Authors: Evan Ronan
Greg Tolliff had been working the 911 dispatch for three months. In his short time riding the line, the most bizarre call he’d gotten was from a man who’d accidentally driven a nail through his nuts, and the most terrifying call had been from a mother, sick with worry, about her seven-year-old who’d just ingested half a bottle of sleeping medication.
But the call he took that night was more bizarre and terrifying than those two combined.
“9-1-1 Dispatch. What is the nature of your emergency?”
The woman wasn’t near the phone but Tolliff heard the raw fear in her voice. He perked up in his seat.
“Ma’am, what is your name and phone number?”
The enhanced 911 system provided Tolliff with a phone number, name, and corresponding address, but Tolliff was following SOP in independently verifying this information. Though glitches were rare, sending EMS and local LE to the wrong place helped no one. LE especially didn’t like walking into a scene they didn’t understand. Some nutters were just waiting for the cops to show up so they could suicide-by-police.
“Ma’am, are you there? Ma’am?”
“Ma’am? Are you there?”
The line was still active, but there was no answer. In the background, Tolliff heard a crash and more screaming.
Tolliff connected to EMS and LE. “Unknown possible medical emergency. 225 Watoga, Cumberland. The nearest intersection is one mile away at Browning Road and Rural Route 57. Repeat, unknown medical emergency. 225 Watoga…”
Dispatch contacted LE. The general call went out to all available units. Officer Billy Towson was on-duty that night, sitting in his cruiser only a mile down the road in his favorite bear trap in front of the local farming collective’s cornfield, passing the time waiting for speeders or drunks.
“225 Watoga, repeat, 225 Watoga. Unknown medical emergency.”
Towson’s eyes went wide. “Officer Towson. I’m a click away.”
Towson put the car in DRIVE and stepped on it. Not all his tires grabbed and the cruiser started spinning. He cut the wheel and got the tires to grab and he rocketed forward.
An oncoming vehicle took the bend in the road too wide and crossed the center line. It looked like a new model station wagon. Towson hadn’t seen too many of those in these parts, where everybody drove a pickup or SUV.
Towson slammed the brakes and swerved right. The wagon missed him by inches. Heart in his throat, Towson heard the screech of brakes from the other vehicle and righted his cruiser. He hit the gas and through the rearview saw the wagon had nearly gone off the road too, but was now under control and had kept going.
“Fucking drunk.” Towson activated his siren and lights and gunned it. Then he had a thought. “This is Towson. Anybody sees a station wagon near Watoga, make a routine stop. Could be related to the Ketcher call.” He doubted the two were related, but being a good policeman meant being thorough.
And someone else could handle the asshole driver. He was more worried about the people residing at 225 Watoga. Especially the woman, Alice.
She was his cousin.
Towson knew from the call that this was an unknown medical emergency. A vague, almost useless classification that could apply to any number of ominous or harmless things and that 911 dispatchers used to cover all bases…and their asses.
Towson had to shout into the radio over the blaring of his siren. “You gotta give me more than an UME, Gary.”
“Possible home invasion.”
? Towson hadn’t been expecting that. His first thought was that Anson Ketcher was up to no good again, wailing on his wife. Towson respected their pastor, but the guy was wrong to advise Alice against divorce. God might have frowned on that but Towson was pretty sure God would frown on sweet Alice being some drunk’s punching bag.
“Who called it in?” Towson asked.
“Hold on, the Chief wants to talk to you.”
The Chief was Towson’s father. He waited for his dad to come on the line.
“Son, we don’t know who called it in but we could hear screaming.”
Towson almost broke the steering wheel, he was gripping it so hard. “I’m going to kill the motherfucker if—”
“Billy! That’s enough. We don’t know what’s happened.”
“You’re going to be first on-scene. Two more units on the way, couple of minutes behind you. I don’t know what the hell’s going on there but make sure Alice is safe above all else. I don’t give a shit about Anson and nobody here is gonna blame you for having to choose between the two of them if this is a domestic dispute turning deadly. Understood?”
Towson had already thought of that. “Roger that, Dad.”
“Get her safe, wait for back-up, keep your lid on. If Anson’s responsible for something…we can’t afford any fuck-ups. Understood?”
Towson knew exactly what his father meant. No fuck-ups meant following the letter of the law carefully so there were no due process violations.
