Ironton, New Jersey has seen hard times before. Deserted factories and empty stores reflect the decades-long decline, that even Mayor Gabriel Richman, scion of one of the city’s leading political families, cannot seem to rectify. Now families are living on the street or in the shells of the old factories.
A week-long tropical storm floods the depressed city bringing more devastation as well as a new misery: The headless, handless body of a young woman in the Old Iron Bog.
Between the gruesome murder and an old factory suspiciously burning down, Detective Frank Nagler begins to believe that incarcerated Charlie Adams, the city’s famous serial killer, may have fostered a copycat killer. Determined to find the truth, he follows the case that leads into unexpected places.
The ringing phone grabbed Detective Frank Nagler from the fitful sleep he had found crammed into an office chair like a discarded suit jacket. It was three a.m.
The phone rang again, buzzing like a swarm of flies. He rolled dizzily sideways, slammed his feet to the floor and sat in the chair, feeling his back clench. Crap, that hurt. The phone rang again. And again. He rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and waited for one more ring, then picked up the receiver. “You’re kidding,” he re
plied wearily to the dispatcher’s request. “What’s next, locusts? Yeah, never mind. Thanks. Just what we need after all this. Be there soon.”
He wrapped himself in his long black raincoat that had become his shield against the wet and raging world, and leaned into the outer door as the hurricane winds slapped him awake.
He had not seen the sky for days, felt the heat of the sun, worn dry shoes or walked outside without that raincoat since the storm blew in and sealed the hills above the city with a dense smothering grayness, a swirling menace of thunder clouds and shrieking winds that pounded the city with an apocalyptic rain that sent the Baptist preachers howling to the hills about sin and damnation. It emptied the grocery store shelves of everything but a few cans of cream of mushroom soup, and locked the residents in the top floors of their homes as the river crashed its banks, flooded streets and rearranged the city landscape like a madman with an earth mover.
The placid, blue August sky had been replaced by rain that came and stayed. Rain with menace, rain that pulsed around corners dark with dislodged pieces of the earth as it ripped away every weak thing it could; rain that claimed, rain soulless and dark as evil; that challenged knowledge; rain that took possession.
The ancients knew what to do with rain like this, he thought wickedly, squinting into the horizontal blast of water.
Conjure an honest man with a ship and spin a parable about the wages of sin. Nagler laughed sourly. And then get out of town.
Nagler plowed his car through the treacherous bumper-deep water that filled the downtown streets. Random spotlights, swinging loosely from dangling wires on damaged poles or hanging off ripped roof tops banged with the hollow, doomed echo of cathedral bells at the end of times and flashed a shifting and sinister light on flooded parking lots or intersections rippling with dark water. Store after store was dark, some with boards covering glass windows; others had jagged shards of glass that gleamed menacingly in the fractured light, hanging in dented window frames.
The storm had knocked out power to the city, and as the streets void of humans filled with the rising river, the mayor declared an emergency. The usual drive from downtown Ironton to the Old Iron Bog took ten minutes, a straight shot up Rockaway Avenue. But at turn after turn, Nagler found new roadblocks, orange-and-white barriers with flashing yellow lights manned by some poor cop in a gleaming, black slicker with orange stripes and water streaming off his wide-brimmed hat, waving a flash light.
Nagler rolled down the car’s window and flinched as he caught a face full of rain.
“What’s open? Gotta get to the north side. Got an emergency call from dispatch.” He blinked to keep the water out of his eyes.
“The only bridge open is Sussex, but Rockaway’s flooded, so you’ll have to head up
Washington to the high school and circle around,” the cop yelled back. “Caught some of the radio chatter. What’s up?”
“Got it,” Nagler yelled back as he rolled up the window and wiped the water off his face, failing to answer the cop’s question.
Half an hour later Nagler edged his old Ford down Mount Pleasant, squinting through the wet, smeary windshield into the flashing safety lights as he looked for a place to park. He found one that was too narrow but jammed the car in edgewise anyway, braking hard when at the fringe of his headlights he saw a jagged black space where the embankment had washed away.
“Oh, damn.” Great, all I need now is to drive off the road.
