Authors: Ryne Douglas Pearson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Thrillers, #Suspense & Thrillers
“Good, Detective Bauer. Now leave me be.”
“Your lieutenant sa—”
“I don’t have a lieutenant. I’m retired. Okay? Goodbye.”
He started off toward his car again, but quick, persistent footsteps caught up.
“Lieutenant Evans told me you were on vacation. Using the comp time you built up from the Vincent case.”
“Clean your ears, Detective Bauer; I’m retired,” Dooley repeated for good measure, and to remind himself.
“Not officially,” Joel contradicted, and for that he now had Detective Dooley Ashe’s full attention. And then some.
Dooley aimed his body toward Joel and kept walking, faster now, forcing the younger detective to backpedal awkwardly.
“Who do you think you are?” Dooley demanded as the target of his suddenly risen anger could skitter back no more and found himself half leaning, half sitting on the trunk of an old Nova. Two young faces stared at the commotion through the foggy back window. “You don’t fucking question me. I’m retired. I’ve done my twenty years. I solved my last case. I’m done.”
A little hand wiped condensation from inside the Nova’s back window. Dooley noticed the motion and looked past Joel for a moment. Faces with chocolate-stained mouths, framed by stringy, unwashed blonde hair, looked back with little surprise at the conflict they were witnessing. They had obviously seen worse.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Joel said from his awkward position. “Just that you’re still a cop. Officially.”
Even in light that robbed feature and warmth from whatever it bathed, Dooley could tell that the childrens’ eyes were blue. A pretty, tainted blue that probably still sparkled on Christmas morning, even without a tree, mom drunk with a new boyfriend in bed, and dad God knows where. Children might not be innocent, Dooley had learned, but they were resilient.
Far more resilient than adults.
“I just wanted to talk to you about—”
Dooley took a step back and held a silencing finger in the air between him and his unwanted company. “No. I’m done. You got it? Save your breath.” He continued to step away, but kept his eyes on the detective. “No more.”
“We need your help,” Joel said. As he did, Dooley turned and moved quickly toward a Chevy Blazer. “We had a kid murdered.”
“Join the club,” Dooley muttered, and hurried into his shiny black 4X4. He backed out of the parking space and sped toward the exit. In the rearview he could see Joel Bauer’s head dip, eyes going to the ground as rain spilled off his umbrella like tears.
* * *
Cougar Mountain rose like a blunt pimple from the forest one hundred and fifty miles east of Seattle, its peak salted white and its slopes flushed pink and blue by tired sunlight that fanned through breaks in the coming storm.
Autumn seemed willing to cede its time to winter, yet with each breath taken Mary Austin tasted spring. A false spring.
She stared at the cold, fiery beauty of the mountain from her living room, curled comfortably into a downy armchair, a forgotten mug of hot chocolate cooling on the end table and lesson plans neglected on her lap. Her being was here, quiet in her home, but her thoughts were there. Over the mountain. In a place she could not see, but which her mind could imagine. A pasture of green stabbed with bolts of granite and marble, a sad, pretty place where the dead rotted in ornate boxes.
She had attended only one funeral in her life, that of her father when she was eight, an event which had fogged in her memory, taking on the quality of a celluloid dream. Snippets of motion and feeling, out-takes from an old reel of the movie of her life. One was of a dark, deep rectangle and leaning forward hesitantly to peer down into it, mother holding her hand and she that of her five year old sister. Then standing back, together, watching as the casket sank slowly out of view. Beyond it some man trying to bolster her with a smile. When the years had passed she came to understand that his expression had been meant to console, but back then she had wondered why someone was smiling when most other people were crying.
Some, like her mother, had not cried, and Mary had followed her lead and swallowed hard when her eyes began to burn. Her little sister, though, was too young to muster the fortitude, and the tears had trickled silently down her reddened cheeks as they walked away from the plot on that sweltering Illinois summer day, following men whose dark coats were slung over their shoulders and who repeatedly dabbed their brows with fists of rumpled linen. Mary had looked back just before they reached her aunt’s big Lincoln, and had seen the man who had smiled at her going about his business, puffing on the stub of a cigar and tossing shovelful after shovelful of dirt into the hole.
