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SunLit

SunLit Excerpt: “Gone to Darkness” begins with a fog-shrouded mystery by the tracks

Newly minted detective Sydney Parnell and her K9 partner follow their instincts in this edition of author Barbara Nickless' series

Chapter 1

To hell with their laws and restrictions. You have a great and wise heart, Sydney Rose. And that makes for a much better guide to what’s wrong and what’s right.

—Effie “Grams” Parnell. Private conversation.

My first official homicide investigation began without a corpse. 

An actual body is what triggers a murder case. It’s straightforward—in order to prove that a murder occurred, you must have a dead person. Corpus delicti, the courts call it. Latin for, “body of the crime.”

All I had on that foggy, still-dark morning as my K9 partner and I drove through the outskirts of Denver was a message on my phone from a railroad cop named Heinrich. And a bad feeling—after our brief conversation, Heinrich had stopped answering his phone. 

Next to me in the console, a cup of 7-Eleven coffee steamed into the air. Ray Wylie Hubbard sang on the radio about righteous killing. I drove with both hands on the wheel, patches of the highway slick with black ice. When I test-tapped the brakes, the Chevy Tahoe skated sideways. 

Beside me, Clyde made a noise in his throat. 

I dropped my speed. 

“Easy, pal,” I said.

Oncoming headlights flared against the windshield, skirted off the side windows, then vanished behind us, tail lights aglow like baleful eyes.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

The date was March 15th. 

The Ides of March. When assassins bare their knives.

My first exchange with Special Agent Heinrich that day had been at 3:14 a.m. 

This was after I discovered he’d pilfered my blue and silver detective’s shield. A group of us from the railroad had gone out the night before to celebrate my promotion from patrol to homicide. Heinrich. My former boss, Deputy Chief Mauer. And about twenty railroaders I’d worked with during my two years as a cop with Denver Pacific Continental. It was a damn weird party—half celebration for my success and half mourning that my promotion meant I’d likely never return to the railroads. I think a few of us cried. Or maybe it was just me, three drinks in and still hung up on whether I’d made the right choice to put the railroads in my past. 

In Denver PD, I was the golden girl on the fast-track. Six months in patrol and now three weeks into my on-the-job training as a homicide detective with Denver’s Major Crimes Unit. My serendipitous rise had coincided with a nasty series of sexual harassment charges inside the department. The chief needed to show the good citizens of Denver that their police had a zero-tolerance policy toward caveman behaviors. 

And that they enthusiastically promoted women. 

Which was where I came in. Sydney Rose Parnell. Poster child. 

I test-tapped the brakes again, felt the tires grip, and rewarded myself with a one-handed sip of coffee. I was officially on probation for three more months. Screw up and I’d be back in patrol, the promotion of women be damned. 

The night before, I’d given my wallet to Heinrich to spot him a twenty, and he’d filched my shield as a joke, the son of a bitch. I hadn’t noticed until oh-dark-thirty, after a case of nerves had gotten me up hours before the alarm and I’d spotted the voicemail from Heinrich: So sorry, it was a joke, didn’t mean to leave the bar with your badge. I’m sure my counselor would say that my carelessness with my badge was indicative of my ambivalence toward my new career. When I phoned Heinrich to arrange a meet, he was already on his way east, answering a call from dispatch. An engineer running a train through the area had spotted a trespasser standing near the tracks, a woman. 

Maybe the woman was just a poor insomniac, as night-haunted as many of us. But the nearest homes and businesses were miles away. So it was possible she was a jumper. Maybe even a terrorist with derailment in mind. 

Heinrich—along with my shield—had gone to investigate.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Now I was also on my way east to get it back before anyone found out I’d lost it. With Denver PD in the cross-hairs of local politicians, the new lieutenant was a take-no-prisoners commander who operated on the broken window theory—any mistake, however minor, was an indication the entire department was going to the dogs. If Lobowitz learned I’d lost my badge, she’d make a note in my file. Two more infractions and she’d drop me from the detective’s room to the dreary dullness of midnight patrols in Green Valley Ranch.

I could hear the chatter already. A woman. A railroad cop. Couldn’t hold onto her badge.

Not figuratively. 

Not literally. 

On the radio, Hubbard moved on from death to dying. The windshield wipers scraped against the glass. Something else scraped the inside of my skull.

“Blue Train cocktails,” I muttered to Clyde, who was comfortably buckled shotgun. “Whoever got the numbskull idea to ruin Champagne with fruit syrup should be shot.” 

My partner tipped his velvet-soft ears at me and managed an expression that looked like the K9 equivalent of an eye roll. Belgian Malinois are good at that. You don’t need a guilty conscience when you have a Maligator. Someone might put pineapple juice in Clyde’s bowl, but that didn’t mean he’d drink it.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I went on.

His brow furrowed.

“No one held a gun to my head, right? That’s what you’d say if you could. But I got you there, pal. Gift of gab.”

Clyde yawned and returned his gaze out the window, putting me in my place. Mals are good at that, too. 

There wasn’t much to see outside the cab. Dawn was still a couple of hours away, and springtime in the Rockies had pinned a thick, cottony fog to the bounds of earth. The beams of my headlights looked like underwater ectoplasm. 

From the highway I drove north and east along a series of increasingly smaller roads until eventually I hit a dirt track. I buzzed Heinrich again to tell him that I was probably fifteen minutes out. Just in case he was playing choke the chicken with himself and needed to hurry and finish. 

