TheColorado Book Award, presented by Colorado Humanities & the Center for the Book; the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence for mainstream mystery; the Colorado Authors’ League Writing Award for genre fiction. A Suspense Magazine Best Book of 2016.
Barbara Nickless wanted to write a series about a railroad police officer...I wanted to know more about what that entailed...Check it out if interested...
Our job, the duty of the Marines of Mortuary Affairs, was to go in after the fact. Once the grunts and the gunners and the insurgents had done their job or died trying, we went in to pick up the HR—the human remains. We cleaned up after the IEDs and the armor-piercing ammo and the 81-millimeter mortar rounds. We used gloves and tarps and scrapers. Sometimes just our hands, scooping up flesh and pouring it into body bags that sloshed as we carried them to the reefer.
—Corporal Sydney Rose Parnell. Denver Post. January 13, 2010.
The camp was silent as we approached, everyone still rolled in their blankets, sleeping off the night’s drunk or trying to find the last slender shred of warmth. The fire in the middle of the camp had gone to ashes. I stopped outside Trash Can’s tarp roof and looked at the army blanket he’d hung over a low branch and duct-taped to the tarp for privacy. “What are you doing back, Trash Can?”
A rustle from the other side of the blanket and a string of curses. “You know I’m supposed to roust you guys,” I went on. “Why you still here? You got a hate on me?”
“Agent Parnell,” Trash Can said, relief in his voice.
“Your pancakes are getting cold.”
The camp stirred to life, tent flaps lifting as worn, ragged forms emerged, blinking in the light and scuffing toward me across the dirt and weeds like extras in a zombie movie. I set the bags on the picnic table and laid out Styrofoam plates and plastic forks. The other police—those who knew about my weekly visits, anyway, Nik and the captain—thought I was crazy. But I had taken on debt in the war and had very little coin with which to pay it back.
Most everyone nodded in my direction, and all of them gave Clyde a respectful clearance. Everyone seemed twitchy today, eating fast and keeping their heads up. I saw Melody Weber, thought shit, and searched for her daughter, found the eight-year-old huddled under a blanket nearby. Melody had a three-inch cut across her chin. I settled on a tree stump and waited. When Melody finished eating, I waved her over and studied the cut with a clinical eye. “Again?” I asked.
She shrugged, her plump shoulders shivering under a dirty red sweatshirt. She held out her fingers toward Clyde, who sniffed them and allowed her to scratch behind his ears. Clyde didn’t care for strangers, but he’d gotten used to our weekly visit to the camps, and he tolerated the touch of Melody and a few others.
“The world does enough to you without you staying with him,” I said. “What about Liz?”
“He wouldn’t never hurt her.” Melody stared me down, defiant. “He loves that girl like she was his own.”
“She’ll grow up thinking it’s normal for a man to beat the shit out of his girlfriend. You want that for her?”
“I teach her better than that. She knows.” She was shivering hard enough her teeth chattered. “Where’s your coat?” I asked. “I got it. Don’t worry. I didn’t lose it.”
“Can’t keep you warm, you don’t wear it.”
She glared, daring me to question her. “It’s in the tent. Liz got cold.” I held my sigh. “I’m going to call a friend at Human Services. She’ll pick you up, take both of you to the women’s shelter.”
“It’s the ones who love us, hurt us the most, you know.”
“What he does to you isn’t love.”
Melody shrugged. “You don’t know everything.”
“Dammit, Melody, you aren’t helpless.”
“Easy for you to say, being a cop and all.” She dug a wad of fast-food napkins out of her jeans pocket and blew her nose. “What do you know about being trapped someplace and you can’t get out?”
I flashed to our base in Iraq—the mortars, the gunfire. “Not much, I guess.” After I’d phoned and made arrangements with my contact at Human Services, I gestured for Melody to sit on the stump. “You want me to fix up that cut?” I asked.
She nodded. “Wait here.” Clyde followed me to the Explorer.
As I came up the hill, I saw a short, skinny man standing near my truck, leaning over the hood and peering through the glass. “Help you with something?” I asked. He startled and glanced my way. Blue eyes gleamed within the shadow of his hoodie amid a tracing of tattoos. Chronologically, he was a teenager, just getting started down the road of his life. But the flat expression in those blue eyes was miles older. He must have hit some pretty deep ruts already. He flipped me the bird. “There’s food down at the table if you’re hungry,” I told him. “But I need you to move away from the car. Dog’s pretty possessive.” His gaze flicked to Clyde.
Wordlessly, he spun on his heel and headed toward the road. I watched him until he was well away before unlocking the truck. Hard world sometimes, turning kids into jerks before they had time to do the job themselves. Back at the camp with my first aid kit, I knelt on the frozen ground and donned a pair of latex gloves. Everyone had finished eating and most were heading out, moving fast and with glances all around. “It just me, or is everyone skittish today?” I asked.
“Some, maybe.” Melody gathered her dishwater-blond hair in a fist and pulled it back while I worked. Her daughter watched blankly from the picnic table. Usually the little girl was all over Clyde, but today she had drawn into herself, knees pulled to her chest, chin tucked, a tight ball of heartbreak. I poured hydrogen peroxide onto a cotton ball.
“What’s got everyone spooked?”
“The Burned Man’s back,” she said.
“He here now?”
“Not so’s I know. Saw him early this morning when the train come through, but he didn’t stay.”
