Authors: R.J. Ellory
|The Devil and the River|
|USA : (2013)|
On a summer evening in 1954, 16-year-old Nancy Denton walked into the
woods of her hometown of Whytesburg, Mississippi. She was never seen
Two decades on, Sheriff John Gaines witnesses a harrowing
discovery. A body has been unearthed from the riverbank, perfectly
preserved, yet bearing evidence of a brutal ritualistic killing. Nancy
has come home at last.
Already haunted by his experiences in
Vietnam, Gaines must now find out what really happened to the beautiful
and vivacious Nancy. As he closes in on the truth, Gaines is forced to
not only confront his own demons, but to unearth secrets that have long
remained hidden. And that truth, so much darker than he could ever have
imagined, may be the one thing that finally destroys him.
‘An awesome achievement . . . a thriller of such power, scope and accomplishment that fanfares should herald its arrival’
‘Voodoo and murders and gothically imposing southern dynasties – what’s not to like? There are moments of genuine chills, fearsomely speedy page-turning and real humour . . . an enjoyable summer read’
‘A great read’
‘R. J. Ellory sets out his stall with terrific vim and a gripping premise in his latest thriller . . . an energetic and winning exercise in pulp fiction with a Southern Gothic flavour’
‘Ellory’s complex procedurals feel influenced by
and the hard-boiled cop thrillers of the 1970s. The accumulation of detail is accompanied by a powerful sense of location and wellpaced action sequences. In this siren-filled world there are no easy answers. The result is vivid storytelling with a dark heart and an angry conscience’
‘Classic noir, a journey to the dark corners of man’s foolishness, where nothing is ever what it seems and no one can ever be trusted. Ellory is beginning to sound like the master [James Ellroy]. I can think of no higher praise’
‘A pedal to the metal thriller’
‘Ellory’s the real deal, giving us another horrific chunk of smalltown American violence, neglect and psychopathy. ****’
‘What’s past is prologue’
hen the rains came, they found the girl’s face. Just her face. At least that was how it appeared. And then came her hand—small and white and fine like porcelain. It surfaced from the black mud and showed itself. Just her face and her hand, the rest of her still submerged. To look down toward the riverbank and see just her hand and her face was surreal and disturbing. And John Gaines—who had lately, and by providence or default, come to the position of sheriff of Whytesburg, Breed County, Mississippi, and before that had come alive from the nine circles of hell that was the war in Vietnam, who was himself born in Lafayette, a Louisianan from the start—crouched on his haunches and surveyed the scene with a quiet mind and a steady eye.
The discovery had been called in by a passerby, and Gaines’s deputy, Richard Hagen, had driven down there and radioed the Sheriff’s Office dispatcher, Barbara Jacobs, and she had called Gaines and told him all that was known.
A girl’s face has surfaced from the riverbank.
When Gaines arrived, Hagen was still gasping awkwardly, swallowing two or three mouthfuls of air at a time. He bore the distressed and pallid hue of a dying man, though he was not dying, merely in shock. Hagen had not been to war; he was not inured to such things as this, and thus such things were alien and anathema to his sensibilities. The town of Whytesburg—seated awkwardly in the triangle between the Hattiesburg-intent I-59, and the I-18, itself all fired up to reach Mobile—was a modest town with modest ways, the sort of place they rolled up the sidewalk at sunset, where such things as these did not occur too frequently, which was a good thing for all concerned.
But Gaines had been to war. He had seen the nine circles.
And sometimes, listening to the small complaints of smaller minds—the vandalized mailbox, the illegally parked car, the spilled trash can—Gaines would imagine himself walking the complainant through a burned-out ville.
, he would say,
is a dead child in the arms of her dead mother, the pair of them fused together for eternity by heat and napalm. And here is a young man with half a face and no eyes at all. Can you imagine the last thing he might have seen?
And the complainant would be silent and would then look at Gaines with eyes wide, with lips parted, with sweat-varnished skin, both breathless and without words.
, Gaines would say to them,
now let us speak of these small and inconsequential things.
There were parts of humanity that were left behind in war, and they would never be recovered.
