Copyright © 2023 by Declan James Books
Twenty-five years ago…
She wasn’t the first to die here. In 1973, a boy had gone fishing with his father, waded in too deep, his foot stuck in the muck, he had panicked. For him, it felt just like going to sleep, after the terror ebbed.
A few years later, a drunk driver took the curve on Lakeshore Road just a little too fast and had lost control of his Plymouth Duster. He hit the water going over seventy miles an hour, the cops said. He had struggled, trapped in his seatbelt as the car sank and silt and water filled the vehicle. They said he lived for several minutes, trapped on the bottom of the lake, thirty feet of water over his head before he too simply fell asleep.
There were other deaths, of course. Some say the name got its lake from the cries of a lost lover. As the legend goes, a Shawnee princess, a young widow, had walked out until the water covered her head and let herself sink just a few feet from where that Plymouth Duster came to rest some three hundred years later. They said sometimes, when the wind was still, you could hear her mournful cries echoing across the placid surface of the water.
And so it became Echo Lake.
But this time, this soul, she was the first to die here by murder.
First, she fell. If she’d had time to think of it, to remember what happened that day, she might have wondered if things could have turned out differently if only she hadn’t tripped on that piece of black driftwood.
But she had, and her knee went out. She tumbled down a small incline, landing on her stomach.
Move! Run! Don’t look back!
All those thoughts slammed into her brain, but for a single moment, she felt frozen. As if her legs had grown roots, tying her to the ground.
Then the air went out of her lungs as a heavy weight fell on her back.
Crack. Pop. Pain seared her side as one of her ribs snapped.
This couldn’t be happening, she thought. It was a dream. It felt like that. The kind where you can’t make your legs move. You try to scream but can’t make a sound.
“Help,” she thought, wanting nothing more than to shout it. It came out as a weak croak.
The weight lifted from her back. Her arm was wrenched upward, forcing her to flip over onto her back. Her hand throbbed. She’d punched her assailant. Hard. For a moment, she thought it would be enough. But it stopped nothing.
The moon was full. For some reason, that mattered to her. She could count the stars here. They were so much brighter than what she saw at home.
She had a thought toward the end. The stars were watching her. They saw. They knew. She tried to reach up as fingers closed around her throat.
So much pressure. Then the stars seemed to multiply and spin.
She kicked once. Flailed. There was something you’re supposed to do. What was it? Her head smacked hard against the ground. Had it been anything harder than wet sand, it might have cracked her skull.
She tried to cough. No air. Her head filled with cotton. It hurt.
Let me go. You don’t have to do this. I’ll disappear. I am nothing. I am no one. I am worthless.
The stars blinked. A cold, hard, unfeeling stare. They would be there after she was gone. They would witness every other death to come just as they’d witnessed all that had come before.
I’m sorry, she thought. So sorry. For her minor sins, yes. But also for the greatest one she had yet to commit. Because at the very end, as death finally came for her in its lonely, brutal grip…she let go.
Her pain floated away. The bruises. The broken bones. Her crushed throat. Gone. All gone. There was nothing left but stars and sand. Her broken right hand splayed out, she felt the water as it met the shore.
And then the stars went black.
It was over. She was gone. The killer sat on her chest for seconds only. Or maybe it was hours. Every detail of her face seared into the killer’s memory.
She hadn’t made eye contact. That seemed strange. Instead, her now vacant eyes stared at the sky. The stars reflected in them, making them twinkle like two gemstones. Soon, the killer knew her eyes would go milky-white.
The killer touched her face. Still warm. Still beautiful. Full lips. Her smile. Her infectious laugh. Her throat was already turning black though.
“They love you,” the killer said. “They all love you. They all want you. You’ve played them all. You stupid bitch. I love you too.”
It had been so easy, in the end. The killer wondered if they would ever feel guilt. If they would ever feel anything again.
The killer felt death. The power of it. Small bones breaking. Precious breath cut off forever.
It was a rush. For that one moment, the killer had become God.
