
“You know my name, then I ought to hear yours.”
“I’m with Innocence Incorporated.”
The bright eyes widened and Barnes said, “No shit! Didn’t figure to hear from you, but I did figure I’d hear by phone, if anything, not have you just show up like this.”
“It’s not our standard procedure,” Mark acknowledged. He was looking at the heavy canvas jacket. You didn’t encounter them in Florida, but there had been other places in his life where they’d been common. His mother had given him one for Christmas, paid for with money she’d conned off tourists by telling them she was a Native American spirit guide even though she wasn’t even Native American, and told him, It’s rugged and durable, kiddo. Just like you. The first real fight he ever got into was with an older kid who’d tried to steal that coat. You weren’t supposed to win your first fight, but if you did, as Mark happened to, it was awfully easy to get a taste for it.
“I wasn’t even sure you’d talk to me,” Barnes said. “Seeing as how I’m not on death row.”
“The good news, Mr. Barnes, is that I am.” Ridley gave him a confused look, and Mark said, “I’m a little out of favor with my boss at the moment. I think he liked the idea of sending me into the snow. You know how it goes.”
“Sure, sure,” Barnes said, and he offered an uncertain smile. “Come in out of the cold.”
Mark followed him inside. A fire was going in an old cast-iron woodstove in one corner of the living room, and ropes were draped all around it. Ridley stepped through them nimbly without appearing to even watch his feet.
“Caught me tying,” Ridley said.
“I’m going vertical this weekend. Getting everything ready now. Shitty day, why not, right?” He lifted a neat loop of black rope off an old recliner and set it on the floor, then indicated that Mark should take the chair.
“In a cave, man.”
“I don’t follow.”
“People who haven’t been underground, they always think a cave is like a bunch of tunnels. You just walk or crawl or whatever. But they develop in layers, right? Layers of time and stone. That means you’re not just moving horizontally, you’re moving vertically.”
“Got you.” Mark sat down and looked at all the rope and tried to estimate how many feet were laid out. At least two hundred. Maybe more. Ropes of different sizes, from thick static lines to paracord, hung nearby. Along the far wall was a row of shelves covered with what looked like more climbing gear: Harnesses and carabiners and bolts. Several battered helmets with lamps mounted on them. On a low shelf, there were also face masks and oxygen tanks.
“You’re a diver,” Mark said.
“Not a diver. Still a caver.”
“You use that gear inside of caves?”
“Sure. Water carves the caves. It’s still carving them. Got to be willing to go through the water to find out what’s there.”
“I suppose so,” Mark said. “But I’m not here to talk about caving. I’ve got to make a decision about this case. Whether it’s the right fit for us. To know if—”
“Novak!” Ridley barked the name the way a furious coach might call out a player who’d just screwed up. Mark raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything.
“You’re the one!” Ridley said. “I read about you. The investigator biographies, I read each of them, and you…with you, I knew. You had to be the one.”
“Why’s that?” Mark said. He’d gotten his first uneasy chill from Ridley, the first indication that this man’s cylinders didn’t fire in the standard patterns.
“You noticed the date, didn’t you?” Ridley’s eyes sparkled.
“I knew you would. Right there on your website it says that your work is dedicated to the memory of that girl, you know, and—”
“That girl,” Mark said, “was my wife.”
“Of course. But did you notice the dates? She was killed the same day that Sarah Martin went missing. Different years, of course, but the same day.”
Mark had not noticed the dates. He hadn’t had a chance to look at much more than Ridley’s letter, in fact, because he’d been shuffled out of town in such a hurry. Time had been short, and Mark’s information about Sarah Martin was so minimal, it would have been embarrassing if he’d actually cared about the case. He’d done no preliminary research, just proceeded with the one-page abstract and Ridley’s proposal letter. That why-bother approach was based on the knowledge that he was only marking time here until Jeff called him back, but now the lack of preparation was catching up with him.
“Is that so,” he said, his voice hollow.
“Absolutely. I noted it in my letter when I requested you, but maybe they didn’t show you that one?”
Frost spread through Mark’s veins. “You requested me?”
“Sure did. There were two letters. I guess they only showed you the one? But somebody must have agreed with me when I said that you were the right person for this.”
