Butcher Pen Road by Kris Lackey, published in 2021
The first chapter is excerpted below.
The boy stared at the ground as he walked out of a hackberry stand, toward Bill Maytubby’s black Chickasaw Lighthorse Police cruiser. It was parked at a closed barbed-wire gap gate under a tall homemade ranch gate. Maytubby leaned against a fender and watched the boy approach. He had long black hair and wore an unzipped black hoodie over an old pearl-button Western shirt. The weathered ranch gate was made from two stripped-cedar king posts about fifteen feet tall, forks at the top supporting a crooked cedar crossbar. Not unusual in south-central Oklahoma. On one of the king posts, someone had long ago brushed “chokma,” a Chickasaw greeting, vertically in yellow paint.
Without looking at Maytubby, the boy came to the fence, pushed together the brace post and the gap gate post, lifted the top wire loop with his hand, tilted the gate post, and slid the bottom of the gate post up out of the bottom wire loop. While the boy was dragging the gate’s limp strands and free posts to the side, Maytubby got in his cruiser, drove through the gate, and stopped. He lowered the cruiser’s window. The boy was looking at him now.
“Thank you.” Maytubby noticed that the boy was now watching his lips. “Three more police cars will be coming in a while.” Maytubby held up three fingers.
The boy pointed down a faint vehicle trail, then opened his hand and flapped it toward the woods to indicate that Maytubby had a way to go. He dragged the gap gate back into place and secured its post with the wire loops. In the cruiser’s mirror, Maytubby saw the boy standing still, watching the treetops for dust rising from the road.
The shallow wheel ruts wound half a mile through red cedar, hack-berry, and blooming redbud before towering white sycamores loomed up from the banks of Pennington Creek. Standing motionless in the spidery shadows of their budding limbs, a woman of about forty, wearing a green cotton hoodie, watched Maytubby as he got out of the cruiser. He could see now that the sweatshirt said “Mill Creek Bullfrogs.”
“Chokma,” he said, taking off his campaign hat.
“Chokma,” she said.
“I’m Bill Maytubby.”
They stood quietly for a few seconds. In the distance, a quarry train blew for a crossing. Maytubby could see, fifty yards behind her, a small frame house with a tin roof and a brick chimney. A sun-bleached violet Dodge Neon was parked under a big pecan tree.
“He’s over there,” she said, turning her face toward the creek. She folded her arms across her chest and looked away from the creek.
“Thanks,” Maytubby said. “I’m sorry, but there will be four more officers here within an hour.”
She said nothing. He put his hat on and walked across a pebbly clearing to a rank of alder bushes on the creek shelf. He found an opening and edged sideways onto the rocky bank of a clear pool. A great blue heron regarded him from the opposite shallows.
The body was practically at his feet. It bumped against granite boul-ders that kept it from the little falls at the end of the pool. The torso, facedown on the gravel bottom, was clad in a sky-blue long-sleeved shirt and a two-tone gray fishing vest, both several sizes too big. A split-willow creel bobbed from a neck strap. The back of the vest was vertically scored with small rips. The legs, in cinched bootfoot chest waders, canted down-ward to a slightly deeper bottom. Also drifting in the eddy was a wood landing net inlaid with turquoise, tethered to the vest by a bungee loop.
Beside the boulders, a single metal wading staff glinted from a fallen cottonwood. An adobe-colored bucket hat lay half on the shore and half in the water, two dun fishing flies embedded in its wool patch. The fly rod sticking up from the water was bamboo. Thick mint-green fly line sine-waved toward the channel before dropping out of sight. Wet-tip line, for sinking flies.
Suddenly, the sine wave flatlined and the tip of the rod bent. May-tubby pulled out his phone and photographed the corpse and rod an instant before whatever fish had taken the fly pulled the whole rod and reel into the pool. The floating stretch of line looped and crossed like a skywriter.
He sent the photo to his chief, Les Fox, to Johnston County Sheriff Benny Magaw, and to Agent Dan Scrooby at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. The staties would be here shortly with their bazooka lenses. Above the rush of the falls, Maytubby heard crunching footsteps an instant before a longer shadow than his own joined his.
“He’s got one.”