“I love you, son. Be careful.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Towson shared his father’s worry. His cousin Alice was the sweetheart of their extended family. A nice girl, with the worst luck. At nine, she’d been diagnosed with epilepsy. At eighteen, she’d been in a horrible car accident that had nearly claimed her life. Some drag-racing punk had plowed into her head-on. At twenty, she’d been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that had nearly taken her as well. She’d lost forty pounds she didn’t have and sat on death’s doorstep for a month until somehow her body rallied. She’d been a bright student and shown much promise but her medical conditions always kept her from maintaining her studies for any continuous stretch.
And she had the bad habit of falling in love with the wrong guy. In high school, that was the star running back on the football team, who tested positive for steroids one time and later developed a nasty cocaine habit. He was serving five to seven for armed robbery currently. Then there was the man accused of running a low-level internet Ponzi scheme who’d fled the state before he could stand trial. He’d taken some of Alice’s money, and most of her heart.
And finally, there was Anson.
Alice and her husband had a bumpy, on-again, off-again history going back to high school, and their marriage was well-known to the local police department and had been the subject of endless local gossip. More than once, Alice had reported domestic abuse, only to later recant and retract her complaints.
So when Towson had gotten the call, he’d assumed Anson had crossed the line again.
Everybody in the family felt for Alice. She’d endured so much and managed to survive cancer. If all that had been in vain, to come to an end at the hands of a loser like Anson Ketcher...
Towson and his father had been looking for a reason to bust Anson so Alice would be out of his reach long enough to come to her senses and leave him.
But if dispatch was correct, this wasn’t a domestic quarrel. It was a home invasion.
An unexpected visitor at this hour would have been strange, so the home invader probably hadn’t bothered with a disguise and cover story. Daytime home invaders usually pretended to be mail carriers or repairmen. It was an easy way to gain trust and push in. This guy had probably entered at some weak point in the house like the sliding glass door in the back, his weapon already drawn.
A knot formed in Towson’s stomach as he thought about it more. A home invasion was plausible. The Ketchers lived in a large, well-furnished, home that shouted money. The money came from Alice’s father, Towson’s uncle, who was a local, good old boy politician with a lot of clout and even more capital. That made Alice and her husband prime targets for burglars.
Towson had Alice’s cell phone number programmed into his. He called it, hoping to get lucky. The reception out here was shit though and the call wouldn’t connect.
A quarter mile out, Towson could see the Ketcher house. The sprawling home sat alone far off the road and was surrounded by a lot of acreage.
There was a mile of woods behind the home and a bevy of intersecting creeks. Somebody could disappear back there if they couldn’t use the road to get away.
Towson pulled into the mouth of the Ketcher’s long driveway and stood on the gas pedal. He braked to a stop in front of the garage, grabbed his shotgun, and jumped out of the car.
Towson didn’t see any unknown vehicles. Alice’s Beamer was parked in front of the garage next to Anson’s old pickup truck.
The garage doors were closed. The invader hadn’t come in that way.
Towson rounded to the front of the house and peered through the windows as he raced to the front door. The lights downstairs were on. The front door was shut. The windows along the face of the house all looked intact.
Civilians think burglaries and home invasions are synonymous, but they’re not. Burglars don’t want homeowners to be around during a robbery. They know what they’re after, so they want to get in and out undetected.
Home invaders, on the other hand,
the owners present so they can be shown where the expensive items are and so the safes can be opened. In a home invasion, robbers come prepared to administer violence.
The front door was open.
Towson bounded up the steps and angled his shotgun at the doorway. He didn’t hear anything.
“Alice? You in there?”
He went in.
Towson swept his shotgun 180 degrees and back again to clear the corners of the room. No one in the foyer.
“Alice? Anson? This is Billy!”
He smelled the metallic odor of blood on the air. His heart slipped into fourth gear.
Towson pushed through the foyer, saw nobody and heard nothing except for the whirring of the dishwasher.
Towson left the foyer and made a right into the kitchen. Spotted the shattered dishes on the floor. He rounded the island to make sure nobody was hiding then went to the den.
The couch was out of place. He could tell by the exposed indents in the rug. The entertainment center was missing its flat screen TV. The sliding glass door was cracked.
Shotgun aimed in front of him, Towson moved forward. The room was wrecked, but nobody was there.
He turned left and took the long hallway. Checked the bathroom. Empty. Kept going to the family room where Alice worked on her landscapes and portraits.