Her father’s hole.
Now there was another hole.
Over there, now, in the lowlands beyond the mountain, people would be gathered around the one dug just for Guy Edmond. How many people would be there? Mary wondered. His family, to be sure. An officiate who had to be there. The man to shovel the dirt. Six, seven, eight, maybe. And the rest?
What ‘rest’? The rest would be cheering the little league games at Farnsworth Park, or playing backyard chef to steal some grill time before the weather changed. Burgers sizzling and brave little bodies going head first into second. Just another Sunday. Purposely so. A collective good riddance by way of evasion.
It was payback time. The people of Bartlett were giving Guy Edmond the bird in the only way that mattered to the dead. They were living, giving it that little extra oomph this day, Mary suspected. Playing a little harder, laughing a little louder, putting extra pickles and ketchup on the burger. Downing a cold one. The benign equivalent of dancing on his grave.
They were here, he was gone. Game, set, match.
In short order he would be a memory, Mary thought. Just an ill wind that had blown through. They were already forgetting. She was trying hard to...
‘...forget the bad. Move on.’
The bad. Bad things. The garbage truck broadsiding her father’s pickup, that had been bad. Almost the worst thing ever. And the past week, that had been bad.
could be very bad at times.
‘Runners fly right over hurdles. They hardly even notice them. Their eyes are on one thing, way beyond the obstacles. And when they’re past each hurdle, it’s gone. Out of mind. Forgotten.’ That was her mother’s equivalent of ‘Into every life a little rain must fall,’ with the likely additional caveat, ‘so think dry.’
People could also be bad. Even a child.
Guy was bad. Bad to the core.
Forget him. Move on.
Her mother’s advice, her creed, had stuck. It was hers now, too.
...one of her kids was dead. Someone had killed him, and she felt...
...something. Sorrow? Loss? What emotion was it that was bubbling inside her? It was...
she pressed herself for the answer.
...not loss. She had known loss, in many ways. Her father’s decapitation as he crumbled through the windshield of his rust-red stepside was a loss. This was not like that. Nor was it sorrow. With sorrow came tears, and she had shed none.
When did I cry last?
When Mom heard ab—
And that memory died half born.
Enough of that. Forget. Forget. Move on.
She felt...something strange. Something bordering, she believed, on inappropriate. Like...
...when Uncle Louie got drunk after the funeral and said that dad was always losing his head? That was inappropriate.
It was a sensation, far back in her chest, behind the liquid pulse of her heart, the warmth of a door opening on a summer day and letting the sweet breeze wash in. It was a lightness within. A knot untied. It was bursting through the surface of the water after a deep dive and tasting the soothing freshness of a breath.
It was all those things, but it should not be. It was wrong to feel
. As wrong as Jeff’s wink, she thought.
But wrong or not, that was what welled inside her, clawing to get out of a hole not unlike Guy Edmond’s now and future home. A place she’d guiltily tried to secret it. A place it was freeing itself from with every passing moment. She felt it. She knew.
A hollow, welcome bliss.
Or call it relief. Same difference. A worry had been swept away. Gone.
She swallowed hard, wanting to hate herself for feeling that way, but unable to. Something in her understood. Something in her made her believe that it was okay he was gone. That it was
he was gone. That whoever had put Guy Edmond in his own personal hole deserved a parade. Something told her that, something screamed it in her head, painted it in her dreams, as if trying to convince her.
Forget the bad. Move on.
He was bad, and he most definitely was gone.
I wonder who did—
Forget the bad.
Was forgetting the same as accepting? she wondered.
Struggling with the urge to know, Mary stared hard out the window, lost in thought, rapt with the vision of Cougar Mountain blushing at her, admiring the view until...
...the ring of the phone jerked her gaze from the window, for the first time in— she looked at the clock on her picture wall —two hours.
She blinked the surprise from her eyes and glanced back outside at—
—a curtain of rain sheeting past the yellow glow of the streetlamp. Darkness had come.
Mary’s fingers rubbed at her eyes as the phone rang a second time.
