Death Lives in the Water

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Jim Burch, former detective and now small town sheriff, seemed to have found the perfect life. That is, until the town war hero disappeared under mysterious circumstances. And soon thereafter four high school kids go missing. As the bodies continue to pile up, Jim is confronted with a choice unlike anything he has ever faced before. He can accept the apparent explanation, that all of these bodies were the result of accidental drowning. Or he can act on the belief of his closest friends: that an ancient and nearly immortal evil has awakened in the waters of Middlewood County; an evil that threatens every living thing in Harper’s Landing and the pastures and forests around it.

“Take a barrel of the water,” they said. “We need water from our beloved Ukraine, for the new world. It will ensure good crops.”

Yuri Harasemchuk was nineteen years old, powerfully muscled, and at the moment supremely unhappy. He loved Ukraine, loved Russia, and loved Maria Molovna. All of that was being taken away. And now he was tasked with this superstitious nonsense by his demanding and uneducated parents.

Yuri snorted. He had been to the great university in Moskva, where he learned agricultural practices that contradicted the old folk methods of farming. He had returned home, sullen and angry at being denied further education, only to find that his parents were resistant to all his new ideas and the things he had learned about crops and irrigation. And now, they were leaving. Going to America, because his parents had heard that anyone could lay claim to property if they got there first. He didn’t believe it. What he did believe was that they were going to lose their farm here to the ethnic Russians who now were at the top of the social and legal ladder, both in Russia and in Ukraine.

It was no use. He had to go to America with them. Perhaps Maria’s family would come too. He hoped so. He also knew there was no arguing with his parents over the water. The barrel must be filled, sealed, and brought along. He stood at the small pond. He had come here rather than the large pond further down in the meadow. His parents used the large pond to water their crops and the animals. This small one was never used. He didn’t know why, but today he didn’t care. It would be harder to go down the slope and then back up again with a full barrel. They would never know where he got the water, and it didn’t matter anyway as far as he was concerned.

He lowered the barrel into the water, using ropes attached to iron staves. Although it only held thirty gallons, once he had filled it today it felt much heavier. He made sure the lid was on tight and rolled it up the boards and onto the wagon. The ship captain was also old school Ukrainian and would not chafe at the additional weight. He slowly walked back to his waiting parents, trying to memorize every tree and shrub he knew he would never see again. It was spring, and the meadow was filled with sunflowers, blue bonnets, and clover. The trees were fully leaved. What Yuri could not know was that Missouri, where his family was headed, looked much the same, with dirt roads and hemlock, birch and oak trees.

He drove home to find a pile of steamer trunks and boxes waiting. He helped load everything into the back of the wagon, and glanced longingly at the only home he had ever known as he swung himself onto the packed wagon. He memorized the thatch roof rising to a center point, the small water wheel attached to the barn, the rustic wood fence that enclosed their property. In his mind, he saw the new family that would occupy the only home he had ever known. Russians! Even though they looked exactly like his family, he hated them.

His father chucked at the horses, and they started the long trek to Odessa. He was overjoyed to see that Maria’s family had joined the procession of wagons headed for the docks. He would do his best to make sure they were on the same boat, bound for the same destination.

The sailing was smooth at first as the ship glided slowly across the Black Sea, through the passage of the Dardanelles and Constantinople, and then across the Mediterranean Sea toward the Atlantic. It was summer; the spring storms were over, and the autumnal squalls would not arise until after they had reached their destination, or so the captain assured them. Maria’s family was on the same ship, and Yuri and Maria spent many a happy day sitting on the edge of the deck, chatting and planning their new lives. Yuri was less resentful, happy that the love of his life would be in America too. He thought about proposing now but decided to wait until he had claimed some of that homestead land and spoken for her with her father. It was the old way, but it nevertheless appealed to him

Neither Yuri nor Maria were plagued with the seasickness that struck down most of the immigrants. Men, women, and children alike were either puking over the side of the ship or sleeping in their hammocks. A few of the children also remained unaffected, and it fell upon Yuri and Maria to keep an eye on them. No one wanted to have to stop and try to fish out a child gone overboard. Yuri solved the problem by telling the little ones stories of great sea monsters with glowing teeth and a taste for tender meat. Though Maria told him more than once he should not frighten them so, secretly she approved since it kept them well away from the sides of the decks.

Late one night, about two months into the trip and well into the Atlantic, a surprise squall came out of nowhere and tossed the ship about. This caused great distress among the seasick crowd, since they had only just become accustomed to the rocking motion of the boat and now found themselves once again sick and wretched. This time Maria felt queasy and was unable to manage moving about. Yuri stayed below deck, tending to both of their families, unconcerned about the young ones since it was nighttime, and they would be asleep.