Mark felt an old tug, an instinct he’d thought was gone, one he’d tried so, so hard to put away: the urge to punch and keep on punching, swing until he could see the bones of his own hand through torn skin. He wasn’t thinking of punching Ridley Barnes, though; it was Jeff London’s face that he saw.
There are unsolved cases beyond Lauren’s, London had said. You’re going to need to prove you can continue to work them. Show me that you can still care about another case, Markus. If you can’t, then tell me.
Mark had insisted that he could and said that he understood Jeff’s point—Lauren’s case belonged to police investigators and not to him and if he didn’t accept that, he’d drown in it. All understood, check, check, check. But still Jeff sent him to Indiana to deal with this lunatic and, what, have some moment of clarity? It was a pathetic ploy, and an infuriating one.
“The date is irrelevant,” Mark said. “My only interest here is Sarah Martin. I’ve had a preliminary visit with the police, and that’s what I’m hoping to have with you. Explain what it is that I do, and what I don’t do, and—”
“Do you know what your name means?”
Mark tilted his head and stared at Ridley. “Excuse me?”
“The origin of your own name. Are you familiar with it?”
Mark took a deep breath and decided to indulge him. “My full first name is Markus. Markus means different things in different cultures. ‘Warring’ in one. ‘Hammer’ in another.”
“Mars was the god of war, you’re correct, but I mean your surname.”
“No idea. It’s Czech.”
“Excellent! Then you’re the new man, the stranger.” Ridley smiled. “Novak is the term for a newcomer in town. A stranger arriving.”
“Then it suits my family well,” Mark said. “But if we could get back to your story, I’d—”
“You want my notes? Hang on.” Barnes left the room, stepping through the ropes with an athlete’s grace that his weathered appearance didn’t hint at, disappeared down a short hallway, then returned with a stack of overflowing accordion folders. “Just take the files. I know it all inside out. Read it many, many times.” He pushed his shaggy hair back and said, “Trying to remember, you know. Trying to remember.”
“You do understand that if we undertake any investigation, the results could be damaging to you?”
“Obviously. But somebody needs to undertake it.” If Ridley Barnes was nervous about the idea, he didn’t show it. All that came off him was enthusiasm. There was something alarming about that.
“There’s a surveillance video in there,” Ridley said. “That one is a head-scratcher. Shows the cave entrance. Shows them go in and him come out. Shows the police going in and police coming out. And then…then me.” He ran a hand through his hair and shook his head violently. “Ah, damn.” A deep breath. “Someone needs to speak for her, you know. That’s why I went looking for people like you guys.”
“Yes,” Mark said. “Someone does need to speak for her.” He was looking at Barnes and wondering if this was a game to him, as Blankenship had suggested, if he’d killed the girl and gotten bored after the detectives went away and the years passed. If he wanted them back to play some more.
“Did you retain anyone to investigate on your behalf previously?”
Ridley shook his head, and he looked distressed, a patient who wanted a cure but didn’t want to have to describe his embarrassing symptoms.
“Ah, man, you know…patience was the thing. I’m struggling with that now. I’ll be honest with you. I’m struggling with it.”
“Hard thing to clarify. What she wanted from me was patience. Maybe what she still wants from me. I have the promise, you know? She’ll tell me in time. I’ve tried to accept that, but, brother, it gets hard. The not-knowing? It gets hard.”
Mark had interviewed countless people with disturbed minds, including four in mental institutions, but he’d never felt as uncomfortable with any of them as he did with Ridley Barnes.
“By she, you mean Sarah Martin?”
“And Trapdoor. Either/or.”
“Either/or? One’s a dead child, Mr. Barnes. The other is a cave.”
Ridley frowned as if offended. “You’re going to need to start considering that from a different perspective if this is going to work.”
Mark held up a hand to silence him.
“I’m not going to get caught up in that before I understand the backstory. One question I have no answer to yet: Was there any reason police would have looked at you before you found her body? Did you have any prior knowledge of her?”
Mark raised an eyebrow. “Tangentially?”
Barnes shrugged. “She worked at Trapdoor. I was mapping Trapdoor that same summer. So I’d encountered her a few times. I mean, you know, I’d watched her. Sure, I’d watched her.”
Mark felt a spike of distaste. “What do you mean by watched her, exactly?”
Another shrug. “I paid attention to everyone who was going to be around the cave. She was just a girl, you know, but she caught your eye. Good-looking girl, big smile, big laugh. Lot of joy. She caught your eye.”
