In the Spotlight: S.E. Laughter
S.E. Laughter has always been a lover of tales. Growing up in a small town along the Blue Ridge Mountains, she became a writer at a young age; telling tales of the fantastic creatures that filled her imagination. As an adult, S.E. finally began sharing her stories. She writes about powerful women and cultures where all are seen and respected as equals. She is currently working on publishing her debut novel The Key Myth. She also shares her writing on her website by publishing a chapter from her novel Wylde each week about a Shape Shifting Sheriff whose investigation into the murder of Amelia Westcott will threaten to expose her secrets.
When she’s not writing, S.E. loves spending time with her family in the great outdoors. She and her husband live in Virginia with their two children.
Visit S.E. Laughter at her author’s website: http://selaughter.com/
I’m pleased to present the first chapter of Wylde here!
At the bottom of a steep, muddy bank, beneath a maze of thick, green rhododendrons and lazy, leaning sycamores, a brown roaring river gushed over boulders as it sliced its way through a gorge. A gorge so steep the moon only shone on the water when directly overhead. In the green shadows the water was high and wild from recent flooding rains. The thunderous sound filled the air as the full moon edged above the trees, illuminating the gleam of a dead body. Skin, blue and green like an eggshell, and a long dark web of hair splayed over the rocks where it was wedged. The moon shone on Amelia Westcott’s body for two nights before anyone found her.
Sheriff Sophie Wylde stood looking down at the bloated body on the rocky shore of the river where it rested after being drug from the river. The perfectly symmetrical face with its gossip rousing beauty was utterly unrecognizable. But one thing was undeniably clear. Amelia Westcott had been murdered.
Sophie fiddled with the pen in the pocket of her Sheriff’s Department tan jacket taking in the scene. The river was so loud, it drowned out any hope of conversation and she was grateful. Deputy Tommy Presnell was squatting, balancing on the wet rocks about three feet from Sophie, studying the body, pushing the matted hair away from the bloodless face with his pencil. His wide-brimmed hat shielded his square face, but Sophie knew what he was thinking. The same thoughts were racing around her brain.
Amelia had stab wounds across her chest, now nothing more than black slits in her slightly blueish skin. There were also bite marks on her shoulder and abdomen along with wide, long claw marks. Animal marks.
“Bear?” Chief Deputy Dave Boyer asked, standing close enough so she could hear and looking like he’d just rolled out of bed. At least his shirt was buttoned and tucked in, even if his face showed a shadow of wiry whiskers.
“Naw, big cat. Bear’s got five claws.” Tommy said as he walked over and joined them. He pointed to Amelia’s chest with the eraser end of his pencil. “Cat’s got four, ya see.”
Sophie inhaled sharply, drawing the attention of her deputies, and a chill ran down her spine as she swallowed a ball of anxiety. Pull yourself together, she scolded herself. “We need to take it out.” She stated softly, but the men knew what she’d said, even if they hadn’t heard her. A predator that hunts humans had to be killed.
“So, Amelia’s out here all alone,” Dave turned slowly, taking in the rugged terrain, “someone kills her, and a mountain lion comes along and takes some bites outa her dead body?” Dave rubbed his bristled chin, seeming to doubt his own theory.
Sophie glanced up the river where white foaming water wrapped around a rocky bend and continued through the gorge. The trio, along with a borrowed forensic team, given that the county didn’t have their own, had slid and stumbled straight down the steep embankment an hour previous. “River’s been up with the rains. No telling how far her body washed down.” Sophie turned to Tommy, “Head upriver and see if you can’t find the murder site. Where’s Sarah?” she asked making an effort to sound like her usual self.
“I sent her to talk to the fisherman who found the body.” His eyes traveled up the side of the gorge to where the road cut into the side of the mountain, about halfway up, like a snake, winding through the slope.
Good call. Sophie thought. Sarah was a rookie and it was likely she’d never seen a dead body before. Sophie struggled to keep her emotions off her face. Clicking the pen in her pocket open and shut, open and shut, she nodded.
“When was the last time anyone even saw Amelia?” Dave asked, his eyes on the dead woman they’d all known since childhood.
“Far as I know, she ain’t been ‘round since she graduated high school.” Tommy was rubbing his hands on his pants, looking anxious to be gone.
“Nearly ten years ago,” Sophie said quietly. Amelia had left town around the same time as her sister. The men started fidgeting, rocking back and forth and glancing around. It was time for action. “Dave, arrange for the chopper then ride with the body to the morgue. See if you can get any answers from Chester.”
