The Blessed Bones
She could hear nothing but the sound of her own heartbeat. It was dark and the rough ground scraped against her as she tried to move. Being alone was strange to her—she was so used to her big family, to the noise, the warmth, but the last thing she wanted was for the woman to return… When Detective Clara Jefferies returned home to Alber, Utah, she knew it would take a long time to convince the closed community to trust her. So she is surprised to be called to private land up in the mountains, until she hears that the bones of a young girl have been found. And hidden in the dark depths of the grave are the remains of a baby too… Digging into the town’s missing persons files, Clara is shocked to discover that pregnant girls have been going missing for years. And when she spots Ash Crawford, the first cop on the scene, praying over the bodies, she begins to suspect that he knows more about the victim than he’s letting on. With Crawford staying silent, and the identity of the girl still unknown, Clara’s only choice is to visit every family living on the mountaintop, desperate to find what they might be hiding. But doing so means facing the man she was once bound to, and the tall iron gates of the ranch she ran away from all those years ago. Then another pregnant girl is reported missing, and Clara ramps up her search, racing to find her alive. But can she uncover the town’s dark secrets in time to save both the girl and her unborn child? A heart-pounding crime thriller that twists and turns like a rollercoaster, leaving you on the edge of your seat. Readers of Lisa Regan, Linda Castillo and Kendra Elliot will be completely addicted. What readers are saying about The Blessed Bones : “ Absolutely nail-biting stuff!! From page one I was gripped. Full of twists and turns and the unexpected. Fast-paced from start to finish. Definitely worth five stars.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars “ CLARA JEFFERIES ROCKS!… This series keeps getting better and better.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 stars “If you haven't read the Detective Clara Jefferies series yet you are missing out! I have loved every single book so far in this series!… Had me flipping pages from the start… you can't help but want to keep reading… I can't say enough great things about this book and this series!! Don't miss out you will want to read!!! ” NetGalley reviewer “Another awesome instalment of the Clara Jefferies story! I absolutely love this protagonist, the setting, the case… just love it all!” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars “ Love this series. ” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars “ Another emotional rollercoaster of a case… this one draws you in. The mystery is full of tension. I didn't see the reveal coming… The end left me on pins and needles. I can't wait for the next book!” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars “Kept me captivated the whole time.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars “ Thrilling, suspenseful and very entertaining… the pace is perfect. I will definitely go back and read the other books in the series. I highly recommend this book.” Goodreads reviewer “ Best one in the series! This just keeps getting better as the characters evolve. Can’t wait for the next one!” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
Release date: March 29, 2021
Print pages: 350
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The Blessed Bones
How long had she lain like this, helpless and frightened? She thought hours, but it felt like days. Why had this happened to her? Looking back, she’d made mistakes, but at the time…
It had started when she’d trusted the boy. That one night with him had set everything in motion, the turn of events that led to the evening she’d made a tragic decision. I never should have left with the stranger, she thought, not for the first time. I should have known better.
The drug coursed through her, again sending her body into throbbing spasms, each moment feeling like an eternity. When blessed relief finally came, the agony left her weak and delirious, struggling to focus. In a haze, her memory drifted back to the last time she’d seen her father, that afternoon at the bus depot.
As they stood at the counter, she’d protested: “But I don’t want to go. Why do I have to?”
“Be quiet,” her father had whispered. “I’ll talk to you when I’m done here.”
“Why are you doing this?” she’d asked, her voice timid. “Can’t I just—”
“No. You can’t.” A lean, sallow man, he had a mop of brown hair that fell crooked over his forehead. Quickly, he’d returned his attention to the old man behind the counter. “I need a one-way ticket to Denver.”
“That’ll be sixty-two dollars,” the clerk had said.
Petite, small for her age, the teenager’s most striking feature was her eyes, a remarkable shade of violet. Her long prairie dress hung limply on her slender body with the exception of around her belly, where a careful observer might have noticed a round bulge. Nervous, her hands were shaking and her stomach had roiled with a bad case of indigestion. At least she’d stopped throwing up. For weeks, she hadn’t been able to figure out what was wrong with her. Although frightened, she’d kept her worry to herself, telling no one. Then her father had cornered her, telling her he’d heard about her and the boy from someone who’d seen them together—unchaperoned in the woods. A few hours later, he’d told her that she was taking a trip.
After he purchased the bus ticket, her father shuffled to the side to get out of the way of the others in line. The girl tracked behind, asking, “Aren’t you going with me?”
“No, of course not. Why would I do that?”
Her pulse drummed in her ears. “But I don’t know anyone in Denver. What will I do there?”