Maytubby nodded but didn’t turn his head. “Hannah. Didn’t hear your cruiser.”
“That kid at the gate deaf?” She stared at the heron.
“Think so.” The mint-hued line looped and crossed.
Hannah Bond extended her left arm toward the corpse and turned her palm up. “Since when does Field and Stream come to Bumfuck, Oklahoma?”
“I know. Important-fisherman suit.”
“I bet his underpants have fish on ’em.” She paused. “And if his underpants are as big as that outfit, how did he keep ’em up?”
The creel erupted with thrashing fish.
Hannah said, “Pretty sure that basket has a precious name.”
“It’s a creel.”
Hannah wrinkled her nose. “Sounds like a ghoul.”
The heron speared a fish, pivoted, and shook it onto the shore.
“Speakin’ of,” she said, “that’s a nasty gash behind his temple.”
Maytubby pointed to a large round rock a few yards upstream.
Hannah sighted along his arm. “Plenty of blood, but he’d have to fall anniegogglyn.”
“And from the top of this sycamore.” Maytubby looked up.
“Also”—Maytubby touched Hannah’s shoulder and pointed to the cottonwood snag—“he had a wading staff. The precious word for a walking stick. Has a metal point that sticks into the riverbed.”
Hannah squinted under her hat brim. “That thing’s metal except the grip. If it doesn’t float, how’d it get downstream in this piddly current? And tell me those things can climb. It hasn’t rained for weeks.”
“Closest public access to this creek is the national fish hatchery.”
“Four, five miles downstream,” Hannah said.
“I’ll tell the Medical Examiner’s Office to check for wader-boot blisters.”
“I’ve bait-fished and noodled. But this game”—she pointed down at the body, moved her hand up and down—“stumps me. I see dudes at it down on the Blue after the winter trout are stocked. Seems a little like strappin’ on chaps and spurs just to go feed the cows. Easier to stand on the bank with a Mr. Crappie and a can o’ corn.”
“And why would somebody even wade this little creek when it’s too early for snakes and ticks to be a big problem?” Maytubby glanced up and down the stream. “Brush, overhang, timber snags—and that rod must be nine feet. You couldn’t get even a decent roll cast in here. What’s the point?”
Bond now looked at Maytubby.
When she said nothing, he turned to her. “What?”
“Makes me wonder what else you got in your closet I never seen.” He frowned and then raised his eyebrows. “Oh. Roll cast. When I was in college in Santa Fe, I had some rich friends from back east.”
“Mmm.” She nodded. “Trout year-round in the New Mexico mountains.”
“Yeah. But also stocked from the local hatcheries.”
“Don’t have to hitch a ride from Arkansas like ours.” Hannah pointed at the creel, which was now quiet. “I wonder what kind of fish are in that basket.”
Maytubby pulled out his phone and touched its screen. “Called OSBI and the ME’s office right after Dispatch got the call from Ms. Laber.” He crooked his head toward the little house. “Owns the land. Originally an allotment.”
“Passed into her family, still legally Indian country.”
Maytubby nodded. “I’m going to walk around, try to get bars so I can call the office. Want me to call your boss?”
Hannah looked at her watch. “Twelve-ten on a Friday. Sheriff Magaw will be reciting the pledge with his fellow Tishomingo Lions. Also, you don’t know where I’m at.”
“Entangling me in your deceit, as usual.”
“I delivered my summonses on the Big Rock. Perfessor.”
“I’ll tell him after Lions. Try not to rub it in I’m here first.”
Maytubby walked away from the stream, parting the alders. He held his cell phone aloft, circled his cruiser and the deputy’s white Ford Crown Vic. The Vic had a lightning bolt through “SHERIFF.” When he had two bars, he called Dispatch.
“Hey, Bill. You got a secret message that can’t go over the police radio?”
“Hey, Sheila. Can’t multitask on the radio.”
“You know men can’t do that, even on a phone.”
“I just photographed a crime scene with this phone and sent the pic to Chief Fox and OSBI.” Maytubby looked up at the little house. Deborah Laber stood in the front doorway, arms crossed.
“Then you called me. See, that’s one at a time. I saw a report on man brains and woman brains on the Today show.”
“So man brains can’t multitask? That’s a huge bummer, Sheila.”
