Welcome to a small Texas town with no shortage of big characters.
I loved the performative quality of Terry’s reading in this episode. I can hear the Texas characters coming through her voice loud and clear, which made listening to her read very enjoyable.
In the interview we discuss the personal inspiration for Samuel Craddock’s character, as well as how the Covid-19 periods of isolation and social distancing have affected Terry’s writing.
This episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast is sponsored by the brand new mystery novel Lark Underground.
If you like your mystery novels with twists and turns and characters who spring to life you’ll love this latest book from award-winning author Alexandra Amor.
Reviewer Sandee said, “This story is an emotional heart-engaging roller-coaster. I enjoyed it from beginning to end. I can hardly wait for the next one.”
This week’s mystery author
Terry Shames writes the popular Samuel Craddock series, set in small town Texas. She won the Macavity Award for Best First Novel, and the RT Reviews award for Best Contemporary Mystery, 2016.
The eighth in the series, A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary came out in 2019. MysteryPeople has twice named Terry one of the top five Texas mystery authors.
Her latest short story, “Inheritance” will appear in Jewish Noir II, in September. Terry lives in Berkeley, CA and is a member of Sisters in Crime and on the board of Mystery Writers of America.
To learn more about Terry and all her books visit TerryShames.com
Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher, Android, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, and Spotify.
Excerpt from A Reckoning in the Back Country
There are a couple of cars in Gloria Hastings’s driveway, next door to Margaret Wilkins’s place. I’d like to have a word with Gloria’s husband before I go to see Margaret. Yesterday talking to him didn’t seem so urgent, but with still no news of Wilkins, I’m increasingly concerned.
I rap on the door but there’s so much racket inside the house that I doubt anybody can hear me. When there’s a lull, I knock again. The door is flung open by an unseen hand. Gloria is hurrying toward me. “Kids, settle down.” She claps her hands together and two children, a boy and a girl, careen from somewhere in the room and plop onto the sofa, making motorcycle noises.
“Now stop that,” she says, looking back at them. “This man is a policeman. I’d hate to have to ask him to haul you off to jail. I don’t think they have pumpkin pie there.”
They giggle, but keep an eye on me.
“Remember the wild bunch I told you about?”
“So these are the culprits?” I say.
“Two of them anyway. My daughter’s kids. That’s Marcie, she’s six and the four-year-old is Chris. Say hello, kids.”
They both say hello, darting glances at each other and suppressing giggles.
“My son’s boys are out in the woods. They pretend they’re hunting squirrels, but I don’t know what they’d do if they shot one. They’re older, but I wish they wouldn’t go out there. Snakes and goodness knows what all. They’re just like their daddy. I couldn’t keep him indoors. What am I doing? These two have taken my sense. Come on in and have some coffee.”
“Your husband home?”
“He’s in the back bedroom. I’ll get him.”
As soon as she leaves the room, Marcie hops off the couch and stands in front of me. “Do you have a gun?”
“I own a gun, but I don’t carry it. Not too many criminals around here. Have you run into any bad guys?”
She shakes her head solemnly. Her brother slides off the sofa and eases over next to her, watching me as if he’s worried I’m going to grab him.
Gloria comes back out followed by a short, stocky man with ice-blue eyes and a sleepy smile. He shoves his hand out. “I’m Frank Hastings. Sorry I didn’t get back to you. My kids came in last night with these hopped up children and we haven’t had a quiet minute since then.”
“Can we go out on the porch and talk for a minute?”
“Glad to. Let me get us a cup coffee.”
We sit on the padded chairs on the porch. Frank tells me he has
s a successful career as a regional salesman for farming equipment. He’s worked out of both Dallas and Houston, and is now close to retirement. “I’m hoping we can pull out of city living and come out here. I never get tired of going out on the lake.” He looks out over the lake as if he owns the whole thing, but in a peaceful way, not like he’s boasting. “You fish?” he says. had
“I never did go in for it much,” I say. I tell him I was a land man with an oil and gas company for most of my working life. “I guess I never was around water enough to think of fishing.”
“If you change your mind, let me know. I can take you out.” He sits a little taller and takes a sip of coffee. It seems to me the Hastings represent the best of the kind of people who come as visitors.
“I’ll consider that.”
“Glo tells me Wilkins, next door, is missing.”
“I was wondering if you had seen him yesterday or even the day before that out on the lake.”
“Tell you the truth, I don’t think if I’ve ever seen him out there. He told his wife he was out fishing?”
“That’s what she said.”
“Hold on. What’s that?”
We both hear it at the same time, children’s screams coming from behind the house. Not the screams of children having fun. Hastings seems like a laconic man, but the sounds bring him bolting up from his chair. “Oh, Lord, what if one of the kids got snake bit?”
He hoofs it down the steps, with me right behind him. Two young boys come barreling around from the back of the house and almost run into him. Their faces are pale except that their cheeks are bright from their exertion. The younger one is sobbing.
