Authors: Ryne Douglas Pearson
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Murder, #Thrillers, #Suspense & Thrillers
“To be totally honest, no one at that school much misses the kid,” Joel said. “Or anybody in town, for that matter.”
“I’m feeling drunk enough that that doesn’t even make me mad,” Dooley said. “Did this kid have a name?”
“Guy Edmond. The word from the school was that he was one Grade-A pain in the ass. Parents, too. We knew him pretty well at the station.”
“I guess Guy deserved it then,” Dooley cracked. “That makes you and me irrelevant.”
“I didn’t mean—”
Dooley shook his head. “I’m drunk enough to talk crap, too. Forget it.”
“I can’t break through,” Joel said after a momentary pause.
Dooley slid to a sit against the red brick surrounding the hearth and closed his eyes. The subtle blaze tickled hot on his right side.
“You have,” Joel added solemnly.
“It’s not like flipping some switch on,” Dooley said, reluctant eyes opening.
“I know. I’ve tried.”
“You’ve tried,” Dooley parroted.
The remark had enough of an edge that silence was all Joel could immediately offer in response. After a moment of reflection he asked, “Was that you, or was that the wine?”
“A little of both.” Dooley shook his head. “It’s a hell of a thing when your job requires you to prove that a kid can kill a kid.”
“If I had that problem you’d be drinking alone right now,” Joel said.
“Consider yourself blessed,” Dooley said. “It can mess with you.”
“It’s a murder.”
“It’s that, and it’s stuff you don’t even want to imagine.”
“It’s still a murder. Someone has to pay.”
Dooley nodded, the peace of the knowing in the gesture. “Someone always does.” He stared into his empty glass. “So, you came for advice from the man who put a twelve year old away for life.”
“I’d like more than advice.”
“I can’t give more,” Dooley said. “I know you want more, and I know you have to ask, so consider the question asked and consider the answer given. I’ll look at the file, I’ll answer questions. That’s what help I can give.”
“Can you solve a case without getting close?” Joel challenged.
“This isn’t my case to solve. Five and one, or six and oh; that’s up to you.”
Dooley stood and looked past his guest, out over the harbor to the black night spilling from the sky. “The roads are going to be tricky. Slick as snot on a doorknob.”
Joel put his glass of wine on the simple pedestal table next to the chair. “Just let me...”
Dooley walked off toward the living room. “You can crash on the couch if you want. There’s a throw blanket on the rocker. The lights are on a timer so don’t play with the switches.”
Joel stood and took a few steps after Dooley. “Detective Ashe—”
“Just Dooley. Got it?” He turned down a hallway in the dark and was gone. A door clicked shut a few seconds later.
Joel Bauer fell back into the overstuffed chair and let his head burrow sideways into the cushion. He watched the fire slowly die and drifted off to sleep thinking of a poor little bastard of a kid with his head caved in.
* * *
A defiant burst of embers erupted from the hearth’s coal-black center sometime after midnight, batting a sharp crack through the darkened den. Joel stirred at the sound, eyes opening to see an orange glow struggle to live again on the brittle surface of the spent pine. He straightened in the chair, rolled the stiffness from his neck, and blinked to adjust his eyes to the din.
When they had, he saw Dooley sitting across the cedar table from him, the hearth-side of his body cast a pale red—the red of a sunrise trickling over cold gray granite peaks.
“Dooley? What time is it?”
“Late. Early.” Bare above the waist, Dooley did not take his eyes from Joel. “What were you dreaming of?”
“Dreaming? Was I dreaming?”
“You were talking to someone named Julia.”
“Julia?” Joel wiped his eyes.
“Is that your wife, or your baby girl?”
Joel shook his head. “An old girlfriend. She dumped me the day before the prom.”
“Funny.” Dooley breathed slow, deep. “We dream of pain.”
“Is that what we do?”
“I was dreaming of checkers,” Dooley said.
“The game. Have you played it?”
“Everybody’s played checkers.”
“Smoke before fire. Do you remember that? Black moves first? That was the explanation for it. When I was a kid we’d accept that without even asking how there could be smoke without fire. Red should move first, by all rights.”
“It’s been a long time...”
“Kids really love the game.”
“You were dreaming of playing checkers,” Joel said.
