The Murder of Betty Lou Mundy
February 19, 1967, Sunday morning
A shaft of early morning sunlight broke through pine branches and fell across the gate of a picket fence that fronted Leland Mundy’s property. Sitting in a patrol car parked on the side of the road with the engine idling and the heater whirring full blast, Sheriff Coleman Grundy stared at a crimson stain on the gate post. He broke open his service revolver to find two bullets in the chamber. He loaded four more rounds from his belt loop, holstered his gun, and cut off the engine.
When he opened the door to climb out, a wall of cold air hit him and a spear of pain stabbed him in the lower back. He winced and stood up straight, pressing his fist against the base of his spine. When the pain eased off, he looked at Leland’s house, a little yellow clapboard box with a screened porch that barely accommodated two rocking chairs. Through the dark screen, Cole could make out Leland, a middle-aged bear of a man, sitting in one of the chairs, staring off into the distance. He didn’t look at Cole or acknowledge his presence in any way.
Cole limped over to the gate. As he’d suspected, the stain was blood. He passed through the gate and stopped. Betty Lou Mundy lay on her back ten feet away. He walked over to her. Her robin’s‑egg-blue eyes looked up at him, glassed over and lifeless. A heart-shaped bloodstain crusted the front of her blouse.
Cole looked over at Leland again. He was still staring straight ahead.
Pressing his hand to his back, Cole eased down to one knee and put his fingers to Betty Lou’s throat, knowing he would feel no pulse. Her flesh was cold, damp, and rigid, like soft plastic. He wiped the moisture off on his pants and looked her over. A sheen of frost covered her hair and clothing. Her clothes and makeup corroborated the gossip he’d heard, that she’d been stepping out on Leland. All the gray was died out of her chestnut hair. She’d blacked her eyes with too much eyeliner and painted her lips cherry red. She wore a black leather jacket over a red blouse that was too tight and cut too low, and a black tube miniskirt, too short. An attractive woman pushing fifty, trying hard to look twenty-five.
He peered at the bloodstain that soaked her blouse from her left breast down to her black leather belt. The entry wound was a small hole about two inches above the nipple. A small-caliber bullet, he guessed. He saw streaks of blood on her thighs and drops of it on the toes of her black spike high heels, one of which rested on its side in the frost-covered brown grass by her bare foot.
He took off his hat and swiped his hand over his bald head, thinking. Someone shot her while she stood by the gate. She leaned on it for support. Then she staggered into the yard. Her chest wound dripped blood on her thighs and the tops of her shoes, and she fell where her corpse now lay.
Her dead eyes gazed at him, as though pleading for help. Her mother had had those same blue eyes. Hazel Emley died of natural causes a couple months ago on Christmas Day, which now seemed like a blessing.
Cole put on his hat and stood up with some difficulty. He glanced at Leland, then went back to his car, sat down behind the wheel, and radioed dispatch to send the medical examiner, a forensic technician, and two deputies. When he climbed out of the car again, another stabbing back pain weakened his knees. He grabbed the door and pulled himself up to stand straight. He grimaced and pressed his fist against the small of his back. The pain lasted longer this time, and when it eased off it left him weak and dizzy. He leaned against the car, breathing hard.
He was worried about Leland. He wasn’t sure he could manage any trouble Leland might cause, but he knew he needed to approach him. The now familiar thought flitted across his mind that filing for retirement might be best for the county. He squinted at the slants of amber light that sifted through pine branches to streak Leland’s tin roof and screen porch, and kneaded his back while letting out a long, slow breath. Best for the county, perhaps, but not for him. Thirty years as sheriff. No hobbies. No outside interests. Now that Carrie was gone, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.
He pushed his hat back from his face and ran his hand over his brow, which was damp with sweat despite the cold, and looked at Leland. It would take an hour for his men to drive out from Jeetersburg. If Leland took a mind to run off into the Shenandoah National Park, he’d be long gone before the first patrol car arrived.
Cole pulled his hat down low over his eyes and walked through the gate and over the concrete stepping stones to the porch, carrying himself as tall and straight as he could manage. He stopped just shy of the screen door.
Leland sat motionless in a rocking chair to the right of the front door, seemingly unaware of Cole’s presence. Cole looked him over. Nothing in his hands. No bulges in his clothing. No weapon on the porch.
Cole put his hand on the butt of his service revolver. “I’m fixing to join you on the porch, Leland.”
Leland looked at Cole with a blank expression. “Suit yourself.”
Cole opened the screen door and stepped up on the porch. The door slapped shut behind him. Sweat glistened on Leland’s brow and his thinning blond hair was damp. His big, rough hands clenched the arms of the rocking chair. He wore a dark gray work shirt and pants, like he had just come home from a plumbing job. There was an auburn smear on the chest of his shirt. Betty Lou’s blood, Cole guessed. A sweet odor came off him, a distinctive flowery smell, not the kind of scent you’d expect a burly man like Leland to wear.
An empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s sat on the concrete beside Leland’s chair.
“You been drinking, Leland?”
“All night long.”
“You shoot Betty Lou?”
“Who did it?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long’s she been laying out there?”
“She was there when I come home.” Leland delivered his answers in a flat tone, like he was discussing the weather or laying pipe for a sewer line.
“What time did you come home?”
“Where you been all night?”
Leland hesitated and then said, “Drove the back roads. Parked at the dam and drank my whiskey. Came home when it ran out.”
