Population: 286. People with powers: 198
Just a sleepy former mining town turned tourist haven in the mountains of Northern Arizona until the “incident.” The meteor that gave everyone in the town powers, but only while near Carterville.
Out of a Christmas Sky
With a dead woman dressed as an elf found on Christmas morning in snow-globe-perfect Cartervile, it falls to police chief Henry Carter to solve the murder. But Henry knows the victim and his suspect list soon fills up with the people closest to him
With no allies and powers involved, Henry risks his life to solve the crime and to find some kind of justice for his friend.
From Robert J. McCarter, long-time Arizona resident and the author of The Blood of Carterville, comes a Christmas murder mystery and a town you will never forget.
6:52 AM Christmas Morning. Carter Hill.
I won't tell you that I hate Christmas, nor will I tell you that I love Christmas. My relationship with the holiday is much more complicated than that.
And getting more complicated all the time.
A dead body laying under a pine tree will do that. Especially when you’re the chief of police and the victim is a friend of yours.
But we'll get to that. Let me set the scene first.
I can say that there is no better place to be than Carterville, Arizona for the holiday. Especially in the desert southwest. We are up between 6,400 and 7,100 feet in elevation with the 12,600 foot San Francisco Peaks towering behind us and covered in snow.
The little town with a population 293 is built on Carter Hill and is one of those historic western towns that started as a mining boomtown in the late 1800s and has a quaint feel with old red brick buildings lining the main street. Those buildings are now occupied by tourist friendly shops.
And Christmas time in Carterville is Winterfest, the whole town decorated for the holiday with days of celebration, the population of Carterville briefly swelling from hundreds to thousands, the whole town taken over and transformed. All of it topped off by the Silver Ball, the big Christmas Eve bash.
The decorations go all the way to the top of Carter hill which sits at 7,100 feet in elevation and is crowned by ponderosa pine trees strung with green, red, and white Christmas lights that can be seen for miles.
The ponderosas turn to smaller piñon pines as you go down the hill with fir and maple trees over a hundred years old lining Main Street.
It's a steep climb up Carter Hill but worth the effort. Picture yourself there with every tree along the street strung with glittering Christmas lights, the old-fashioned streetlights wrapped in tinsel, the remnants of the last snowstorm still decorating the ground, and the towering peaks framed behind it.
It's like a perfect Christmas snow globe come to life and hard to imagine a better place to spend Christmas.
Except Carterville isn't just an old mining town turned quaint little tourist trap. Of the 293 permanent residents, 201 have some kind of power since the meteorite hit five years ago. But only while they are near Carterville. The zone of influence extends out about five miles and beyond that everyone is normal.
With all those powers, Carterville is a much better place for the strange and mysterious. And I should know. My name is Henry Carter. This town was named after my ancestor, Samuel Carter, and I am the dutifully elected chief of police of this no longer quiet little town.
With the name and the badge, I feel kind of responsible for what goes on around here.
Christmas day that year, the sky was clear and cold. The sun, being a lot luckier than I, wasn't up yet but the fire on the horizon looked like a match being lit, yellow and orange and deep blue pushing the darkness back.
It was so beautiful it could bring a tear to your eye. Or that could be the cold, it was in the mid-twenties, my breath hanging in brief clouds of condensate with each exhale. Or maybe it was my hangover, the Silver Ball was last night and I had good reason to drink afterwards. Or the hour, it was early and I had no coffee in me. Or the fact that the victim had been alive and happy and flirting with me less than eight hours ago.
I took off my sunglasses, cheap aviators, so I could really see, and immediately regretted it. There was some snow on the ground, but not much. Just enough so the scarlet splatter of blood was shockingly stark. Lila Chang was lying there on the top of Carter hill under a couple of ponderosa pines dressed like an elf with a dark green smock, red and white striped stockings, a long-sleeved red shirt, and those silly shoes and hat with their tiny bells. Her skin was pale, her limbs akimbo, her eyes open to that deep blue sky but the lights clearly off.
Oh, and her throat had a puncture wound of some sort, thus all the blood.
I know red is one of the colors of Christmas but when it's soaked into crusty old snow it doesn't seem that festive. And when the scent of blood, that sharp iron tinged smell, is in the air, well it's enough to make you want to never see red again.
"This ain't good, Chief," officer Martin Lester said from behind me.
"No shit," I replied. There was no need to hide my annoyance from Lester and no one else was here. The only building at the top the of the hill is the old Carterville Church set just back from the lookout. Sitting in the parking lot that served the church and the overlook was the tent that was used for last night's Silver Ball. But it was early yet and no one else was here.
