“A Shattered Lens” by Layton Green
The camera felt so right in her hands. So natural. The sheer heft of it made her feel important, as if she were already more visible to the world. Everybody everywhere needed something to help them
belong, Annie knew. For some it was obvious: money, drugs, guns, sex, power. For others, it could be something as simple as a pet, or a child, or a single friend.
Something no one else could claim. Something to make you feel alive and special. What Annalise Stephens Blue wanted, what she had craved since
she had first seen ET and The Goonies and The Princess Bride and count- less other movies sitting on her daddy’s lap before he left home, was a camera. Not just any old transmitter of encoded images, but a real camera. A vehicle for Blue to realize her dream of becoming a film- maker. A caster of magic spells, a chronicler of her generation, an artist who would throw a light in dark corners and speak for voices unheard.
Guided by the pewter light of a full moon, she trod down the for- ested path behind her trailer park, pine needles swishing under her feet once she got past the soda cans and beer bottles and fast food wrappers clotted with dried ketchup. The stench of garbage bins faded, replaced by earth and pine and an explosion of insect chatter.
A few hundred feet in, she stopped to peer through the night lens. What she saw gave her chills. Not just the clarity of the images, but the way the experience made her feel. Though Blue had lived in the trailer park for fourteen of her sixteen years and knew these woods like she knew her own face in the mirror, seeing the forest through the high- powered lens made her feel like someone new and beguiling, a stranger in a strange land, a pioneering explorer in the wilderness of life.
She was no longer Blue from the trailer park, Blue with the Good- will clothes and the mother who cleaned roach motels, Blue the shop- lifter, Blue the Alley Cat, Blue the Anorexic who loved to eat but couldn’t gain weight and had no curves, Blue the high school junior who was held back a year because of behavioral issues.
All that was behind her now. She had taken the first step on her journey. Now she was someone full of curiosity and discernment, a budding filmmaker, a sculptor of popular culture. Someone clever and funny, wise in the ways of the world, destined for great things.
Someone who mattered.
Despite her giddy thoughts, her new acquisition made her nervous. Resembling some kind of advanced alien weaponry, the Canon EOS C100 was a prince among cameras, a piece of equipment so beautiful it had taken her two days to work up the nerve to touch. What if she pressed the wrong button and broke it?
In her head she knew her fears were unfounded, because she had read everything she could find on the camera. She knew it was made for a European market and was hard to get in the United States, that it had a Digi DV 4 processor, an EF-L series lens, and weighed only 2.2 pounds without accessories. She knew the extended ISO range allowed filmmakers to shoot under low light conditions, essential for low-budget filmmakers like herself.
She knew all this, yet holding the Canon in her hands, using it, was a different story.
Her destination was just a few hundred yards into the tract of forest that separated her trailer park from the Wild Oaks subdivi- sion. She was going to set up inside the tree line on the far side of the common space, close enough to observe the nighttime activity of the Creekville upper crust. Wild Oaks was New Money, not Old Money. A blend of professors, young professionals, and Creekville’s typical array of progressive oddballs. Modern Family in semirural North Carolina.
Sure, Old Money had scandals and depraved patriarchs, but Blue didn’t care about the dirty secrets of the smattering of business tycoons and trust fund babies in town. Everyone in Creekville hated them and wished they would move to Chapel Hill. New Money was where the action took place. With the movers and shakers, the strivers, the
upwardly mobile who professed their allegiance for a litany of trendy causes, but who would rather die than give up a single morning latte.
That would be the name of her first film, an exposé on the noc- turnal activities of the people who lived just across the forest from her, but who thought they were so much better. Not just the parents, but the kids. The popular ones those Wild Oaks parents bred like minks. She imagined they came out of a celestial assembly line, little blond babies wearing Ralph Lauren onesies in the car seats of their BMWs and Mercedes. The Morning Star himself lived there, David Stratton, the high school quarterback and resident golden boy. Despite herself, she fantasized about dating him, though not for his popularity or good looks. No, she recognized something inside him. A darkness like her own, born not of evil but of sadness, a searing aloneness that scraped at the edges of the soul.
How could someone that beloved ever be lonely? Did no one really know him? Was he lost and didn’t know how to escape the trunks of the longleaf pines hemming in his neighborhood like the bars of a giant prison?
When they were kids, she and David used to play in one of the tree houses the Wild Oaks fathers hired someone else to build, until David’s parents found out and banned him from associating with the trailer park kids. In the years that followed, the forest between them became an ocean to cross, a Maginot line, a barrier more mental than physical.
What had happened to that little boy?
The true story of the Morning Star, both devil and angel, was one of the many mysteries she aimed to expose in Night Lives.