A cold wind whispered in the pines and pushed through the screen mesh. Cole pulled the fur collar of his jacket tightly around his throat and snapped the top button. Leland wore no coat or hat or gloves. “Ain’t you cold, Leland?”
He shook his head.
Cole studied him. His face was the color of oatmeal, his eyes clouded, his mouth pulled down at the corners.
“You have any guns in the house?”
“Winchester 64. Twelve-gauge shotgun.”
“Not in the house.” Leland swiped his hand over his mouth. A tear beaded in his eye and ran down his cheek. “They say . . .” He faltered and then cleared his throat. “They say she’s been seein a man in Jeetersburg.” He took in a deep breath and let it out through his mouth. He looked up at Cole, his eyes full. “You hear anything about that, Cole?”
“No, sir,” Cole lied.
Leland’s chest heaved and tears slid down his face. He reached for something behind him. He’d placed a small pistol to his temple before Cole realized he’d withdrawn a gun from his back pocket. Cole threw himself on Leland and grabbed his gun hand. The rocking chair tilted backwards, struck the wall, and fell over on its side, spilling Leland and Cole on the concrete floor in a tangle.
“The Judas Murders captures the poignancy of humanity brilliantly. The main character, Sherriff Cole, sympathetically endures infirmity and loss, which brings a quality of authenticity to his struggle to overcome the past and survive the rage it has wrought. The story opens with him examining the aftermath of an unexplained murder. Cole finds himself in a battle to prevent the horrific fallout which threatens to follow. The action, the grief, the mystery gripped me from the very beginning. I was compelled to follow Cole as he worked to unravel the intricate web of deceptions and betrayals. The closer Cole gets to discovering the perpetrator of the murders, the close we get to why they are committed. Along the way, we are introduced to multiple engaging characters who are compelling in their own right. The language of the rural south is captured beautifully, and wry humor adds balance to the pain and suffering. The Judas Murders embodies the best of what thrillers have to offer, and if you are a fan of the genre, this is a must read.” –Felicia Mack Little, Author of Scions of Darkness: Progenie
May 5, 1968
A prison guard ushered Nate Abbitt into a room marked Visit A—Max Sec and closed the door. The room was divided by soundproof glass, with desks snug to the pane and telephones bolted to the walls on each side. Nate sat at the desk and withdrew documents from his briefcase. He heard the crackle of lightning and felt the rumble of thunder as it passed under the cell block and subsided in the distance. He closed his eyes and ran his hand over his close-cropped gray hair.
The barred door on the other side of the divider rolled open and Kenneth Deatherage entered the room. Dressed in a khaki prison jumpsuit, he was in his mid-twenties, average height, with a round florid face and oily red hair that fell to his shoulders. Manacles were chained to his ankles and his wrists were cuffed behind his back. A guard closed and locked the door. Deatherage backed up to it, stuck his hands through the bars, and stared at Nate while the guard uncuffed him. Deatherage’s pale blue eyes betrayed no hint of the crimes he was accused of—assault, rape, murder. The guard walked away, and Deatherage sat in the chair and grabbed the phone. Nate picked up the phone on his side.
“Who are you?” Deatherage said.
“What do you want?”
“Did you receive my letter of introduction?”
“I won’t sign for the mail. They won’t give it to me without me signin for it.”
“I’m a lawyer. The court asked me to represent you.”
“What happened to Swiller?”
“Randolph Swiller died of a heart attack last month.”
Deatherage paused. “Did he file the appeal before he died?”
“Have they set a new execution date?”
“No. Your execution date was postponed indefinitely. Swiller explained that to you, didn’t he?”
“I haven’t seen Swiller since they threw me in this hole. The warden told me they put off my date, but he didn’t say why.”
“Cases are pending before the United States Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty. There’s a nationwide moratorium on executions until the court rules. All execution dates in Virginia were suspended indefinitely.”
Deatherage seemed surprised. “How long will they hold off on the killins?”
“The court won’t render a decision for at least a year or two.”
“A year or two.” Deatherage’s heavy body settled into his chair. He chuckled. “I’ll be damned. A year or two.”
Nate placed a court pleading, a letter, and a pen in a metal tray in a slot below the window and shoved the tray through to Deatherage. “The court asked me to take your case, but it’s subject to your consent. I prepared these documents. The court pleading says you want me to represent you. If you sign it, I’ll file it with the court and begin reviewing the case. The letter is from you to Swiller’s estate, telling the executor to send me Swiller’s files. His estate can’t release his files to me without your consent because they’re protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege.”
Deatherage’s eyes traced the path of a scar that slashed across Nate’s forehead and down the side of his jaw. “What happened to your face?”
“I was in a car accident.” Nate pointed to the pleading and the letter. “Read the documents and tell me what you want to do.”
Deatherage stared at Nate’s scar for a few moments and then looked at the documents. He moved his lips as he ran his finger under each line. When he came to the last page, he squinted at Nate’s name. “Nathan A. Abbitt. I’ve heard your name somewhere.”
“I was a prosecutor. I prosecuted some of the men in here with you.”
Deatherage furrowed his brow. “You’re that crooked lawyer, the one from Selk County, the one they ran out of the county lawyer’s job.”
Nate showed Deatherage nothing, no change in expression, no color in his face, no discomfort.
“You’re the one who sent Jimmy Deeks to death row.”