One of the interviewing techniques that Mark brought naturally to the table and that impressed Jeff London was a comfort with silence. You developed that sort of comfort when you grew up listening to drunks and blowhards in places where the weather could lock you down for days at a time, nowhere to go even if you wanted to. It had taken him a while to realize just how effective a tactic silence was. Most people viewed an interviewer’s lack of response as judgment at best and a threat at worst, so when faced with calm silence, they tended to start talking again, to volunteer more than they’d intended. Ridley Barnes was not of that breed. When Mark went silent, Ridley matched it with equal stillness.
“Anything else you recall of Sarah?” Mark said at last. “Or her family?”
“Not a bit. And I don’t mean to tell you your business, you’re the expert, but I’d say you ought to talk to people who did know her. Get their viewpoints on it.”
For a moment it was silent again, and then Ridley smiled. “You’re wondering, aren’t you? Wondering if I’m bat-shit crazy.”
The smile vanished and those bright eyes darkened. “Me too. You know what you ought to do? You ought to get into the cave. Before you make a decision, you ought to spend some time down there. In the dark. Think about her, think about me.”
“I don’t believe that will be necessary.”
Ridley Barnes showed anger for the first time. He wore it well. Like a natural color.
“Oh, I think it is. I think that anybody who even considers that girl’s story should sit down there in the dark for a time.”
“Let’s agree to put a pin in that particular idea, how about that?”
“Are you familiar with the term false necessity, Mr. Novak?”
“I’m not surprised. You’re going to need to be. I had much higher hopes.”
“I’m often disappointing.”
Several seconds passed while the wind moaned around the old house, and then Ridley Barnes nodded as if Mark had said something that pleased him.
“Got yourself some spark, don’t you?”
“Pardon?” Mark said.
“More fuses than you’d like people to know you have. Oh, I understand. Don’t you worry, I’m not judging you. I understand it fine.”
“I’m not worried about you judging me,” Mark said. “But I’m not interested in wasting time either. If you insist on that, then—”
“Not insisting on anything. What would you like to discuss? I’m an open book. Just one with missing pages.”
His laugh was low and delighted. Mark felt a prickle ride along his spine.
“If you’re so curious about your possible involvement in the crime, then why not talk to the police? They say you shut down on interviews. Yet you’re talking to me.”
“The police don’t have distance, Mr. Novak. It’s too small of a town. They have pressure from all sides to get a conviction, sure. But not to get the truth. In your line of work, the difference between those things must be clear.”
“We pursue the truth, yes. But the truth could really hurt you, Ridley.”
He waved an uninterested hand. “So long as it’s told. Everything is connected. That’s why you’re here. The date does matter. It connects us, you see? You know that. This is what I mean when I say that everything is of consequence. The date connects you and me and Sarah and Lauren and—”
“Do not say her fucking name.” Mark was on his feet, and for the first time, Barnes looked nonplussed.
“You’re not understanding me,” he said. “What I mean is—”
“I don’t give a shit,” Mark said, stepping closer. “You were told, damn it, and you went back for it again, and I will not—”
He stopped talking when he saw Ridley move back. A subtle shift, but still visible. He was bracing, readying for a fight, or at least considering the possibility of a punch.
Now it was Mark’s turn to step back. He was holding tight to the file. Too tight. He looked down at it, at his knuckles pressed hard against his skin, and said, “I’ll review the file. I’ll review it and let you know what I think. Good-bye, Mr. Barnes.”
“Don’t go like that. You came all this way and you’re willing to go like that?”
“I’ll let you know what I think,” Mark repeated, and then he walked out of the house and back into the cold. It had started to snow again while he was inside, more of a sleet, really, and his windshield was already iced over. He cranked the heat up and turned on the defroster. While he waited for it to work, he opened the first of the folders.
Sarah Martin’s dead face looked up at him.
Morgue photos. About twenty of them. He went through them one at a time, handling them gingerly, as if he might disturb her. Lord, what someone had done to her. Dear Lord. Bruises showed around her eyes and throat, and scrapes and abrasions lined her entire body; it looked like someone had dragged her over concrete as if she were as inconsequential as a bag of garbage.
Good-looking girl, big smile, big laugh, Ridley had said. Lot of joy. She caught your eye.