David Cronenburg, she thought, watch the hell out.
Halfway through the woods, she heard the murmur of angry whis- pers, too low to make out the age or gender. Blue froze. She couldn’t be seen with the stolen camera. At first she debated turning back, but teenage trysts took place in these woods—repurposing the tree houses. This could be her first big scene. Why else would anyone from Wild Oaks be out in the woods after dark?
The thought excited her. She scurried off the path and looked for a place to hide, breathing in the damp forest air. She spotted a fallen trunk covered in fungi and tried to step over it, but her foot plunged through the rotten wood and an image of a writhing mass of insects filled her mind, a sinkhole full of centipedes and slugs and fire ants. She resisted the urge to jerk away. An artist had to suffer for her art! Instead she sucked in a breath and plowed forward, not wanting to alert her subjects, stepping over the trunk and then squatting on a rock behind it. She knew the clearing up ahead, where the voices were headed. It was a common meeting spot. After hurrying to focus the camera, she hun- kered down, breathless with anticipation. She was Citizen Kane, Lois Lane. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Just before the voices entered the moonlit clearing, a noise in the bushes startled Blue. She jerked her head to the left but saw nothing. After a few tense moments, she realized it had probably been a squirrel. People always thought a noise in the woods must be a snake, but that was because they didn’t know any better. Snakes didn’t make noise unless they wanted to.
Though she had lurched away, the camera remained pointed at the clearing : a subconscious reaction that pleased her. An instinct to always maintain focus on her subject. She bent to peer through the lens when a muted gunshot echoed through the forest, followed by the dull thud of something collapsing to the ground.
Not something, she thought. A body. At first she thought it might have been a hunter, but she realized at
once how ridiculous that was. No one hunted at night inside the town limits.
After whipping the camera back and laying flat behind the log, she became a deer, a hibernating bear, as silent as anything that had ever walked the forest. Though she had never fired a gun, they were all over the trailer park. She had recognized the muffled thwap of a silencer too.
A low, prolonged moan of pain came from the clearing. Though human, the desperation in the sound reminded her of a dog on the
verge of death, whimpering with sudden knowledge, right before its owner put it out of its misery. A series of harsh whispers accompanied the moan, followed by a second gunshot.
The moaning stopped.
Blue’s pulse hammered against her chest. Had someone just been murdered right in front of her? Not daring to breathe, she knew she had to hide there in the mud and leaves and insects, under the cloak of darkness, for as long as it took.
The whispering had also ceased. Now there was grunting, followed by a prolonged swish, as if something were being dragged down the path. An insect crept onto Blue’s ankle and felt its way underneath her jeans. She swallowed her revulsion and let it crawl.
As the sound drew further and further away, a riff from her favorite indie rock band sounded loudly from her pocket, shattering the quiet like an errant baseball crashing through a window during church.
The ringtone on her cell phone. No no no. The dragging sound paused. Blue jumped to her feet. A quick glance told her no one was within
sight range in the darkness. She couldn’t risk staying put and catching the beam of a flashlight. As she turned and fled, the canvas shoulder satchel in which she kept her schoolbooks and personal belongings, a worn old thing she had found at Goodwill, snagged on a branch. After fumbling to grab her bag, spilling the contents in the process, she vaulted over the log and sprinted down the path.
Moments later, footsteps pounded the earth behind her. Blue ran as fast as she ever had, fear pumping through her, adrenaline giving her wings. The trail split before it spilled into the trailer park, and she took the left fork, stuffing the camera into her backpack as she ran. The new path would put her out much further from home, but it would keep her in the forest longer, as well as stop the nosy neighbors and alcoholics in the trailer park from pointing her out to whoever emerged behind her waving a gun.
The trail split again and again. The footsteps behind her faded.
After jumping a creek that led to a new series of trails, Blue scrambled up a steep embankment and emerged in a weed-filled playground behind an apartment complex where she used to sift through the dumpster for discarded treasures. She slunk into the parking lot and, when no one was watching, emerged onto the road a half-mile from home. Shaking, she decided to hole up in a late-night diner a few blocks away on the edge of downtown. After slumping low in the booth and ordering a coffee, she tried to process what had happened, keeping her camera tucked safely in her bag.
It wasn’t until an hour and a half had passed, after the waitress with sunken cheeks and tobacco-stained nails had told her she had to leave, that Blue risked the lonely walk home, flinching every time a new set of headlights swung into view.