Nate didn’t say anything.
“They claim Jimmy Deeks put a bullet through his daddy’s head while he was sleepin, but Deeks says he didn’t do it.”
“Deeks is lying.” Nate pointed to the documents again. “Decide what you want to do.”
Deatherage leaned forward and jabbed his finger at Nate. “Deeks says you’re crooked. Says you framed a man, a ree-tard. Says you talked the retard into signin a phony confession that said he killed somebody when he didn’t do it. Deeks told me that tough old judge in Selk County caught you and threw you out of the county lawyer’s job. The old judge tried to keep what you did secret, but Deeks says everybody in Selk County knows about it.”
“That case has nothing to do with you.”
“Don’t I have a right to know if you framed a man?”
“You have a right to reject my appointment. Turn me down and I’ll be on my way. The court will send you another lawyer.”
Deatherage stared at Nate for a long time.
“Make your choice,” Nate said.
“You were a big-time county lawyer. Why did you switch sides?”
“I have to make a living.”
“Why did you agree to take my case?”
“You have a constitutional right to counsel.”
“You think I killed her, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care.”
Deatherage fell silent.
“Make up your mind,” Nate said.
“I don’t know, mister. You look beat down. How old are you?”
“You look older than that. You look tired and worn out, like you don’t have much fight left in you. How long were you the county lawyer?”
“How many men did you send down the river to this hellhole?”
“I didn’t keep count.”
“How many did you send to death row?”
Nate considered whether to answer the question. He said, “Four.”
“They die in the chair?”
“All but Deeks. He got the benefit of the moratorium, the same as you.”
“You watch the killins?”
“Two of them.”
Deatherage’s eyes settled into the trench of Nate’s scar. “You’ve seen em do the deed. That’s somethin in your favor, I suppose. You know what it’s like when they pull the lever and shoot the juice into a man. Nobody could watch em fry a man and not want to put a stop to it.”
Nate returned Deatherage’s stare evenly and said nothing.
Deatherage said, “If you framed the retard, you know how it’s done. That’s another point in your favor. And you can’t be workin for em. They threw you out of the county lawyer’s job so they can’t trust you. You’re probably the only one they could send here who can’t be workin for em.”
“Make your choice,” Nate said.
Deatherage looked at the documents. Thunder sounded faintly in the distance. He signed the pleading and the letter and shoved them through the slot. Nate looked at the pleading that placed him between Deatherage and the electric chair.
“They framed me,” Deatherage said. “Swiller and Judge Herring and the sheriff and God knows who else, the whole Buck County crew, they rigged the trial to put it on me. I didn’t kill her.”
Nate placed the documents in his briefcase. “I’ll meet with you again after I review the files.” He hung up the phone. Deatherage said something into the phone but Nate couldn’t hear him through the soundproof divider. He didn’t care what Deatherage had to say.
Nate left Visit A—Max Sec and walked back to the guard’s desk. The guard was a short, stocky man with bushy eyebrows.
He pushed a ledger across his desk to Nate, and Nate signed it and entered the time of his departure.
“One of your clients do it to you?” the guard said.
“That big old scar. One of your clients cut you?”
Nate turned away from the guard, opened the prison door, and emerged from the penitentiary into a pouring rain.
“The Closing is an intriguing legal thriller that looks deeply at corruption in the jurisprudence system. The recovering alcoholic protagonist is a fascinating lead as he begins to regain his lost life when he accepts the harm he committed to innocent people, his wife, his mother, his mentor and himself. Although the enjoyable storyline spins from a superb capital case to a more conventional David vs. Goliaths thriller, fans will appreciate Ken Oder’s strong historical fiction.” — The Mystery Gazette
“Ken Oder debuts with an intelligent, atmospheric and achingly romantic legal thriller. I loved this book, and I can’t wait for his next one.” — Pamela Fagan Hutchins, USA Best Book Award winning author of Heaven to Betsy and the award-winning What Doesn’t Kill You romantic mystery series.
“Moments after meeting his client, death-row inmate Kenneth Deatherage, attorney Nate Abbitt explains: Cases are pending before the United States Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty. There’s a nationwide moratorium on executions until the court rules. Ironically, just days after The Closingbecame available on Amazon, Oklahoma botched the execution of Clayton Lockett who according to eye-witness accounts tried to get up and speak after being given the supposedly lethal injection. Although this book is set in 1968 Virginia, the subject matter could hardly be more topical. . . . Ken Oder skillfully interweaves Abbitt’s personal journey and his search for the truth about his client. Along the way, Oder introduces us to a host of characters we get to know more than superficially. Although this book is relatively short and the plot development makes it a quick read, it’s the realism of the players in this drama that sets this book apart from others in the genre. This is a great summer read. You won’t be able to put it down. And, whatever side of the issue you are on, The Closing should inform your view about capital punishment.” - Marlene Munoz
“. . . if you enjoy well-written legal thrillers, this book would be worth the read. Since I’m a lawyer, I find many of the legal thrillers to be poorly written copycats of Grisham. However, Oder has the clear writing style that reminds me of Turow while building a compelling read. I don’t want to give away much of the plot but I like the fact that the main character Nate Abbitt is complex and interesting and it’s his life story as well as about his legal case. The rural locale works well and it all rings true . . . A terrific first book. Looking forward to more.” - Tracy Green
“At first The Closing seemed a lawyer-in-trouble-lands-into-a-mess-kind-of-novel. The events in this book happen so naturally that I was lead to believe the story would unfold in a certain way. But then it doesn’t . . . I was constantly surprised at the twists in the story. I enjoy a well-crafted story that keeps me turning pages. I will be recommending it.” - Rebecca Nolen, author of Deadly Thyme and The Dry
“Life in rural Virginia is realistically painted . . . great insight into the corridors of the legal profession . . . tight, solid writing . . . the ending had good punch to it. Looking forward to the next one!” - Moody“. . . very true to the rural Virginia location, you truly can feel the humidity, dust and sweat. Highly recommended.” — S. Heinecke
Thanksgiving Day, 1967
Whippoorwill Hollow, Virginia
A red pickup truck crested a knoll on Whiskey Road two hours before dawn. Its driver cut off its lights and engine and the truck drifted down a hill, rolled across a one-lane bridge, and came to rest in a clearing beside the road. The door creaked open and a tall, stout man wearing a red ball cap, a hunting jacket, and bib overalls stepped off the running board into the pale glow of a silver-ringed moon. He blew a stream of vapor into the cold night air and leaned inside the truck cab. He withdrew leg irons and manacles and shoved them in the side pockets of his jacket, lifted a rifle from a rack over the back window, pulled its strap over his shoulder, and walked across the clearing to a split-rail fence. He unlatched a gate and closed it behind him.