“Here now, settle down,” Hastings says. “Are you hurt?”
They have been running so hard that they have to catch their breath. The older one leans over with his hands on his knees, gasping and half-sobbing. The younger one throws himself at his grandfather, arms around his waist, howling.
“Ethan, it’s okay.” He pats the boy’s back. “Austin, tell me what happened.”
The older boy straightens up, struggling to get his emotions under control. “We found . . .” He points back towards the woods. “A man back there.”
“A man! Did he bother you?”
“No, Grandpa.” His eyes get larger and he is momentarily speechless, but then he blurts out, “He’s dead.”
Frank meets my eyes. We’re thinking the same thing. Frank hollers up toward the house, “Gloria! Gloria, we need you.”
His wife comes to the door and looks like she’s going to make a sassy reply, but when she sees the boys, she runs down the stairs. “What happened?”
“Take Ethan inside.” The young boy has calmed a little bit, but tunes up again when he sees his grandmother.
“Is Austin okay? He’s awfully pale.”
“He has to help us. I’ll send him inside when we get back.”
She starts to say something, but a look from her husband deters her. She picks up the younger boy, even though he has to be heavy. “Come on, sweetheart, let’s get you inside.”
The older boy looks longingly at his brother and grandmother.
Frank leans down to meet Austin’s eyes. “Listen, I know this is hard, but you need to show us where you found this man.”
“Yessir,” the boy whispers.
“Where are your BB guns?”
“We left them. You told us not to run with them, and . . .”
“You did right. We’ll get them.”
“Hold on,” I say. I walk back to my truck and pull my weapon and holster out of the glove compartment where it usually stays locked up. I strap on the holster under my jacket and go back to join Frank and the boy.
Austin is reluctant to start moving, so Frank grabs his hand. “We’ll face this together,” he says.
At his age, I imagine the boy isn’t inclined to hold anybody’s hand, but at the moment he doesn’t mind.
We head off into the brush where there is a sort of path almost directly behind the Wilkins’s house next door. It’s not much of a path, overgrown with bushes and vines. Hard to believe these boys were intrepid enough to plow through it. Of course, they never thought they’d see anything more exciting than a possum or a copperhead.
We follow Austin for a quarter of a mile before he starts to slow and hang back. He stops next to a pile of rotten wood. “It’s up there.” He points.
“You sure?” Frank asks.
“Yessir. We had just passed this old stack of wood. I remember it because we wondered if snakes were living in it. We poked sticks in it, but nothing crawled out. Then we walked on and . . .” He swallows.
“I’ll go on ahead,” I say. “Stay here for a minute.” I figure if the boy has been mistaken, we may have to go a little farther.
But I need not have doubted him. I smell the body and hear the buzz of flies before I see it. I flinch at the sight. It’s easy to see why the boys were so shocked. The upper part of the man’s body is streaked with black, dried blood, and strips of skin have been torn away from his face and arms. The face is barely recognizable as human, and the throat has been torn open. Flies surge around it so that it almost seems as if the body is moving. On closer examination I see that the scalp is torn away, with hair clinging to it. My stomach roils. I think of the story of the child being taken by a panther It had to have been a big cat to do this kind of damage.
“You all right?” Frank calls out.
“Yeah. I’ve found him.” I see the two BB guns lying where they were flung and I pick them up and walk back. The boy has taken up a stick and is flailing at some of the brush. I hand him the guns.
“Say thank you,” Frank says gently. Trying to normalize things for the boy.
He whispers a thank you.
I take out my cell phone. The signal is weak, but I give it a try and am relieved when the sheriff’s office in Bobtail answers. I tell them what I’ve found and where we are. “We need the medical examiner and an ambulance to transport the body.”
“You need the highway patrol?”
“No, it looks like he got attacked by an animal.”
“Animal? What kind of animal?”
“I can’t be sure. I’ll get the vet out here to see if he can tell me.”
“It’s going to be a while before somebody can get there. We had a wreck out south of town and everybody’s busy.”
“That’s all right. He’s not going anywhere.” I describe Hastings’s house and tell them I’ll wait for them out front.
I go back with Hastings and his grandson and retrieve my crime scene kit from the car. As far as I know what happened here isn’t a crime, but I want to take good look around, and I may as well do it right. I tell Frank Hastings that if he can stand it, I’d like him to come back with me to see if he can identify the body. “His face is pretty torn up, but at least you can tell me if the victim is the general size of Lewis Wilkins.”
“I’ll help any way I can.” He goes inside to turn Austin over to Gloria and tell her what’s going on. While I wait, I call the vet, Dr. England, and ask if he can come out and identify the likely culprit. If the attack was made by a rabid animal, we’ll need to hunt it down.
Although I figure the dead man has to be Louis Wilkins, I don’t want to jump to conclusions. But I also don’t want his wife to have to view him in the condition the body is in. That’s why I asked Hastings to see if he could identify the man. But when he sees the body, he recoils.