In the morning, Yuri and one of the sailors went to the hold to make sure everything had stayed attached and secure. The suitcases, trunks, and bags were still firmly tied down. Yuri saw that the lid on his barrel had come loose. He found a hammer and refit the lid, pounding it firmly in place and testing it to make sure it was tight. He saw a small black boot on the floor near the barrel, which must have fallen out of one of the boxes or trunks. He picked it up and stuffed it in his pocket. He would ask the others later whose child it belonged to. As he turned away, he thought he heard a sloshing noise. He touched the barrel and could swear he heard something like a grunt, or perhaps a crunch. Just then, he and the sailor with him heard pounding feet headed for the decks and cries of “Man Overboard.” They ran up the stairs to the main deck.

Mikhail Sloven’s parents stood on the deck, his mother screaming and his father looking frantically this way and that. When they awoke that morning, they had discovered that Mikhail was not in his bunk. His red jacket, which he had removed before going to sleep, was missing. The parents were sure he must have wandered up on deck to look at the storm and been swept overboard.

They begged the captain to turn back and look for him, but after a while even they had to agree that he could not have survived the stormy waters and that finding him would be impossible. His mother took to her bed for the rest of the journey, refusing to eat or drink, and died of dehydration shortly before they reached the shores of America.

Her tiny body was placed in a hastily constructed coffin, made from food barrels that had been emptied during their long voyage. Mischka Sloven and Yuri carried it on deck, where a small service was conducted, and she was sent to rest in the sea where it was presumed Mikhail had also met his demise. During the ceremony, Yuri stuck his hands in his pockets and found the boot he had put there. Now was not the time to ask about it. Instead, after they were done, he went down to the hold and placed the boot on top of a stack of trunks. Surely someone would claim it.

When they finally disembarked in New Orleans, Yuri’s family purchased a wagon and team of horses for the journey north to Missouri. They found a wainwright, and a young man at the local bank who spoke Ukrainian and English helped them complete the transaction. These Americans seemed obsessed with paperwork, requiring something called a “bill of sale.” They obligingly filled out the paperwork, but the wainwright was confused by the name Harasemchuk. After several failed attempts to pronounce it, he asked the interpreter, “What does the name mean in English?”

“Musician; or perhaps, Harper,” replied the translator.

“Then Harper it will be,” he said, and completed the bill and handed over the wagon and team of oxen. Yuri and his father drove the team back to the docks, where they hauled their goods and the barrel of water off the ship and onto the wagon. Oleg Harasemchuk, now Harper, had noted his son’s affection for Maria Molovna, and he invited her family to share their wagon and travel with them in search of a new home. Maria’s parents had also noted their daughter’s attraction to Yuri. They liked the boy and his family and approved of the match, so they readily agreed to join them.

They travelled north, alongside the Mississippi River. At farms along the way, they purchased two pairs of young sheep, five brood hens and a rooster, and seeds for  rye . The countryside was familiar, with meadows and birch, hemlock, and oak trees. It was late summer, and they were able to purchase a large barrel of apples, along with apple seeds. Yuri’s mother also purchased a small bag of cherry seeds.

Yuri, with his family and Maria’s, joined several others from the ship, and together they traveled to Missouri and a new life. He and Maria were married a year later, under a tree near the small pond that was part of the land his parents had claimed. A small house had been constructed for them by the families that settled in the area. They could see the house behind the priest and looked forward to their lives together. As part of the ceremony they poured the water they brought from their homeland into the pond. For a moment, Maria thought she heard an extra splash, and a menacing chuckle as the old-world water mingled with the new. But she shrugged and wrote it off to marriage jitters. A year later, Maria gave birth to their first child, Jennie.

Harper’s Landing sat at the juncture of Deer Pass Highway and County Road 22.  The Martin’s Way River was on the west, and the Mississippi was about fifteen miles east. It had once been a thriving mill town, but now the Harper’s Landing Textile Mill was shuttered, its great looms gathering glistening cobwebs.  The giant water wheel that once powered the mill sat silent as the Martin’s Way flowed around and through it.

The Harper’s Landing Gazette offices were on First Avenue across from the courthouse. At one time the paper had flourished along with the town, publishing daily and even had colored comics on Sundays. Now it published once a week, with an occasional special edition if something of note happened.

The sheriff’s office occupied the entire ground floor of the County Courthouse. It was a large open space with ancient black and white shots of the Harper’s Landing Textile Mill and its large water wheel decorating pale green walls.