The Burned Man. A former Marine I’d seen once before. Never got a chance to talk to him. When I saw him, I thought, Poor bastard. I’d seen enough of his kind of injuries to wonder if he would have been better off dying. Then again, I’d spent enough sleepless nights with the dead to be sure I had no right to ask.
Parnell had begun her usual work day, heading to the hobo camp that sat near the tracks... She'd brought breakfast, and looked around to see if anybody needed medical help or just let them know that pancakes were getting cold... That day, as she worked with a mother and daughter, to call in for a location where they could stay, having been beaten by her lover the previous night. No, helping the homeless was not part of her job, but Parnell carried a big guilt for all that she'd seen and done while a Marine. She needed to pay back somehow...
It was from Melody that she learned that the Burned Man was back. She had seen him but had never talked to him, but learned that he had endured one surgery after another with little change to bring his face back. And then he'd walked out, knowing it was an impossible task. And they had given him an dishonorable discharge because he'd walked out, gone AWOL, for not wanting to endure further, futile pain... Crazy world...
The Burn Man had come back because he'd received a call from the woman he had loved before being in the service. He had been unable to accept that she had still loved him. But she had called him and asked him to come back, that she missed and loved him, no matter what. That was all he needed and he had set off for home...
Only to arrive at her home and find her dead...horribly murdered. His flashbacks started immediately, blood, body parts...he'd lost memory of what he was doing but finally had fled, rushed back to the camp, and took to the tracks for the next train out...
Eve Dallas, the main character in J.D. Robb's In Death series has been my top favorite female character for years...but I think Sydney Rose Parnell may be a strong contender or maybe even a replacement for that honor, for me...
She's is quite simply, unbelievable. She's not gotten over her childhood trauma as Eve has, but Parnell has been fighting the world ever since her father left, and her mother finally went to jail for murder. Becoming a Marine was a courageous step, but then she took on the job of caring for the dead as a member of Mortuary Affairs! The thing is, most of the dead stayed around afterwards...
Automatically, because cleaning up the dead had been my job for fourteen months, I made her beautiful once more. In my mind, I closed her wounds, washed away her blood. I shampooed her hair and combed it, arranged her slashed hands upon her breast. Then I did what no mortician could. I rebuilt her shattered face and restored the flush to her cheeks, the pulse to her throat. I made her smile. In my mind, I made her whole. “I’ll hold you here,” I whispered, touching my hand to my heart. It was what I said to all the dead...
At this point, readers do not know whether the ghosts stay because she makes them whole again, make them a part of her memories, or whether they really are ghosts that have not moved on...But what we do discover is that, often, when she feels totally alone and on the hunt, it is "Sir," her Marine leader, who comes to spark the energy needed to go on...
Part of Parnell's past includes having her lover killed. And, with his death, because he had been a K9 handler, she was able to claim Clyde, his partner, who now worked as her partner as a Special Agent for the RailRoad. They are so wonderfully paired that, once you see them together, you cannot even think of Parnell without including Clyde in your thoughts...
And so it was, that once the body had been found, Parnell and Clyde became part of the team who would be working to find who had so viciously murdered Elise Hensley. Hensley had also been involved with the hobo community and had the cat sign in her window that meant "Kind Lady Lives Here." She would invite the hungry in, knowing that this was what God had given to her as a mission to help...
Now that same sign had been scrawled on the wall where she had been murdered, and Parnell shared what it meant, as well as other information about the community and possible members who could have turned against Hensley. Of course, with The Burn Man back, he was the obvious killer...Parnell and Clyde immediately went back to the camp, where she inspected what had been left of his personal area... the evidence showed that he had tried to bury/burn his uniform which was covered with Elise's blood. Parnell was not convinced...
Of course, Parnell is the lead character; however, the author's skill in creating the scenes and actions for Parnell is amazing in a debut novel. She covers a variety of issues--PTSD, the homeless, railroads and indepth information about what happens in an emergency. When Nickless decided to write about a railroad cop, after being in the Marines, she has given us a sensational hero who doesn't know she's a hero... She's given us a caring, vulnerable, and scared little girl that talks herself into being a brave woman who obsessively works her job to bring justice to the dead... While dealing with her own PTSD issues that involved a secret pact...that turned out to involve...The Burn Man...
The characters and the storyline are unique, undeniably exciting, yet, a major contribution to what happens to those who serve in the military...and are then expected to return home to their own lives. Many do; but sadly, many don't. They become wanderers like The Burn Man who believes he can no longer live a normal life, but still hopes and looks for love... Or they stay in a position where their major skills are used to continue the fight of good versus evil. One of the special highlights for me was that each chapter starts with what is, supposedly, personal writing from Parnell--we are able to learn so much about her just in that small but important addition to the book series. Deserves Extra Kudos!
When I finished this first book, I immediately went out to see if the second book was available... Look for my review soon. This first book has a more complex, diverse set of issues, while the second moves into a specific case(s). There is no doubt, however, that this will be a major series and I highly recommend you start with this debut! You'll be missing one of the best I've read in a long time and, of course, it became a personal favorite for 2018. Whew! Can't say enough about this great book. Check it out!
Barbara Nickless promised her mother she'd be a novelist when she grew up. What could be safer than sitting at a desk all day? But an English degree and a sense of adventure took her down other paths--technical writer, raptor rehabilitator, astronomy instructor, sword fighter, piano teacher and journalist. Now an award-winning author, she spends her free time snowshoeing, caving and hiking the Colorado Rockies. Connect with her at www.barbaranickless.com.