Sophie was interrupted and the three were forced to step back as a member of the forensic team moved around Amelia’s body, close to where they were standing. She had on one of those light blue plastic pajama suits complete with little booties over her feet. Sophie wondered how the woman hadn’t slipped and fallen by now, given how slick the wet rocks were along the bank. The woman squatted down and ran a long Q-Tip under the nails of Amelia’s left hand. She pulled it close to her face once she’d completed her task and Sophie thought she heard a slight grunt of satisfaction as she slipped the swab into a plastic bag.
Sophie bit the inside of her lip, feeling the blood drain out of her face. She shifted her weight slowly over the wet leaves and rocks and swept her eyes over the bank across the river. Someone was watching them. She tried to see into the darkness of the trees all the way up the bank but saw nothing but shadows. Yet she could feel eyes on her as if their gaze was an icy hand wrapping itself around Sophie. She shivered and tried to ignore the unease that was gnawing at her gut.
“You alright?” Dave asked, leaning close and drawing her attention away from the trees.
Sophie nodded but didn’t meet his eyes. “I’ll head over to town; inform Susan that her daughter’s dead.” Sophie hadn’t meant the words to sound so flat. She’d known Amelia, though not well, but she was close with her mother and an ache shot through her heart at the thought of confronting the woman.
Tommy gave a hard, quick noise of amusement. “There goes your chance at re-election.”
Sophie inhaled to say something, but Tommy turned on his heel and walked upriver before she had the chance. She pursed her lips, suppressing the urge to toss one of the stones at her feet at Tommy’s head, then nodded farewell to Dave, making her way back up the slippery mountain. Halfway up she turned to scan the opposite bank but found nothing lurking in the shade of the trees.
By the time she’d reached the road, she was out of breath and sweaty. Sophie stood beside her squad car with hands on her knees, gulping for air and feeling her lungs burn with exertion. The sun was directly overhead now and blazing down. She’d removed her jacket and had it tied around her waist as she climbed. Her breathing slowed and she lifted her hat, swiping the back of her hand across her forehead as she gazed down the line of law enforcement vehicles and quiet activity of people doing their jobs.
The climb had dispelled the anger she’d felt toward Tommy. It’d also helped her to clear her mind. Sophie yanked her long black curls into a knot at the base of her neck. She took a deep breath and pulled out her cellphone, punched the number for her father and leaned back against the cruiser waiting for him to answer.
“Good morning Sweetie.” Her father’s voice was deep and pure in her ear.
“Hey Dad, I, uh, I was just wondering if you’d heard from Riley?” Sophie crossed her left arm over her, tucking her hand under her right elbow.
“Riley?” her dad sighed heavily into the phone. “No, honey. You know I would have told you if I’d heard from your sister.”
“Yeah, I know.” Sophie kicked some loose gravel by the side of the road. “Something just made me think of her.”
“I think of her every day.” He sounded sad. Sophie regretted having called and bit her lip, thinking of what to say.
Sarah suddenly bobbed around the corner of the cruiser, an old man in tow. Not knowing how to comfort her father, she said with relief, “Sorry, dad, I’ve got to go.”
“Yep. See you Sunday.” He clicked off quickly and Sophie sighed, tucking her phone in her back pocket.
“Hey Sheriff!” Sarah bounced to Sophie’s side. How can anyone be so annoyingly cheery? Sophie thought but gave her a smile. “This is Rusty Walker. He’s the man who found the body.” Sarah tilted her head toward the man standing next to her.
Rusty had a long, greying beard and dirty clothes that looked two sizes too big. His waders were worn and faded, and Sophie wondered if they were still even waterproof. “Good morning, Mr. Walker.” She smiled, extending her hand. “I’m Sheriff Wylde. I appreciate your time today.”
“Sheriff?” He asked, looking at her with one eye, the other squinted shut, examining her as he clasped her hand. “You’re that young lady the Westcott’s got elected last year, right?”
“That’s the rumor,” Sophie said dryly and looked down, pulling her note pad out of her shirt pocket, but finding her pen still in her jacket pocket, that was tied around her waist, she abandoned the idea and shoved the note pad back in where it’d come from. “What were you doing down at that part of the river? It isn’t exactly people-friendly.” She asked, feeling her brown pants sticking to her legs with dampness from her climb.
“That’s ‘xactly why. Ain’t nobody goin’ down there. Fishin’s good.” He flashed her a grin, showing his broken teeth.