But this? This was enough to reach even Gaines. A dead girl. Perhaps drowned, perhaps murdered and buried beneath the mud. It would be a raw task to excavate her, and the task had best begin before the rains returned. It was no later than ten, but already the temperature was rising. Gaines predicted storms, perhaps worse.
He called to Hagen, told him to radio Dispatch and get people out here.
“What people?” Hagen asked.
“Call your brother. Tell him to come with his camera. Get Jim Hughes and both his boys. That should do us. Tell ’em to bring shovels, rope, buckets, a couple of blankets, some tarps, as well.”
“Should I tell ’em why, Sheriff?”
“No. You just tell ’em they’re needed for an hour or more. And get Barbara checking for any outstanding missing persons reports for teenage white girls. I don’t know of any, but have her check.”
Hagen went to the black-and-white. Gaines walked down to the riverbank and stood twelve or fifteen feet from the girl. If he could have washed off her face, maybe he would have recognized her.
Ninety-three percent of abduction victims were dead within three hours. Dead before anyone even knew they were missing. Couldn’t file a missing persons report for forty-eight hours. Do the math. It didn’t work out well in most cases.
Gaines’s heart then began an awkward rhythm, a flurry of irregular beats, not dissimilar to the rush of medic-administered Dexedrine he’d been given in-country.
This will keep you awake
, he was told back then, and he had taken it and then stayed awake for hours, awake until his nerves screamed for some small respite.
Now—once again—his throat was tight, as if a hand had closed around it. He felt sick. His mouth was dry. He was unable to blink, the dry surfaces of his eyes adhered to his inner lids.
Oh God, what was this girl doing here?
And seeing this girl brought back memories of another child . . .
The child that never was . . .
He could hear Hagen on the radio. People would come—Jim Hughes and his eldest sons, Hagen’s brother—and photographs would be taken. Gaines would survey the area for anything indicative of foul play, and then they would reach into the blackness and bring the girl out. Then, and only then, would they know what fate had befallen her, a fate that had buried her in the riverbank before her life had even really begun.
The rain did come, an hour later. The rain was black. Gaines would remember it that way. It fell as straight as gravity, and it was hard and cold and bitter on his lips. He had seen the pictures taken, and then he and Hagen and Hagen’s brother, Jim Hughes and his two sons, had started working their hands into the mud around the girl in an effort to release her. They knelt there, all six of them, and they tried to work ropes down under her, beneath her neck, her arms, her waist, her thighs. And then they had to lie down, for the mud was black and depthless, and it sucked relentlessly. And the smell was damp and rank and fetid. It was a smell that filled Gaines’s nostrils, a smell that he would always remember. The smell of blood and mud and stagnant water, all blended together into some unholy brew. And there was fear. Only later would he understand this. That he had smelled his own fear. That he had smelled the fear of the others. Fear of what had happened to this girl, that something terrible would be revealed, that her body would surface in pieces perhaps. Fear for themselves, that the mud was too deep, too strong, that they—in their efforts to help, unable to leave her, unable to do anything but persevere—would be drawn into the blackness as well.
Back there, back in the war, perhaps in the hours following his return from some long-range recon patrol, Gaines would walk down to the medical tent and watch the sawbones at work. Hands, arms, legs, feet. A bucket of devastated limbs beneath each makeshift operating table. Perhaps he’d believed that if he could grow immune to such things in reality, he could grow immune to the images in his mind. It had not worked. The mind was stronger than anything reality could present.
He saw those things now. He saw them in the face of the girl they were bringing up from the mud.
And when they brought her out, when they saw the deep crevasse that had been cut into her torso, the way it had been bound together again like laces in a shoe, they were bereft of all words.
Finally, it was Jim Hughes who opened his mouth, and he simply said, “Oh my God . . . Oh my God almighty . . .” His voice was all but a whisper, and those words drifted out into the mist and humidity, and they were swallowed without echo.
No one asked who she was, and it was as if no one wanted to know. Not yet.
They paused for a little while, almost unable to look at her, and then they worked on silently, nothing but the heaves and grunts of effort as they brought her onto the tarp and lifted her free from the darkness of her grave.