Furrowing his brow, her father shook his head. “I explained this to you.”
“Do my mothers know what you’re doing?”
She’d asked that question before, and he hadn’t answered. He didn’t again. Instead, he glared at her. “You know what you did. We can’t—”
“But I—” Tears began to flow, and the stomachache she’d been fighting crawled up her throat, making her feel as if she would gag. “What am I supposed to do?”
At that, her father pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Here, look. There’s a shelter in Denver for girls like you, ones who have strayed.”
She gulped back sour phlegm. “Father, I—”
“This is not a discussion. This is my wish. Remember what the prophet teaches: A father is to be obeyed.”
At that, she wiped her nose with her dress sleeve, but her tears flowed so hard and fast she gave up trying to stop them. “I’ll obey you, Father. I promise. Let me come home, and I’ll be a good girl. You’ll see.”
It sent a knife of pain through her when he muttered, “You can never come home. Never.”
“You made a grave mistake, one that would disgrace our family if others knew. Your mothers and I would become the subject of gossip and ridicule.”
Her father stared down at her and she recognized the same look he’d had on his face a year earlier when she’d watched him slaughter a pig for Sunday dinner. The girl had raised it from a piglet, poured her love into it, sleeping on a mound of hay beside it when it was sick. She’d pleaded with her father to spare it, but he’d raised the rifle to the pig’s head and pulled the trigger. She’d heard the boom and saw the blood and brain tissue spatter across the ground.
“Your bus leaves for Denver in two hours,” her father said, with as little emotion as if he’d been dropping her off at school. She began to object, when he hissed, “Do you think I don’t have eyes? That I cannot see what has happened to you?”
“In Denver, hire a taxi to take you to the shelter. Ask the people there for help.” Her father had a slight smirk on his face, one she interpreted as contempt for what she’d become. “Tell them that you are with child.”
“Father, please,” she pleaded, but ignoring the pain in his young daughter’s cry, he turned and walked away. The girl waited, hoping he’d return, but eventually shuffled over to a gray plastic chair near the front, one where she could hear the speaker announcing departures. She leaned back in the chair. Eventually, she nodded off.
When she awoke, a man was sitting beside her, in jeans and a black sportscoat. He had the newspaper open. She assessed the clock on the wall, then looked at her ticket. She’d missed her bus. Panicked, unsure what to do, she couldn’t stop the tears from again streaming down her cheeks. The man with the newspaper glanced over at her.
“Are you okay?”
Her parents had told her to never talk to strangers, but they weren’t there, and she needed someone to confide in. “My father bought me a ticket to Denver. I missed my bus.”
“Ah. That is bad luck,” the man said. “Why Denver?”
She pulled out the sheet of paper with the name and address of the youth shelter printed on it and showed it to him.
“Why is your father sending you there?”
“I-I was bad, and now I’m having a baby.”
The man nodded, as if he understood. “You don’t have to go all the way to Denver. I know of a place that’s closer, one where they help girls in trouble.”
The girl thought about that. The bus was gone, and she didn’t know when another would come. The ticket counter had closed for the night, and outside the sky had turned black. She thought of her mothers, her brothers and sisters. Her stomach empty and bitter, she considered how the house smelled with dinner and pictured her mothers clucking in the kitchen as they cleared the plates. She wondered if they’d be upset. If they would miss her.
The man watched her, but when she remained silent, he stood, as if ready to leave. “Good luck.”
The girl’s gaze traveled across the nearly deserted bus station. Once he left, she’d be alone, except for a scruffy man in a stained raincoat who sat in the corner mumbling to himself. She looked up at the man, wondering what she should do.
Choking back the little voice in her head that whispered not to, she asked, “Mister, would the people at that place you know about, the shelter that’s closer, help me?”
The girl had second thoughts when the man smiled at her. Something about the way his lips curled up ever so slightly at the corners made her shiver. “Yes, I’m sure they would,” he said. She saw a spark of excitement in his eyes when he asked, “Do you want me to take you there?”
Later, tied to the bed, in the fog of a dream, the girl shook her head and muttered: “No! No! Don’t go with him. No!”
That realization came only in hindsight and far too late to save her.
The day had slipped away. I’d been holed up in the musty room at the back of the station since early morning, seated at a long, library-style table. Above me the yellowed ceiling tiles were stained a sickly brown from a long-forgotten leak. Over the years, water had dripped and eaten away a patch of varnish, leaving a jagged scar on the tabletop’s dark wood. Despite the roof’s repair, the space felt dank, and it smelled of the aging paperwork it held. Kept under lock and key, the cell-like room had walls lined with metal cabinets. Inside were files, many of which went back decades. After long hours cloistered in this forgotten slice of the Alber police station, I’d come to call it “the Tombs.”
