Welcome! Thanks for reading. Reclaimed Haven: Murder on First is (obviously) the first in the Reclaimed Haven Trilogy. Gotta tell ya, I laughed aloud the first time someone compared Crossroads as Lake Wobegon meets Fargo. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was an apt description.
I’d elaborate but… spoilers!
Enjoy this incredible web-based serial!
— Beth, author of The Reclaimed Series
Reclaimed Haven: Murder on First — Preface
It was unlike any nightmare he could have imagined.
He groaned, the wadded bandanna muffling guttural sounds escaping his lips. Tears dampened the blue cloth twisting into his cheeks. His hands felt clamped behind him, duct tape digging into his wrists. He was fairly certain they’d disjointed his shoulders.
But that was the least of his worries.
With cold precision, they grasped the food processor lid, chopped at the chute, shortening it by half. They flicked the switch and it whirred to life.
His cries erupted anew as they inserted his fingers. Groans escalated to squeals as bloody flesh splashed into the container. He fainted. They smiled.
While humming a snappy melody, they grasped his other hand and inserted each digit. The food processor groaned as it sliced through living bone. Seeing the container full, they unlatched it from the base and flung the contents against the wall before reconstructing the device and resuming. They then worked on his toes, his nose, and finally his flaccid, quivering penis. They stood over the sanguineous mass that was once his body and watched for signs of life. Then, final twitches erupted through what was left of his limbs. With one clean swipe, they sliced each side of his neck. Blood oozed from the new wounds.
With their work finished, they silently exited the house. Blood dripped from their hazmat suits as they slid into the inky night of small town Minnesota. One streetlight buzzed in the quiet alley; a lame attempt to expunge darkness. One of them proceeded to the van and slid open the door. Plastic lined the interior. He stepped inside and removed the white, crinkly suit as another man exited the vehicle with two large labradors. Another man stood at the door watching the huge dogs lunge forward.
“Suppose he’s dead yet?” he said as they approached.
“Dunno,” the other one answered, holding the door wide. “You sure they’re hungry enough?”
“These bastards will eat anything,” he replied. The man unlatched the hounds and they leaped inside.
“Finish ‘um off,” he whispered.
Chapter 1: Incisions, Newspapers, and Ned
“How did it come to this?” she mumbled.
She held a bandage against the incision and gingerly pressed tape over it. She winced. Then she placed the next piece of tape over another stretch of gauze. Then another, and another, and another. Within a few minutes, she managed to cover the entire wound. She dabbed at pink goo drying on her waist and slid her shirt over the mess.
“Nobody’ll ever know… I hope.”
She tossed extra bandages and tape into her purse and slid it over her shoulder, pausing to steady herself as a stab of pain pierced her abdomen. “Gotta be careful.” She grabbed her leather-bound folder, recorder, reporter notepads, and proceeded to her car. Nausea washed over her. She paused.
“Perhaps I should have waited.”
However, with insurance running out, medical bills raising, and finances draining she knew she had to get to work. She hated what this had done to her body. How this situation impacted her career was certainly unsettling. Plus, she disliked starting a new job when she didn’t feel 100 percent.
But she was a consummate professional. She’d figure out how to do this. After all, the Crossroads Herald covered a quiet swath of Minnesota. The chances of a big story breaking, one requiring a lot of time and effort, were slim to none, especially on quiet fall mornings.
Nope, all she had to look forward to in this town was a long parade of city council stories, school board reports, and an occasional feel-good piece. Should be easy. She twisted the door knob and winced.
“It’s gonna be a long day,” she mumbled.
The award-winning weekly, Crossroads Herald, served central Minnesota’s small section of land that housed more farm animals than humans. Hailing itself the “Turkey Capital of the World,” it was difficult to travel from town to town without noting copious silver barns dotting the terrain. Thick, white feathers lining the highways would also tip off the smarter than average visitor… not that this section of Minnesota received many of those. With an agricultural bliss vibe permeating the area, you’d think a small town newspaper would provide a reduced stress zone compared to its big city cousins. But you’d be wrong.
Newspaper publisher Bart Lundquist struggled with every aspect of his biz. Reporters came and went like a cool summer breeze. Photographers were harder to keep than outdoor flowers in January. His only graphic artist threatened to quit to become a full time mother. That would be odd considering she didn’t have any children. Finances always balanced on a knife blade.
