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Above Reproach

In the pale mist of a new morning, Toni Radcliffe steered her SUV over the last bit of the broken road to Belleview Creek. Light lanced through the thick trees, illuminating a few rocks and the rutted path which she often came to for solace. She cut the engine, closed her eyes, and listened to the tink-tink-tink of the cooling radiator. Faint birdsong made its way into the interior, intrusive this time, rather than refreshing. Toni sighed, opened her eyes, and then pushed the door open. Instinctively, she grabbed her broad-brimmed deputy sheriff’s hat and set it on her head before letting the door swing shut. It was only a few yards to the creek, which she could hear gurgling gladly over the rock shoals down to the left as it flowed from a deeper pool up above. Toni closed her eyes again and instantly the case files materialized, the ones she needed to escape from, the ones that threatened to strangle her: six cases of kidnapping, violation, and murder of children between the ages eight and twelve over the past two years; and now another one!

She pushed the thought away with an audible grunt. This was her haven: such thoughts must not intrude! There had to be some portion of her life that was not affected by her job as a deputy sheriff, which she had held for three years now. Before that, she had worked as a police detective in Chicago. A father with Alzheimer’s and a mother who could no longer cope with her deteriorating husband had brought Toni back to her home town. The high marks she’d earned in the police academy as well as her impeccable credentials had quickly gotten her a job with the sheriff’s department, though the pace was much slower and the cases much more mundane: traffic violations, domestic disturbances, a few crimes of passion, and an abduction or two. No murders, it seemed, until the body of an eight-year-old boy turned up in a pond two years earlier.

Agh! There it was again! No more!

Toni ground her teeth to keep the tears from coming, trying to think of more pleasant things, like her domestic life; but that brought a different sort of pain. She dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands as she thought of her now empty house. How different it had felt with Martin there; and now he was not. Perhaps it was time to swear off men, maybe try something else? Well, no, she wasn’t really wired that way, no matter what her social and political views on the topic might be.

“Peace, I need peace,” she muttered, forcing her eyes open, observing the beauty of the green leaves, the mottled tree trunks, the moss and grass underfoot. There was the footpath leading down to the water and along it that nice boulder with the lichen. She reached down and touched it, trying to pull in the peace of nature. Like so often it began the process of soothing her back to calmness, a calmness that she would need when walking into the office in less than an hour. If the rock was effective, the cool of the creek would be even more so. She didn’t have time to go wading, which would have really helped, but at least she could dip a hand in.

She got up and walked down the short path to the stream, now finally enjoying the birdsong. This was one thing she could not get in Chicago! Coming home and losing her career there was worth these quiet moments in this place. She knew she’d have to watch her step on the uneven path but paused now and again to look up and imbibe the beauty of the light and shadow. Then suddenly she was at the creek. Her gaze immediately went to the rocks to her left, drinking in the foaming and rushing over the short cataract. She squatted down and let her hand slide into the living liquid. The coolness rushed over her fingers, and she let out a sigh. She could feel her life-force replenishing, as it drew out of the depths of nature that which binds all beings together. She blinked and felt herself smile slightly. Ah, if only she had time to actually step into the stream and soak some. Then she would really feel whole again.

She glanced up towards the deeper pool to her right, thinking of how often she’d found solace in its gentle embrace, and froze. For a long moment, she remained perfectly still, then sprang up and grabbed for the radio on her belt.

• • •

“Well, we’ve found her,” Lionel Wolfsong exclaimed with a long sigh. The tall, broad senior deputy looked down at the black zippered bag that held the body of the little girl Toni had discovered in the creek that morning. The tranquility of the area was completely shattered by the members of the sheriff’s department as they searched for clues. Thanks to Toni and Wolfsong, this sheriff’s department was one of the more methodical when it came to crime scenes, Wolfsong having achieved a master’s degree in criminology before returning to Belleview, where he’d served with distinction for over ten years now. He boasted in his heritage as a Native American, evidencing an uncanny ability at tracking while bringing great intelligence and intuition to solving crimes. The only case that had stumped him so far was this rash of murdered children. And as before, there were few to no clues.

“I’d guess that they put her in the water somewhere upstream,” Toni told him. “I didn’t find any signs of disturbance on this side or the other.”

“Yeah,” Wolfsong responded, looking up the creek. “This would be a logical place for her to wash up.” He glanced at the rocks and then back up again. “It certainly narrows the area where she could be dumped, though.” He looked back at Toni. “What do you think? The next shallow rough patch is what, three-quarters-of-a-mile upstream? She’d have to be dropped in below that.” That was something Toni appreciated about Wolfsong: he was always asking her opinion.

“I don’t know, Lionel,” she said. “The creek is really slow between here and there. It would’ve taken her a long time to float down.”

“She has been missing five days,” Wolfsong pointed out and Toni felt herself bristle.

“Maybe the doc can figure out how long she’s been in the water,” she muttered instead, thinking about how her favorite place had been violated. Would she ever be able to come back here again?

“Any ideas on suspects?” she asked instead. Wolfsong’s only response was a slight shaking of his head. Toni sighed and stepped back to the place where she’d been squatting when she’d found the body. She looked up the creek. She could see a deadfall about fifty yards up before the watercourse curved away and was lost in the woods. Whoever this sicko was, he’d sure picked a great place to dump the body. She reviewed what she knew:

Takisha Morton was eleven. She was the adoptive child of Alistair and Maureen Morton. Originally from the inner city, the shiny little black girl was something of an artistic prodigy. When she’d disappeared, Toni had interviewed Maureen who couldn’t help but go on and on about the wonderful photos that Takisha took. Maureen had pulled out an album of prints and with the delight of a doting mother had displayed several excellent nature pictures she claimed Takisha had taken.

“She’s learning from Sam Heiligenthal,” Maureen explained, a note of pride in her voice that puzzled Toni. As it turned out, this Sam Heiligenthal was the last person to have seen Takisha before she’d disappeared. Toni’s mouth took on a bitter taste as she thought of the interview she and Wolfsong had conducted with Heiligenthal. He was in his early 30’s, of medium height with brown hair and gray eyes hiding behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. At first Toni thought he had a nice smile, but as the interview progressed, she decided it was sinister instead.

Yes, Heiligenthal admitted that he’d dropped Takisha off at her house after her last photography lesson. Yes, Takisha’s mother had been there, but had asked Heiligenthal to take Takisha home for her, as Maureen had gotten a call making her have to leave immediately. Heiligenthal pointed out that he was uncomfortable with the situation, since he does “everything possible not to be in a compromising situation with any female”, in his exact words. It was that statement that made Toni dislike him and suspect he was the one who had made Takisha disappear. Heiligenthal explained that he’d driven directly to the Mortons’ house, a drive that would take no more than seven minutes, dropped the girl off and waited to see her go into the house. Then he’d driven off to take photos of the mayor for his upcoming re-election campaign. Toni calculated that there was a period of about 45 minutes where Heiligenthal’s movements could not be accounted for; and that made him a suspect!

However, unaccountably, neither Wolfsong, nor Sheriff Sprague were willing to consider Heiligenthal a suspect.

“You of all people know that a gut instinct is not enough,” Wolfsong lectured her when she’d brought it up. “Find some evidence to back it up and we’ll consider it.”

That she would do, she decided as she watched one of the other deputies step into water in his fishing waders. She was certain that Heiligenthal was the culprit, and she would prove it.

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