Detective Joe “Preach” Everson set down the hatchet and wiped a line of sweat from his brow. A gust of wind caused a flurry of pine needles to drift down, adding to the layer covering the yard of his
bungalow in the woods outside Creekville, North Carolina. Though the early October air remained mild, he had decided to get a head start on splitting wood for the season, knowing the weather could turn at any time.
After spending a decade as a homicide detective with the Atlanta PD, he had moved back to his hometown over a year ago, searching for a measure of peace and solitude after a case that had broken his spirit and changed the course of his career.
Eyeing the stack of logs with satisfaction, he took off his boots and stepped inside, where Ari was still working on the sofa in one of his sweatshirts, legs curled under her, poring over a legal file. After gradu- ating from UNC law and passing the bar, she was barely a month into her job as a Durham County prosecutor.
“Even Jesus took a break on Saturday night, counselor.” “You’re finished already?” she asked, without glancing his way. “It’s dark.” “Oh.” She looked up with a sheepish smile, dark hair scattered,
eyes straining from the text. “In case you think I’m having fun, this expert report makes IKEA instructions seem exciting.”
“The accountant who ripped off his clients to buy his twenty-year- old girlfriend a Porsche?”
“That’s the one. The guy can launder money like a Sicilian but doesn’t think anyone will question a waitress with a new 911.”
Greed and sex accounted for a vast portion of crimes in America, Preach knew. Where they were both involved, rational behavior had a way of taking a vacation to a distant tropical island. “How’s a cold beer and Chinese food sound? The good stuff, not takeout.”
She sighed. “Lovely. Just give me a few.”
“Sure,” he said, though her attention had already returned to the folder.
For the most part, Preach’s year with Ariana Hale had been a thrilling one, filled with long passionate nights, bleary-eyed coffee in the morning, and intense debates on his screened porch in between, sipping bourbon as they waded through the murky lagoons of life, liter- ature, and the meaning of it all. She challenged him, he challenged her, and they loved each other—what more could one ask?
Still, dating a woman studying for the bar and beginning life as an attorney had its challenges. In the last few months, Preach could count on one hand the number of times Ari had stayed the entire weekend. While she was in law school, their odd schedules had seemed to mesh, but now she worked nine-to-five, or more like nine-to-nine. With his irregular hours, they struggled to find time to connect.
After he washed and toweled off, Preach ran his fingers through his short blond hair and threw on jeans, a black sweater, and a pair of slip-on shoes. After tucking his badge and wallet into a pocket, he sipped on a tumbler of whiskey while waiting for Ari to wrap up. Unlike Atlanta, where he had carried a loaded Glock 22 everywhere he went, in Creekville he relied on the nine millimeter locked in the dash of his car for most off-duty outings.
And he was the cautious one.
“I’m sorry,” she said, once they had settled into a faux red leather booth at The Happy Buddha, a Chinese restaurant just off Main Street. She was wearing a long black skirt, matching boots, and a forest green sweater with lacy sleeves.
“For what?” After all these months, he couldn’t stop looking at her face. Like her smoky dark eyes and expressive mouth, both of which hinted at layers unpeeled, Ari possessed a combination of innocence
and world-weary insouciance that drew him in like an explorer discov- ering a lost city.
“For working all the time,” she said.
His eyes lingered on the silver bangles sitting loosely on her left wrist. Thin by nature, Ari looked almost gaunt these days from her late nights and stressful career.
“Do you like it?” he asked her. “The job?”
She started to open the menu, then paused. “I feel like it’s where I need to be. At least for now.”
“It can take time to be sure.”
“It’s hard,” she said, with a rueful, self-effacing chuckle. “Harder than I thought it would be.”
“Really? I think most people understand that being a trial attorney is a difficult job.”
“I thought law school was hard. This,” she waved a hand through the air, “is hard in a different way. C’mon, let’s order.”
After a moment, as she perused the menu, he said, “There are lives at stake now.”
Her eyes lifted to meet his gaze.
“What you do matters,” he continued in a quiet voice. “The pres- sure makes it hard to sleep at night, and your decisions can haunt you. It’s real now.”
She pursed her lips, digesting his words, and nodded.
He reached over the table and squeezed her hand as the waiter approached.
Two hours later, deliriously full of dumplings and Dan Dan noodles and Tsingtao beer, Preach took Ari in his arms once they returned to his house. “What are you reading these days?” he asked, kissing her neck as he removed her cropped denim jacket.
“Besides that,” he said, lifting off her sweater and then his own.
She pressed against him, running her nails down his broad back, her flesh like warm caramel on his skin. “The Triangle Business Journal. Law blogs. Police reports. Sexy stuff, huh?”