But he didn’t pick up.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

A herd of pronghorn zipped out of the night, their slender bodies darting through the swirling mist as they sprinted by. I hit the brakes; the anti-skid light glowed. We watched the antelope disappear into the gloom, and I eased back onto the gas, wondering what had spooked them enough to get them up and moving in the dark.

I tried Heinrich again. Five rings and then voicemail. 

A familiar, years-old worry ignited in my gut. The sense that things weren’t going down the way they should. The faith that they would only get worse. My time in the Marines serving in Mortuary Affairs had honed my natural sixth sense for trouble into the psychological equivalent of a map and a road sign: Disaster Ahead.

I reminded myself that my early warning system was as likely to trigger on a missed dentist appointment as any real threat.

“Just breathe,” I said out loud.

Clyde glanced at me. I ruffled his ears.

“It’s me, buddy. You’re breathing fine.” 

Five minutes later, I spotted a diffuse glow that morphed into the twin beams of stationary headlights. As I drew nearer, I made out the shape of a blue SUV with the words Denver Pacific Continental Railway Police stenciled in reflective paint on the side. Heinrich’s Expedition. No other lights or vehicles were visible. I eased off the road into the weeds and parked a short distance away, mindful of not disturbing any tracks or footprints. Just in case my gut was right.

“Special Agent Heinrich,” I whispered. “If you are out taking a dump in the weeds, I am seriously gonna hurt you.”

I slid on a headlamp, flicked the switch to low beam, then did a press check on my Glock to confirm I had a round chambered. I holstered the gun and unbuckled Clyde before I stepped out into the morning’s frosty soup. Clyde hopped down beside me. He pricked his ears and his tail came up. I watched him for a moment, but he didn’t go into high alert. 

Gib acht,” I said softly in German as I snapped on his lead. Watch out.

I scanned the road for evidence that someone aside from Heinrich had been here, but a dry winter and spring had turned the ground to hardpan. 

My headlamp picked out a few shapes. On the far side of the SUV, a stand of winter-chewed cottonwoods thrust bony fingers through sections of rusting, broken-down fence. Beyond the fence ran an empty stretch of train tracks—two faint lines of water-beaded iron that gleamed when my light stuck. 

All around, the grass glittered with frost. The musty-tart smell of juniper mixed with the cold damp, as bracing as a lungful of menthol. 

Clyde and I approached Heinrich’s vehicle. The outside of the SUV sparkled with moisture; the mirrors threw back only a glaze. The driver’s door was flung open, the engine still running. Beyond that persistent purr, the world was still and silent.

I shone my light through the Expedition’s passenger-side window.

A DPC baseball cap. Leather gloves. An open can of Red Bull in the drink holder. And my badge.

Clyde and I walked around the front of the vehicle. I reached into the cab and turned off the engine and headlights and grabbed my shield. I clipped it on my belt and pocketed Heinrich’s keys. 

Into the dark, wet silence, a crow croaked. 

Then the radio on the Expedition’s console static-buzzed into life. 

“Unit One, what is your status?” 

I leaned in and keyed the mic. “This is former Senior Special Agent Parnell. I’m at Heinrich’s vehicle now. The officer has vacated the vehicle. I’m going to look for him.”

“Roger that. Good to hear your voice, Sydney. You need backup from Denver PD?”

I sure hoped not. “I’ll let you know.”

After I signed off, I watched Clyde for a minute to make sure he hadn’t transitioned into red alert. He was taking in the world—an aromatic smorgasbord of jack rabbits, prairie dogs, pronghorn. But nothing of concern. He met my gaze as if to ask when we were going to get a move on. 

“Greg!” I shouted.

On the cottonwood trees, moisture collected and dripped, the world caught between freeze and melt. The air bit through my wool jacket.

I leaned again into Heinrich’s vehicle and grabbed one of the leather gloves. Then I pulled Clyde’s Kong from my pocket, waving the hard rubber toy that signaled it was time to get to work. Clyde wagged his tail. 

“Let’s do this, boy.” I held out Heinrich’s gloves and gave Clyde a good whiff. Then I raised my arm.

I often used a mix of English, German, and Hebrew commands with Clyde—it was a good way to confuse the bad guys. Now I cried, “Seek!”

Clyde thrust his nose into the air. He was an air-sniffing dog, not a ground tracker. But he soon lowered his head and began to sample closer to the ground. Humidity pushes odors toward the earth. Foggy, windless days distribute a person’s scent over a wide area. Not ideal conditions.

But a minute later Clyde had something and took off. 

The cotton-shrouded world jumped and swayed in the beam of my headlamp as I followed him, his long lead firmly in my grasp. He made a bee-line for the tracks, then just before the fence he veered right, his path paralleling the rails. 

Night and fog swallowed our vehicles. Clumps of winter-gold grass crunched beneath our feet. Although it was March, Mother Nature cared nothing for a human’s idea of springtime. The fog was denser here than on the highway, a gray-white clot reflecting a mysterious luminescence. Trees and hillocks popped up like fright-house wonders and vanished almost as we walked by.

Clyde slowed. He trotted forward, then back, then struck off at an angle. He disappeared into the fog, his lead trailing after him like one of those toy leashes that seem linked to an invisible pet. Then his lead quivered and went slack. 

He’d found something.


Barbara Nickless is the bestselling author of the Sydney Parnell crime series. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Writer’s Digest, Criminal Element, Penguin Random House, and other publications. She also teaches creative writing to veterans at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.


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