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Trials of war, horror of crime collide in metro Denver murder mystery

In "Dead Stop," a veteran-turned-railroad cop and her K-9 partner battle ghosts of the past in search for missing girl

2018 Colorado Book Award winner for Mystery

When a train engineer reports striking a woman on the railroad tracks, Special Agent Sydney Parnell investigates. She finds an abandoned Lexus and then the body of the woman who was struck by the train. It looks like foul play.

Things get worse when Sydney learns that the woman’s daughter was with her in the family SUV and is now missing. It will be up to Sydney and her K9 partner Clyde—both haunted by their time in war—to track down the child.

There was no way to know if the toy monkey belonged to Lucy. It could be hers or one of her siblings or even the family dog’s. But it had a pink lace ribbon pinned to the top of its head. And a single long, light-brown hair caught around one of the shiny black buttons.

Detective Wilson used tweezers to remove and bag the hair. Then he dropped the toy in a paper bag and handed it to me. I turned my attention to Clyde, who came to his feet, tail swishing.

“Ready to get to work, boy?”

I showed him his Kong, a bright red chew-toy that he adored. His ears came up, and his tail wagged faster. For Clyde, like other military working dogs and K9s, work was play. More than that—work was joy.

I opened the bag to give him a good whiff of the sock monkey, then waited until his eyes returned to mine.

“Seek!” I said, giving him the search command.

Clyde made a beeline for the Lexus and thrust his head through the open doorway. I called him back, then gave the command again, indicating he needed to look for the scent elsewhere. He circled the SUV, found Lucy’s scent on the far side and trotted down the embankment toward the stopped train. I followed him, my heart in my throat.

“Dead Stop” by Barbara Nickless. (Handout)

“Dear God,” Wilson said.

Deke was sure that only Samantha Davenport had been on the tracks. But if Deke had struck an eight-year-old child with a four-hundred-ton locomotive churning out over 97,000 pounds-force, a glancing blow wouldn’t make a sound or cause a ripple.

Then, fifteen feet from the tracks, Clyde did a ninety-degree turn and headed away from the tracks and the silent train. I found my breath again. He trotted briskly, tail straight out, hips swaying with confidence.

Where would a terrified eight-year-old go in the darkness? Storm clouds. No moon. She would have run anywhere that was away, I figured, her mother’s voice in her ears. Maybe the train tracks—empty then—had given her a faint path in the dark.

Clyde stayed steady.

“It’s a good scent,” I told Wilson, who was jogging behind me.

“How will we know we’re getting close?”

“Clyde will tell us.”

Up above, a car drove past going the opposite direction. I glimpsed the gawking face of a woman through the driver’s window and the flash of brake lights as the driver slowed before resuming speed.

“Ketz, get that road block up, now,” Wilson snapped into the radio.

Clyde and I fell into the familiar rhythm we’d developed when we came back from Iraq and joined the railway police, our emotions moving back and forth along the lead as if it were an umbilical cord. Although Clyde and I hadn’t been a team during the war, we’d since created a cadence born of trust, a rhythm we’d been improving the last two months through rigorous instruction and hours of practice with a man who’d trained canines for the Israeli Security Agency, Mossad. In many ways, Clyde knew me better than anyone. Likewise, I understood his needs and moods more intimately than my own.

Now my partner confidently struck due east, heading in the direction of the cement factory. Morning sun settled our shadows behind us. Larks sang in the meadow and swallows swirled up from the trees along the river, darting like arrows into the brightening sky. Beneath thistles and tuft grass, water pooled in tiny hollows, evidence of the rare Colorado monsoon. On our right, falling further behind as we walked, the train sat quietly, waiting for velocity with the patient heft of iron. The smell of oil and coal and creosote wafted in the air, a discordant note against the dusty burn of sage and the faint, sweet notes of wild primrose.

“Were you a Marine?” Wilson asked as we walked. “Like Clyde?”

“First Expeditionary Force.”

“Iraq, then.”

“Yes.”

Wilson slowed. “I have a son in Afghanistan. Kandahar. He’s on his third tour.”

Why did you let him go? I wanted to ask. “He like it okay?”

“He must. When he’s home between deployments and comes for a visit, he stays in his room playing video games. Comes out to eat. Says pretty much nothing. Grunts if we ask him questions. Then goes back to his room. Only time he seems happy is when he’s heading back.”