The view up here is spectacular, particularly in the winter with the inner basin of the San Francisco Peaks in one direction and the vast desert all the way to the Grand Canyon and beyond in the other. The snow disappearing as the desert took over from the mountains, the white melting into the tan, taupe, and salmon layers of the desert. The cut in the desert that marked the Grand Canyon clearly visible on a morning this cold and clear.
"Too late for Smitty to help," he said, stating the glaringly obvious and with everything else it just made me grind my teeth.
A lot of the powers that residents of Carterville acquired the night the meteor hit are odd or small. But not Winston "Smitty" Smith, he had what could be called a real live superpower. He could heal people, although there was a price he had to pay which was why his blond hair was going grey in his early thirties.
But Smitty couldn't bring back the dead, thus Lester's statement of the stupidly obvious rubbed me the wrong way.
I inherited Lester from the old chief of police. He's been on the job for twenty-five years and knows Carterville as well as anyone, but he never worked in a bigger city and I think that the way things changed five years ago when the meteor hit and folks got powers made the job a little too much for him.
He was great when Carterville was kind of like Mayberry but now that it was more like Stephen King's Castle Rock, he was out of his depth.
I glanced up at the older man. He was tall, and except for a slight bulging around the middle, still lean well into his fifties, his eyes sunk into his long face, a frown hanging below his prodigious steel grey mustache. That mustache, just like Lester, belonged to another era.
It was early and he had been on call and was woken up for this so he wasn't in uniform, dressed in jeans, a faded brown Carhartt jacket that was too big for him and kind of made him look like he was wearing a big paper bag. Wisps of his thick grey hair peaked out from underneath his black cowboy hat.
"Tell me again," I said looking back to the dead elf in the snow, my stomach twisting, my teeth clenching more against my anger and guilt than against the cold.
"Dispatch in Flag woke me up," he said. "They got a 911, some woman sayin' there was a dead elf on top of Carter hill. They traced the number, but it belonged to a burner phone. Walked up here and found her. Called you." He shrugged as if the gesture could somehow make up for the lack of detail and emotion in his report. But that was Lester, he was a man of few words. A quiet sort.
Lila's body--I'm not going to use the word "corpse" since this was someone I knew and cared about--was a few yards away under the trees. She was slumped against the dark brown bark her head pointed towards us, her lifeless eyes accusing.
The Christmas lights were still on, a cheery green starting a few feet above her body, the cord snaking around the tree right behind her head. The incongruity was almost too much to bear.
Lester and I stood on the road and only one set of tracks led to Lila. The blood had dripped down over the green of her elf costume and onto the snow, but there were no drips of blood along the path she walked and no murder weapon visible.
"Powers," I said with a sigh.
"Yup, Chief," he said, his voice low like he was saying something profound. "It don't make much sense unless powers were involved."
I stood there staring, my hands shoved into the pockets of my jeans. I had left so quick I had forgotten gloves. I felt this rumble happening deep inside me. Part of it was the cold, my body wanting to shiver against it, but a lot of it was anger.
Lila was my friend and someone had killed her. This was my town and someone had been killed here.
And along with that quaking anger was a heavy load of guilt. Lila, while she was flirting with me last night, trying to pull me out of my funk, wasn't quite normal. She was fidgety and distracted.
I had missed something. I could have stopped this if I hadn't been caught up in the funk of yet another breakup with Annie Smith.
Lester stood there staring at the body like that was all there was to do. And then I realized I was doing it too. The fire of my anger woke me up and I started barking orders.
"I'll stay with Lila. You go wake up Annabelle, tell her to load up the SUV and haul the CSI gear up here. Then go and get Doctor Lion, we'll need her to tell us what happened. And bring Mary Reilly too. The town is stuffed with tourists and word of this will spread and we'll need her help keeping the crowd away. I'll call the Sheriff's office and let them know what we're dealing with. We might need extra bodies for this one."
After my little speech, a cloud of condensate hung in the air between the older man and me slowly dissipating while he just stood there his dull blue eyes vacant looking at Lila's body.
I was about to yell at him when the slight quiver of his chin stopped me. I had done my time in the Tucson Police Department. I had seen some things. But not Lester. And everyone loved Lila. With her bright smile, petite form, and happy disposition, she was the perfect person to play an elf.
"We'll get whoever did this," I said quietly. "I promise you that."
He nodded slowly, his haunted eyes fixed on Lila's body.
"Now go, Martin," I said. "I need you today. I need you to be at your best."
He bit his lower lip, sniffed, and nodded.
The Blood of Carterville
Some people think that the blood of Carterville bestows powers, but when a tourist stabs police Chief Henry Carter’s best friend, everything changes.
Henry will do the unthinkable to save his friend. But when the crime gets complicated, can Henry find the culprit and save his town, much less survive?
From Robert J. McCarter, long-time Arizona resident and the author of Shuffled Off: A Ghost’s Memoir, comes a mystery and a town you will never forget.
