Authors: Annie Solomon
Tags: #FIC027110, #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense, #Sheriffs, #General
She leaned to the left, kicked the bike off the stand, and roared off.
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he morning after the town picnic, James Drennen pulled into the abandoned rock quarry on the east side of town. His hands were sweating and his mouth was dry, and he ignored both. He saw immediately he wasn’t the first to arrive. Everyone knew Fred Lyle’s Town Car. He recognized Kenneth Parsley’s car by the fish on the bumper, and Dennis Runkle’s Corvette stood out even without the Runkle Real Estate sign on the back window. But he would have known who gathered there regardless of those familiar indicators. Their little group had been forged in deception and blood, and it wasn’t likely he’d forget any member. Several of their group were missing, of course. But you can’t call the dead back to life. Or so he’d have thought.
He parked his truck and walked to the flat rocks overlooking the pit. Fred Lyle was already pacing, his skin bloodless and strained.
Reverend Parsley perched on an outcropping, calmly staring into the abyss. He’d put on the pounds in the last twenty years and his chin had disappeared into his neck. But he still had that air of rectitude that never seemed quite on the level to James. But Parsley’s self-assured piety had vaulted him to the head of the community. No one was closer to God than Ken Parsley, Mimsy liked to say, and he’d tell you so himself.
As usual, Dennis Runkle was on the phone, mouth going fast, hands gesturing emphatically. On his wrist, a thick gold Rolex winked in the hot sunlight. James couldn’t remember ever seeing him stand still. But even nearing seventy he still seemed the little weasel he’d been in high school, though he’d had the last laugh on all of them. Biggest house in town, fastest car, sexiest ex-wives.
Runkle, Parsley, Lyle, and him. James stopped a moment to watch the motley group. All of them kept well away from the edge. He understood. He didn’t want to go anywhere near the pit himself.
“Jimmy!” Fred spotted him and stopped pacing long enough to close the gap between them. “What are we going to do?”
“First, we’re going to calm down.”
“Calm down? Are you crazy?”
“James is right.” Ken Parsley ambled toward them. In deference to the heat, he’d removed his suit coat, but his sleeves were still buttoned at the wrist. Without the coat you could see his rotundity more clearly. His slacks were hiked over his round belly, like Humpty Dumpty’s, but his height and huge broad shoulders somehow carried it. “We have to remain calm. Think this through.”
Fred threw up his hands, retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket, and mopped his face. “Runkle!” He threw the real estate agent an angry glance.
Runkle held up a hand, and Fred uttered an annoyed growl. But ten seconds later, Dennis Runkle strode over. More like raced. But then, that was the man’s natural gait. Why walk when you could run?
“That Jansen property is going to kill me,” he frowned. Redbud’s self-styled Donald Trump, he’d bet on Hammerbilt’s growth, buying out the Jansen farm for a new subdivision. But with the audit market tight, development money was scarce. He’d already been the key investor in the new condos on Redbud’s west side—an eyesore to some with its repetitive concrete and fake wood façade, a symbol of progress to others. Dennis Runkle was firmly with the latter, reputedly moving his town square office to the west side, though some would say unit sales were languishing.
“Okay.” The little man rubbed his hands together. “What’s so all-fired important? I got a business to move, things to do.”
They formed a misshapen circle, Parsley towering over Runkle, and James looming over Lyle. James could feel the impatience and edginess of the group. Or maybe it was just his own anxiety poking through.
Fred reached into his pocket and pulled something out. He opened his fist. In the center sat a tiny black angel.
The atmosphere stilled, then tensed. Everyone stared. No one reached out to take the thing.
“How did you get that?” the reverend asked.
“Came in the mail,” Fred said.
“Did you bring the envelope like I asked?” James asked.
Fred took a rumpled envelope out of his pocket. Turned it over for everyone to see.
“Well, hell, Fred,” Dennis Runkle said, “Isn’t even stamped. Someone stuck it in your mailbox. A prank.”
“What kind of prankster would know?” Fred insisted. “You’re the only people who do. Did one of you send this?”
They avoided each other’s gaze. It had been years since they’d spoken about any of this and the habit of silence was hard to break.
“Of course not,” Ken Parsley said at last.
James looked down at the little toy in Fred’s hand. He, too, avoided touching it. “What is it? Some kind of plastic?”
“Probably,” Fred said.
Runkle scratched his neck uneasily, an allergic habit he’d had since first grade. “It’s a prank, I tell you. Some kid. You’re getting all worked up over nothing.” Who was he trying to convince—Lyle or himself?