A rust-red barn stood fifty yards in front of him. To his right, Little Bear River snaked through pastureland. A hill rose up steeply on his left and a two-story white farmhouse with a green tin roof stood on its summit. The house was dark and quiet and he saw no movement inside. He took off his hat, pulled a black ski mask over his head, and lifted the rifle off his shoulder to switch off the safety latch before he walked to the base of the hill.
In the house, Billy Kirby lay in bed thinking about the mess he had made of his life. He had passed his eightieth birthday in August. In September, his wife succumbed to cancer. They were estranged when she passed and she died hating him; his serial infidelity had broken her heart and wrecked their marriage. They had separated and reconciled many times, but even when they were together, they fought. Their only child was the worse for it all. He grew up to become a cruel drunk and an angry brawler. Billy had paid off Blakey’s victims and managed to keep him out of jail for most of his adult life, but in Blakey’s early forties he assaulted the boyfriend of a woman who had jilted him and held her at gunpoint in her bedroom for four hours. He was convicted of assault and kidnapping and was sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary in Richmond. Billy blamed himself in part for the way Blakey turned out. Blakey blamed him for all of it.
Thanksgiving morning Billy was alone and miserable and saw no prospect of happiness in his future. He lay on his back in bed with his arm draped over his brow and stared at moon-shadows on the ceiling. Mary Jo’s death had pitched him into a deep well of grief and hopelessness. Since her passing he had become obsessed with the many mistakes he’d made that had ruined their lives: the trysts, the affairs, the scores of women who lined the long hallway of his memory. Most of them had meant nothing to him at the time beyond the pleasure and excitement of the moment, but for the past few weeks, his thoughts kept returning to a summer afternoon many years ago, before he married Mary Jo, when he lay on a blanket with a young beauty under a maple tree beside Little Bear River. She told him she loved him that day, and he turned away from her. In the winter of his life when it was too late to make a difference, he was convinced that rejecting her was his biggest mistake. He thought he could have lived a good life with her, but in his youth he was too foolish to understand that. He made the wrong choice and rejected her love. Now, in his old age, he was alone; no one loved him; and he loved no one.
Billy rolled over on his side and looked out the window at the barren limbs of a sweetgum tree swaying in the wind and thought about the pistol that lay in a bureau drawer fifteen paces from his bed. For three nights running, the specter of the revolver, its smooth blue barrel and its wooden grip, had haunted him. It offered the best way out, he thought. If his hand was steady, he would feel nothing. Death would be instantaneous, and the eight decades of mistakes that rode in the bottom of his heart like a sack of cold stones would die with him.
He was still thinking about the pistol when a scraping sound downstairs broke his concentration. The noise seemed to have come from the dining room window below his bedroom. He sat up in bed and listened. The dining room floor creaked near the window and then groaned farther into the room.
He got out of bed, crossed the bedroom, and withdrew the pistol from the bureau drawer. He stood looking down at it, cold and heavy in his hand, his thoughts of ending his misery still fresh in his mind. The faint popping and cracking of the staircase drew his attention back to the problem at hand. He took a step toward the hallway and listened. He could barely hear the light tread of someone creeping down the hall. He tiptoed to the bedroom closet, stepped inside, and peeked through the crack between the door and the frame. A man wearing a black ski mask and carrying a rifle stepped into the moonlit room and went to the foot of the bed.
Billy stepped out of the closet and trained his pistol on the man’s back. “Drop it.”
The man turned and faced Billy.
“Drop the rifle,” Billy said, “or I’ll shoot you down in your tracks.” The man hesitated and then took a step toward Billy. Billy squeezed the trigger. There was a click, but no explosion. The man in the ski mask flinched. Billy squeezed the trigger again, but there was no report. Again. Still nothing. The man closed the distance between them and brought the barrel of his rifle down on Billy’s head.
Billy lay on a blanket under a maple tree by Little Bear River. A young woman lay beside him, sleeping. A soft wind rustled the leaves and leopard spots of shade and sunlight quivered on her smooth skin. He traced his fingertips from the curve of her hip up her back to her shoulders and caressed the silky blonde curl at the nape of her neck.