Chapter 1: Wednesday
Patty Walsh slopped more coffee in my cup as she walked by the long, scarred linoleum counter, filling it to exactly halfway, just the way I liked it. Nothing better in this world than hot coffee and nothing worse than lukewarm.
She flashed me a smile, the one that said she knew me and knew me well. Knew me like my mother never had and my ex-wife never wanted to, and that she knew everything I wanted, and even though her maintaining my coffee just the way I liked was all I would get from her today, that I would love it nonetheless.
And I did.
Patty was beautiful, but not in the Hollywood way. She was rushing up on fifty, the vibrance of her wavy red hair was getting worn down by time and the invading grey, her once fit form was burdened with fifteen extra pounds, and her green eyes weren’t quite the wattage they used to be. But every time I sat down at the counter of the Carterville Diner, she would greet me with a sunny, “Howdy, Chief,” and knew exactly what I wanted to eat and I never ever had to ask for anything.
Whatever I was in the mood for ended up on a plate in front of me just like magic.
And this is as I would expect it. Patty had a power, and her power was knowing what you wanted before even you knew. Rumor has it—and I will admit I’ve thought about these rumors way more than is proper—that Patty knew everything a man or a woman wanted. Everything. This made Patty so very attractive in ways that Hollywood could never really convey with their illusions. Even without her power, Patty was a real woman working a real job in small-town Arizona, and there is something sexy about that.
“Somethin’ on your mind, Henry?” Patty asked after taking care of the rest of the counter and ending up standing in front of me.
I could hear the bacon and sausage my buddy Frank was frying back on the grill and the clink of silverware against the worn white porcelain of the plates. The smell of the place was sheer heaven, all fat laden and caffeinated, so much so that if I stayed here too much longer I was liable to have a heart attack.
“Just wondering why I can’t ever get the courage up to ask you out,” I said.
Patty just stared at me, all straight faced, her apron and her black blouse not able to hide the generous portion of curves God had granted her.
She was like that. It did you no good to not say what you were thinking. She knew what you wanted, and if she stopped to ask you, like she had just done with me, it made not a bit of sense to hold back.
A smile slowly lit up her face, pushing up her freckled cheeks and making her eyes bright. She slowly shook her head. “Why, I don’t have a clue about that one. You let me know when you figure it out, okay?”
Her smile brightened and then she was gone and all I had was the press of my breakfast in my belly and the buzz of the caffeine to keep me company.
I stood up and caught the cook’s eye through the pass-through window. Frank Paulson, one of my oldest and best friends. He had a round face, a shaved head, and kind blue eyes. I smiled, he smiled back, and that was enough of “thank you” between two old friends that had lived their entire lives in small-town Arizona.
It was a Wednesday morning, so not too many folks in the diner, the high-backed dark green booths and tables mostly empty. A few locals squatting on the round cushioned stools along the long counter where Patty worked, where they knew they could get exactly what they wanted.
The walls had been made over for the tourists with rusted old signs, vintage posters, and other memorabilia from Carterville’s past as an Arizona mining town and Grand Canyon gateway. Things like “Last Gas Before the Grand Canyon” or “Carterville: Visit a Real Working Silver Mine!” or an enlarged newspaper headline from 1926: “Is the Carterville Sawmill Really Haunted?”
I knew all the locals, but it was still easy to spot the tourists. They had on shorts and flip-flops and kept whispering and gawking, eyeing the locals and talking to each other in hushed tones which I didn’t need to hear to know what they were asking.
I put on my aviator sunglasses—the cheap ones, I’ll have you know, not Ray-Bans—and tried to escape with my happy belly and the hope that Patty’s smile had given me still intact.
“Officer, excuse me.”
I suppressed a sigh and turned to the booth. It appeared to be two couples, all of them millennials with their pricey phones, smart watches, and colorful T-shirts that didn’t come in packs of three from Wal-Mart. The woman that spoke to me had long blond hair and a smile bright enough to make me want to keep my sunglasses on. She was drenched in a perfume so strong, I couldn’t smell bacon or coffee and that just made me sad. Her wrist was festooned with brass rings that jingled when she gestured.
“Yes, ma’am?” I said, keeping my tone short and clipped.
“Well… we…” her blue eyes darted away, looking at Patty and old Mary Reilly alone in a booth on the other side of the diner and then back to me.
The blonde was sitting next to a sandy-haired boy all muscular and sure of himself, his plain black T-shirt silky smooth and tight, his overworked biceps on display. “What Raven is trying to ask,” he began, and then his eyes wouldn’t meet mine either.
I knew what they wanted to ask. It was what everyone wanted to ask.