Jim Burch sat at his desk, not even pretending to look busy. Instead, he fixed his gaze on the window of the Harper’s Landing Gazette’s offices, which were directly across the street. Linda, the publisher and editor, was no longer a young woman, but she was still easy on the eyes. Jim wondered, not for the first time, why she never remarried after Joey died in that mill accident. He also wondered why he hadn’t asked her out to dinner yet.

Jim was six feet two inches tall and strong as an ox, with a head of dark curly hair and steel blue eyes. While not exactly handsome, there was something in his bearing that naturally caught the eye of every woman who met him. Even Linda Collier, the current subject of his gaze, had cast a few flirtatious looks his way. He was forty-eight, settled, and sexy as hell. Jim was impervious to the come-ons, believing that he would remain a widower forever. Most of the single women left in Harper’s Landing were either widows or bitter divorcees unable to scrape together enough money to leave. Jim Burch wasn’t the kind of man to take on the burdens of others. He was content to do his job and leave well enough alone. Nevertheless, he did feel a bit of a pull where Linda was concerned.

Maybe I’ll ask her to join me for a drink at Happy Time, he thought. That should be safe enough. Be nice to have some female conversation for once.

Jim Burch was not a native of Harper’s Landing. In fact, he might be the only sheriff they’d ever had who wasn’t.  Jim had been seeking the peace and quiet of a small town after being passed over for promotion again in the big city police department he had called home for nearly twenty years. He was not a politician or glad-hander. That, coupled with his penchant for speaking truth to power, had kept him at Detective Third Grade long after friends, partners, and even trainees had gone on to lieutenant and captain. The Chief was only too happy to grant his request for early retirement and had even suggested to the Police Commissioner, who was equally happy to say yes, that Burch be retired at full pay although he wouldn’t qualify for it by the rules for another year and a half.

“Let’s just call it an early disability retirement,” said Chief Halsey. “That way you get your full retirement pay and medical until you hit sixty-five and can get Medicare.”

Jim shook hands on the deal, signed the necessary paperwork, and put his house up for sale. It was a Craftsman house, built at the turn of the century, with all the features typical of that style. Jim and spent hours restoring the floors, the ceiling beams, and woodwork. The original leaded glass had been encased in double panes for insulation. It would undoubtedly sell quickly and at a good price.

At the time of this early retirement, he was forty-five, tough, heavily muscled, and handsome in a rugged don’t-mess-with-me way. Beth, his wife of twenty years, had died two years earlier after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. They had no children, and his only sibling, Sylvia, lived in Malaysia, where she worked with an international refugee organization providing legal assistance to those wanting to seek asylum in the US. Jim considered it gut wrenching work, but she seemed to thrive under the challenge. Her husband was equally happy working for Doctors Without Borders. They, too, had no children. He called Sylvia late one night, shortly after retiring, knowing that it was early morning there, and told her of his decision. They chatted briefly about what she and Brandon were doing—apparently, there was no shortage of a need for doctors at the refugee camps—and about his own plans. He had none—except to leave the city and move somewhere quieter.

“Are you sure you will be happy in a small town? You’ve lived in the city for so long.” Doubt tinged Sylvia’s voice.

“I’m long past loving the city,” he replied. “Perhaps after I’ve gotten my fill of fishing and local diner conversation I’ll move on, maybe not. But for now, I’m ready for a simpler life.”

The house sold the day of the open house. Jim accepted the first offer since it was fair, and the couple who made it seemed to have genuinely fallen in love with the place. They had a three-year-old daughter who had immediately claimed for herself the room originally intended as a nursery. After touring the rest of the house, the couple found her sitting on the window bench, entranced with the view of the backyard. Escrow closed swiftly. Jim put everything in storage, except his immediate clothing, personal item needs, and the box of books he had not yet read. He packed up his Explorer, handed the house keys to the new owners after the interminable document signing was done, and headed south on Interstate-35 toward Missouri.

That was three years ago.

Jim arrived in Harper’s Landing and liked it immediately. The downtown was neat and clean, and although there were several empty storefronts, nothing seemed neglected or shabby. It was as if the town had suffered some sort of middling calamity and was now holding its breath, waiting to come alive again. He pulled to a stop in front of Morey’s Diner.

“Best Hamburgers in Missouri!” The sign was inviting, as were the bright blue awnings and the large windows facing the street. Through his dusty car window, Jim could make out red checkered tablecloths, and suddenly his stomach growled massively.

He entered the diner, looking for a place to sit. A tall, lean man with a head of snow-white hair and an equally white beard motioned to Jim to join him at his booth. His skin was sun-dried and brown as shoe leather. His eyes were a striking shade of blue, and Jim immediately recognized “cop” although the man wore no uniform. He approached the man, stuck out his hand, and grinned.

