Something evil had taken root in Ashland, Oregon. And with it, an uneasy feeling grabbed hold of Detective Winston Radhauser and wouldn’t let him go. If someone didn’t intervene, that evil would continue to multiply until the unthinkable happened.
He stood inside the twelve-by-twelve-foot stall of Mercedes, his wife’s mare, and dug his manure fork into the sawdust. Trying to ignore his uneasiness, he reminded himself he was on vacation. The only job he needed to worry about today was keeping his wife, Gracie, happy. And helping out with four-year-old Lizzie and their newborn son. But that didn’t change one basic fact. Radhauser was restless and eager to return to work.
From the juniper bushes on either side of the double barn doors, a mourning dove released its lonesome call. He grabbed the fork again. One thing he knew for certain, part of keeping Gracie happy involved a clean barn. He scooped up another load. It was a cool morning and the vapor from his breath rose in the air in front of him. He shook his fork, releasing the sawdust, then tossed the manure into his wheelbarrow. Before he’d spent any time around horses, Radhauser believed mucking out stalls would be a stinky job, but either he’d gotten used to it or there wasn’t any truth to that belief. The barn smelled, as it always did, like cedar, alfalfa and sweet feed laced with molasses.
When his cell phone rang, he dropped the fork, then pulled off his right glove, yanked the phone from his jacket pocket and answered.
“I need you to get down to the ER and check something out,” barked Captain Felix Murphy, his boss at the Ashland Police Department.
“It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, Murph. And I’m on vacation.” Technically, Radhauser was taking time off to be with Gracie as she recovered from the cesarean delivery of their son, Jonathan Lucas Radhauser, and started treatments for her breast cancer. Because it was diagnosed during the pregnancy, they’d done a radical mastectomy, then taken a chance and waited until after the birth to begin chemo and radiation. “Besides, you know Gracie is scheduled to start her chemotherapy treatments today.”
“Not until 2:30 this afternoon, right? You’ve got plenty of time to handle this.”
There was nothing he’d rather do, but there’d be hell to pay with his wife if he did. “Send
Vernon. I’ve got my hands full here taking care of Gracie and the barn.”
“Look, I know I signed off on your three weeks, but Vernon’s out with a strep throat and we’ve got a real mess on our hands.”
Captain Murphy had been on edge ever since he found a hate flyer taped to the station window a couple weeks ago. The following day, two cars were reported vandalized—racist and anti-gay slogans had been painted in red on their windshields.
“A Doctor Landenberg called,” Murphy said. “He just admitted a high school boy, delirious with fever and a white cell count off the charts.”
“Sounds like a serious infection,” Radhauser said. “But what’s it got to do with us?”
“The doctor was suspicious. Said his mom brought him into the ER after she tried to get him into a tub of cool water to bring down the fever. That’s when she saw it. A brand singed into the skin of his abdomen. And the kid won’t tell anyone how or where he got it.”
“A brand? You mean like for cattle?” Radhauser struggled with disbelief, trying to make sense of what he just heard.
“Yeah,” Murphy said. “Branded, like a damn heifer. Doctor Landenberg thinks the kid was assaulted. A hate crime because the boy is gay. But the kid won’t talk.”
“What did the brand say? Was it initials? A logo of some sort? Something we can identify.” “The doctor was pretty closed-mouth about the specifics, but he sounded upset. Come on,
Radhauser. You know as well as I do, this could turn into our worst nightmare. You’re good with kids. I need you on this.”
He took a step back, then leaned against the barn wall and closed his eyes, the cell phone resting in the palm of his hand while Murphy babbled on.
Radhauser thought about the hate-filled messages he’d ripped from tree trunks near Lithia
Park playground when he’d taken Lizzie last Saturday.
America Should Be White Again. God Hates Faggots.
In The USA, Christians Rule.
His skin had gone clammy as the messages sunk in. What the hell was happening? In 1921 the Ku Klux Klan had planted itself in Oregon and its invasive roots spread out across the state. Cross burnings in Ashland and other larger cities were not uncommon. But times were different now. This was the beginning of the twenty-first century, not Selma, Alabama, in 1963.
Ashland was a picturesque town set in the foothills of the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges, just north of the California border—a place known for, and proud of, its diversity and its world-renowned Shakespeare Festival. It was a little bit of England, set down in southern Oregon. A town where Radhauser and his wife, Gracie, planned to raise their growing family. A place four-year-old Lizzie, and two-week old Jonathan, could grow up safe and free of prejudice.
But behind the scenes there were factions who believed being white, Christian, and heterosexual were all that mattered. Radhauser had wadded up the flyers he’d found in the park and hurled them into the trash barrel, but hadn’t been able to erase them from his mind.
He put the cell phone back to his ear and told Murphy about the flyers.
Hard to believe this was the same Ashland that only a year and a half ago held candlelight vigils for the gay college boy, Matthew Shepherd, who’d been beaten and tied to a fence in Wyoming. Every night for a week, concerned residents had flocked to the park, stood quietly, sang and prayed, candles lit, while Shepherd fought for his life and lost.
Murphy didn’t give up. “And this kid might not be the only one. Doctor Landenberg said a girl
came in about a week ago with something similar. He wasn’t on duty, but saw the chart.” Radhauser ’s eyes shot open. “What the hell’s going on here?”
“I wish I knew,” Murphy replied. “I don’t. But we need to find out. And fast. His name is
Logan Caldwell. How soon can you get over to the hospital?”