She stirred and rolled over, covering her breasts with her arm. A lock of golden hair fell across her eyes, and she smiled. “I love you, Billy.”
His gut tightened, but he forced a smile. “Come on now, darlin. Don’t spoil the fun with that foolishness. You don’t love me. You love the good times we’ve had. That’s what you love, the good times.”
The hurt took a while to gather in her eyes, but it soon came on strong. She rolled over and pressed her face into the folds of the blanket and her shoulders shuddered with quiet sobs.
When he reached out to touch her, the blanket beneath them began to move and he fell backwards, confused. Night had fallen suddenly and she was gone and he was on his back. He raised a hand to his throbbing head and his other hand dragged strangely along beside it. He held his hands up to the moonlight. They were handcuffed together and there was blood on them.
He groaned and looked around. He was sliding across frozen ground on his back. His ankles were bound by leg irons and a ski-masked man with a rifle strapped over his shoulder was pulling him across the yard by the chains of his leg manacles. He pulled Billy through a break in the boxwood bushes that lined the driveway and Billy’s nightshirt rode up his back and gravel raked his flesh. The man stopped, leaned over, and propped his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. Billy wanted to get to his feet to try to overwhelm him, but the blow to his head had robbed him of his strength and his will.
Billy’s assailant seemed to recover his wind. He picked up the leg irons and pulled Billy on across the yard to a split-rail fence. He grabbed Billy’s handcuffs and pulled him up to a standing position. Then he shoved Billy against the fence, forced him to bend over the top rail, and pushed him over it. Billy slid down to the ground on the other side and lay helplessly on his back while the man climbed over the fence. His trailing leg hung on the top rail and he almost fell, but he righted himself as he pitched forward and he landed on his feet. He bent over and grasped his knee, groaning. After a short while, he straightened up, grabbed the leg irons, and dragged Billy down the hill toward the barn.
Grit and rocks sliced Billy’s back and he wanted to scream, but he could not; a farmer had crushed the life out of his voice during a fight in a saloon in 1938. After that brawl, Billy’s voice sounded like a file dragging across a piece of iron. Thirty years later, his cries were rasping hisses that didn’t carry across the cold night air.
The man stopped at the bottom of the hill and propped his hands on his knees again to catch his wind. Billy tried again to muster the strength to resist his attacker. He rolled over and slowly got up on his hands and knees, but the man kicked him in the side and he fell over on his back. The man grabbed the leg irons and dragged Billy through the gate to the rear of a pickup truck parked in a clearing by Whiskey Road. He leaned against the truck, gasped for breath for a few seconds, and then lowered the tailgate and pulled Billy up to a standing position. He motioned with his rifle for Billy to climb up on the truck, and Billy crawled into the truck bed on his hands and knees. His assailant climbed up to stand beside him, put his boot on Billy’s back, and pushed him down to lie flat on his belly.
Billy rolled over on his side. “Who are you?” he said. “Why have you attacked me?”
The man cried out, a guttural sound like the cry of an animal caught in a trap, and kicked Billy in the gut. Billy curled into the fetal position and retched. His attacker stood over him, pointing the rifle at him. Billy stared at the mouth of the barrel, his heart pounding. After a few seconds, the man stepped back and cursed under his breath. He leaned over the side of the truck bed, set the butt of the rifle on the ground, and propped it against the truck.
He forced Billy to roll over on his back, looped a chain through the handcuffs, and attached it to an anchor on the cab. He slid a chain through the leg irons and hooked it to the tailgate so that Billy was stretched out on his back. The man picked up a rolled-up tarp that lay in the truck bed, unfurled it, and spread it over Billy. It was coarse and rough against Billy’s face and carried the scent of gasoline.
Billy could see nothing with the tarp covering his face, but he felt the truck bed rise slightly and heard the crunch of gravel at the rear of the truck, followed by the creak and clank of the tailgate being lifted and shut. He heard steps moving to each corner of the truck bed, followed by a rustling of the tarp, and he guessed that the man was tying it down. Billy heard the door slam and the engine start and felt the truck move forward. From the shifting of his weight, he thought the truck turned right out of the clearing and climbed the hill to Kirby’s General Store, Billy’s store. It felt as though it stopped there at the intersection of Whiskey Road and the state road, turned left, and sped up.
Wind surged under the tarp and whipped at Billy’s face and he shivered and took his breath in short bursts. Ten minutes into the ride, a corner of the tarp broke free from its tie-down and blew across his chest and he saw steep mountains rising up on both sides of the road and leafless branches arching over the truck like bony fingers clawing at the purple night sky. Much later, he heard the roar of water falling from a great height. A cold mist kissed his brow just before he passed out.
When Billy regained consciousness, dawn had broken. The air was still and cold. The aroma of gasoline was strong, but the truck was parked and the engine wasn’t idling. The tarp was gone, but he was still chained on his back in the truck bed. The early morning sun cast shafts of light through trees on a hill to his right, and there was a chorus of birdsong.
Billy knew where the man had taken him. He had felt the truck turn left at the T where Whiskey Road met the state road at Billy’s store in Fox Run to head north into Whippoorwill Hollow. Twenty-two miles from the farm town of Fox Run, the state road passed Whippoorwill Hollow Dam and ended at an entrance to Shenandoah National Park, and from there a network of dirt roads maintained by the park for firefighting cut through mountainous wilderness.