“You must be the chief of police here,” he said.

“Nope. Sheriff. No money left for local police, so the county pays me to glare at folks. And you have the look, too. Care to sit? I’m gonna be here a spell.”

Jim gratefully lowered his large frame onto the well-padded booth bench. The Explorer was great for back road travel or long trips, but it was not designed for comfort. Before he could reach for a menu, a cup of coffee and a tall glass of ice water were set in front of him. The waitress was tiny, muscular, and exuded an earthy sexuality she wore as naturally as her long auburn hair. The ring on her left hand gave him a momentary twinge of envy. His Beth had this same kind of earthy appeal, and he knew that whoever this woman was married to was among the lucky ones.

“What can I get for you?” she asked.

“I know I’ll want more, but for now can I have some apple pie,” Jim asked, surprising himself. He hardly ever ate sweets, yet he suddenly felt an intense craving for apple pie.

“And with a wedge of cheddar if you have it,” he said, again feeling a strange compulsion for something he never ate. He knew people ate apple pie with cheddar, but he had never tried it.

“Happens every time,” the sheriff chuckled as the waitress left to get his order.

“What does?”

“Jen decides what will be best for you, and you find yourself ordering it. Dunno how she does it, but I guarantee you will love that pie.”

Jim took a bite and nearly choked. It was pure ambrosia. The apples were soft with just a bit of crunch; the crust was flaky yet moist. And the sharp cheddar cut right through the sweetness. He let the forkful lay on his tongue for a while, savoring the myriad flavors until he realized that he was about to start drooling. He quickly swallowed and looked up to see the laughter in his dining partner’s eyes.

“John Hartley,” said the long lanky man. “Sheriff Hartley to some; John to most. Been in Harper’s Landing since I was born, sheriff for the last fifteen years. Reckon I’ll die here too.”

“Jim Burch. Former detective third grade from a big city I’d rather not remember.”

“You planning to be here long?”

“I don’t have any plans. But this town feels right for some reason. Like I’m supposed to stop here. So I suppose I might just stay for a while. Is there something like a boarding house? I hate hotels.”

“Not a boarding house. But let me call over to Mary and Bull Harper. They have a spare room in their house, and they’re good people.”

“But you don’t even know me,” protested Jim.

“Not really. But I know you’re a fellow cop and that’s good enough for me.”

“How do you know I wasn’t kicked out for something horrible, like police brutality?” asked Jim.

“Folks who do such things aren’t likely to confess to it,” said the sheriff. “And this town has a way of bringing folks to it that it needs.”

Jim’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline.

John laughed heartily, and pulled up the cell, punching in a number. After a brief conversation, during which Jim ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a strawberry shake, John hung up and said, “Gotcha a room for as long as you want it.”

Jim’s head swam just a bit. He had known the minute he drove in to Harper’s Landing that he wanted to stay there, at least for a while. But things seemed to be happening that were out of his control, and Big Jim Burch liked to be in control. He liked John Hartley from the moment he sat down, and he was not one to warm up to people quickly. And then there was the puzzle of Jen, the waitress. How had she known that pie was just what he needed? And that burger! It was cooked just the way he liked it, with a nice thick slice of sweet red onion, sharp cheddar, a bit of catsup, and a bun slathered in mayo. The fries were his favorite, thick cut and double fried. This was notable only because one table over he saw a family happily downing a large plate of the standard thin, single cooked fries, salted within an inch of their lives. His were lightly salted with a hint of paprika, the way Beth used to do it. He glanced over at the waitress, and she grinned and gave him a large wink.

Just then a tiny bald man came out of the kitchen, waving a towel to fan himself, and looking around to make sure there were no other customers waiting to be fed. He turned the sign on the door to closed and set the clock face beneath it to read “Will open again at 6 for dinner.”

John yelled, “Morey, come over here and meet your newest regular.”

Jim raised an eyebrow.

“Trust me, you will love Mary Harper, and Bull, her husband, is a great guy. But you really do want to eat here. And Morey’s got a meal plan thing that makes it as cheap as cooking for yourself.”

Morey sat down next to Jim, breathing more slowly now, and in almost one swallow downed the glass of ice water Jen set in front of him.

“John’s right,” said Jen. “Mom couldn’t cook her way out of a grocery sack with the bottom ripped out.”

“So if you’re staying at Mary and Bull’s, you’ll be wanting the three-a-day plan. That’s seventy-five dollars a week, seven days, three meals. We aren’t open on Sunday, so people pick up their Sunday meals at the Saturday night buffet and heat them at home on Sunday.”