But now, as clouds rolled in, hiding the light of the moon, panic began to set in.
When they find her, they’ll know.
When they find her.
There was nothing to weigh her down. No rope. But the earth was soft here. Wet sand. The killer dug using only fingers at first. But then, the killer remembered. There was a shovel in the trunk of the car.
It had been put there last winter. Sometimes, it took days for the plows to come. A shovel was a handy thing to have.
So the killer began to dig. The panic came back. When the sun came up, maybe someone might see.
But nobody lived on this side of the lake. All the houses and boat slips were further north. For years, developers had tried to buy up this land to put in condos and luxury homes. So far, the zoning board wouldn’t allow it. Someday, maybe. But for now, only the lone fisherman and random hunter came back here. The woods provided the perfect hiding spot for teen lovers and underage drinkers. It was far too cold for even that now.
But it was not too cold to dig.
When it was time, the killer simply pushed the girl into the hole. She slid down the marshy wall and landed on her back with a sick, wet thud.
She was still staring up at the stars as the killer dumped the first shovel-full over her face and closed her eyes for good.
Today was about everything Detective Jake Cashen hated. As he stood at the far edges of the crowd, he could think of about a dozen more appealing places to be. But he was given no choice. Sheriff Meg Landry gave him a direct order to be here, so here, Jake was. She stood beside him, keeping that false smile on her face. She was good at it. Only people who knew her well like Jake did would guess she didn’t love this. The crowd. The ceremony. The gaggle of local reporters snapping pics and recording every word that was said.
Jake bristled. He hadn’t realized he’d done it, but he made some sort of noise low in his throat. Landry, her smile never faltering, nudged him with her shoulder.
“Traffic duty,” Jake said.
“Shh.” Landry grew bolder and actually slapped Jake’s shoulder.
“Babysitting a DOA.”
“Quiet, they’re starting soon.”
“Seriously, put me on community services. I’ll drive the Cops and Cones truck. Anything else.”
She turned and looked up at him through her mirrored sunglasses. Jake’s scowl reflected back at him. He pushed up his own sunglasses. Sweat made his dress shirt stick to him under his suit coat. The last week in May and the temperature had shot up to eighty. He stood on Landry’s right, the sun beating down on both of them.
“Zip it,” she said. “If I’ve gotta be here for this, you’ve gotta be here for this, hometown hero boy.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “Trust me. I can think of at least one person here who’d rather I be out writing speeding tickets today.”
They laid tarps down to keep the mud off the VIPs’ shoes. The small crowd gathered thirty feet from the eastern shoreline of Echo Lake. Here, the grandest of the luxury homes would go in. The model home. Three thousand square feet of high-end, custom-built homes on one hundred feet of hard, sandy-bottom lake frontage. The builder hoped to fetch close to a million for it.
“Thanks for coming,” Mayor Devlin said. The wind kicked up, blowing sand everywhere. “I’m gonna hand this over to Commissioner Arden. He’s been the true champion and brains behind this project. He’s assured me his remarks will be brief.”
That got a laugh and a smattering of applause from the crowd. Jake’s Uncle Rob Arden wasn’t known for brevity at public events. Arden shook a playful fist at Mayor Devlin and stepped to the front of the crowd.
“This has been a long time coming. Long time. The Arch Hill Estates project is going to bring much needed jobs to the county. Construction crews. Craftsmen. Fine men, all of them.”
It was Meg Landry’s term to growl. “Smile, Sheriff,” Jake whispered.
“How can he be so bad at this?” she said through gritted teeth, better than any professional ventriloquist. “And how can these yahoos keep electing him year after year?”
“You’re acting like today’s your first day in Worthington County,” Jake said.
Landry rolled her eyes and gave a nod to Mayor Devlin as he looked over her way. Even he was starting to lose interest in Rob Arden’s rambling speech.
“This is only the beginning,” Uncle Rob continued. “Over the next five years, we’re going to make good on our promises to draw new business and industry to the county. This development is going to draw the most desirable people to our community. Leaders. Innovators. Business owners.”