“Are you kidding me? Who can tell who that is? He could be a good friend and I wouldn’t recognize him.”
“Is he the general size and shape?”
He shudders. “I suppose. I do not envy you having to examine what happened here.”
I go back with him to wait for Doc England, who said he’d come right away. The thought of a killing by a rabid animal has spurred him to a quick response. He comes roaring up in the van he uses as an animal control vehicle. He’s a rangy, wide-shouldered man in his forties who mostly deals with large animals. We waste no time getting back through the brush.
When he sees the body, he lets out a loud groan. “I’ve seen some bad stuff, but this . . .” He bends down to look closer. “Whoa! No cat did this. These are bites, not slashes.”
“Bites from what?”
“Canine. Dogs do this kind of damage. They rip into their prey with their teeth. Cats use their claws because their teeth aren’t strong enough to do something like this.”
“You think we’re looking at a rabid dog?”
He grimaces. “Could be. But there’s more than one animal involved in this. You see here?” He points to the right side of the face, and then the left, lower down on the neck. You’ve got two different bite patterns. That tells me it’s not as likely to be a rabies situation. A rabid dog is a loner.” He stands up and steps back. “I think you’re looking at a pack of stray dogs that got riled up.”
The two of us exchange a glance. We’re both thinking the same thing. There have been rumors off and on that there are dog fights being held in the back woods and that when a dog gets too old or too lame to fight, their owners turn them out to fend for themselves and they end up running in packs. “You think it’s some of those fighting dogs?”
“Could be. It’s pretty unusual for dogs to do something like this unless they’re vicious to begin with. “
“Either way we’re going to have to hunt them down. Can’t have them this close to those houses back there.”
He shakes his head. “Terrible.” He glances at his watch. “I better get on back. I left a waiting room full of sick pets. And I still have a horse to go see to.”
When he leaves, I ask him to stop by Hastings’ place and tell him I’m going to stay with the body, and to show the team from Bobtail where I am when they arrive. If dogs attacked this man, they might return and drag the body away, so I need to stay with it. I don’t relish shooting a dog, even if it’s vicious, but if I have to I will.
I go back and crouch down beside the body to see if there’s anything I can retrieve to take to Margaret Wilkins that might identify him to her. The medical examiner will have a fit if I mess with the body, but I would like to find something to spare Margaret. I put on some gloves from the crime kit and search his shirt pocket gingerly, but there’s nothing in it. I look to see if he’s wearing a wedding ring, and that’s when I realize there’s something I missed. Something important.
Anybody who was attacked by an animal would have thrown his hands up to protect his face. But this man’s hands are untouched. No defensive wounds. And then I notice abrasions on his wrists from rope or twine. This man’s hands were tied. If they had been tied in front, he would have raised them in front of his face to ward off the dogs. They have to been tied behind him, leaving him defenseless.
I sit back on my haunches, shaken. What could Wilkins have done to provoke this kind of cruelty? I need to start over and look at the scene in a different way. It’s too late to worry about it now, but there has been contamination of the area around the body. First by the children who found it, then by Hastings and me, and then by Doc England.
I stand up and take stock of the surrounding ground. Weeds around the body are broken off and trampled, the kind of ripped up vegetation you’d expect if someone was being viciously attacked. There are scuffmarks in a patch of dirt near the body, but it’s impossible to tell whether they were there before the boys stumbled onto the scene. Most of the area is covered with a thick layer of dead leaves and weeds, which won’t show paw prints or shoe prints.
I notice a rust-colored spray on some of the weeds and crouch to examine it.
The spray appears to be dried blood. I also see white fur sticking to some of the pricklier weeds. I’ll be calling in a forensics team and when they arrive, I’ll point it out to them. I don’t know what good it will do to know what kind of dogs did this, but at this point any evidence is good. t
The body is a nasty sight, but I force myself to concentrate on it. I need to get some sense of how this happened. It was probably done by more than one person, although the killer could have tied the dogs up here and then come back with Wilkins. If the dogs were tied up, it seems like they would have howled or barked if they were left alone. So maybe somebody stayed here with the dogs, and someone else went to get Wilkins. This must have happened at night, or someone would have seen them. I look back toward the homes, wondering if anyone heard anything. But I can’t see any of the houses from here, so it’s probably too far away for the sound to have carried. Still, we’ll question nearby residents.
I wonder where he was before he was brought here. He’s dressed in khaki pants and a shirt. No jacket. We’ll find out where he was when the highway patrol finds his SUV.
I feel a sudden chill, as if someone is watching. I stand and turn slowly and survey the clumps of trees and bushes surrounding the area. It’s silent and I’m alone, but that doesn’t make me feel any more secure. One thing’s for sure. This was no random attack. Where did the dogs come from? Who would do something like that? And why?