His sales staff sucked. Finding a good sales person that didn’t emit a creepy vibe was one of Bart’s greatest challenges. If he found someone the locals tolerated, the person couldn’t sell worth crap. If he found a salesperson who had mastered the craft, the locals viewed him with suspicion. Today’s sales staff consisted of himself and Dick.
Dick was his brother-in-law and likely the most incompetent salesman he’d ever met. Doughy and chatty, Dick talked more than he sold.
“Good God,” Bart would say, “the business owners know why you’re there. Just cut to the chase, sell the ad, and move on.”
Instead, Dick would meander through his conversations, getting off track, forgetting to sell the spot. If he did sell, he often got details wrong. Hell, he routinely messed up the offer, the text, the phone number, the price… you name it.
“Dude’s a walking mistake,’ Bart often said. “But he’s my mistake.”
Hence, more money problems.
Advertisers complained when their spots ran with incorrect information. Over half the ads running today were freebies to make up for massive cock-ups on previous runs.
To make matters worse, the city council threatened to ban his staff from meetings after a recent unflattering article on last week’s cow dung incident triggered a brouhaha at the local cafe. Even the city clerk seemed to withhold her support of the local paper, emailing her most recent council minutes in a skeleton form, without comment, presumably hoping the paper would quit running them. This was a particularly large problem considering council meetings provided the bulk of story ideas for his paper. One meeting often ballooned into at least a few interviews resulting in many column inches of newsy news.
If it wasn’t one person offended, it was another. Depending on the week, Bart had at least one prominent Crossroads citizen ticked at him for one reason or another.
Nevertheless, he labored forward… all with an overworked crew. Poor wages plus dismal public support equaled a less than favorable working environment. But, true publisher that he was, when things got terribly difficult, he retreated to the quiet, prosperous world of his mind… a place where readers revered his work and his employees loved their job. A place where one well crafted story would put his little newspaper on the map… a story so glorious, so huge, so noteworthy, that forevermore, Minnesota students would gasp in wonder as they read his detailed, accurate account.
But alas, the chances of that happening in this tiny community were nil.
But a man could hope.
A cold burst of air brushed against his unshaven cheek. He glanced up from his desk and watched Ned enter the building. “Damn,” the younger man breathed, “chilly out today, eh?”
“You ain’t seen nothing,” replied Bart, “I took a gander at the long range forecast.”
“Hope you’re wrong.”
“I’m not. If you think it’s cold now, just wait,” he said. He scribbled a few story ideas on the pad
in front of him. He sighed. Minnesota winters are not for the faint of heart. Temps often don’t creep above zero for weeks on end. “When winter hits,” he said, “wear layers, don’t forget your boots, and cover all exposed skin within a few minutes if you’re going outside for any length of time.”
Ned stamped his feet on the floor. Frost shards flaked to the floor. “You sound like a public service announcement.” He tromped his feet a few more times before he added, “When’s the new reporter coming?”
“What’s he like?”
“Seriously?” Bart shook his head. “The pronoun ‘she’ is generally applied to a female. Geez. Sexist much?”
“Not really. It’s just that the last two have been male.”
“Well, this one’s female.”
“Well, that’s a switch,” Ned said, “what’s she like?”
“Clips were sound?”
“Via phone. Sounded competent.”
“Good.” Ned peeled his parka from his torso and hung it on the coat tree. He lumbered to his desk, heavy boots clunking all the way, and plopped into his office chair. “Very good. Hope this one stays a while.”
Ned Stevens arrived in Crossroads five years ago and was the exception that proved Bart’s assertion that “keeping photographers was harder than keeping flowers blooming in January.” Originally, he didn’t know if he’d like small town life but figured he’d give it a shot after he lost his job at a big-city, first class, glossy magazine. He missed his expense account. He also missed slick night life and refined women. But five years in Crossroads helped him appreciate down home cooking and the peanut shell littered floors of the local bar. Through the years, he learned to relax into a quiet life, snapping pics of wildlife, combines, and local festivals. The slower pace and lower cost of living didn’t hurt either.
Truth was, he enjoyed his work. The quiet, lazy town of Crossroads offered a near perfect environment for a professional photographer. He had plenty of time to do his own thing while getting paid to meet interesting people. The picturesque palette of seasons were always a delight to capture on film. He felt like an important member of a team, working closely with the reporter and enjoying how his pictures enhanced each story. Bart always said, “There’s nothing like seeing a picture of someone you know in the local paper… that’s what sells copies.”
To a large extent, that seemed true. Bart peppered his pages with Ned’s photos, and papers sold. Put a kid in the paper and every family member bought a copy for posterity. It was win-win.