“Good luck keeping the less desirables on their side of the lake,” Jake muttered. Landry smacked his arm again.
Further down the road, a small group of local protesters waved picket signs. Not everyone wanted this part of Arch Hill Township to become a gated community. They’d cut up forty acres of prime buck country and hundred-year-old oaks to break ground today.
“So,” Rob Arden said, after droning on for ten minutes. “Without further ado, let’s do this right.”
A college-aged girl with sky-high blonde hair teetered on a pair of red heels beside Rob Arden. She wore a sash across her chest that read Miss Blackhand Hills. Smiling big, she handed Arden a golden shovel.
“Thanks, honey,” Uncle Rob said. He turned back to the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, honored guests. It is my supreme honor and pleasure to break ground on this exciting new project.”
“Rapists!” A woman’s voice drowned out Arden’s. Jake turned toward it. Two of the protesters had made their way down to the shoreline. Arden glared at Sheriff Landry.
“You’ve raped this land!” the woman said. “Save the trees! The mute swans brood in that marshy area just over there. We have Canada geese who call this place home.”
“Jake,” Landry said. “Can you go over there and break that up? But…don’t draw attention to yourself.”
Jake arched a brow and looked at her. “So you want me to cuff them, casual-like?”
“Jake,” Landry said, her ire growing. “Just…be cool.”
“Got it,” Jake said.
He broke from the crowd and started to walk toward the protesters. They were just kids. Eighteen at most. They’d probably cut school to come out here.
“I give you Arch Hill Estates!” he heard his Uncle Rob proclaim. Rob held a golden shovel high above his head. Someone had tied a big red bow to the handle. One end of it unraveled and the wind caught it, molding it to Rob’s face.
“Killers! Rapists!” The protestors waved their signs and started to move closer to the front of the crowd. One of them caught Jake’s eye as he came forward. He put his hands on his hips, letting his jacket pull away so they could see his badge clipped to his belt.
“We know our rights,” the protester said. Jake recognized her. She went to school with his nephew Ryan. He’d seen her at his sister Gemma’s house once or twice. Jake intensified his gaze on their little group. If Ryan were here, he’d kill him. Or Gemma would. Today was a school day.
“Come on guys,” Jake said to the protestors. “Let’s just move back a little bit.”
“You can’t make us leave,” the girl said. Cara? Cora? Jake couldn’t quite remember her name. Jake was pretty sure her father owned the sports bar just down the road.
There was laughter behind him. Uncle Rob made some ridiculous pantomime as if he were about to dig. From the corner of his eye, he saw Arden plant the golden shovel into the ground. It hit something hard. Uncle Rob jerked backward from the force of it.
Two protestors, including Cara or Cora started running in the other direction before Jake could get to them. He turned back to Landry.
“Let’s try that again,” Arden said, laughing. He raised the shovel one more time and stabbed it forcefully into the ground. Once again, Jake heard the metal hit something hard. He started to head back to Landry’s side. She was now standing in the front row.
“What in the …” Arden said. He scraped dirt away with his shovel. Whatever he saw made the color drain from his face.
Jake and Landry got closer. Clutching his chest, Rob Arden dropped the shovel.
“Uh …” Landry said. “Jake?”
He leaned over, peering down at the same time Landry did. Phones clicked through the crowd as people started snapping pictures and taking video. Miss Blackhand Hills screamed.
A human skull poked out of the dirt, right beside Rob Arden’s golden shovel.
“Jake!” Landry shouted.
Mayor Devlin ran back up beside Rob Arden. Arden stood there, holding the shovel. The idiot actually raised it again as if he were going to take another stab at the ground with it.
“Drop it!” Jake said. “Don’t move. Don’t touch anything.”
Now everyone in the crowd seemed to have their phones out, snapping pictures and recording. They moved in a horde, knocking down the thin ropes staked in front of where Rob stood.
Jake sprang into action. He turned toward the crowd and put his arms out. “Nobody moves another inch. Back up. Just back up!”