He scooped her in his arms and laid her down on the couch, as easy for him as lifting a jug of milk. “I know you’ve got a book hiding some- where at work. In your purse or your briefcase or a desk drawer. No way you get through the day without one.”
“You know me that well, do you?” she purred, as he wedged in beside her and unhooked her bra. “I’m a career woman now. Those carefree days of meeting you on your breaks at the nearest coffee shop are gone forever.”
He leaned on an elbow. “Forever’s a long time for a wandering soul like you. So which one is it?” he asked, cupping a hand over her breast.
She gasped, arching in pleasure at the gentle massage. “What?” “Which book is it?” She gripped his hair as he eased his weight down on her. They kissed
and intertwined their legs, hips grinding on the couch like teenagers. “Ghana Must Go,” she whispered in his ear. “I listen to the audio-
book when I walk to work.” “Oh yeah? What else?” As he pushed her skirt up, she unhooked his belt, and the two of
them giggled as they worked to remove his jeans without losing contact. “The latest Murakami is on my nightstand.”
His fingers curled into the edges of her silk panties. “And? Confes- sion is good for the soul.”
“A little Jane Austen when I cook. Her letters. That’s it, I swear. Joe?” she said, breathless, as his hands slid into the divots below her pelvis, gently probing.
“Yeah?” he said, his voice husky. “Why don’t we do this more often? Like, five times a day?” “Good question.” As her legs locked around his hips, a vibration from
the coffee table broke the spell. Both their gazes slid to the table, coming to rest on his work phone. “One sec,” he muttered. “I have to check.”
She lifted her hands over her head, stretching in pleasure as he bent over the phone. “Should we move to the loft?” she murmured. “Bring some wine?”
He knew the optimism in her voice, despite the call from work, was reflective of the fact that Creekville rarely had the sort of situation that would result in Preach having to report in while off duty. Violent crimes were rare, and there hadn’t been a homicide since the terrible events of the year before.
“I’d love to,” he said slowly, staring at the message and then easing off her, sitting up on the edge of the couch. He turned to meet her gaze. “But there’s a body in the woods.”
Preach veered off the old country road and into a gravel parking lot, the lights of his cruiser strobing the side of the abandoned mill. The old brick wall seemed to swallow the flashing light. Despite the weeds and broken windows, the mill had stood for a century and would stand for countless more, a remnant of a time when everything manufactured did not seem fleeting and ephemeral.
No reporters yet. Just a few police cars parked at odd angles, and a cluster of officers standing beside the mill. The forest loomed a few yards away.
The mill was just inside the Creekville city limits, less than a mile from the county line. As Preach walked over, he saw the postures of the other officers straighten, hands fidget, conversations cease. They still didn’t know what to do with him. Though born and raised in Creekville, he had left town far too long ago—right after high school— to still be considered a local. He worked the same beat as the rest of them, but he had years of hard-nosed, white-knuckled homicide expe- rience in Atlanta under his belt.
It wasn’t just the job. Over the water cooler, he discussed novels with the administrative staff instead of telling jokes or swapping
hunting stories. While most of the officers kept sports memorabilia and family photos on their desks, Preach had a Purple Heart from the Atlanta PD and a framed quote from Kierkegaard.
Which was okay. When a bad one hit, the Creekville police depart- ment didn’t need a drinking buddy. They needed a leader.
“Where’s the body?” he asked.
Officer Terry Haskins stepped forward, pointing out a footpath behind where they were standing. “At the edge of a sump, a hundred feet inside the woods. I’ll take you in.”
Among the gathered officers, Preach considered Terry the most promising, though Bill Wright had the most experience. Bill was nearing retirement and had long since lost that drive that caused officers to go the extra mile for a case, if he ever had it to begin with. Terry was young, had mouths to feed, and possessed a moral code that ensured he always gave his best effort. He was untested in battle, though. Preach didn’t think he had ever fired his gun in the line of duty.
“Forensics is en route,” Terry said.
After pulling on a pair of blue surgical gloves, Preach flicked on his flashlight and aimed it at the dirt path snaking through the trees. “Who called it in?”
“Animal control, believe it or not.” “What?” Terry turned to point at a house across the road. It was an old, run-
down country manor with a wraparound porch and a pair of pickups parked in the grass. “Around dusk, the neighbors heard a god-awful racket in the woods. It got so bad they called it in, thinking it was a pack of pit bulls on the loose. Animal control showed up and heard it too. Said it was coyotes. They fired off a few times, went to investigate, and saw a body chewed up on the side of the water. Animal control said they’ve gotten bad in recent years. Global warming, humans encroaching on their territory and all that.”
“Wait—the coyotes killed someone in the woods?” Preach asked in disbelief.