Without hesitation Jim said, “Sign me up.”

Three days later John Hartley died of a massive heart attack. The coroner’s report showed he had three severely clogged arteries and that a massive chunk of plaque had broken loose and blocked blood flow to his heart. Death came instantly and without warning.

The funeral was held on Saturday, and the whole town was in attendance. John was loved by just about everyone, except for Gary Miller and his gang of ne’er-do-wells. But even those boys attended and behaved with proper solemnity throughout the service. Jim stood at the back, wondering at the strange melancholy he felt for a man he just barely knew.

Harper’s Landing was hardly a hotbed of crime or incivility. But the position of sheriff could not remain vacant for long, not the least reason being there was only one deputy. Jim sat on the back “patio” of Morey’s, which was just a flat area of ground with a little garden surrounding it. Jen and Maggie, Morey’s wife, had set up all the folding tables and chairs they could find, and “Morey’s Regulars” (Jim had no idea how he had become one of them so quickly) were sitting quietly, drinking beer or sweet tea, gobbling up Maggie’s giant chocolate chip cookies, and reminiscing about John.

“Remember that strange night at the fireworks show,” asked Harve Sanders. “Now that was never settled, was it? John never said, one way or the other.”

“You mean the pond that appeared over by Jenkins’ Farm?” Bull Harper took a long pull at his beer and eyed Harve.

“Yup. That thing must have been at least thirty feet wide and about ten feet deep.”

“Came right up out of the ground after the grand finale of the fireworks show,” said Linda Collier. “I wonder if all that ground shaking had anything to do with it?”

“I think it’s more likely someone was doing something up at the mill,” replied Bull. “Remember, it was just about that time that they closed operations.”

“Wasn’t that about the same time that Will Jenkins lost his prized bull?” asked Linda.

“Yup. He was certain Horatio had run off because of all the noise,” replied Bull Harper, chuckling. “More likely someone took advantage of everyone being away from home and hauled him off. That was one damn fine animal. As for the mill having anything to do with that flood, it’s more likely the shaking from the explosions jarred something loose in the underground waterways.”

“I don’t think it was the fireworks that caused it,” said Jen quietly.

They all stared at her. She looked down for a while, twisting her fingers, and then looked up at all of them, rather defiantly.

“I know you all think I’m a bit touched. But John and I went over to check out that pond, seeing as how we were watching the show together.”

She blushed a bit, causing several members of the group to wonder if there had been more than just friendship between the two. Her eyes were quite red from crying over John’s death.

“We arrived after the fireworks had ended. The pond was growing smaller, but we both saw a strange ‘something’ in the ground where the water was coming from. It might have been an animal, or just a trick of the eyes in the dim light. But the water was swirling.”

Jim sat in the back, listening intently, convinced of the sincerity of her tone and persuaded that there had been much more to her and the sheriff’s relationship than anyone in the town knew. He resolved to ask her later to show him where the pond had been, and then wondered why it seemed so important. He was just passing through, wasn’t he? He stretched and got up to walk around a bit, admiring Maggie’s thriving garden. He had only been here three days, but already he was considered a regular at the local diner and had seen a small tidy house for sale that he really liked.

Something else was niggling at the back of his mind.

That was it! They needed a lawman. And at his core Jim Burch was a lawman. He sensed that the need for political wrangling and butt kissing would not be required here, that he might find his niche in this delightful town, and that being sheriff of the county would mean there would be more to the job than just catching stray dogs or teenagers playing hooky. It also meant that there would not be a lot of stress, since John had intimated as much before his untimely death. He admitted he rarely even carried his gun, leaving it locked in a cabinet in his office. Jim could never bring himself to be that casual, but that was the big city still in him.

Suddenly he wanted the job more than anything.

“I’d like to be your new sheriff,” he blurted out, much to his own astonishment. “I was a detective up north, in the city. I know law enforcement, and I’ve got good references. I want to stay, and I want to be your sheriff.”

To his surprise, his announcement was met with cheers and applause.

“Tell you what,” said Morey. “Guess you didn’t know that I’m also the mayor of this burg, for whatever that means. Haven’t had a town meeting since forever. But you and I will go talk to Judge Cramer at the County Building tomorrow, after breakfast. If he says yes, well, you got the job. Pays twenty-five hundred dollars a month plus a fifteen hundred a year stipend for uniforms and travel. Everything else like gas, office supplies, ammo, that sort of thing, is paid for by budget requisitions to Mary here. She’s our county auditor. Come next November, you’ll have to run for election, just like me and all the other county officials, but at least for now if the judge agrees you can have the job as acting sheriff.”

The judge said yes.