“That’s a body!” Someone shouted. “That’s a dead body! It has maggots all over it.”
Jake looked over his shoulder. There were no maggots. Just seaweed and lots of sand. Landry had gone to his left, she too tried to push the gawkers away from the scene.
“Everyone just calm down,” Rob said, grinning. He still had that damn shovel in his hand. “There’s nothing to worry about. At worst, somebody’s pulling a little prank. At best, we all know the Shawnee held this land for centuries before the settlers came in. Heck, if I asked for a show of hands, I bet half of you have an arrowhead you found out here when you were a kid. Just back up, like Detective Cashen said. You can take your pictures and I’ll be here for interviews for a few minutes after the ceremony.”
He turned, looking for Miss Blackhand Hills. She was supposed to hand him giant gold scissors so he could cut the rope separating the crowd from where he stood. But the county beauty queen was currently throwing up at the edge of the woods.
“Ceremony’s over!” Jake called out. “I’m gonna need everyone to just clear out and head back to their vehicles.”
“Detective Cashen,” Lisa Crowley from Channel 12 Action News called out. “You’re standing two feet away from what looks like a human skull.”
“It’s a dog,” Arden shouted. “Or a beaver. Don’t you print that. Don’t you dare print that. It’s nothing but a deer head folks. Nothing to worry about!”
Something snapped in the man. He pushed past Jake and headed straight for Lisa Crowley, shaking a finger in her face. “I will not have these proceedings disrupted like this. You’re just looking for trouble.” For half a second, Jake thought Rob might actually lay hands on her.
Landry saw it too and reacted, surprising Jake. She charged over to Rob and pushed him back.
“Commissioner Arden,” she said. “It’s time for you to corral your people and end this. Detective Cashen and I will take things from here.”
With Arden and the Mayor out of the way, Jake turned and looked more closely at the bones in the ground, careful to keep his distance.
Skeletal remains weren’t his expertise, but he could tell enough just by looking at the thing. The skull wasn’t sunbleached. The bones were dark brown, nearly matching the tone of the sand. If Rob hadn’t had the dumb luck to plant his shovel right where he did, anyone could have walked right by and missed the thing. Though he knew better than to touch anything, Jake could see another bone sticking up a few inches from the skull. A clavicle. Next to that, the lower portion of the jaw had come away from the top part of the skull. He took out his phone and shined his flashlight right at it.
“This is good luck!” Arden said, vamping. “You’ll see. It’s as if the Shawnee have blessed this ground and this development. Don’t anyone worry. Arch Hill Estates will proceed on schedule. We’ll have our first residents moved in by the end of the summer.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Jake said. Arden was close enough to hear him. His face turned purple. If he could read his mind, Jake bet his Uncle Rob wished he could brain him with that shovel.
“What are you talking about?” Rob said. “I will not have you getting in my way, Jake.”
Jake rose, ignoring Rob Arden for the moment. “Landry,” he said. “I need you to get everyone out here.”
He kept his flashlight on the jaw bone. Landry’s eyes went to it. She understood.
“Whatever you need,” she said.
“I need everyone,” Jake repeated. “I need crews out here roping off the area. Nobody goes in or out. BCI will want to take a look at this. But we need a forensic anthropologist out here as fast as they can make it.”
“Now see here,” Rob said. “There’s no need for any of that. Ignore all of that!” He was talking to the press, fully aware that his every word and movement was being recorded. Then, he tried to march right past Jake, practically trampling over the bones.
Jake grabbed his uncle by the shoulder and pushed him back. All of that was recorded too. In less than an hour, it would be all over the internet. Jake couldn’t care less.
Rob seethed. “You’re making a big deal over nothing.”
“Yeah?” Jake said. “Look closer.”
He didn’t wait for Arden to do as he said. Jake actually turned Rob’s head for him, pointing it straight at the bones. “That’s not a beaver or a dog. It’s not some two-hundred year old Native American grave. That’s a gold crown. That means there’s a good chance you’re now standing in a crime scene.”