He shouldered the car door open and the scene exploded into sound: Yakking radios, a dozen vehicles left running, grinding fire trucks, winches, distant shouting voices. But the sound that mattered most to Nagler was that of his right shoe being sucked into the liquid soil. “Aw, shit. Damn it.” Dress shoes. What was I thinking? This is the fine quality of decisions we make when we don’t sleep.
Ironton was sprawled at the bottom of a narrow bowl-like valley, with streets climbing the hills like fingers hanging on for dear life. For the better part of a week as the last waves of an August tropical storm stalled over the state, the bowl filled and overflowed.
Nagler, like the rest of the police department, had been on extra duty to deal with the storm emergency. The weariness of sleepless nights, more than the dampness, dripped through his skin to his bones and joints and he walked with a heaviness that made him think that if he stopped moving he would end up standing in one place for hours, unable to lift a foot or bend a knee.
He tugged his foot from its watery hole, almost losing his shoe, and winced at the discomfort of wet socks and wet shoes and general unpleasantness of what he was about to examine.
Floods and disaster. And now this. He looked back at his car, the tires inches from the torn edge of the roadway. He pulled his long coat tighter, his dry foot slapping at the wet pavement and his wet foot clumping along like an oversized clown shoe – Slap, clump. Slap, clump. Slap, clump – until he reached the soft opposite path, where both shoes sank in.
The days of rain left city families with waterlogged mattresses floating in their living rooms, powerless refrigerators filled with rotting, soggy food, natural gas bubbling through black water from a broken main and the family photos on the hallway walls bled white, the faces, the scenery, the goofy hats washed away. City officials had debris-filled streets caked with mud and blocks of holy wreckage, rivers where streets used to be, holes where there used to be walls and a city that looked like someone had tossed it in the air and let it fall again in a creative chaos that only disaster brings.
And Detective Frank Nagler had the headless, handless body of a young woman in the Old Iron Bog.
He paused at the edge of the road that led into the bog just as a bank of lights hoisted above a fire truck blasted to life. Before him was a shadowy scene of twisted trees and shrubs, dark paths to nowhere and ghostly forms shifting in and out of the dim lights.
Nagler took a deep breath and plunged in. “Where’s the victim?” he asked a crime scene tech, who nodded in a general direction of a small clearing off the single-lane road that was the main entrance into the bog.
“It’d be easier if she had a head, huh, detective?”
Nagler squinted down at the rescue squad kid waiting as a medical technician zipped up a black body bag that contained the torso of a young woman.
“And maybe hands,” the kid added brightly. “Man, I don’t envy you,” he said as he turned to carry the bag toward the ambulance. Nagler just nodded. Why are you so excited? It’s the middle of the night in a raging storm and you’re hauling a corpse. And that’s good for you? You’re lucky I’m exhausted.
“Open the bag,” Nagler grumbled. “Unzip it.”
The kid fumbled at the zipper but finally opened the side of the bag halfway. “All the way.” And the kid complied.
She was young, Nagler thought, too young to be here. Why did that surprise him? What were you expecting? Someone had hacked off her head and hands, just like the kid said. She was thin and looking at her hips, underdeveloped and still growing. Maybe late teens, early twenties. There were no needle tracks he could see. “Thanks,” Nagler said, and stepped aside as the kid re zipped the bag, and the kid and another fire fighter lifted it and walked up the muddy slope in the rain. “Jesus,” he said. “Just a kid.”
He pulled his collar tighter, shoved his hands into the coat’s deep pockets and scanned the old bog, cast gray, dark and suspicious in the heavy rain. Tall reeds and cattails, grabbed by the swirling, growling wind, dipped and rose, twisted and flattened and filled the area with soft missiles as the plants were shredded. The air slammed him like a wet fist. The world’s in a rage. And it all landed on your pretty head. He shrugged. Wherever it might be.
Police Supervisor Chris Foley reached Nagler’s side and shoved a cup of coffee into his hand. Nagler nodded, but wondered what Foley was doing there. He let the silent query pass. The man had coffee.
“What do we know?” Nagler asked.