“Shut. Up. You’re just too lazy to get in your police car. You find the body?”
“Yes. Just where Ms. Laber said it would be. Fly-fishing togs. Hat, vest, net, waders.”
“On that little creek?” The police radio crackled behind her voice.
Maytubby opened the trunk of his cruiser. “I called OSBI and the medical examiner.”
He grabbed a roll of crime scene tape and some yellow plastic evi-dence markers, shut the trunk. “You know, Sheila, while I’m talking to you, I’m getting crime scene tape out of my trunk.”
“Not near the same. I’m never gonna hear the end of this. Should’ve let you live in ignorance.”
Maytubby slipped through the alders and stood beside Bond, who was stuffing blue disposable gloves into one of her duty belt holders. “Well?” he said.
“Rainbows,” she said, snapping the holder.
He nodded. “Just an educated guess.”
“You got it.”
“Feds don’t stock trout in this stream. Yesterday was the end of the season on the Blue. Hell of a lot of work for such a stupid plan.”
Maytubby turned to look at the woods downstream. “We can forget about wader blisters.”
“Work and patience. They couldn’t kill a trout fisherman in that last-day crowd on the Blue. Have to cruise the access roads, wait for one of the Dallas slickers to shuck his gear and go for a country leak. Gimme an end.”
Maytubby held out the crime tape roll, his cupped hand through the spool.
Hannah said, “OSBI’s not gonna like this.” She took the loose end and walked into the alders. He followed her into the clearing where the cruisers were parked. Then she walked upstream while he waited beside a sycamore until she had tied her end to a tree at the head of the pool. He wrapped tape around a limb stump. When they had worked their way below the falls, Maytubby stopped and nodded at the ground.
“How far’d we drive off Bellwood Road?” Hannah said. “Half a mile?”
“Stupid for sure, but some strong to drag that thing alone . . . Or maybe more like slow and patient.”
“Hannah, you came from the east and then south?”
“And I came from the west. You think if I went south on Bellwood I might find the Texan’s vehicle, too?”
“Last time that guy goes into the bushes to take a leak.” Hannah massaged a taut length of tape between her fingers.
“Except . . .” “He would keep the keys in his pants,” Maytubby said. “Or. Those other trout people have phones, too. We would’ve heard about a stolen vehicle.”
“He could still’ve gone to take a leak. Thieved clothes—you’d want to keep that to yourself. Bet he stopped at Academy in Sherman and bought a new outfit so Dallas wife wouldn’t catch on.”
“Might have to drive a little farther for some of that gear,” Maytubby said. “Like Maine.”
“Or his office computer.”
They walked sideways, parallel to the flattened path of the dragged corpse, keeping the path in front of them as they taped south and west away from the creek.
When the topsoil was deep enough to hold footprints, they slowed to study the ground, most of it covered in sycamore and oak leaves. A bird shadow shuttered the sun for an instant. They looked up to see the great blue stroking the mild air.
When they looked back down, a little breeze flipped some sycamore leaves, baring a patch of ochre ground. Both Bond and Maytubby pointed at a footprint. Maytubby quickly retrieved his phone, zoomed its camera, and sent the photo to Fox and the OSBI. He fished out an evidence pointer, swished away some leaves, laid the marker on a flat rock, and pinned it there with another rock. OSBI would later make casts of every print with dental plaster.
“Toe pointed away from the creek,” Hannah said. “Would’ve been. Dragging and vamoosing.”
“Shallow heel. Definitely vamoosing,” Maytubby said. “Pronate.”
“Smooth sole. And not a boot—cowboy or Wellie.”
“Yeah. Dress shoe?” Maytubby said. He walked sideways, letting the tape unspool as Hannah followed, wrapping it around broken limbs. The gibberish of mockingbirds drifted from the overstory.
“Must be at least a thirteen,” Hannah said. “So, likely taller than average. Man the size that fishin’ costume back there would fit.”
“How many times you think these blackjack limbs scraped the fish-erman’s hat off Bigfoot?”
Hannah snorted. “Can’t you see that goober slappin’ down escaped trout by moonlight?”
“How’d he keep them alive until then?”
“Sink ’em in the ice chest amongst his Keystones?”