Her easel was on its side, one of her paintings face-down on the drop cloth. Next to that, Alice herself lying on her stomach.
Her head was twisted at a grotesque angle. Towson knew immediately her neck had been broken.
He knelt beside his cousin, went through the routine of checking her vitals even though he knew there was no point. She was dead. One eye half-open, the other swollen shut.
If it weren’t for his training, Billy would have crumbled right there. But he knew he had to clear the house and find Anson, so he went cold, professional. Went room-to-room downstairs then checked the second floor. Then doubled back down to the basement. Nobody home.
He heard the sirens in the distance and got on the walkie.
“Officer Towson on scene. Alice Ketcher is dead. Husband is not here. You’d better stop anybody driving in this area.”
He didn’t know what had happened but it sure looked like a home invasion gone bad. Maybe the perp or perps had grabbed Anson to use as leverage in case they got cornered.
He recognized Hank Grimm’s voice on the line. “I’m here, Hank.” His own voice sounded alien to him, like it was somebody else speaking.
“Billy, we picked Anson up. Coming to you.”
“What’s he saying?”
“You’re never going to believe this.”
Towson listened incredulously as Hank Grimm relayed the information.
Grimm said, “You heard me right. Anson said it was a ghost that did this. He was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he saw Alice dead and took off running. We almost ran his ass over, he was sprinting down the middle of the fucking street.”
Grimm was right. Towson didn’t believe it.
Towson rushed the squad car holding Anson. He had the door open and Anson out before two other cops intervened. Towson got some good shots in and Anson fell clumsily to the ground. Anson defended himself but didn’t fight back. Towson could smell the alcohol on him.
The cop managed to get one good kick in before a third patrolman helped the other two restrain him.
* * * *
Detective Mark Ross knew it was bad so he drove with reckless abandon to the Ketcher residence, hoping to beat out the fella from the neighboring Sheriff’s Office. Ross had nothing against the other guy, but Ross knew he was a better detective. He’d put in his twenty in the city, had worked over five hundred murders during that time, and knew how to get it done. The Sheriff and his deputy were good people, but they weren’t closers like him.
The District Attorney preferred him too, not that Ross cared about that. Prosecutors had a way of taking all the credit when it came to a conviction, even though the cops were the ones that did all the leg work that made it possible.
Ross had been awake in bed, reading the latest Lee Child thriller, when he got the call. He was in the car five minutes later and had caught the preliminary electronic chatter so he knew what he was looking at. Homicide. Husband-wife scenario. Home invasion practically ruled out.
And a husband that looked guilty as sin already.
Ross knew Anson Ketcher. Not personally, but professionally. Anson was a middling local contractor who sometimes did shoddy work and more often got into trouble. The guy was more violent than a zombie flick. There had been fights on three of his job sites over the last eight years. The pub was his boxing ring, and he’d put two men in the hospital in separate incidents. He also loved the fire water and had scored two Deweys in his early twenties.
The signs had always been there. He’d been in trouble plenty back in high school.
But here was the clincher: Anson Ketcher did not reserve his violence for men. Alice had twice filed complaints of domestic abuse. Sure, she had later retracted her statements, but there was a fancy term the shrinks and the lawyers had for that. Battered wife syndrome. Ross knew, as did every other cop who’d spent more than a minute on the job, that where there was smoke there was fire.
But even if you ignored Anson’s sketchy past, you still couldn’t get past the ridiculous allegation he was now making.
That a ghost had killed his wife.
Ross parked behind the squad cars and hopped out. Hank Grimm hurried over.
“We’ve got an issue.”
Ross didn’t like issues, but as a veteran he was used to them and knew how to work around them. “Lemme guess. Somebody roughed Anson up.”
Hank nodded. “One guess as to who.”
Ross already knew. “Before or after Anson said it was a ghost that did this?”
Hank smiled. “After.”
“Well, that’s a break.” At least Anson couldn’t claim the beating had turned him crazy. Ross spotted the man in the back of the squad car nearest the house.
“He say anything else?”
“He hasn’t asked for a lawyer yet.”
“Did we Mirandize him?”
“How drunk is he?”
“He blew a point one.”
Ross grunted. “Wait twenty minutes then drive him to the station. Then have somebody else Mirandize him again in front of a different witness. Then put him in a room for me. I don’t want him to later retract this bullshit story by claiming he was drunk.”