Foley was a straight shooter, a razor cut, white shirt kind of cop. He examined crime scenes as if they were math problems and left no remainders. But he never saw the magic the math produced, Nagler knew, never imaged that in a crime sometimes one and one equaled three. Crimes for Chris Foley were a formula, a step-one, step-two affair. Sometimes the formula worked; sometimes it didn’t.
Foley read from his notes, which were wrapped inside a plastic bag. The man is prepared, I’ll give him that.
“The body was found by a couple of high school kids out here drinking beer and fornicating. They were underage. We will speak with their parents. I mean, in the middle of this storm, they come out here, and? Anyway… About one hundred hours. Let’s see. They said they fell asleep, woke up when they heard a vehicle drive in, started throwing on their clothes since they said they assumed it was the authorities … Hum … vehicle stopped in the distance … heard some voices, at least two.”
He turned a page. “Door slammed, vehicle drove away.” He stopped reading. “The kids said they sat in their vehicle for a while. They figured it was no big deal. Someone dumping trash, happens out here all the time, they said. But they decided they had better leave. They said they saw the body as they drove out, stopped their vehicle, walked around a little bit and then left when they discovered it had no head. The boy said he slipped as he scrambled back to his vehicle and planted his hands in the mud, but in this rain, it’s not going to matter.”
“Speak to their parents, Chris?” Nagler said. “Jesus, they’re just kids out here screwing. This ain’t Sunday school.” Nagler scanned the damp, muddy scene, and for the first time became aware of the sharp aroma of oily rot that boiled out of the soft, churned up soil and stuck to his clothes like bad dreams. Then he smiled. Not all the dreams were bad. “I suppose you would have turned me in, too.”
Foley paused a moment, looked at Nagler, and then again at his notes. “What?”
Nagler turned away so Foley would not see his grin.
It’s early in the morning. Cut him some slack. Car drove in? In this mess? The road was fairly solid, despite the rain, so maybe it was possible.
“Where’d you park, Chris?” Nagler wondered why he had not been told Foley would be there.
“Off Mount Pleasant to the right. There’s a little wide spot, like a turnaround,” Foley said. “Why?”
“Just wondering how a car got in here in with all this muck. Maybe four-wheel-drive, a small truck or something with high clearance.”
“The kid was driving a big, high-wheeled pick-up with wide off-road tires, probably his dad’s,” Foley said. “I mean I’m driving my city emergency management SUV. High clearance, all-wheel-drive. Something like that would get in here.” Foley laughed. “I wish it was painted a different color. It’s bright yellow, for crying out loud.”
“A little too conspicuous, Chris?”
Nagler had always known Foley was a good investigator. Started at the local department and worked his way through the ranks and was appointed to a regional task force a couple of years ago. They had worked cases together in the past. But he was as stiff as a two-by-four and as narrow minded as a telescope viewed through the wrong end. Didn’t make him a bad guy, just a pain in the ass, especially at three in the morning standing in the rain in a damn swamp.
The coffee landed in Nagler’s stomach with a crash and was jamming its way to his brain, pushing back the sleepless, dull ache. Nagler shook his head to force himself to stay awake and felt a surge of alertness as a couple of cylinders began to fire.
Foley gave Nagler the once over. “Little casual this morning, aren’t we, detective?”
Was that a joke? I’m wearing pants, right? Never could tell with Foley. Nagler ran a hand through his hair and scratched the stubble on his chin.
“Dressed in the dark, maybe two days ago. Little hard to match my socks and tie when I can’t see them. Been out in the streets for the better part of the last week. Besides, I wanted to look my best for you. You have power?”
Foley shrugged. “No. I just have my week’s wardrobe set up in the closet…. Never mind, Frank.”
“Yeah, sure.” Nagler pursed his lips and shrugged. Then he asked, “What are you doing here, Chris? Aren’t you in charge of the city’s emergency response to the storm?”
Foley turned slowly. “Yes, I am, but we haven’t had a decapitated body in some time. Thought you might need the help. I am, after all, a police supervisor. I’m headed to the emergency office after I leave here.”
Can’t be soon enough. Nagler slugged back some coffee rather than say anything. “So where’d they find her?” Guess I better find out what he knows.