Maytubby pushed through the alders and joined Bond between white vans from OSBI and the Medical Examiner’s Office.
“Couple horse trailers, we could have a rodeo,” Bond said.
“You recognize either one of those techs?” Maytubby crooked his head toward the creek, where he had left them to their work.
“I think the middle-school girl worked the Greasy Bend bridge murder last year.”
“The ME guy must be in her homeroom.”
The boy from the gate walked into the clearing, turned from the drive to join Deborah, who was walking from her house toward Maytubby and Bond. She put an arm around the boy as they walked together. “He’s got her chin,” Maytubby said. He removed his Smokey hat. When the OSBI tech returned to her car for something, Deborah Laber and the boy stopped and watched her until she had closed the trunk and disappeared through the alders.
“Am I okay here?” Bond said softly.
“Sure,” Maytubby said. “She’ll look at your nameplate and think you’re one of the Chickasaw Bonds.”
“There’s a few.” Bond looked away from their approaching company. “Anyway, more’n Irish Maytubbys.”
When they arrived, Maytubby watched the boy watching his lips. Deb-orah Laber and Maytubby did not immediately make eye contact. Maytubby said, “Ms. Deborah Laber, this is my friend, Deputy Hannah Bond.”
They half-nodded, half-smiled.
Laber looked at Maytubby. The boy looked at Laber. “Everyone calls me Deb,” she said. He nodded. She turned her head toward the boy.
“This is my son, Jason.” Jason’s hands stirred as he moved his eyes to Maytubby. “Hello, Jason,” Maytubby said.
“He’s on spring break from OSD,” Deborah said.
“Last fall, one of your Indians scored seventeen touchdowns in one game.” Maytubby signed “Seventeen,” turned his palms up. All he knew.
Jason nodded, then looked down. His mother touched his shoulder to get his attention. She said, “Dylan,” while signing the name to him. He looked from her to the creek behind Maytubby, ran his palms up and down his jeans.
“They could only play six-man ’stead of eight that night.” Deborah said.
“Flu?” Maytubby said.
“Pinkeye.” Her voice trailed off as she looked toward the river.
Maytubby waited a few seconds for the murmur of the falls to ease his segue.
He spoke to Deborah Laber. “I see you don’t have a dog. Were there any unusual noises last night?”
She made a moue and shook her head. “Before I went to sleep around ten, just the usual. Coyotes, train in Mill Creek, owl. After that, I don’t hear anything until the alarm at five-thirty. My shift at Sipokni”—she pointed southeast—“starts at seven. I sleep like a log.”
“Sipokni West—Old West. That’s in Reagan, on the Big Rock,” Maytubby said. “Never eaten there.”
“Good fries and chicken-fried steak,” Hannah said to Maytubby. Then she looked slyly toward Deborah Laber. “Sergeant Maytubby perfers rabbit food.”
Jason looked at Hannah’s lips with some confusion.
“Deb, did you discover the body? Or Jason.”
“Oh, this fella did. He roams the woods. I was finishing my coffee.”
“Jason mention anything unusual about the night before?”
The boy looked away from Maytubby’s face and rubbed his palms on his jeans.
“No,” she said. Then she faced her son and signed as she spoke aloud. “You outside last night? See anybody around here?”
Jason shook his head hard several times, thrust out his right arm and signed “no”—index and middle fingers snapping against thumb—only once. Like a rattlesnake strike. His mother frowned at his hand for a beat before she turned back to Maytubby—giving her face an extra quarter turn so Jason couldn’t see it.
“That’s a weird no,” she whispered, as if her son might hear.
“Right,” Maytubby said. He reached to shake Jason’s hand. The boy obliged. “Thank you, Jason.” Maytubby took a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to Deb Laber. “Use my cell number if you learn anything. The other investigators may be asking you questions after Deputy Bond and I leave. If you would, tell Jason we’re both old hands with a gap gate. We’ll let ourselves out.” She was signing as Maytubby and Bond walked to their cruisers.
“You think we should split up at Bellwood Road to look for the decoy vehicle, or both go south?” Maytubby said.
“I thought you were worried about keeping me from my duty.” Bond opened her cruiser’s door.
“The spirit is willing. But let’s both go south.”