“Is it true?” Raven piped back in, the name making me wonder how many chemicals were involved in her surfer-girl-blonde hair.
“Ma’am?” I asked. I wasn’t going to make this easy on them.
Bicep-boy jumped in and asked, “Is it true you all have… you know… superpowers? That everyone that lived here that day got them… is it true?”
I couldn’t suppress the sigh this time. These kids had cut their teeth on the never-ending glut of Marvel movies and TV shows. They wanted to believe it was all romantic like that, everything happening on well-lit sets with heroic deeds done by Hollywood beautiful people with everything made CGI perfect.
“Mostly,” I said, “although I don’t know I would call them ‘super.’ A few of us didn’t get powers, and between you and me, that’s just fine.”
“You didn’t…?” Raven mumbled, the look of horror on her face almost making my day. She couldn’t imagine how I could be okay with being skipped over.
“Now if you all will excuse me…” I nodded my head, put my cowboy hat on and walked out the diner, the bell on the door ringing as I went out into the cool, sunny morning still trying to hold Patty’s smile close to my heart.
I had been lying to them, of course. I did have a power, but I wouldn’t call it “super” and it wasn’t the kind of thing you shared with strangers, or the kind of thing I even shared with friends, not if you were smart. I’m sure Patty knew about it, but I don’t think anyone else did. Or at least I hoped.
From the outside, the Carterville Diner was just about as plain as the rest of our little town. It was a squat, old brick building on the main drag, sandwiched between two other old brick buildings.
To the south, rising above the town, were the sharp slopes of the San Francisco Peaks featuring the twelve-thousand-foot Mount Humphreys which rises well above the tree line. The diner is about halfway up Carter Hill, but from the top you can see the inner basin, a huge scoop out of the volcanic mountain, filled with aspen, spruce and fir.
It is theorized that Humphreys and Agassiz, the main two peaks you always see in the logos around this mountain, used to form one single seventeen-thousand-foot peak before the volcano that it used to be blew its top off creating the inner basin and making the mountain a whole lot shorter.
I sometimes worry that this town will do the same. Carterville has only 286 permanent residents, but with 198 of us with some kind of power, as strange as many of them are, it seems like a recipe for disaster.
This is the kind of thing I tell myself, and then I tell myself that I won’t run for chief of police again, and then I do.
I guess I lie to myself sometimes.
And I guess that makes me human.
I took a deep breath of the cool air trying to shake the thought off, the pungent scent of the junipers reminding me of gin, but the day was just getting started.
I’d like to say that I have avoided the pernicious trap of cliché, that I am a middle-aged white man that didn’t have a slowly expanding bulge around my waist, that didn’t drink just a little too much to palliate the difficulties of my day, that didn’t have a receding hairline and the implacable invasion of grey in my mousey brown hair.
But that wouldn’t be true, and as an officer of the law, dutifully elected by the voters of Carterville, Arizona, I feel that I must tell the truth. I do have that belly and enjoy my gin, and what hair I have left seems to be getting greyer every day.
And my job as the police chief of a small town seems to be getting harder every day. What with the “Incident” that transformed the residents of Carterville, things just keep getting crazier and crazier.
But my name is Henry Carter and this town is named after my ancestor, Samuel Carter, who first discovered silver here in the late 1800s. That heritage is something I’m proud of. Carters have been living and working and dying here for one hundred and thirty-eight years.
It’s not like I can leave.
It’s not like I know anything else.
Even though I don’t really know my little town anymore.
Those tourists in the diner, Raven and Bicep-boy and their friends, they are here hoping that somehow the Carter Powers rub off on them, except they ain’t gotta clue how it happened.
All they know is Carter residents have powers (super or not), but only if they are within five miles of the town. Outside that radius, we all are as normal as the next person. When I go to Phoenix to visit my son, I’m just a middle-aged man with knees that get creakier every day. Well, hell, my powers have nothing to do with my knees, so that happens here, but you get what I mean.
Tourists come hoping they can have powers for a day, even though it doesn’t work that way. And the mayor doesn’t do a thing to dissuade that perception. Frankly, Carterville hasn’t been this busy since silver was being pulled out of the ground and people arrived by stagecoach and on horseback.
Some of the rumors mention the meteorite, the one that crashed through the remains of one of the mineshafts, and they aren’t completely wrong.
On that cold October night, the stars bright above us, the ground shook and the sound of the impact woke us all up. We all thought it was a quake.
None of us knew, of course, that anything had happened. Patty, who always thought of herself as intuitive, just started knowing what everyone wanted the next day. A lot of folks didn’t realize what their powers were until something happened, until something triggered it. Or, like me, until enough bizarre things happened that I finally put it together.
And now I know you are wondering what my mysterious powers are. Just be patient. My grandpa taught me that stories have to find their own way, in their own time, so we’ll get there. I promise you, we’ll get there.