Footsteps rustled through a slush of leaves and the ski mask loomed over Billy. The man’s dark eyes glistened through the eyeholes.
“I know where we are,” Billy said. “I felt the spray off Whippoorwill Hollow Dam last night. We’re in the park. Why did you bring me here?”
The man unlocked the chain anchoring Billy’s handcuffs to the cab and moved to the rear of the truck. Billy sat up on his haunches. “Who are you?”
The man dropped the tailgate and dragged Billy out of the truck. He threw him to the ground and kicked him in the ribs, and Billy curled up and gagged. The man went to the cab and returned with his rifle. He motioned with it for Billy to stand, and Billy struggled to his feet. He grabbed Billy by the shoulder and turned him to face a steep hill, poking him in the back with the rifle. Billy staggered forward, but the restraint of the leg irons made him stumble. He stopped to regain his balance; the man prodded him in the back again; and Billy hobbled forward slowly. His bare feet were tender and his ankles were sore from abrasions inflicted by the irons. Each step was torturous, but the man gave Billy no mercy. He punched Billy with the rifle whenever he hesitated, and each blow was more painful than the last.
The climb was steep and arduous. Near the top of the hill, exhaustion overcame Billy and he fell to his knees, gasping for air. The man poked him in the back with the rifle and Billy fell forward on his face. “I can’t go on,” he said.
The man put the barrel to the back of Billy’s head. Billy squeezed his eyes shut, fear choking him. The man held the gun to his head for a few seconds and then pulled it away. Billy rolled over on his back and looked up at the man, who was standing over him and glaring at him, trembling. The man motioned for Billy to stand.
“I can’t,” Billy said. “I’m spent.”
The man cursed, bent down, and grabbed the leg irons. He twisted Billy around and dragged him up the hill, stopping once to catch his breath before he pulled Billy the last few feet to the summit. He dropped the leg irons and leaned against a big oak tree, gasping for air.
Billy rolled over and slowly got up on his hands and knees. His head hung down between his shoulder blades and spittle ran from his mouth to pool on the carpet of leaves beneath him. After a while, he lifted his head and looked around. A deep ravine lay at the bottom of a cliff about twenty feet to his left. He could see the face of the opposite mountainside and a good ways down the hill they had just climbed. There was nothing but wilderness as far as he could see.
The man kicked Billy in the side again and Billy fell and rolled over on his back, clutching his side and gagging. The man picked up a long chain that was coiled at the base of the oak tree and dragged it to Billy. He grabbed Billy’s hands and stretched them over his head, looped one end of the chain through Billy’s handcuffs, and padlocked the end links together to bind it tight to Billy’s cuffs. Then he carried its other end to the oak tree, slipped the chain through a steel ring attached to the end of a metal stake that protruded from its trunk, and padlocked the chain to the ring.
Billy rolled over and got up on his hands and knees. He looked up at the man. “Do you aim to kill me?”
“I do.” The man’s voice was choked with anger.
The man turned without a word, trudged down the hill, and disappeared in the growth below.
Billy crawled to the oak tree and sat leaning against it. He felt the wound to his head. It was swollen. A crusted scab under his hair was sore to the touch and his ribs ached from the man’s kicks. Billy pressed his hand against his side and winced.
A cold wind blew across the top of the hill. He pulled the collar of his nightshirt tightly around his neck and looked up at the stake he was chained to. He grabbed the stake and pulled himself up to stand beside the tree with his legs quivering. He tried to pull the stake out of the tree trunk, but it was pounded deep into the oak.
He slumped to the ground and rubbed his shins and his bare feet to warm them. The sky darkened and the wind blew. Tree branches clattered together like brittle bones. A hawk floated just under the cloud cover, searching for prey. It tilted its wings and banked down behind the opposite mountain.
Billy thought about his assailant. The truck’s presence inside the park meant he had a key to the gate. To have a key, he had to be someone who worked for the park, a ranger or a fireman, or someone who owned property on its far side. He had to be someone who knew Billy couldn’t cry out, because he hadn’t bothered to gag him. He was familiar with Billy’s house because he’d come straight to the bedroom. Billy knew the man’s stiff legs and shortness of breath all too well as the infirmities of old age. The man had to be old, perhaps as old as Billy. Billy reviewed his acquaintances searching for a match, but he could think of no one who would attack him so violently.
The wind blew harder and the cloud canopy descended upon the summit of the hill like a slate ceiling. Billy gathered his nightshirt more tightly around him and thought about the man’s stated desire to kill him. He should embrace the man’s homicidal intention, he told himself. His misery was so deep that he had considered death by his own hand. Why not give in to this man’s murderous rage?
A gust of wind blew Billy’s hair across his face. He brushed it back and stared into the gray miasma, pondering his own death. After a few moments, he stirred from his thoughts, put his hand inside his nightshirt, flattened it over his chest, and felt his heart beat, steady, strong, persistent.
Secrets, passion, love, and violence: they’re not for the weak of heart or body, which is what makes the septua– and octogenarians in Ken Oder’s latest Whippoorwill Hollow novel so intriguing. The characters are endearing and eccentric, and the setting at once brutal and brooding. I couldn’t put it down, and I can’t wait for the next one.”