“Oh. No. Sorry, I didn’t say that right. The vic has two gunshot
wounds. The water must have lowered to expose the body, and the coyotes dragged it out.”
To ward off the chill, Preach buttoned his double-breasted, forest green overcoat, the same one he had worn his entire career. Ari teased him about it, but the musty smell kept him grounded. Connected to all the cases that had shaped him as an officer, for better and for worse.
“Lead the way,” he said, as the forensics van pulled into the parking lot.
Looking unsure for a moment, Officer Wright fell in behind them. The others stayed behind to help the forensics team, manage the reporters once they arrived, and preserve the integrity of the crime scene.
Preach walked slowly down the path, waving his flashlight around, absorbing the crime scene on a visceral level. Tall pines creaked in the wind. The insects sang a primeval chorus, and every few feet something unseen rustled in the underbrush. A few times he almost tripped on a root or a large rock jutting out of the ground.
Less than a hundred yards in, the smell of death hit him, rancid and familiar. Terry put a cloth to his mouth, but Preach breathed it in slowly, adjusting, overcompensating with his other senses. The earth had turned spongy, and his light revealed a sunken area off to the left of the path, at the bottom of a slope. A small pool of water glistened in the moonlight like oil on asphalt. They shooed away the rodents, and Preach grimaced as he viewed the waterlogged corpse. Two bullet holes, one in the stomach and one in the head, left no question as to the cause of death.
His boots sank in the muck as he stepped off the path. The stench of fetid water commingled with the decomposing corpse made his stomach tighten. He focused on breathing through his mouth and, as was his custom, squatted on the ground beside the body to stare into the victim’s eyes. Though the coyotes had taken chunks of flesh from the legs, and the torso was a mess, the face was bloated but intact.
The victim was a teenage boy with a strong jaw and good cheek- bones. Sandy blond hair cut close to the scalp, wide shoulders, long
limbs, dressed in jeans and a form-fitting gray sweater. Shoes too muddy to identify. No apparent rings or jewelry. Calloused palms that Preach recognized as the product of gripping a barbell.
An athlete, then.
After a time, he pushed to his feet. “I know it looks bad, but that body’s a few days old at most. Swamp water takes a rapid toll.”
“It’s two days old,” Bill said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
When Preach glanced back, surprised at the certainty in the older officer’s voice, Terry said, “You don’t recognize him? Oh—you’ve been off the last few shifts, haven’t you? We passed his photo around the morning briefing yesterday. Kid’s name is David Stratton.”
“I heard about a missing kid,” Preach said, though Terry was looking at him like he should know the name. Preach held up a palm. “Is he famous or something?”
“Around here he is. He’s Creekville High’s star quarterback.”
“Is that right?” The detective’s gaze slipped back to the body. It was not often, even in the big city that popular kids with preppy clothes showed up dead in the woods.
“His parents split a while back, but he lives with his mom. You might even know her. I think she was around in your day.”
“Yeah?” Preach said, in a distracted voice. “Claire Lourdis, class of ’99. That’s around your time, isn’t it?” The name caused Preach to suck in a breath and give the junior
officer a sharp glance. “Tall and thin, good tan?” Terry added. “Still a real looker, judging
by the photos. Like a model or something. You know her?” The question recalled a vivid memory of long brown hair and designer sunglasses, toned calves and crossed thighs that seemed to go on forever, a coy smile tossed his way at the after-game parties. For a moment, he went back in time to one of those humid summer nights with Wade Fee, top down and a case of beer in the trunk, trolling the
town’s hangouts for a glimpse of feminine perfection. In Preach’s day, Claire Lourdis was the girl in school everyone
wanted but no one could ever have. Despite having flirted with him a
few times, she only went for college guys and was the one girl who had rebuffed his advances. She was smart and beautiful and cool, talented and ambitious. A year older than him, her plan was to head to Holly- wood after graduation, until an unexpected pregnancy changed all of that. After she married the father, Preach lost track of her, though he still remembered how besotted he was with her as a junior.
To young Joe Everson, the Creekville High bad boy and heart- breaker of his day, Claire Lourdis had been The One Who Got Away.
“Yeah,” he said, staring down at the corpse and feeling unbalanced, flooded by memories as well as empathy for a mother whose world was about to implode. “I know her.”
About the author:
Layton Green is a bestselling author who writes across multiple genres, including mystery, thriller, suspense, horror, and fantasy. His novels have topped numerous lists (including a #2 overall Amazon bestseller) and have been nominated for major awards, including two finalists for an International Thriller Writers award. Layton is also the coeditor of International Thrills, the online magazine of International Thriller Writers (ITW).
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