Foley led Nagler along a narrow sandy road overgrown with small trees, cattails and waist-high grass to reach a clearing. Nagler noticed there was a sustained groove in the road, possibly a sideways tire track and a truck wide path where the grass had been knocked over, possibly by the kid’s truck.
Foley stepped carefully around the mud and debris so his tasseled loafers would not get ruined, but caught his jacket sleeve on a small tree branch and spent more than a minute examining the cloth. “Sorry, Frank. I just got it back from the dry cleaners.”
Whatever. Nagler pushed through the dripping overgrowth. Rain, mud, no sleep, no coffee and now Foley. No more slack. That was quick. Jesus.
This was The Old Iron Bog, an old swamp that for generations going back to the iron mining days three hundred years ago had been a dumping ground for waste rock, slag, bad iron parts, bent rails, then in modern times, trash, cars, and everything society needed to hide. The roads had been cut by the miners to gain access to the swamp, and improved, if that was the word, by the towns that dumped garbage here for years before it was outlawed.
The place seemed undisturbed by a week’s rain, as if the hole at the bottom of the bog was deeper than anyone could guess. Nagler recalled a story about the construction of the interstate highway. Engineers were battering a steel piling into a hole on the edge of the bog when the piling broke through the roof of an old mine shaft and disappeared into the void. The engineers stared at one another, pushed back their yellow hard hats, scratched their heads, consulted their maps, and stared into the hole.
In the heavy rain, with muddy filth coating everything he touched and the dank, smell of pollution and rot thick enough to taste, Nagler decided the old bog had no romance or redeeming quality; it was just a big hole in the ground. This swamp will swallow us all.
They were going to build a shopping mall there, Nagler thought. A peeling, battered billboard hung for a year or so along Mount Pleasant. Wonder what happened to it.
Yellow tape marked off several hundred feet of road and swamp. Foley’s voice brought Nagler back from the fatigue-driven dreamy state. “The car stopped about here” – Foley walked about ten feet away. “They took the body out of the car, and dropped it. Seems they might have tried to wipe out their footprints because there appeared to be some drag marks in the mud.”
“How many people do you guess?”
Foley shrugged. “At least two. The kids said they heard voices, more than one. One thing I don’t like?” Foley said with a question in his voice. “They could have pushed her into the water. Why not? Look at this place. There’s five feet of thick weeds and brush on either side of the road here. She would have sunk out of sight – the water is absolutely pitch black – maybe got hooked on some roots and never came back up. Even if she did, you’d never see her.”
“You’re saying they were just sloppy?” Nagler asked. “Or they wanted us to find her?”
Foley just waved his hand in the air as he turned to walk away.
“What about tire tracks?” Nagler asked. “Still looking for good ones. Rain’s making it harder,” Foley said before walking away.
Then Foley stopped, turned and looked at Nagler with hard eyes and a crystal stare. Nagler wanted to be impressed with the determination, but with water dripping off Foley’s hair and down his nose, all Nagler wanted to do was laugh; he stared down at the muddy ground so he wouldn’t smile. “What, Chris?” Crap, I’m tired.
“We’ve been here before, you know, Frank. Charlie Adams.”
That name. Nagler placed a hand over his face and wiped away the water while he closed his eyes and felt the darkness return. That’s when you learned to be cold. We’re not going there. Not now. Not again. “This isn’t Charlie Adams, Chris,” Nagler said harshly. “He’s still in jail and not getting out anytime soon. I was at his last parole hearing about three months ago. It was denied, again. Why did you think of Adams?”
“But he loved dumping bodies here,” Foley said.
“He loved dumping bodies all over. That was twenty years ago, Chris. He had no copycats and the killing stopped when we caught him. A lot has changed in this city in that time. Let’s not head in that direction unless the evidence leads us that way.”
“You’re right, Frank.”
Charlie Adams, the city’s last serial killer. There had been a feel to that case from the beginning and this one with one butchered girl doesn’t yet feel like that. “But if we find another body, I’ll reconsider.”