“. . . a thrilling experience . . . a work of art, or poetry, or beauty and all of the above. It is historical—1960s. It is romantic, but not a romance. There is some mystery because the reader has to wonder if the main character will survive. I guess this is a literary novel. Oder takes you back in time to a place in a rural Virginia town and gently reveals parts and pieces of its topography and people. The story is not a gentle one . . . The conclusions are a complete surprise. The things Billy has done to some of his friends and family produce a lot of regret and worse. The emotional range portrayed by the characters as they struggle with memories or consequences of the same events brought me to tears or smiles. I was reminded that all our actions bring consequences, even heart-wounding ones.
I’ve read Ken Oder’s other novel, The Closing, and liked it. Old Wounds to the Heart is nothing like that thriller, but I liked it just as much or more. . . . simply beautiful.”
“. . . masterfully crafted, brimming with the sort of spellbinding wisdom that takes your breath away. Cast from characters who could easily be our friends and family, this story confronts the darker side of human nature with unflinching precision. It reveals that the line dividing right from wrong isn’t always clearly defined, that an undeniable symbiosis exists between joy and heartache.”
- Daniel Wimberley, Collinsville, OK;
author of The Pedestal
“A fascinating yet simple story that grabs you immediately. . . . I loved the way the scenes were set and yet left room for your imagination. Given the advanced age of the characters, I was surprised to find how well I related to their feelings. This story was beautifully told, and I very much enjoyed it.”
- Jason Holmes, St. Louis, MO
“. . . fantastic. I love romance-based books. Having lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains all my life, I thought the author couldn’t have picked a better setting. The whole story is wonderful.”
- Justin Lambe, Fancy Gap, VA
Buck County, Virginia
Gracie Sandridge was in the seventh grade the first time she saw Danny Harbaugh. Riley Snyder, a skinny little boy in her class, asked her to meet him at a Buck County High School football game. It was Gracie’s first date ever.
Momma drove her to the high school and let her off at the field. Riley was waiting for her at the gate. They sat on the top row of the bleachers. Riley said that was the best row because it had a backrest they could lean against. As soon as they sat down, he lifted his arm up on the backrest and put his hand on her shoulder. As the game progressed, he inched his fingers down the front of her shirt at a snail-like pace, apparently hoping to touch her budding little breast, but nothing came of it because his hand stalled out inches above its goal.
After a long while, she looked over at him, wondering what held him back. Squirming in his seat and grimacing, he seemed to be in a lot of pain. It only took Gracie a few moments to figure out what was wrong. He was shorter than her, and holding his arm up so high on the backrest had drained all the blood out of it. It had to hurt like hell.
In an act of mercy, Gracie lifted Riley’s hand off her shoulder, swung it over her head, and dropped it in his lap.
Riley looked stricken. “Why’d you do that?”
“You ought to thank me for it. Once gangrene sets in, they have to amputate.”
“Gangrene? What the hell you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you keeping your hands to yourself, Riley. I’m not that kind of girl.”
“I wasn’t trying to do anything wrong,” Riley whined, guilt written all over his flushed face.
She sighed. “Let’s just watch the game.”
She pretended to look down at the field while she spied on Riley out of the corners of her eyes. Looking as though he might cry, he stroked his arm and clenched and unclenched his fist. Trying to get the blood to come back, she figured. Pathetic, even for a seventh grader. So much for her first date.
Gracie had almost made up her mind to ditch Riley when the crowd jumped to its feet and cheered, and she stood up to see what all the excitement was about.
Down on the field, the tallest, biggest boy on the Buck County team ran around one end of the line with a smaller boy following along carrying the football. The big boy moved with grace and agility and extraordinary power. He plowed into a pack of three boys on the other team, and they fell away from him like bowling pins. He charged on down the field, knocking defenders aside, his big arms pumping in the air and his tree-trunk legs pounding up and down like pistons as the ball carrier ran behind him into the end zone.
The crowd went crazy. The team mobbed the ball carrier and hoisted him on their shoulders while the big boy walked calmly to the sidelines by himself and took off his leather helmet. His hair was black and wavy. He had high cheekbones, a square jaw, and a strong chin. His arms rippling with muscle, he picked up a tin dipper of water and turned it up, water spilling from his mouth and running down his thick bull-neck. She would never forget the way he looked that night, strong as a plow horse, graceful as a thoroughbred, and handsome as a matinée idol.
“Who’s that big boy, number sixty-eight?” she asked dead-arm Riley.
“Danny Harbaugh,” Riley said in a reverent tone of voice. “He’s just a tenth grader but they say he’s the best—” Riley flashed a look of concern at Gracie. “He ain’t that much, you know? Just a big old ugly slug, you ask me.”
She didn’t ask him. From there on, she didn’t even notice him. She couldn’t take her eyes off Danny Harbaugh.
Buck County High School housed grades seven through twelve, so even though Danny was three grades ahead of her, Gracie saw him in the halls from time to time. She tried not to stare at him, but she couldn’t see anyone or anything else when he was around.
The first time she saw him up close was one of the most exciting moments of her life. One morning about a month after the football game, the bell rang ending second period and kids poured out into the hallway, talking and laughing. Gracie was headed toward old Miss Sutherland’s third-period home economics class when she heard shouting at the end of the hall, so she went down there to see what was going on.