Dark at three twenty-five?
she questioned herself, and gave the clock another, closer, look. The big hand was on the five and the— No, wait; that was the
hand. Big hand on three, little hand on five.
A quarter past five?
she thought incredulously, the phone wailing on and finally garnering her attention.
Mary rolled her head and let herself sink further into the chair. “Hi, Mom.”
“You sound strange,” Jean Louise Austin said. “Were you... Did I wake you?”
“I must have dozed off,” Mary answered. Must have, though she couldn’t remember the last few moments before drifting off to sleep, nor were there any recollections of dreaming, those piecemeal snippets that usually survived reentry into the waking world at least as much as the washed-out memories of her father’s death had. Maybe she was just tired, too tired to dream, or too tired to care about dreaming. She had not slept well since...it happened. That was something her mother would not want to hear, and therefore something she would not share. “How are you, mom?”
“Fine, as always. How are you, sweetie?”
“Good. I’m doing good. What are you up to?”
“I’m knitting a sweater. Have I made you a sweater yet?”
Mary looked at the blue and white Afghan draped on the back of the couch, and pictured the matching yellow scarf and bonnet tucked away in her ‘I’ll wear that someday’ drawer. Well, there was still room in that drawer. “Not yet.”
“I didn’t think I had. You like yellow, don’t you?”
“Love it.” A white lie...so what? The woman was old and born to dote. Add to that busy hands and Mary knew the good Lord had created a fleshy machine that ate yarn and spit porous winter wear.
“Tomorrow I’m starting on ski caps for Kyle and Gary.”
Case closed, Mary thought, smiling at the receiver and thanking God that her sister had chosen children over career. That meant the drawer might not spill over to another for two or three years. Mary’s nephews would be buried in yarn by then. “What color?”
“Blue for Kyle and red for Gary. Gary will want the blue one but Kyle is older and Julie says it’s his favorite color.”
“How is sis?”
“Worried about you,” Jean Louise Austin answered casually. “I told her not to be. So, tomorrow...are you prepared?”
“I have my lesson plans right...” Mary patted her lap, but it was empty. Her eyes darted about, searching, not having to travel far. On the spotless glass surface of the coffee table, hardly a kick distant from the chair, the pages she’d been working on were neatly stacked, her pen laying on top. “...here.”
A brief, pensive quiet rushed the distance from the green corner house north of Chicago. “Is something wrong, Mary?”
“No,” she answered quickly. “No. Of course not. I just... I shouldn’t have let myself doze off. Afternoon naps leave me feeling all dopey.”
“Do you know that I have never taken a nap?” Jean Louise Austin asked matter-of-factly. “As far back as my memory goes it’s been up at six and to bed at ten. Of course I had a few late nights when you and Julie were babies, but even then I didn’t nap.”
“That’s that farm blood in you, mom,” Mary said, listening as her mother snickered softly over the clicking of her knitting needles. “Rest to you is hanging the laundry out to dry.”
“Idle hands breed idle thoughts. So, tomorrow...”
“Tomorrow will be fine.”
“Will all of your students be returning?”
Mary nodded before speaking, feeling the polite, evasive bluntness that her mother had mastered over the years. Asking ‘Had Maureen been sick long?’ instead of ‘What killed your daughter, Mrs. Green?’ Or when Mrs. Patterson’s oldest boy Neal was arrested for torching the dumpster behind Zebo’s filling station, her mother had inquired if ‘Neal would be at the Fourth of July block party?’ The knitting machine shunned conflict like the plague. She’d even refused to sue the company whose truck had run the stop sign and killed her husband. A dozen lawyers had stuffed their cards in the door jam.
“They’re all coming back,” Mary said as she glanced at the opening to the dark hallway. Poking from the shadows of her bedroom and sweeping back and forth on the floor was a finger of orangish fur, the extreme back end of her lazing cat. “All of them.”
“I can’t understand why the police would think any of your students would do what was done to that boy,” Jean Louise Austin commented, pausing just long enough that tact seemed possible when she added, “However awful he was. Julie mentioned that his family has a lawyer.”