About a dozen police, rescue and fire vehicles lined Mount Pleasant with one set of wheels in the road and the other in the muddy ditch. Cops in hip waders crashed in and out of the brush and weeds, and a fire boat was being backed into the swamp. They had not yet found any clothes, or her head and hands, and the body had no jewelry. It was just the body. Naked. Butchered. Forgotten. That’s why it’s not Charlie Adams. Nagler slowly felt his way through the slippery paths of the dark bog, heading back to Mount Pleasant. Adams brought bodies here, sure, but made finding them easy. He liked the fame, the publicity, liked knowing we knew it was him and thinking that he was one step ahead of us. This is not the same. But for the life of me, at three a.m. and on one cup of coffee, I don’t know what the hell this is. “Damn it,” Nagler muttered as his foot slipped off the path into a watery hole.
Nagler stopped to regain his balance, lifted his head and gazed over the old bog. The rain had let up, and in the earliest light of dawn, the black canopy began to shift to a lighter gray. Maybe, finally, it would stop raining. The muted rumble of rush hour traffic on the interstate about a half-mile away started to filter into the swamp to fill in what until that moment had been an oddly quiet place. The sounds, even the chatter of the police radios, had been sucked into the deep endlessness of the swamp. The overgrowth absorbed all the noise just like it sucked nourishment from the water. But the roar of daily life on the highway would soon overpower the dense swamp. By mid-morning once the trucks started rolling down from the quarry, ten at once, each carrying forty tons of rock, the water would begin a tremble that would shimmer on the surface until well after dark.
It’s a hell of a place to die. He felt his weight slide into his tired legs and he turned around and grabbed a small tree for balance.
Nagler slowly walked the site for a few more minutes, talking off and on to a fire captain, one of the county investigators, or just observing, trying to imprint the scene on his very tired brain.
The sand coated his already soaked shoes and had squeezed inside his socks so it felt he was walking on wet sandpaper; he knew he’d find a ragged blister on his heel.
The rubberneckers lined Mount Pleasant, crawling by in dark vehicles, faces white in the glare of passing headlights, watching the lights flash on the police cars. With the power out, and most streets blocked by fallen trees and floods, there weren’t many other routes out of town. A local cop with a flashlight waved them on and they passed, one by one, a solemn parade as they took in what they could see and imagined the rest.
Nagler rubbed his forehead, stopped and looked up and down the street into the confusion of cars and lights. Where the hell did I park? He wondered. He squeezed his eyes shut and let the kaleidoscope of swirls and circles fade to black. Then he turned to face the swamp and remembered he had come in from the left, then walked that way.
Add another thing to the list. He began to mentally schedule who he had to see and how quickly they might have any information: the crime scene techs, the medical examiner, re-interview the kids who called it in. Another session with Foley. It was odd he came to the scene. He was the leader of the city’s emergency response office and had a whole city trying to get its head above water. Nagler laughed. I must be really tired if that line is funny.
Not like I don’t have anything else to do.
For the last three weeks he had been receiving packages with invoices and letters on City of Ironton letterhead. The letters said the material was a link to a big cover-up of theft in city hall. But what he had received so far was so disjointed it was hard to see that. After the first few letters he wondered who was trying to pull a fast one – he asked himself more than once, who did I piss off – or use all that paper to make a little, tiny point about government waste. There were two or three media-savvy gadflies who had filed several complaints to state agencies about access to public records and other things, and maybe these records were from one of them. But why send it to him, Nagler had asked himself. The invoices had information that had been blacked out, none of the dates were in any sequence, and even if one or two of the invoices seemed to be leading from one account to another, the last pieces were missing. God, it’s like some stupid Russian novel. Sometimes he wanted to dump it on someone else, let them wade through the pile of paper, but then he would flip through a couple more pages and think: What if it was real? Nagler had asked the chief about it and was told to just keep collecting the letters, just in case it began to make more sense.
He sighed and turned to walk back to his car; fine mist began to fall again. “Just send the last chapter.”
“Shit, did I say that out loud?” Nagler asked.
“Yeah, you did. Said ‘just send the last chapter,’ out loud. Didn’t think anyone was listening, did ya?”
It was Jimmy Dawson. “And now you’re gonna have to tell me the rest.”