Carterville is built on a hill, Main Street quite steep for most of its length, but this affords you with one of the best parts of Carterville—the view.
I turned to the north, and squinting, I could see the distant cut in the desert that marked the Grand Canyon. To the east rose the cinder cone of Sunset Crater and beyond that the cinder crater field that makes it abundantly clear just how this mountain rose out of the desert.
Depending on where you are on the hill, Carterville is between 6,400 and 7,100 feet in elevation with the towering mountain behind us, the vast desert in front of us, and the ponderosa pine, juniper, and piñon pine trees all around us. The sun shines three hundred days a year and the air is clean and the skies blue.
I was taking it all in, getting ready to step onto Main Street and cross over to the police station when a scream emanated from the diner.
A woman’s voice.
I didn’t think. I ran back in.
Except for the people I passed running out, it looked almost normal for a Wednesday morning. People sitting in a few high-backed booths, the smell of bacon and coffee making me wish I wasn’t already at my limit. But then I heard Patty crying from the back and saw Raven, the blond, flip-flopped tourist girl standing behind the counter, her hand on her mouth as she stared into the kitchen. Mary Reilly, still in her booth, gave me a wide-eyed look like a deer in the headlights.
I pulled the radio from my belt. “Dispatch, this is Carter. We’ve got a situation at the diner. Send backup.”
“Roger that, Henry,” Annabelle replied. “Y’all okay?” There was a tone to Annabelle’s voice. Her lovely southern drawl was there, but she’d been here for the past six years since the meteor hit, since the Incident, and there was something weary there too, like she knew that none of us were really okay anymore.
I pulled my taser and eased back behind the counter, past the wide-eyed Raven and into the kitchen. Bacon was sizzling on the wide grill and pancakes were burning. Big Frank Paulson was laid out on the greasy linoleum floor, a bloody hole in his back. Patty was squatting next to him crying. She was clearly in shock. Her empathetic power didn’t always help in an emergency. And Bicep-boy was standing, his back to the griddle with a bloody knife in his hand and a blank look on his face.
“Drop the knife, son,” I said, calmly, evenly. “You have to the count of three.” The boy had a smear of blood on his lips and his chin and I wished for the millionth time the world didn’t know about us. There was a rumor that the blood of a Carterville powered person could convey their powers to you.
Christ, the world can be so stupid sometimes. Make that most of the time, anymore.
I didn’t have time for any of this. Frank was bleeding out. Frank needed help. But I needed to stop anyone else from getting stabbed.
“One…” I said. His eyes were vacant, maybe he was in shock. “Two…” He didn’t acknowledge and just stared at Frank unblinkingly, licking his bloody lips, the knife held like he was ready to stab again. “Three…” No movement. No nothing.
I fired the taser. He convulsed and went down hard, the knife clattering to the floor with him. Raven was shouting, but I ignored her and grabbed my radio. “Annabelle, we need the doctor here, and now! Reroute Officer Ortega and have her go bring Smitty here. Hurry!”
Annabelle was saying something, but I was too busy to really hear her, my heart thumping in my chest. I rolled Bicep-boy over and cuffed him, and then I went to Frank.
He’s a big man, a good two hundred and fifty pounds. He was born here, just like me. We went to high school together in Flagstaff (Carterville’s not big enough for its own). He was still married to his first love. He had three kids, two grandkids. And he had a power, just like the rest of us.
Frank had a green thumb. Not literally, of course, but he could grow anything in all but the harshest condition. Much of the produce at the diner was grown in the greenhouse at Frank’s place.
He had one of the good powers, really he did. Nothing double-edged about it at all. Well, he really liked plants better than people these days, which made him grumpier than he used to be, but he really did get lucky with that meteorite hit.
Time seemed to slow and my breathing was loud in my ears.
I grabbed a towel hanging on the stainless-steel island Frank prepped his food on. It had bright green broccoli heads and perfectly white cauliflower heads, probably destined for his dinner special. The towel was dirty, stained with grease, but I bunched it up and pressed it to Frank’s wound, my knees in the growing puddle of his blood.
Raven ran to Bicep-boy, tears running down her face.
I heard a commotion as the other couple that had been at the booth with Raven and Bicep-boy tried to get back into the kitchen. Old Mary Reilly told them to go sit back down, a growl in her old voice, and they did. And fast. They had no choice really, although they probably wouldn’t remember it that way.
I was glad she was out there with her power at the ready.
Patty was sobbing, hard, but I ignored her—there was nothing I could do for her.
I pressed the towel to the wound, trying to desperately slow the flow of blood. I could feel it pulsing underneath my now blood-soaked hands, the smell of it driving out the bacon and coffee smell of the kitchen, and I was regretting my big breakfast.