On top of the battered table, I’d positioned a dozen stacks of files categorized by types of crimes, all cold cases.
Maybe that wasn’t the right way to describe them.
A cold case suggested that these were crimes that had been investigated but remained unsolved. In truth, the matters chronicled in these reports had never been pursued. They were deposited there like corpses buried in unmarked graves. The file cabinets were akin to caskets, never intended to be reopened, their contents destined to molder away.
To comprehend why these cases were abandoned, one had to appreciate the strange milieu of my hometown. Founded more than a hundred years ago in a high valley tucked into the mountains, Alber, Utah, was the home of Elijah’s People, a fundamentalist Mormon sect that practiced polygamy. An insular society, our religion ruled our world. As true believers, we adhered to the strict edicts of our prophets, most recently an octogenarian named Emil Barstow. In town it had always been an open secret that rather than fairly enforcing laws, Alber’s police department did the bidding of Barstow and others in the faith’s hierarchy. Those in good standing with the prophet could count on not being held accountable for their actions. The police ignored injustices, the suffering of innocent men, women and—all too often—children, at the behest of the men in power.
In the past few years, Alber had changed. Since his conviction for marrying off underage girls to older men, our illustrious prophet resided in a federal prison cell. Foreclosures had lured outsiders in search of bargains, and the wall of secrecy that isolated the town from the secular world had begun to crumble.
Sadly, those changes came too late for nearly all the cases chronicled in the reports on the table before me.
In law enforcement, we are bound by strict rules. Among the most important are statutes of limitations, the finite periods after crimes are committed in which they are eligible for prosecution. In Utah, those statutes limited the prosecutions of nearly all crimes—with only a few exceptions, like murder—to four years. So although the files held accounts of not only run-of-the-mill robberies and vandalism but domestic violence, child abuse, and assaults, if they occurred one day more than four years ago, I couldn’t do a thing about them.
That had made my examination of the files maddening. While my heart broke for the victims, my hands were tied.
The unfairness was hard for me to stomach. Especially in this case, the one I held in my hand.
The manila folder had a name written in blue ink on the tab: Danny Benson. I couldn’t place Danny, but I knew his family. I may have only taken over as chief of police nine months earlier, but I’d spent the first twenty-four years of my life in Alber. Danny’s dad, Clyde, ran a service station on the highway outside town. A big, beefy, roughhouse-looking guy in his fifties, Clyde always had someone’s old clunker up on the lift and habitually wore smears of black grease on his uniforms. These days, when I’d had no time for lunch, I popped in and filled my Suburban with gas, then grabbed a Baby Ruth or a Mars Bar out of a bin Clyde kept stocked next to the register.
Not being able to place Danny bothered me.
It was true that with more than four thousand residents, I couldn’t know everyone in town, but I thought I should have heard of Danny at some point. I’d not only been born and raised in Alber; I’d taught elementary school here for four years.
Despite my deep roots, my return had been a hard transition.
Alber wasn’t the kind of town that welcomed outsiders with open arms, and most of the locals saw me as infinitely worse than a mere interloper. Although I’d grown up as one of Elijah’s People, I was an apostate who’d abandoned their beloved beliefs. In the eyes of the faithful, that made me a traitor. I was so mistrusted, so unwanted, that last fall there’d been a series of protests on the streets surrounding the police station. Although the demonstrations eventually ended, the bad feelings never waned. I had a stack of anonymous notes in my desk that warned me against staying. All through the winter they’d arrived, one or two a month. In the beginning they’d been slipped through a crack in the station’s front door. Once we installed a surveillance camera, the letters arrived via the mail. All were in pink envelopes and scented with vanilla, marked personal and addressed to me: Chief of Police Clara Jefferies. Whoever she was, the writer didn’t mince her words.
LEAVE NOW BEFORE THINGS GET BAD FOR YOU.
Whether or not the majority of townsfolk wanted me around, I’d decided to stay. Maybe part of it was pride. All I knew was that when I left Alber—if I left—it would be on my terms. I had no intention of allowing anyone to chase me out, not like last time. And for however long I remained, I would do my best.
That meant I would do what I could for the forgotten victims whose complaints had been buried in the Tombs.
All the folder before me contained was Danny Benson’s picture and the one-page report that accompanied it. Nothing else. The photo was of an impish-looking four-year-old with a bowl cut the color of tarnished brass and eyes that pinched in close at the corners above his nose. At least, one of them did. The other eye was nearly swollen shut, black, blue, and had to be painful.