He leaned back in his chair and carefully polished the lens of his latest acquisition. Sure, the Herald would have supplied him with an adequate camera, but he preferred to use his own. As he wiped away dust flakes and stray fingerprints, he wondered what this new reporter would bring to the table. The last one clearly felt far too talented for the likes of Crossroads. He and Bart spent more than one evening betting how long he’d stay. His designer boots got soiled with cow dung on one assignment. On another, a horse sneezed on his $300 briefcase. “I swear to god, I didn’t know horses could expel that much snot,” Ned said. The reporter wasn’t amused.
It wasn’t a secret that The Crossroads Herald had a bit of trouble with employee retention. Ned didn’t know if it was the low pay, long hours, or lack of community respect that kept the position of “full time reporter” a revolving door of applicants. With so many writers coming and going, editorial quality sometimes suffered. Typos, inaccuracies, and sloppy layout seemed to be the rule these days. The only thing keeping the paper alive was Bart’s tenacious spirit followed by Ned’s incredible photographs. Everyone loved Ned. While everyone else received regular complaints for one reason or another, Ned only received complements. Everyone loved their picture in the paper. Bart was smart enough to capitalize on that.
“If we could just find someone who stuck around,” Ned lamented, “we could really make a difference…”
But, small town living in a remote part of Minnesota isn’t for the weak willed. Winters are long. Nights drag on forever. Brutal weather apparently kept “riff raff” at bay… scorching summers, frigid winters… locals said Crossroads weather was downright perfect around four days out of the year.
Also, while the concept of Minnesota Nice is a true reality, it comes with a sharp veneer of outsider suspicion. Even after five years of faithful service to the newspaper, Ned was still viewed as an interloper.
Every election resulted in one of the long times locals easily capturing the win. Sure, newcomers were encouraged to join the election process, but their chances of victory were similar to the local department store hosting a successful Christmas bikini sale. Ned figured if he were to hang in there and manage to remain an active member of society, it could be possible that his grand children would have a chance at being accepted as a full member of the community. Until then, Ned viewed the town as a place to live, a safe place for his future family, a nice place to make a living, and plenty of local drama to document.
However, if this reporter couldn’t clean up the editorial mess in the newspaper, Ned feared Bart would have to shutter the shop. Already, a few major advertisers threatened to withdraw ads if they couldn’t maintain circulation. “Take more pictures,” Bart ordered. Even then, Ned knew they needed quality editorial… and he wasn’t about to become a writer.
He sighed. “Perhaps this one will work out.”
Crossroads, Minnesota celebrated its centennial anniversary in 1969. It was evidently the best thing to have happened in the small town since… ever. Large photographs of the event still hung prominently in the town civic center.
Struggling for relevance in an ever changing world, the mayor, along with the tiny city council, often brainstormed ideas on how to put Crossroads on the map. They promoted the annual town festival in the county brochure. They paid for advertising in big city newspapers. They attempted to attract new business to the community to no avail. One look at the dilapidated elevator leaning precariously over the rail road tracks and most business people eschewed Crossroads for the next town over.
Crossfield was everything Crossroads was not. It had a thriving daily newspaper. Businesses prospered due to the nearby community college. The Crossfield school system had succeeded in poaching nearly all of Crossroad’s high school students and was on the verge of absorbing the Crossroad Elementary school into its district. Already, Crossfield threatened to close the Crossroad post office and replace it with a bank of outdoor PO boxes.
Crossroad residents didn’t take kindly to Crossfield’s interference. To their benefit, the twenty miles expanse between them was the only thing keeping the marauding invaders at bay. Crossroad die hards loathed Crossfieldites. And the feeling was mutual.
So when the owner of the Crossfield Daily approached Ned in an attempt to lure him to the larger daily, Bart took it personally. While Ned turned him down, Bart harbored revenge.
“Mark my words,” he said, “someday I’ll scoop that asshole and twist his scrawny neck.”
“But nothing ever happens here,” Ned replied.
“Oh,” Bart said, “you never know.”
“It’ll be tough. You’ll have to find a big story, hope it happens right before we go to press, and pray the Gazette doesn’t find out about it.”
“Oh,” Bart repeated, “you never know.”
And so it went. Small town weekly versus larger town daily. Small, overworked staff versus
larger, sharper staff. A tiny newspaper minus reporters versus a well-stocked editorial team.
This represented life in Crossroads the day before all hell broke loose.