Excerpt: Chapter One, Part One
of NETWORK OF DECEIT
by Tom Threadgill
How long could a human being scream?
Three times through the video so far and Amara’s appreciation for the woman’s lung capacity grew with each viewing. No sound on the recording, but there was no mistaking the outburst. The wide eyes, gaping mouth, and panicked attempt to be anywhere else other than there. Not that the shrieking had any relevance whatsoever. The woman’s reaction was entirely normal. People tended to scream when dead bodies appeared beside them.
On the monitor, an older teenage male, his chin against his chest and face hidden with a baseball cap, drifted on the water park’s lazy river. The deeply tanned boy floated on a huge yellow inner tube with each hand, palms up, tucked under one of the black handles. His knees were propped on top, allowing his feet to dangle in the water. During the seven-and-a-half-minute video clip, a series of rapids and a few collisions with other riders jostled him enough that his hands and feet moved, making it difficult to determine if the teen was dead or passed out. Either way, the other park visitors were too absorbed in their own day to notice. That would change.
A short way ahead, the not-yet-screaming woman and her three kids—two boys and a younger girl, all under ten or eleven by the looks of them—linked their floats together in an ovalish circle. Each member of the family held the foot of their neighbor as they meandered through the twists and turns of the attraction. The distance between the teenager and family narrowed, and Amara leaned closer to the monitor as her heartbeat accelerated. This was like one of those nature videos where a lioness stalks her victim. Creeping up on the unsuspecting wildebeest until . . . now.
The teen caught up to the family and his left leg bumped against the back of the young girl’s head. She jerked, turned to see who’d nudged her, mouthed something to him, and pushed his tube away. Barely a dozen clock-ticks later, he collided with her again, sending the mother into mom mode.
She grabbed his inner tube, pulled it to herself, then heaved it away with all the strength she could muster. Doing so flipped the boy’s head toward her and his ball cap fell into the water. His open, unmoving eyes were all it took. The woman screamed. And kept screaming. She paddled furiously for several seconds in a futile attempt to flee the corpse’s gaze. The adrenaline kicked in and—still shrieking—she rolled off her inner tube and pushed her three children aside as the corpse continued its slow, rambling journey.
“You can turn it off,” Amara said.
Dr. Douglas Pritchard, the medical examiner for Bexar County, clicked his mouse and the recording paused. “I requested the footage from the Cannonball Water Park after doing the young man’s autopsy. I trust it will be useful in your investigation, Detective Alvarez?”
Her investigation? Would Zachary Coleman be her first case? Not unless Dr. Pritchard could convince her there was something worth looking into. Truthfully, he wouldn’t have to show much. Her current routine, while interesting and necessary, wasn’t exactly stimulating.
After the Feds took control of the ongoing probe into the Cotulla aftermath, she’d been granted a transfer from the San Antonio PD’s Property Crimes Division to Homicide. Her first month in the new position had consisted of reviewing old files, shadowing other detectives as they worked, and keeping her mouth shut as much as possible.
When the LT had hollered her name an hour ago, she figured he had more files for her to review. She was wrong. Lieutenant Rico Segura was sitting behind his desk, an unlit cigar hanging from his mouth. Every morning the man pulled a new stogie from his drawer and planted it between his teeth. By the end of the day, most of the cigar would be gone, whether from absorption or chewing or swallowing or spitting or . . . She managed to restrain a shudder.
Get to the ME’s office ASAP, he said. Find out what Pritchard’s got. Suspicious death. See if it’s worth investigating.
After a quick yessir, she’d hurried over and caught the doctor between autopsies and meetings. Douglas Pritchard worked with her on Cotulla, and at the time he’d been dating Sara Colby, a Texas Ranger who’d also been involved in the inquiry. The two were no longer together, a fact Amara knew from her increasingly infrequent conversations with the woman.
“Sorry.” She shifted in the red leather armchair. “Yes, the security video will be helpful if we move forward with an investigation. But there’s nothing on there that even hints at a crime. When the tox screenings come back, the department may take another look if warranted.”
He scanned his desktop. “How’s Sara? Do you two speak often?”
“Um, last I heard she was doing well.”
He shuffled through a stack of file folders. “So that’s a no?”
“We talk on occasion. She’s fine.”
“Give her my best, would you?” He looked up and stroked his goatee. “Now that’s an interesting saying, isn’t it? My best. My best what? Intentions? Makes no sense. Wishes? I suppose that might work under the right circumstances, but I—”
“You have more evidence to support your suspicions regarding the death?”
Read Part Two of the Excerpt on Texas Book Lover on 2/21/2021.
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