The sixteen-year-old statement was signed by one of Danny’s older sisters, Lynlee. At the time, she was twelve. “Dad doesn’t hit the rest of us but he goes after Danny,” the girl had told the reporting officer. “This time, he got Danny in the eye, but a while back his whole backside was bruised.”
I read that line a few more times. Looked at the photo of the kid. And I felt my pulse build from a stroll to a sprint, the anger birthing a hard, undigestible lump in my throat. Clyde hits Danny a lot, I mentally paraphrased. That’s what she’s saying.
I turned the sheet over, hoping something would be scrawled on the back, but as in all the other abandoned cases, the boxes that were to be checked as each step of an investigation was concluded and the sections for comments remained empty.
Looking at the date again, I muttered, “Damn, if they’d only looked into this earlier… It’s way too late. Way past the cutoff.” I started to slip the photo back in the file so I could place it on top of one of the stacks. Then, I hesitated.
For some reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off Danny’s face. Suddenly I realized why: he reminded me of a kid in Dallas, one I’d encountered during my ten years as a cop there. That boy had been named Austin.
We’d been called in by protective services regarding a complaint made by a school nurse. Austin had arrived at kindergarten with a black eye and bruises. When the nurse examined him, she found older, faded bruises on his body. The day we rang Austin’s doorbell, we had a doctor with us who examined the kid. While he did, Austin’s parents swore up and down that their son’s injuries had come from a fall down the stairs. The doc ruled the cause undetermined. “I can’t say the parents did or didn’t do this.”
When I asked what had happened, how he got hurt, Austin said, “My daddy didn’t hit me.”
Having no evidence to move forward, we left. Two days later, Austin’s dad rushed him to the emergency room. The kid’s mother had beaten him to death.
I stared at Danny’s photo again and shook my head. “Nowhere to go with this,” I whispered. “It’s too late.” I’d nearly put the photo down when I reconsidered. I thought about how families tended to be large in Alber and I wondered: What if Clyde had other children he was mistreating? That didn’t seem far-fetched. And in that instant, I knew that despite the roadblocks, I had to find a way to get justice for Danny, and I had to make sure the Bensons’ other children were safe.
It took a few minutes to get Smith County’s district attorney, Jack Hatfield, on the phone. A former first assistant in the office, he’d taken over the top slot a few months earlier. Whispers pegged Hatfield as a straight shooter. So far, I hadn’t had a lot of firsthand experiences to judge him by, which was a good thing. We’d had the usual minor offenses in Alber: traffic citations, biting dogs, neighbors squabbling, a few minor thefts. But nothing more serious had happened in the five months since last November’s murders at the Johansson bison ranch. I still felt sick every time I thought of that crime scene: two women and two children slaughtered; three victims’ bodies underneath a bloody sheet; and in an upstairs bedroom, Laurel Johansson with her throat cut.
That Laurel was the daughter of Jeff Mullins, my lead detective, made the case even more haunting. But it was the gruesomeness of the scene that was imprinted on my mind. The stuff of nightmares, it popped up at times when I was half asleep at night. It came back when I drove through town and saw little kids with dark hair like Sybille and Benjamin. Every day for the rest of my life, I would picture their lifeless bodies on the cold ground.
People shouldn’t do bad stuff to kids; it just wasn’t right.
I glanced at Danny Benson’s photo again and thought of his dad, those big meaty hands of his, and I considered the damage they could do to a four-year-old. “How old is Danny now?” District Attorney Hatfield asked, after I laid out the allegations of abuse in the old file.
I rechecked the birthdate in the file. “He turned twenty last month, in early March.”
The DA sounded interested but concerned when he asked, “A lot of times, once they grow up, kids don’t want to revisit this old stuff. They’ve moved on. Does Danny want to press charges?”
Tough question. Hatfield had a point. I’d had child abuse and domestic violence cases where victims refused to cooperate with police. That so many years had passed made it even more doubtful. I had to be honest. I didn’t have an inkling of what Danny would want. “Haven’t asked him yet. I haven’t even talked to him. Before I do—if I do—Mr. Hatfield, I want to know what our options are, if we have any.”
Silence, as I assumed the prosecutor was thinking through the case.
“The photo looks pretty bad?”
“It does. And the report suggests this wasn’t an isolated incident,” I said.
Again Hatfield paused. A moment passed, and he said, “Chief, I’m sorry, but I don’t see how we can. It’s just too old.”