Her eyes looked black in every picture. Dulled to something beyond death. Mark was holding his breath by the time he turned the last picture over, and then he found a sheet of yellow legal paper covered in scrawled notations with a heading: “Photographic Evidence—Ridley’s Notes.”
The first three notes, labeled with Roman numerals, were questions about the physical evidence, what had been considered and what might have been neglected. Other than some awkward grammar, they could have been an attorney’s notes, or a detective’s. Then the precision vanished, and the rest of the page was filled with scribbled questions.
Did I do it?
Did I do it?
Could I have done it?
Could I have done it? Could I?
The ink was darker with each new word, the scrawls becoming frantic by the end.
Mark looked up at the windshield. The ice had melted and was now dripping water down the glass, and beyond it, leaning on his porch railing, Ridley Barnes lifted one hand and waved at him.
Don’t scare him off. Ridley, do not scare the man off.
Those had been his only instructions, and now as Ridley stood alone on his porch, the Ford out of sight, exhaust steam all that remained in the air, he knew that he had failed. He went back inside, gathered the coil of rope, and put it back on the chair where Mark Novak had sat. Then he took the free end of the coil in one hand and began to tie hitches, never looking at the rope, trusting his fingers as they looped and twisted and tightened, looped and twisted and tightened. A man who had to look at his hands to tie a knot was a man who was likely to die in the dark.
“He’s here,” Ridley muttered. “He came.”
Somehow, he’d known all along that it would happen. He’d been expecting a call first, but this was better. So much better.
But now…now it needed to be handled gently, and Ridley hadn’t done that. He’d seen the spark that Novak had wanted to keep hidden, and he’d returned to it, and that was a mistake. At least for so early in the game.
“Have to keep you in town, Mark Novak,” Ridley whispered. “Can’t let you get back on a plane. Can’t have that.” His hands were moving faster and faster, and he closed his eyes. He could feel sweat on his forehead, dripping down his cheeks, but his breathing was steady. Ascender hitch, taut-line hitch, clove, Munter. A Prusik with two wraps, then one with three. He began to work backward now, the sweat flowing freely—too much wood in the woodstove; it had to be sixty-five degrees in the house, too warm, Ridley liked it cool, cooler, cold. His hands moved even faster, always you could be faster, reverse order on the hitches, three-wrap, two-wrap, done, on to the Munter, done, then the clove, the taut-line, the ascender, done!
His breathing hadn’t changed. His heart rate hadn’t changed. If the temperature had been right, he wouldn’t even be sweating. He’d worked fast and he’d worked hard but his hands were steady and smooth and his adrenaline had never spiked.
It was a good feeling. One that didn’t come easily. One that had to be earned; one that could be lost.
It wouldn’t be lost again. Never again.
You lost control.
No. No, he hadn’t, and he wouldn’t. Novak had lost control, and that was why he’d left the house. He wasn’t as strong as Ridley had hoped. Not as composed. But it was hard for Ridley to see those things, because Ridley couldn’t relate to fear; he was a man who toyed with panic, teased panic, tormented panic. He didn’t lose to it.
You did. You do.
Damn it, no. He opened his eyes, dropped the rope, and rushed back out onto the porch, welcoming the cold air. The wind pushed right into his face.
Don’t lose Novak.
He wouldn’t lose him. Novak was here because he’d already taken the bait. He wanted Ridley to believe that he was merely nibbling. Bullshit. You didn’t fly from Florida to Garrison for a nibble.
Things were in motion, and Ridley was in control. He let himself feel some satisfaction with that as he packed his bag. It was a small, battered backpack that contained carabiners, two helmets with headlamps, a flashlight, protein bars and almonds, a first-aid kit, and two Benchmade pocketknives. Assisted-opening, one-handed operation, the spring assist making it nearly a legal switchblade. Actually, switchblades were legal again in Indiana. The legislature had taken the time to consider that law and pass it. There was something about this that entertained Ridley to no end. Elected officials often did.
Mr. Barnes, something you need to understand—the people of this county have elected me to preserve law and order and punish all those who do not follow the law. I intend to do the job that I promised to.
Ridley’s smile was wider now, memories flooding back, and he knew that it was time to get underground, and fast. It was earlier than he’d intended to go, but Novak’s visit had him excited—not nervous, just enthused—and he wanted to be in motion, wanted to be alone in the cool dark where his mind could clear and his thoughts crystallize. There was much to think about, and Ridley always thought better when he was alone in the dark.