Joel twisted in his chair and crossed his arms tight across his chest. With but a wanting show from the hearth, a crisp, prickly chill had invaded the den. “Playing checkers is painful?”
“It can be.” Dooley ran a hand over the stubble on one cheek. “These kids you suspect—are they likable?”
“Likable? I don’t know.”
“You said they were good kids. Do you like them? Could you?”
“Knowing what they did, in all honesty, no,” Joel answered, and growled the sleep from his throat. “But then I think the feeling is mutual, so it’s a wash.”
“You played bad cop with them, didn’t you?”
“I was direct,” Joel replied, twisting the query his way.
“You should have played checkers,” Dooley said.
“What is this thing with checkers?”
Sixty-four squares and little circles skating across them. Smoke and fire. “Maybe I’ll tell you when I find your killer.”
Joel edged forward in the chair. “You’re going to help?”
“I don’t want a shadow,” Dooley said.
Joel’s head bobbed in a rapid nod. “I’ll stay out of your way.”
“You’ll thank me when this is done. I may hate you.”
An agreeing grin started to show on Joel’s face, but withered before becoming when he realized that no jest was attached to Dooley’s statement.
“What made you change your mind?”
“Maybe I’m sick of sitting around this house. Maybe I’m a good cop, like you say.”
“You don’t sound very sure about those reasons,” Joel observed.
“Maybe you’re right,” Dooley said, drawing a smile from his guest. He looked away from Joel and into the hearth, at the pulsing glow crawling in worm-like tendrils over the fractured log. A wisp of smoke was trailing clearly up toward the flue. Smoke before fire. “Or maybe I thought this time things might turn out better.”
“Better? You put the last one away for good.”
Dooley’s head shook slightly at the fire. “Better for me.”
The pear trees surrounding Windhaven Elementary on three sides were dormant now, grey and bitter in the breeze that drew painful moans from their once succulent limbs, and frantic scratching as dried branches jousted with each other.
Just before nine the morning wind rose, pouring a gust through the orchards. The unified cry of the trees bled into the ringing of bells from the campus.
Monday had come.
In groups, pairs, and ragged lines, children headed for class, books held close against the winter coats their parents had pulled from storage the night before. The usually boisterous procession was intensely subdued, in particular when passing ‘the spot’. Many found a reason to trek by room 18, and were hurried along by Mrs. Gray, the principal, who dutifully told them that there was nothing to see, though her eyes often stole glances at the blemish on the asphalt. Mr. Carter, the custodian, had done his best to remove it, blasting it with steam once the police had finished, then scrubbing it with detergent. But there it remained, a faded shadow of what had spilled from Guy Edmond. Mr. Carter had suggested another option, but Mrs. Gray had thought it too drastic. Now, watching the little heads twist toward the stain, she thought that his plan might be best after all.
Of every few children passing room 18, one would approach its door and join the line that had formed. One by one they arrived, Guy’s classmates, back together after four days apart, the ordinary weekend and the two days preceding that. ‘Recovery days’, the school had called them, a time when children and parents alike could go to the Bartlett Community Center and meet with counselors, free of charge, to express feelings and thoughts about the tragedy.
Seven families had showed up. The rest of the parents had work, and the majority of children simply stayed home and played video games or watched television. The unspoken consensus was that some tragedies were blessings in disguise.
When the line outside room 18 was seven long, Michael Prentiss arrived and took his place at the front. As sergeant at arms it was his job to hold the door open once the second bell sounded. He stood on the concrete stoop and slid his backpack off his back. His fielder’s glove was looped to one strap.
Dozens of eyes, all of his classmates’ and those of some simply passing, focused on the fold of stitched brown leather, and then on Michael. His own gaze stuttered between those cast at him, then found a familiar face nearing. A friendly face. A face that understood.
“Hey, Mike,” Bryce Hool said back, taking his place in line.
Michael eyed the door, then asked Bryce, “How many minutes?”
Before Bryce could answer, Tommy Barrow, always the first in line, had the sleeve of his coat pulled back and his watch in the clear. “Three minutes.”
“Thanks,” Michael said, without really meaning it. He reached for the doorknob and tested it with a quick twist. It clicked against internal stops.
“It’s locked?” Tommy asked. The extended weekend had done nothing to dull the class buttinski’s motor mouth ways. “I’ll bet she’s not coming today. I’ll bet we have a sub.”