Radhauser felt it surge up again—his need for justice. “Okay, I’ll do the initial interview, but I can’t take on a new case right now. Gracie would kill me. Give me an hour. I’ll call her mother and see if she can come early to help with the baby.” He wanted to be with his wife, knew she needed his help, but he also wanted to be on the job—to put a stop to what was happening in his town before it escalated into something worse.
Who was he kidding? It had already escalated. Flyers hung in other places, too, stapled to telephone poles along Main Street. And flyers were one thing—annoying, but not violent. Now, at least one kid, maybe another, was branded and too terrified, or ashamed, to talk about it.
He hung up and sunk onto the wooden bench in the barn’s center aisle. Tangerine, Gracie’s orange barn cat, leapt from the rafters and circled his ankles. He reached down to stroke the
cat’s head. Tangy purred. He wanted breakfast. The cat followed Radhauser into the tack room and circled his legs again while he scooped Purina cat food from a bin and poured it into one of the two dishes Gracie kept there. He used the hose to fill the other one with fresh water.
With the sound of a vehicle approaching, Radhauser stepped outside. It was 8:15 a.m. and the winter sun had lifted its golden head over the snow-capped mountains beyond their barn— the sky streaked with pink. He’d left Lizzie, grumpy from lack of sleep, to eat the breakfast cereal and orange juice he laid out for her and get dressed. Gracie was still asleep. As was baby Jonathan, who’d spent most of the night crying—that insistent high-pitched wail that sends chills up the spines of new parents.
As he often did in the mornings, he looked out over their 32-acre ranch, the barn, arena, their house with the glass solarium on the back that provided light all winter and overlooked pastures where horses grazed, mountains and thick woods. A dream come true for Gracie. Radhauser had never lived outside the Sonoran Desert. But, if he were honest, he’d admit that he loved the lushness of this land, the four distinct seasons, and the life he and Gracie were building here. With no apologies to Elvis, Radhauser had named their ranch Graceland.
An older black pickup came to a stop in front of the barn, a small cloud of dust rising behind it. Hunter Greer, the high school senior Radhauser hired to help out after the baby was born and while Gracie took her treatments, leapt from his ten-year-old Ford Ranger. He grabbed a miniature manure fork and small wheelbarrow from the bed and hurried toward Radhauser.
Like every other time in the last few weeks, Hunter arrived ready to work—decked out in
jeans, rubber boots, and with a pair of work gloves jutting from the pocket of his green plaid jacket. He gave Radhauser a big smile, his teeth straight and gleaming white. “Hey, boss. What’s up? And how come you started without me?”
“Sorry. I forgot you had the day off school. Parent/teacher conferences, right?”
Hunter nodded, his eyes twinkling. “The rest of the week, too. And then there’s the weekend. I should be good to go on everything you want done.”
Radhauser ’s gaze darted to the small fork and wheelbarrow. “You planning to hire a midget to help you out?”
“It’s for Lizzie,” Hunter said. “She thinks she’s in competition for poop shoveler of the year. But just between you and me—” He paused and did a little mock tap dance. “I think I’m a shoo- in.”
Hunter was a great kid, smart, clean-cut and funny. Radhauser had known him since he was
eight, and he was the kind of boy he hoped Jonathan would one day grow up to become. According to Gracie, who was best friends with Hunter ’s mother, Jade, an actress with the Oregon Shakespeare Theater, Hunter had a good chance of being this year ’s valedictorian. With a three-year-old half-sister living with them, and no father around, he was good with little children and often babysat for the Radhausers. Lizzie adored him. Hunter was her first crush.
He was also handsome, like so many mixed-race children. Tall and well-built, with sage- green eyes, caramel-colored skin, fine features and a thick head of loose black curls. Hunter ’s birth father died when Hunter was twelve.
Radhauser ’s son, Lucas, died at age thirteen. This gave them something in common and it felt right for Hunter and Radhauser, the two survivors, to come together now to help Gracie in her fight for life.
“I’ll head down to the house and rustle up your helper,” Radhauser said. “Why don’t you get started on the tack room. My boss wants me to check out something at the hospital, but I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“No problem, Mr. Radhauser. Lizzie and I will have this barn sparkling by the time you get home.” Hunter tucked the miniature tools into a corner, grabbed a polishing rag and started with the silver on Mercedes’ breastplate.
* * *
Radhauser knelt by Gracie’s side of the bed and pushed a lock of dark hair away from her cheek. There was a new gauntness in her face, and when she opened her eyes there were dark circles under them.
She stared at him for a moment. “Oh no you don’t. I know that look.”
He told her about Murphy’s call, the flyers he’d found in Lithia Park and the boy who lay branded in the Ashland Hospital—the object of a hate crime. “I called your mother and she’s on her way.”
Lizzie was helping Hunter in the barn and Jonathan was still fast asleep. “You promised.” There was iron in her voice.
“I know. And I won’t be long. Vernon is out sick so I told Murphy I’d take the initial statement. Not investigate the case.”
“Sure,” she said. “Like that’s going to happen.” She refused to look at him, but he heard the bitterness in her voice. The room sunk with the weight of her disapproval.
His throat tightened. He should have said no to Murphy. He touched her cheek again. “I’ll call him back and tell him I can’t make it.”
Radhauser hadn’t known it was possible to have so many conflicting emotions ripping
through him at one time. He wanted to be on the job. He wanted to find out what was happening to his town and help that poor boy in the hospital. And he wanted to be the best husband and father he could possibly be. He wanted to help Gracie get through this cancer crisis. “I love you more than anything. Murphy can find someone else.”
She opened her eyes and looked at him then, her face softening. “You’re good with teenagers. I’ll be all right. You should be the one to go.”