“Where are you living Mr. Walker?” Sophie glanced over the state of his person.
“Livin’ in a cabin up off’a Ridge Road. You know the place?” His giant furry eyebrows drew together in question.
“Yes, sir. My daddy’s got a hunting cabin back up there. That’s a bit far. Did you walk all the way down here?”
“Yes’am. I like livin’ up ‘ere. I don’t need nobody. Take care o’mysef and ain’t nobody botherin’ me.”
Sophie nodded in agreement. “How did you contact the authorities?” She asked, assuming he likely didn’t carry a cellphone.
“Flagged down a car. Everyone’s got one’a those cellular phones these days.”
“We have your statement,” she looked toward Sarah who nodded, “If we have further questions, we’ll find you.” They turned and started to walk away. As she watched their backs, a thought occurred to her. “Mr. Walker, have you heard any mountain lions up there lately?”
The question stopped him in his tracks, and he turned, looking at her with the same one-eyed stare. “Yep. A few nights back. I heard it screamin’ and carryin’ on like a woman. That’s what they sound like, ya know.”
Sophie’s heart sank and she inhaled deeply hoping her breakfast would stay down. “Yes, sir. I know.” She’d told her deputies she was headed back to town, but she had to know. And she now guessed where she had to look. She looked back at Mr. Walker. “Can I give you a ride back up to Ridge Road? I’ll even let you ride up front with me.” She smiled.
Rusty Walker eyed the cruiser for a moment. Sophie realized that he’d likely been up and standing around for quite a while. They’d spent more than an hour down in the gorge and it had taken a while for everyone to gather and get down there. He nodded.
“Sarah, why don’t you go let the troopers know they can open up the road again for now. They’re gonna have to bring in a chopper to lift the body out. And that’ll take a while to set up.”
Mr. Walker spent most of the ride lecturing Sophie on the dangers of cellphone towers and modern technology in general, all the while eyeing her radio and cellphone propped on the dash of the car. The entrance to Ridge Road was at the top of the mountain, so the climb was slow and winding. Once on the road, it turned to gravel almost immediately then petered out into a grassy opening. Sophie slowed and rolled to a stop, seeing that the road narrowed up ahead to nothing more than a deer trail. There were old hunting cabins tucked away along the ridge on large tracks of land. They were built nearly a century ago as part of a huge hunting camp with a lodge at the heart of the compound, long since fallen to stone and dust. The land and cabins were eventually sold off and her parents had purchased a cabin as a retreat when she and Riley were kids but had only used it sporadically. As far as she knew, no one had been to the cabin since her mom died. A lump formed in her throat at the thought of what she may find out there.
The two got out and Mr. Walker, with a nod of his head to Sophie, veered off on a barely seen path to the left, disappearing into the trees and underbrush as quickly as if he were an apparition. Sophie stared in the direction of another path ahead of her, one she hadn’t taken in many years but could still make out. Swallowing hard, she made her way toward the overgrown shadowed trail.
They would be expecting her at the station soon. Sophie checked her phone, thinking about shooting Dave a text. Seeing she had no signal, she bit her lip and shoved it in her back pocket as she walked. What if she found Riley out here? Was she sure she wanted to confront her? She had to though. She had to. Setting her shoulders, she worked her way along the ridge on the overgrown trail toward her father’s cabin.
After almost half an hour, she neared the cabin. She could see the darkness of the old structure through the trees in the distance. The late August sun had risen high and was beating down on her through the leaves. Her polyester, county-issued pants were sticking to her legs and she rolled up her sleeves, wiping the sweat off her forehead. She suddenly detected a smell of cigarette smoke wafting on the air and her lips went numb at the confirmation that the cabin was occupied. What was she going to say? Ten years is a long time.
She sighed, trudging through the small trees and brambles as the simple wooden structure came into view. She stopped at the edge of the woods and looked across what had been a small tidy front yard now overgrown with knee high grass and small saplings, not taking her eyes off the house. Sophie gasped when a figure walked out onto the small, rickety porch. Her heart drummed in her ears and stomach heaved. Sophie was elated and sickened at the same moment. Riley stopped at the edge of the porch and leaned against a post. She lit a cigarette from the one still burning in her hand and pulled long and hard as she tossed the smoldering butt to the porch and ground it out with her booted foot. She looked good compared to the last time Sophie’d seen her. She wore a pair of tight-fitting jeans and a loose shirt with paisleys on it. Her black curls hung in loose ringlets around her shoulders and her full lips pursed as she blew a plume of smoke into the air.