“She’s here,” PJ said, arriving from the opposite direction of her classmates. The north gate, very near the teachers’ lot, was open only in the morning, an accommodation of those few students who lived in the apartments on the far side of Galloway’s orchard. “I saw her car.”
“That’s right,” Tommy said. “You come in the slum gate.”
Walter Curtis, passing on his way to room 20, stopped and snickered. “Hey, slummer girl is back.”
Paula Jean Allenton feared the fists of no one at Windhaven. Nonetheless, she found it impossible to parry the verbal jabs Walter was so deft at dishing out. Quick pokes where it hurt the most. She wanted,
wanted, to introduce Walter Curtis’s pompous jaw to a knuckle sandwich. But discretion was the better part of valor, as she had learned in class, and though valor might not be the proper way to characterize a pop in the face, resisting the urge to do so was definitely an exercise in discretion.
“Shut up, Wally,” Michael said. From the corner of his eye he saw Joey and Jeff nearing, and saw PJ look to the ground, her mouth tensing.
“What are you gonna do?” Walter challenged Michael. “Bash my head in, too?”
Joey and Jeff, picking up enough of the exchange, came up close behind Walter.
“What’s your coat made of?” Walter asked PJ’s downcast face. “Swiss cheese?”
“Go to class, Wally,” Joey said.
Walter turned to face the new arrivals. “You guys are going to jail. You know that.”
“Go to class,” Joey repeated, closing the distance to Walter.
More of the class arrived, and, over the heads of the students still moving past room 18, Mrs. Gray looked toward the minor commotion and asked, “Is there a problem, young citizens?”
Walter backed away, smirking, and joined the flow toward his classroom.
“No, Mrs. Gray,” Jeff said. “Everything’s fine.”
The principal nodded and tapped her watch. “Better line up.”
PJ moved to the end of the line, Joey and Jeff right behind.
“Don’t let him bug you,” Joey told PJ.
She cinched the front of her coat, trying to cover the wear marks Walter had reveled in. “He doesn’t.”
“Are you okay?” Bryce asked past several of his classmates.
“I’m fine,” PJ insisted. Her eyes did not come up.
“What did they do to you?” a voice whispered to Bryce. He turned to see Maria Cortez, one space ahead in line, an eleven year old gossip sponge with eager brown eyes and a pair of ears any game animal would envy.
“The police. They took you all to the police station, didn’t they? What did they do to you there? Did they put you in a jail cell with bars? My uncle says they smell like pee. Do they?”
Maria’s warm breath smelled of oatmeal, and with each question it fumed invisible at Bryce, making his nose crinkle.
“What happened in there?” Maria pleaded quietly.
“We’re not supposed to talk about it,” Bryce answered.
Several feet back in line, Joey stepped out of place and looked up and down the way behind the bungalows. The number of students had dwindled, but Mrs. Gray remained. “Joey. Back in line. The bell’s about to ring.”
Joey returned to his place and said to Jeff, “I wonder where Elena is.”
A shrug, then Jeff tapped PJ on the shoulder. “Do you know where Elena is?”
“I haven’t seen her since...” PJ glanced at the spot.
Turning back to Joey, Jeff asked, “Do you think she—”
The second bell, echoing sharp and long, amputated Jeff’s inquiry. Most eyes converged on the door, Michael’s on the handle. The ringing waned, a fuzzy quiet filling the void, the click of the latch punctuating the moment.
The door swung slowly out, Miss Austin emerging, one arm stretching into the sleeve of a casual peach cardigan. She gave her class a quick once-over from the stoop and nodded to Mrs. Gray, adding a smile for good measure.
“Michael, good morning.”
“Good morning,” Michael replied, as he had on dozens of previous mornings. Exactly. Miss Austin stepped back inside, Michael took her place holding the door, and the class filed in in an orderly fashion. No menacing shoves or feet stuck out to trip. No annoying flats given from behind, no flicks of one’s ear. Just one student following another. No muss, no fuss. Exactly as it had been before room 18 had been invaded by Guy Edmond.
Just like it used to be...
That’s what Joey had said, Michael recalled. It
like it used to be, but somehow it felt, well, not ‘wrong’ that things should be like they were; it felt...‘not right’.