Disappointed, I thought about that. I’d expected the answer but didn’t like it. Something had been percolating in my brain, perhaps an unlikely but a possible option. “Well, you know, sometimes this type of recurring physical abuse of a child is tied to sexual abuse.”
Hatfield paused, as if considering. “That’s true, but there’s no indication in the file that—”
“Mr. Hatfield, hear me out. What if I find the kid, get him to talk, and try to find out if there was any sexual abuse. Then the statute of limitations is longer. Right?”
“Well, yes. But there’s nothing there that suggests sexual abuse, is there?” Hatfield asked.
“No, but it wouldn’t be out of the question. We both know that sometimes they’re related.”
I heard Hatfield sigh. “Well, it could be, Chief.”
“I’m just suggesting that—”
“But you need to be careful,” Hatfield cautioned. “You can’t nudge him to remember something that didn’t happen.”
“Of course not,” I said, not surprised at his warning but disappointed that he thought he had to say it. With childhood matters, there’d been studies about the dangers of implanting false memories. Cases had been tried, folks convicted, only to find out that there’d been no crime, only untrue recollections that came from suggestions made by unskilled therapists and cops. “I know how to question Danny, to find out what happened without tainting what he remembers. I’ve worked my share of child sex abuse cases over the years.”
“Okay. Good. No offense, Chief, but we have to be careful.”
“So you’re okay with that? I’ll track Danny down and needle around a bit, and if there’s a case there, you’ll take the charges?” I wanted to be firm that we both understood that I was prepared to take the case all the way to a jury if we had the opportunity.
“Right. Utah’s statute of limitations for sexual abuse of a minor is ten years after they reach adulthood. So Danny is well within that time frame,” Hatfield advised. “If Clyde sexually abused Danny and he wants to pursue it, we can file charges.”
I wondered how Danny would react when I showed up and poked around, dug up what had to be a painful past. But then I looked at the photo and thought about the hell the kid must have lived through. And again, I thought about the other Benson children and worried about what they might be enduring. “Okay. I’ll give it a shot. Seems like Clyde shouldn’t have gotten away with this. Seems like a guy like this might have done a lot more damage than what shows up in a picture.”
“Let me know,” Hatfield said, and then he hung up.
Just then our main dispatcher, Kellie, stuck her head in the door. In the past few weeks she’d given herself something of a style makeover. She hadn’t said why, but I had happened upon her in the breakroom engaged in a rather friendly conversation with one of our young cops, Bill Conroy. When Kellie had started at the station last fall, she’d showed up in baggy sweaters and jeans. Today she had on a tight pink T-shirt with a sparkly heart on the front, and she wore a pair of skinny black pants that showed off her delicate ankles above a pair of strappy heels.
“You busy, Chief?” she asked.
“Just finishing up. Do you need me?”
“You have two civilians in your office.”
“Who?” I asked.
Kellie smiled and said only, “You’ll see.”
I gave her a questioning glance, but she turned away and I heard her giggle as she rounded the corner.
“Mother doesn’t know that we’re here,” my sister Lily warned me. “You won’t tell her, will you?”
Both the girls had jumped up and rushed toward me, wrapped their arms around my waist. Lily had stopped in twice before, a month earlier, skipping the bus ride home after school and walking so our mother wouldn’t find out. On those afternoons, she’d filled me in on how our family was doing, told me about siblings I’d never met. This time she’d brought another sister with her, Delilah. They felt like heaven in my arms, like love and warmth and family. This was a pleasure I’d been denied for too much of my life. The two of them squeezed me so hard that the Colt in my holster bit into my hip.
It had been a long time since I’d looked like them in their long prairie dresses, their hair in curls falling from topknots. I glanced down and saw their socked feet strapped into thick sandals. With her dark hair and eyes, her pale complexion, Lily was a near-identical version of me at sixteen. I had only a few old photos of myself, having left everything behind when I fled, but I did have one to compare, and our resemblance was uncanny. In contrast, Delilah had our father’s chin, but she’d inherited her mother’s auburn hair and blue eyes. While Lily had begun to look more like a woman, at barely thirteen Delilah still had the innocence of a child. When I considered what had happened to her a year earlier, what the outcome could have been, it was remarkable that she appeared to have survived undamaged.
“Will Mother be looking for you?” As glad as I was to see them, I wasn’t sure how to answer Lily’s question. “I don’t want to get you two in trouble, but I don’t want Mother to worry either.”
Lily shook her head. “It’s okay. She thinks we’re stopping at the park on the way home. So she isn’t expecting us.”
I understood how protective my mother was. When you’ve seen what I . . .
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