He changed out of his jeans and into heavy canvas pants, slipped knee pads on, then added a few loose layers of shirts and grabbed a backpack. When he left the house, he simply crossed the road on foot and started across the fields. There were three accessible caves within walking distance from his house, the reason he made his home there. Drive ten miles and there were five more. Burn the whole truck tank of petrol and he could reach fifty, maybe sixty. Hell, he had no true idea, didn’t keep count. Most cavers did, loved to talk about it, got a hard-on boasting about how many caves pocketed this part of the world, but they were missing the point.
There was only one.
Ridley had known that for years now. Most people counted entrances as separate caves because they reached walls and they said, Here’s the end of it. It was a poor understanding of both caves and walls. There were ways through walls, and once you were past them, were you really in a new place? No. You were in a different room of the same house.
The snow had stopped but the wind was still blowing as he walked across the field, his lug-soled boots crunching on frozen shafts of broken wheat. Ahead of him the land fell gently to the left and at the base was a small brook. Dry in the summer months, it was flowing now, or at least it was flowing just below the skim of ice. Along its banks, slabs of limestone showed, and then, just far enough away that all you could see of Ridley’s house was one edge of the roof, a small hole yawned in the rock. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people would walk past it and dismiss it the way they would a storm drain. To them, it was just a place where the inconsequential was swept away from the world that mattered.
Oh, what sorry lives most people lived.
Ridley dropped to his knees and slipped off the backpack. He removed the helmet from it, this one outfitted with a new headlamp, slid the helmet on, and fastened the chinstrap. Then, without bothering to turn on the light, he put his head into the hole in the rocks. His shoulders stuck immediately. He made one quick squirm, a side-to-side shimmy, and then he was through. If he could clear his shoulders, he would always be fine in a passage, because Ridley took care to keep himself in shape. It occurred to him that Novak was built for caving, with a clear V taper to his torso that would allow his shoulders to tell the tale of the tunnels just as Ridley’s did. Very fit but not overly tall. Probably a shade over six feet, which was still a few inches taller than Ridley. The tall men Ridley had seen in caves tended to be uncomfortable men. Novak’s musculature was right, though, lean and ropy, his physical strength evident but not overdeveloped bulk. Too much bulk turned a belly crawl into a challenge. Yes, Novak would do just fine underground if he would only show the initiative to go there. Perhaps some encouragement was needed.
Although the entrance Ridley had taken looked tight from the surface, it opened up into a chamber the size of a bus, walled in by cool damp stone. Once he’d cleared his feet and was completely underground, he pivoted and reached back, grabbed his bag, and pulled it in with him. Then, for the first time, he turned on the light. The world was lit in all directions, and he frowned and clicked the lamp again, dimming it to a tolerable level. There was no sign that any creature had been here since his last visit. Once, he’d encountered a coyote who’d taken the place as a den. That had been an adventure, and one that ended badly for the coyote. Ridley’s hand drifted toward his knife as he remembered.
The large room faded to an angled shelf of rock about twenty feet from him, and below the shelf was a shadowed passage. He braced himself on his forearms, so the elbow and knee pads would take the brunt of the bruising, and crawled. Soon he had to drop all the way down to his belly and wriggle forward again. If he’d attempted to lift his head to see what was coming, he would have cracked it against the stone ceiling, and on either side of him, the walls were close enough to squeeze the shoulders. A classic panic passage for rookies, but a short test, thirty feet. The passage bent to the right and led down and then the cave opened again, this room larger than the last, stone formations showing, including a wall so pocked that it looked as if it had been riddled by cannon fire.
Though he’d hardly worked, he was surprised to feel a bead of sweat on his forehead. When he lifted his gloved hand to wipe it away, he froze.
His hand was shaking.
He looked at it with disgust, as if the appendage didn’t belong to him, then wiped the sweat away and laid his fingers against his throat. Even through the gloves he could feel that his pulse was too fast. This angered him. There was no excuse for these reactions. He should be in control. He always was.
Novak. He was the reason for the trouble, the reason Ridley didn’t have the control he should have. Ridley turned off the headlamp, plunging himself into a world of blackness, and waited for the silent dark to soothe him.
It always did.
© Michael Koryta 2015