If the knife had hit his heart or pierced an artery, there would be nothing a doctor could do, and judging by how quick it was pouring out, there was little doubt.
Frank’s only hope was Smitty.
I caught Patty’s wide eyes. She stopped crying and blinked and then nodded. She knew.
She knew that I needed Frank to live and that Smitty was his only hope. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
I heard the warbling of a siren getting closer. That would be Officer Ortega with Smitty.
Patty sniffed and nodded and pursed her lips, her eyes staying connected to mine. Right then I knew what she wanted, and it was the same thing I wanted, for Frank to live.
She put a smile on her face but it was shaky and barely there. It wasn’t fair, but if anyone could understand what Winston “Smitty” Smith wanted, it was Patty.
I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in anymore and pressed on Frank’s wound.
Winston “Smitty” Smith was tall, thin, and all angles. His nose was sharp, his hazel eyes dull, and his scraggly blond hair was way too grey for his thirty-six years.
He had beads around his neck and wore loose flowing linen clothing and looked like he belonged in New Age Sedona, not old-fashioned Carterville.
Smitty has a superpower. A real live superpower. The doctor, Jenny Lion, was back in the kitchen with Frank, but I didn’t need powers to read the dire look on her face and to know she wasn’t going to be able to save him. Officer Ortega was helping the doctor and keeping an eye on Raven and the still-unconscious Bicep-boy.
Mary Reilly was still there, all four-foot-four of her, a grim look on her wrinkled face, her pink lips pressed into a thin line. I nodded to her, she had cleared the rest of the diner out and I was grateful. She wasn’t exactly an official member of the department, but she was smart and would step in with crowd control and the like when I needed her. No one would think that a grey-haired grandma that always wore a pleated skirt and a sweater she had knitted herself could demand such obedience.
You didn’t get on Mary’s bad side, what with her power.
I was walking slowly, rubbing Frank’s blood off my hands, wishing I could smell anything else. My heart was pounding in my chest and I had no patience for what needed to be done. Patty was standing next to Smitty, her green eyes looking haunted.
“Smitty,” I said with a nod.
“Chief,” he growled.
Before all this power stuff, Smitty was a part-time mechanic and full-time petty thief. He didn’t wear guru clothing, but jeans and flannel shirts. I had arrested him many times, but never had enough to put him away for very long. There was no love lost between us. Especially not since the meteor hit and he had gotten a power that was super.
“Patty told you,” I said, not a question.
“Will you do it?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders and I just wanted to punch him.
I glanced at Patty and she frowned and her brow furrowed. Whatever he wanted, it was too much.
“What do you want?” I asked. There was no time for niceties.
“You know what it costs me,” he said dryly, dodging the question. And I did. Smitty’s superpower was healing. If the person wasn’t dead, he could bring them back. But at a cost, which his premature grey attested to.
“What do you want?” I repeated.
He sighed and Patty wouldn’t meet my eyes.
I took a step forward until I was close enough to smell the patchouli oil he always wore these days. “Goddammit, Smitty! Spit it out. Frank doesn’t have any time.”
He blinked, slowly, and then a smug little grin spread on his face. “I want you to leave Carterville and never come back. You do that, I’ll save Frank.”
I stepped back, almost stumbled, my heart beating loud in my head and I could smell Smitty’s scent mixing with the smell of blood and the distant smell of what was burning on the grill.
My home. The home of my family since the mine was started. Where my son was born. Everything I knew. Everything I loved.
“I’ll need a month to wrap things up,” I heard myself saying. My voice was calm, way too calm, and I didn’t recall actually making a decision.
“You got a week,” he sneered.
“Done! You save Frank, I’ll be out of here in a week. I promise.” I grabbed him by the arm and shoved him back towards the kitchen, my heart still a loud whooshing in my head.
Patty just stared at me, a mixture of relief and pity on her face. She knew I would do it, she knew exactly how hard this would be for me, so much so that she hadn’t considered it an option. Even with her power she hadn’t thought I would do it.
Everything has its limits.
But Frank. I had to help Frank.
I’ve got a telescope on my deck. Sure, I use it to look at the stars or the moon, but I use it during the day to peek at the Grand Canyon or Sunset Carter, or the Painted Desert or any of a dozen other beautiful places in this Northern Arizona desert.
My house is odd. The original cabin is over a hundred years old, but my ancestors added on to it every few decades. An indoor bathroom, a real kitchen, a bigger bedroom, a large deck. Leaving it this strange amalgam with lots of odd turns and corners and little steps up or down.
The old wood siding is encased in worn white vinyl, a gift of the fifties, and the hardwood floors creak when you walk on them. But it’s the deck and the view that is the star when the weather is the least bit tolerable.