“You ever serve?” I asked.

“No.”

Which meant he didn’t understand that being in a war zone with your buddies was easier than trying to fit in at home. A friend of mine, a fellow Marine named Gonzo, once said that while the Marines went off to war, Americans went to the mall. Some Marines found that willful ignorance hard to forgive. And even harder to fit back into.

A lone hill now loomed above us, high enough that the tops of the silos vanished behind it as we approached. Clyde led us straight up the rise, through the last of the morning’s coolness still clinging to the shadows on this western slope. My bad knee popped and creaked, and Wilson’s breathing turned raspy; it would have been a steep scramble even for an eight-year-old.

And with that thought, my hope that Lucy had fled on her own dropped away like a fall from a cliff. In its place came a cold, certain fear. The killer had—for whatever reason—abandoned the Lexus and taken Lucy to the cement factory. A grim ruin filled with broken machinery and empty windows and floors that yawned into darkness. A haunt used by tweakers and junkies and boozers. Sometimes by the insane.

The kidnapper could not mean any good from this. An abandoned factory wasn’t where you stashed someone while you waited for a ransom payment.

It was where you did much worse things.

We crested the rise and emerged back into sunlight. I snugged my ball cap lower to shield my eyes as I halted Clyde and stared down at the decaying complex. Wilson straggled up alongside me. He bent at the waist and placed his hands on his thighs, sucking air. His radio buzzed with static, a back-and-forth chatter between dispatch and Thornton police.

“You got kids?” he asked when he could talk.

“No.”

He straightened and stared down the hill. “Cripes. The hell is that place?”

“Edison Cement Works,” I said. “Went under in the early 1900s.”

But I knew that wasn’t what he was asking. What he wanted to know was what kind of wasteland we had stumbled on.

The sprawl of buildings covered probably twenty acres. The morning light picked out every blemish and defect in a place filled with them. Unknowable structures thrust skyward, scaly with age and black with soot from long-gone furnaces. Vegetation, rarely running wild in a place as dry as Colorado, was rampant here, the roots sucking water from the South Platte to create snarled thickets of bramble and low, scraggly trees. Cacti clustered in places where the sun pooled. A deep silence hung about the landscape, as if the tweakers had fled and even the animals avoided trespassing. Above all of it, the three silos glared like baleful sentries.

“She’s down there somewhere, isn’t she?” Wilson said.

“I think so, yes.”

I’d been here five or six times, sent to roust trespassers. A Sisyphean task during which I handed out protein bars and water bottles and directions to the local shelter. The last time was three months earlier, when there’d still been snow on the ground, and I’d been hobbling around with a cane and a heart monitor. So I knew the factory’s baseline—the bleak melancholy of a place where humans came to hide from other humans. But now I imagined something had shifted toward venomous—as if a snake had coiled.

“It just me,” Wilson said, “or does that look like a place where the devil would go to ground?”

“Let’s just hope he hasn’t gone too deep.”

I raised my hand to motion us forward, then froze as six silent figures emerged from the ruins far below and scowled up at me. Six dead men, made that way by my hand months ago. Never mind that they had been men who practiced the worst kind of brutality—torture and murder and rape. Because however much cops and Marines don’t talk about it, killing someone destroys who you thought you were. Our ghosts are our guilt, and these six had hounded me for five months, a howling chorus of retribution.

I dropped my hand. Seeing them now turned me cold.

“You okay?” Wilson asked.

The dead men turned and disappeared into the shattered stones of a warehouse, morphing into nothing more than a trick of light and shadow.

“Parnell?”

I blinked. Lucy. “Let’s go.”

I gave Clyde the seek command again, and we headed down the hill, watching for cactus and prairie dog holes. Silence descended as Wilson lowered the volume on his radio. I followed suit, adjusting my earpiece so I couldn’t hear the railroad chatter.

When we were halfway down, Wilson said, “You feel like we’re being watched?”

“No.” Only by the dead.

But in truth, my skin crawled with the worry that somewhere down there, a killer observed us coming. It was just like my days rolling into Fallujah to collect the dead after a battle or an IED.

Heart in your throat and eyes everywhere.


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Interview: “Dead Stop” author Barbara Nickless.

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