“The Sheriff’s guy been here yet?”
Another break for Ross. Jurisdiction out here in the unincorporated area was tricky and unofficial, but it usually boiled down to first-in-time. That meant this was unofficially officially Ross’s case.
Ross said, “How dinged up is Anson?”
“He looks like he’s been in a fight.”
“From our guy?”
“What do those ambulance-chasers say? Mostly pre-existing.”
Ross laughed. All lawyer jokes were funny to a cop. “Any lasting damage by our guy?”
“I doubt it. But you know defense attorneys.” Hank lowered his voice. “If you want, I can have three guys ready to swear under oath that Anson was non-cooperative and trying to flee.”
Ross grunted. “I don’t want. We play the hand we’re dealt. Where’s Billy?”
Hank nodded toward the lawn.
Ross walked over to Officer Billy Towson. The patrolman had his back to Ross and was staring into the night sky.
Billy Towson must have heard Ross coming. “Did I fuck it all up?”
Ross stood beside the young man. “We’ll see about that. How’s the house?”
“A fucking mess.”
Ross gauged the cop next to him. “No signs of forced entry.”
“Walk me through it.”
“Alright, come on.” Towson started toward the house but Ross cuffed his arm.
“Tell me out here. Then I’ll see for myself.”
Towson’s recall was excellent, the memory and the horror still fresh in his mind. Ross didn’t interrupt Towson during the first telling. He made the young man do it again and interjected with some questions.
“Okay,” Ross said. “You did a good job especially considering the circumstances. Get back to the office and get working on that report. I want to see the phrase
No signs of forced entry
appear in the body at least five times. I want it to sound like nobody else has been in this house except husband and wife for years. Understood?”
“And it sounds like you’re telling me Anson was very drunk, right?”
“Then make that adverb your friend. You can’t file that report without approval of the watch commander, so make sure I see it before good old Bob has a chance to sign off. I want the draft ready in two hours. There’s nothing glamorous about paperwork, but this is how we make cases.”
Ross put a hand on the patrolman’s shoulder before he could leave. “You know what I’m going to say next.”
“I’ll keep it short because you’ll hear it from everybody else too, including your pappy. You popped your cherry tonight. It happens to everybody, sooner or later. When I worked in the city, I almost took a guy’s ear off once. It earned me props with the boys but it almost fucked the collar.”
Towson grunted. Ross sensed a lot of emotion locked behind those sad, misty eyes and clenched jaw.
Ross said, “But get it under control. We live in a quiet area but you can bet your ass you’ll see the horror again. And we need good cops like you.”
Towson said nothing.
Ross said, “You’re gonna take a hit on this one. You have to, for the good of the investigation. For your cousin.”
“It’ll be worth it if Anson swings.”
“They don’t hang people anymore.” Ross patted Towson’s shoulder. “Nowadays we’re civilized and poison them.”
Ross went inside the house. The crime techs were already at it with their luminol and cameras, searching for trace amounts of blood. Ross followed the same path that Towson had described for him and eventually came to the body.
Alice Ketcher wore a long-sleeved t-shirt and pajama shorts that had ridden high up her thighs. Ross had an urge to pull those shorts down a few inches to give the lady back her dignity but of course didn’t want to contaminate the crime scene.
“Broken neck,” said a nasally voice behind him.
Ross nodded professionally at the lead tech, a relatively new guy by the name of Han.
Ross said, “Tell me how you know.”
Han carefully approached the body so as not to disturb anything and pointed a pen light at Alice’s neck. Ross didn’t need the technical details because even a layman could tell, but he wanted to gauge Han’s presentation. Never too early to start thinking about a trial.
“The line of bruising there is the first indicator. Consistent with a neck being violently twisted. Looks like she died instantly, so we’ve got a classic case of spinal shock. The spinal cord was severely injured, resulting in an immediate loss of nerve supply to the body. The nerves of the heart and vasculature are affected leading to a severe drop in blood pressure.”
Ross nodded. Han would have to work on his delivery before they put him in front of a jury but the guy knew what he was talking about.
“Any chance she fell and hit her head and twisted her neck?” Ross asked.
Han shook his head. “Doubtful. I’m certain somebody did this to her.”
“Righty or a lefty?” Ross said.
“The person that broke this woman’s neck used their left hand to twist.”