A crowd had gathered in front of the big double doors that opened to the gym. Two boys had squared off, facing one another. One of them was Butch Embry, a twenty-year-old senior who’d failed his grades three times. He was a big, strong bully with a blond crew cut, round face, and barrel chest. The other boy was Danny Harbaugh, who was four years younger than Butch but just as big.
They circled each other. Danny threw the first blow, a sweeping roundhouse punch. Butch blocked it with his forearm, but Danny’s fist powered through and smacked Butch on the side of the head. The blow staggered Butch, but he righted himself and charged Danny. Danny stood his ground, pushed Butch back, and landed two more roundhouse blows with the same result as the first one. Butch’s face turned red and sweaty, and blood leaked from his ear and trickled down his neck. He kept his fists up but he looked woozy.
“The teachers will come soon,” Butch said. “We better quit now, son. Let’s us call it a draw and go on away from here so we don’t get in no trouble.”
Danny answered by hitting him in the same way and in the same place as the first three blows. Butch had to know what was coming by then, but he still couldn’t ward off Danny’s powerful fist.
Even though Butch was a bad-assed sumbitch who deserved a good beating, Gracie felt sorry for him. If someone doesn’t stop this fight, she thought, Danny Harbaugh will knock Butch’s head clear off his shoulders and kill him.
“All right, now,” Butch said, breathing hard. “We need to quit this before the teachers come. I’ll say it if it’s the only way to stop it and keep us outta trouble: I’m sorry. I was wrong. I shouldn’t have said—”
Danny hit Butch again, and Butch fell to his knees.
Holding his hands up, palms open, his eyes glassy, Butch choked out, “Let’s just call it a draw,” then coughed a crimson mist into the air.
Danny looked disgusted, like Butch was a snake whose head he’d stomped flat. He picked up his books and strolled down the hall slow and easy, like nothing had happened.
Everyone stood around, looking at Butch down on all fours, blood drooling from his nose and mouth and pooling beneath him on the gleaming linoleum floor.
Old Mr. Quarles, with his widow’s peak and jiggly little pot belly, rushed up to the crowd and took in the scene. He knelt beside Butch.
“What happened here, Embry?”
“Fell down. Hit my head.”
Mr. Quarles helped Butch to his feet and held on to him to steady him. “Doesn’t look like a fall to me,” he said. “Looks more like you took a beating.”
Butch shrugged off Mr. Quarles and stumbled down the hall.
“Hey, now! Embry! You tell me what happened here!”
Butch walked on.
The crowd broke up.
“Hey! Hey! Y’all come back here and tell me what happened!”
Gracie followed the herd of kids quick-stepping away from Mr. Quarles, all keeping their heads down and their mouths shut.
Later on in Miss Sutherland’s class, Gracie’s girlfriend said Butch had called one of Danny’s sisters a whore.
Gracie couldn’t sleep that night thinking about Danny Harbaugh. He was handsome and big and strong, and she admired all that, but there was something more about him, the way he carried himself, the confidence, the determination, like he took it for granted he could win any contest, conquer any foe, achieve any goal. A boy like that, she thought, could have any girl he wanted, and the one he picked would be the luckiest girl in the world.
She thought about Danny all day long the next day and most every day and night through the whole seventh grade. Of course, she knew there was no point in dreaming about ever becoming his girlfriend. She was still just a little girl, and he was a big handsome boy who could take his pick from a line-up of full-grown beauty queens, but Gracie couldn’t make herself stop thinking about him. She mooned over him for the next couple of years, even though he never spoke to her or even looked her way. Heck, he probably didn’t even know she existed.
When Danny graduated from high school, the coaches said he was the best athlete in Buck County, maybe all of southwestern Virginia. He was hellacious smart, too. He made straight A’s and finished first in his class. The teachers wanted him to go to college, but he was dirt poor and couldn’t pay for it. Even though the Great Depression had dried up most of the college grants, the teachers and coaches managed to cobble together athletic and academic scholarships to pay the freight for Danny to go to Jefferson State University in Jeetersburg.
In the fall of 1930 when Danny left Buck County to go to Jefferson State, Gracie was just starting the tenth grade. She figured he’d never come back home, and even if he did, she knew she wouldn’t have a chance with him.
“Oder’s ability to capture our innate vulnerability with such authenticity is simply astounding. If this book doesn’t speak to you, you’re simply not listening.”
- Daniel Wimberley, author of The Pedestal and The Wandering Tree
“...a work of art, or poetry, or beauty and all of the above. Oder takes you back in time to a place in a rural Virginia town and gently reveals parts and pieces of its topography and people. Simply beautiful.”
- Rebecca Nolen, author of Deadly Thyme and The Dry
“...Along the way, we are introduced to multiple engaging characters who are compelling in their own right. The language of the rural south is captured beautifully, and wry humor adds balance.”
- Mack Little, author of Progenie
“The author is a superb storyteller. The Princess of Sugar Valley quickly grabs the reader and never lets go.”
- Virginia Ross, Amazon Reviewer
“With his unusual literary talent, Mr. Oder injects palpable, textured life into these characters, their families and friends. And, as in all of his books, he provides the reader with a vivid and tangible picture of the location and time.”
- Tom P., Amazon Reviewer
“Ken Oder packs a lot into a few pages. I was so captivated by the story I read it in one sitting. The Princess of Sugar Valley is a departure from Oder’s murder mysteries, but he brings the same sense of place and gritty realism of the characters to this story.”
- Michael Leb, Amazon Reviewer