“Don’t you ever sleep?’’ Nagler shook Dawson’s hand and actually wondered what had taken him so long to get there.
“I’m Ichabod Crane. I hear the headless horseman is out tonight.”
Dawson was a reporter for the local paper. He was cynical, hard-nosed, fairly nasty at times, but always got it right. He knew the rules of the game and Nagler knew he could lay out a story on background and no one would ever know the source.
“Yeah,” Nagler said. “Some young woman. Headless, handless. Good chance she was dumped here after being killed elsewhere. A car, no description, was seen in the neighborhood. No clothes, no ID.” He shrugged. “Right now, no clue.”
Dawson finished writing and waited for more description.
“How do you do that?” Nagler asked.
“What?” Dawson asked.
“Read your hand writing. Especially while taking notes in the dark.”
“Write extra big. Trick I learn when I was a movie reviewer.”
Nagler and Dawson had been meeting like that for years. There was a respect between them, a knowledge that comes from being in the same places under the same circumstances too many times.
“You have power?” Nagler asked. It was the question of the day.
Dawson laughed. “Been almost living at the office. My road was flooded and half the trees are down. Office complex has a generator. There’s a couple of us there.”
“You in later?” Dawson asked.
“I’ll call you,” Dawson said as he walked away.
Then he stopped.
“Hear from Lauren Fox?”
Are you kidding? Nagler stared at the reporter as he walked away.
“Hey, Dawson. Don’t you want an answer?” Dawson stopped walking and half-turned back toward Nagler, spreading his hands and bowing, as if to say, “Well…”
Nagler stared a moment. Too much to say about it. “No,” he finally said.
After he watched Dawson walk down Mount Pleasant, Nagler wandered back to his car, stopping every few steps to shake mud off his shoes and to imagine the street several hours earlier without the police vehicles, fire trucks and a slow parade of cars, when an unknown vehicle drove slowly and carefully through the darkness, the driver probably stopping more than once looking for a dumping spot, then moving on until the side road was found. Did someone get out and shine a flashlight down that road into the darkness? Did the driver have companions with whom they discussed their options? How many people were in that car?
He knew this street well as a dark, slightly spooky section of Ironton. Little had been built along the road, mostly because of the bog which spread for acres in each direction. Even if the electric power had been on, there were only a couple street lights and those were hundreds of feet apart. Everything here moved in shadows.
Nagler looked up and down the street again. A gray dawn was rising, and Nagler shut his eyes against the light to hold the image of the blackness and a single vehicle slowly moving through a murky night. With the power on there might have been enough light to make this little side road visible, but in the blackness of a heavily clouded sky, air still damp with mist or slight rain, it seemed a long shot. The kids who reported the body to the police said they had been here dozens of times – man that kid was getting a lot of action – so for them finding the top of that side road in the dark was easy. But a stranger?
That knowledge made the case more local, more personal.
When he got to his car Nagler was surprised to see how close he had come to driving into the gully. “Damn,” he said, “That was lucky.”
What wasn’t lucky was how close his car was to the vehicles on either side. While he was at the crime scene, the compact sedan that had been parked to his left had been replaced by an extended body pick-up with an emergency light rack on its cab, whose owner it seemed took delight in parking as close as he could to Nagler’s car. One of us, Nagler thought wickedly as he started his car and slipped the transmission into reverse, ain’t going to like this. The car rolled for second or two and he felt the satisfying thump as the bumpers touched. He rolled forward, then back, and again felt the slight collision. Three or four such efforts allowed him to get the front wheels correctly angled and pull the Ford into street while the alarm in the truck sounded, a whoop-whoop echoing off the dark silence of the Old Iron Bog.
The effort to extract his car from the tight space allowed Nagler to avoid the name that was trying to edge its way into his head.
Lauren Fox. Damn you, Dawson.
He turned up the volume on his police radio and let the irritating squawking overwhelm the silence in the car. He slammed the car door as he stopped by his home to get dry socks and shoes.
To read more buy your copy today!
The Swamps of Jersey is available at the following retailers:
AMAZON – BARNES & NOBLE – KOBO
NEXT IN THE FRANK NAGLER MYSTERY SERIES – A Game Called Dead