I left Ortega to deal with Malcom Bishop, aka Bicep-boy. Smitty did his part and Frank was alive. He was airlifted to Flagstaff Medical Center. He lost an awful lot of blood and even Smitty’s power has its limits, but it looked like he was going to make it.
I should have been back at the station dealing with all of this, but I just couldn’t. I promised Smitty I would leave if he saved Frank. He did. I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving.
The sun was easing towards the west and a chilly September breeze had kicked up. I had a gin and soda on ice with a squeeze of lime and a dash of bitters in my hand and was sitting on an Adirondack chair so old the wood was bleached to a flat silver.
In many ways this view was Carterville to me. My father had built the deck when I was eight. I helped him. I’ve re-stained and resealed it many times. I rebuilt it three years ago.
I shared the house with my sister. She worked at the Flagstaff Medical Center, three twelves a week and stayed with her daughter and grandchild there and was here the other nights. She was there working and I texted her about Frank and she said she would keep me updated.
I didn’t tell her about the deal I made with Smitty.
I hadn’t told anyone, but this being a small rural town, most everyone knew by now.
My brain wasn’t working right. Leaving was just too big a thought to hold on to. Sure, when I was a teenager, I wanted to get the hell out. I went to college in San Diego, and as nice as the ocean and the warm weather was, I couldn’t stand all the people. I loved looking at the ocean, but for me it lacked the character and diversity of sitting here and staring at this desert.
I got my first job as a police officer in Tucson, and while I was so happy to be back in Arizona, the city was just too big for me, too many people. Too many murders.
I’m a small-town boy. A Carterville boy. I came back and worked under the old police chief until he retired, and then I ran for and got his job.
I set the drink down on the arm of the Adirondack, my hand was getting cold. I hadn’t imbibed yet, because I figured once I did, it would be a long time until I stopped and I still needed to think.
“Excuse me, Boss.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin and turned to see Officer Isabella Ortega. Short, young, and built a bit like a fireplug with warm brown eyes and a ready smile. She was in her navy-blue uniform with her long black hair pulled back into a ponytail. She stood nervously shifting her weight from foot to foot. She was a third-generation Mexican immigrant, but her grandmother was Navajo and she spoke the language, along with Spanish, making her extra useful since we were close to the reservation.
“Shit, Ortega,” I said as I pushed myself up. I was still in my uniform but had changed out of my bloody pants and locked my gun belt away in the safe. “You about scared me to death. Can’t you see I’m gettin’ ready to get good and drunk?”
She looked down. The girl was smart, capable, driven, but unaccountably shy. She wasn’t a Carterville native, wasn’t here for the Incident, and had only been here a few years. Why she wanted to live and work in this crazy town, I hadn’t figured out yet.
“Sorry…” I said with a sigh. “Bad day. What’s up?”
“I tried radioing…” she said by way of apology.
“You’re good, Ortega. Spit it out.”
“The perp, Bishop, says he has no recollection of what happened. Claims he never heard ‘The Blood of Carterville’ legend.”
I shrugged. “He was there. Patty saw it. I saw him holding the knife. He had Frank’s blood smeared on his face.”
She pursed her lips. “The girlfriend backed him up in independent questioning as did the other couple that was with them.”
I sighed and walked to the edge of the deck and leaned on the railing. Below me houses lined the steep hill Carterville was built on, giving me a nearly unobstructed view of the desert.
“And…” I prompted. She had something else, I knew her well enough to know that.
“Mary Reilly told him to tell the truth,” she said.
It wasn’t protocol, using powers like that on the job, but sometimes we didn’t really have a choice. “And…” I tried not to make it a growl, I just didn’t have any patience left.
“He said that he blacked out shortly after you left and came to on the floor of the kitchen.”
I was never fond of mysteries, but in a town with nearly two hundred people with powers (some have left Carterville and their powers behind) I just plain hated them.
“Well, let’s get into it then,” I said, leaving my drink and my view behind. I had a week left, might as well solve one more case.
I read some comics as a kid, thought a bit about what kind of superpower I would want to have. Flying sounded good, but seemed too dangerous, so many ways for that to go bad. Being really strong would be nice, but again, that kind of power can go sideways in an instant. I settled on invisibility. Yeah, I was a shy kid. Being able to truly hide or spy without being caught had a certain kind of appeal. Anonymity as a superpower, now that can make you feel safe.
That day, I really wished that was my power, that I could use it and stay in my home and no one would know.
Ortega drove us down to Center Street, the station was just west of Main. It took all of a minute. Carterville really is a small town. We’ve only got the one police vehicle, a used Ford SUV we bought from the Phoenix PD a few years ago. She uses it more than I do and it was a mess, full of junk food wrappers and empty coffee cups and it smelled like congealed French fries. I didn’t have the energy to chew her out about it. The girl was a slob, and nothing I had ever said had changed that.