“You comin’ in or are you goin’a stay in the woods watchin’ me all day?” Riley asked dryly, her dark brown eyes cast in Sophie’s direction.
Sophie rubbed her hands together, hoping to regain some feeling in her fingers. Suddenly she was seeing the Riley of ten years before, terrified and covered in blood. She couldn’t cover for her, not again. Resisting the urge to sprint in the opposite direction, Sophie stepped into the tall grass and moved slowly forward then stopped. The two studied each other in silence for a moment.
“Well, look at you in a Sheriff uniform. I guess bangin’ Joey Westcott did you some good after all.” Riley grinned as she spoke, but Sophie saw no hint of kindness in her eyes.
Sophie twisted her lips to prevent her from responding with an equally snide remark. “How long have you been in town?”
Riley stared at her sister for a moment, the smile gone. “Few days.”
Sophie could see that she’d aged. There were slight lines around her mouth and eyes. Something about her felt as if pain were swimming just below the surface. “Where have you been? It’s been ten years.” Sophie raised her hands slightly as she spoke then let them drop, hitting her legs.
“Looking for answers.” Riley took another drag off her cigarette before stubbing it out on the railing. “Trying to find out what we are.”
Sophie shifted uneasily. She didn’t like talking about what they may be, but that’s exactly the reason she was out here. “You figure it out?”
“I found our real mother.” Her voice was dark and low.
Sophie took a step back, feeling suddenly light-headed and closed her mouth with a snap. “We had a real mother. The woman you found gave us away.” Her words sounded more venomous than she’d intended.
“Why are you here?” Riley asked, inclining her head toward Sophie.
“Why are you here?” Sophie took a step closer to the cabin.
“Are going to arrest me for trespassing?” She smirked.
Sophie walked toward the crumbling steps and stopped just short of the first one, looking up at her little sister. “You clean?”
“I’ve been clean goin’ on six years.” Riley crossed her arms over her chest and pushed herself off the porch post, looking at Sophie down her long, straight nose.
“We pulled Amelia Westcott’s body out’a the Nantahala River this morning.”
“And you think I had something to do with it.” Riley nodded, seeming to satisfy her own conclusion. Sophie was here because she thought Riley had messed up, again.
“You two were close back in the day. Have you been in contact with her?” Sophie crossed her arms, matching her sister’s defensive posture.
“Amelia and I lost touch after high school.” Riley hadn’t really answered Sophie’s question.
“She had animal wounds over her shoulders and stomach.” Sophie watched her sister. The corner of Riley’s mouth turned down slightly, and Sophie thought she saw her eyes fill with tears before she blinked them away. “Tommy Presnell is pretty sure it was a mountain lion.”
The sun peeked through the canopy at that moment and Riley pulled down the sunglasses that were sitting on her head to shield her eyes. “Tommy Presnell’s a douchebag.” She gave a short laugh.
“That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Sophie could feel hot anger erupting inside her. “Where were you this morning?”
“Right here.” Riley looked down at her, all amusement evaporated.
“Ri, I felt someone in the woods this morning, watching. Someone like you and me.” Sophie felt her temper bubbling to the surface.
“I told you, I was right here. Isn’t it possible that it was just a mountain lion?”
“No.” She gritted her teeth.
“Why not? It isn’t unheard of.” Riley’s flippant tinge in her voice hit Sophie like nails on a chalkboard.
“Because the last time there was a mountain lion attack in High Water, it was Zeke O’Brien.” She barked.
Riley swallowed hard and looked away.
“What am I supposed to think, Riley? No one’s seen or heard from you or Amelia in ten years and then you both show up and Amelia’s dead. The last time I saw you, I was covering up Zeke’s murder to protect you!”
“I didn’t kill Amelia! I’m not that person anymore.” She put her hands on her hips.
“The forensic team found something under Amelia’s fingernail.” Riley’s eyebrows shot up over her sunglasses for a moment before she corrected herself and Sophie knew she’d hit a nerve. “If they run it and the DNA comes back with a genetic marker linked to me…”
“Is that what you’re worried about? Yourself? Your new career?” Riley exploded, her lip trembling slightly.
“My career? If we go to jail, that’ll be the best case. You don’t think we’ll be hauled off to some secret lab, never to be seen again?”
“You’re being melodramatic.” Riley had regained her cool and was back to leaning casually on the porch post.
Sophie took a deep breath, calming her own nerves. “Don’t leave town.” She turned and strode back into the trees.
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