We didn’t talk on the way, which suited me.
Our offices are in the back of what was the original Carterville post office. A two-story brick building that is as plain as the day is long. The front of the building, that faces Main, is a bakery, the back half is our place, the top floor is some offices.
It smelled like bread and sweets all day long, which hadn’t been good for my waistline.
We’ve got one big room with three desks, filing cabinets, and a big whiteboard that has notes about recent calls. There was a jumble of evidence bags on Ortega’s desk. The knife, still bloody, and some sample vials, clearly from the perp. Probably some from Frank, and that thought just made my stomach turn. Ortega was nothing if not thorough.
The back room has two holding cells and there’s a separate room, not much more than a big closet, that serves as my office and the armory. The walls were white. The fluorescents were too bright. And the floor was scarred hardwood.
Annabelle Unger was sitting at her desk along the wall near the whiteboard. She’s a few years older than me, getting close to sixty, but was tall and slim and her hair was bright red with streaks of purple (chemically aided, of course). She’s our dispatcher and office manager. She doesn’t wear a uniform, although I would really like her to, and was in her usual tight jeans and sweater with high heels.
I nodded to her but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. She knew what I had promised to do. She knew I kept my promises. “You two get into the database,” I said. “Find me some suspects with the right powers.” It came out more clipped then I would have liked. “Please” and “thank you” go a long way to making life a lot more pleasant, but it had been a day.
And the database I was referring to was really a spreadsheet that Annabelle had compiled that had all the residents and their known or suspected powers.
I didn’t wait for them to reply. I headed back to the holding cells. In the left one Malcom Bishop sat and in the right was Raven Reynolds. His cell was locked, hers was not. They were holding hands through the bars. The couple that had been with them had given their statements and had hopefully found a room to stay in, Ortega having told them to not leave town.
Bishop still had blood staining his hands and a haunted look on his face. Somehow his biceps bulging in his plain black T-shirt didn’t look so big anymore.
“Come on,” I said, pulling my keys from my belt and unlocking his cell. “I bet you would like to clean yourself up.”
He slowly looked up at me and nodded. I saw a flatness to his brown eyes that looked like shock to me. He stood and so did his girlfriend, their hands still clasped through the bars.
“Ms. Reynolds,” I said. “Please wait here. We’ll be right back.”
She nodded absently and sat back down on the cot.
I guided the young man out into the main room and into the men’s bathroom. I stood against the door while he used one of the stalls and then stumbled to the sink and started washing his hands.
He did it once, twice, and on the third time I just shook my head. His hands were shaking, his eyes weren’t right. I was starting to believe his story.
“You okay, son?” I asked.
He turned and looked at me, startled, like he had forgotten I was there. He nodded weakly.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
He nodded, but didn’t say anything, washing his hands for another few minutes. When he finally stopped, he turned and glanced at me and then stared at his hands. They were red from being washed so much and water was dripping off them onto the old brown linoleum.
“Jeff, he was going on about powers, about this place…” he began, and then he bit his lip. “It was his idea, you know. Go look at the Carterville freaks.”
I cringed inside, but I tried not to let it show. I nodded for him to continue.
“We had just talked to you and Jeff was freaked that you didn’t have powers, that you were just fine with it. He was going on and on and then his voice got distant, like he was at the other end of a tunnel. And… and… I felt numb. I mean, not numb, but like my body wasn’t mine anymore. You know what I mean?”
I didn’t, but I did my best to smile and nodded.
“I remember standing up. I think I said something about the bathroom. And I don’t remember anything until I woke up handcuffed with… with…” He was staring at his hands again.
I felt sorry for the kid and I more than half believed him. But he was still a suspect, we still had witnesses and evidence. In any other town it would be enough, we would be done, but not in Carterville.
I took his arm and guided him back to his cell and locked him in.
“What… what’s going to happen to me?” he asked, his voice sounding like a scared little boy’s.
“We’re going to find who did this,” I said. I didn’t really answer his question because I didn’t have a good answer for him.
I didn’t have any answers, only questions.
This is only the Beginning
Sign up for my email newsletter and you'll be the first to know about new books in this series
Robert J. McCarter is the author of more than ten novels and over a hundred short stories. He is a regular contributor to Pulphouse Fiction Magazine and his short fiction has also appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Everyday Fiction, and numerous anthologies.
Robert writes in a variety of genres from contemporary fantasy to science fiction and just about everything in between. His diverse background–including a career in software engineering, growing up on a ranch riding horses, and acting–colors the stories he tells.
He lives in the mountains of Arizona with his amazing wife and his ridiculously adorable dogs