“A week from now I’m due in Chicago,” Fred Lyle said. “I’m taking over IAT’s entire North American operation. Do you know what would happen if this gets out?”
Thick silence rocked the quarry. Only the sound of the hot breeze whistling between the stones could be heard.
“Maybe it’s time we told,” Kenneth Parsley said at last.
“And then what?” Fred said. “Aside from what it would do to me personally, there are implications for the plant. IAT is looking for sites to close. That threat is still as potent now as it was twenty years ago.”
“That’s what we told ourselves then,” Parsley said. “We can’t keep using the same excuse. One day the truth will come out. Better to hear it from us.”
“No. Absolutely not,” Runkle said. “Do you know how much money I have riding on this Jansen thing? I need that plant to stay open. The past is over and done. I say we leave it buried.”
“James?” Fred Lyle turned to him. “You’re the lawman here. What do you think we should do?”
“First off, I’m only an ex-lawman.”
“I don’t suppose you’d relish being arrested by your son,” Runkle said with pinpoint accuracy.
James’s lips tightened. The thought sent an ice pick of dread through him. “You leave Holt out of this.”
“I’m just saying—”
“Don’t,” he snapped. “My son has nothing to do with any of this. And he never will. Never.” He forced the angry fear out of his voice. “I’m sorry, Reverend, but I’m with Dennis on this. Digging up the past won’t help anyone and it will hurt us and the town. Then everything we did will be for nothing.”
“Besides,” Runkle said. “We took an oath, remember? Never to tell. Never to betray any one of us.”
Parsley sighed, but nodded.
“So, we’re all agreed?” James looked at each of the group in turn.
“Silence is golden,” Runkle said.
“That still leaves us with who sent this and why,” Fred said.
James nodded. “Let me look into it. Shouldn’t be too hard to find a source. Find the seller, you’re one step closer to finding the buyer.” James gave them a taut smile. “Now, go home. All of you. I’ll let you know when I find out anything.”
He walked them to their cars. Organized their departure, making sure a good ten minutes passed between vehicles. Runkle was the first one gone. Hurrying back to close more deals, James guessed. Fred left next, and finally Ken Parsley. Then there was only James’s dusty pickup left. He checked his watch. A few more minutes and he could leave like the rest. Put this behind him. But he walked to the edge of the old quarry instead and faced what he wanted to avoid.
He hadn’t been here in a long, long time. Not since… well, he didn’t want to think about that day. Finding the body at the bottom, broken and bloody. It had been a scorching summer, triple-digit temperatures, and there’d been no water in the basin to break his fall. The whole ordeal of climbing down, rigging the body to lift it out. The terrible scream of that poor young widow.
He shivered in the heat.
He still remembered when the quarry shut down. How old had he been? Ten? Eleven? Seemed like the whole town had closed up and vanished. His wasn’t the only father who missed every Little League game the summer of 1954. All the adults talking in hushed tones, as if someone had died. The moving van that took his best friend to Chicago where his father had found work. There were lots of empty desks when fifth grade started.
And then Hammerbilt announced it would build a new plant in Redbud. It was like Christmas twice in one year. The worry lines in his mother’s face turned to smiles. He had a ham sandwich in his school lunch instead of the usual bologna.
But the fear lingered, even if only way down deep in the back of everyone’s mind. They were as close to the edge as he was right now. If Hammerbilt went the way of the quarry…
He looked away from the dried-out pit. The sun had baked the surrounding stone white hot. It hurt his eyes. No, he didn’t want to think about the bad times. He’d done what he had to do. What was best for the town and everyone in it.
He conjured up the little black angel that had stared at him from Fred Lyle’s fist. Well, stare away, sweetheart. Redbud was doing just fine now. And so were the Drennens. He had his son’s love and respect and damn anyone who tried to take it away.
xcept for Holt’s early morning ramble to Red’s, the day after the picnic was like any other in Redbud. He performed street patrol then went to his office.
But that exception was a big one. Much as he’d like to, he couldn’t get Edie Swann’s small tight body out of his head. Standing there in the dark with her, his pulse had buzzed. It had been a while, but he remembered that buzz. Waiting on a street corner doing a drug buyback. Walking into a strip joint with his fancy pants on, knowing he was lying to everyone in sight, and knowing, too, if they found him out, he’d be one more body dredged from the Mississippi.
He hadn’t felt that hum in years. Not since he turned in his shield and came home. Became “chief” to no one but himself.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. His dad had a couple of part-time deputies, and when necessary, the Volunteer Police Auxiliary. But the deputies retired when his dad did, and the VPA consisted mostly of men in their eighties.
Of course when he needed serious assistance there was always the county sheriff or the State Bureau of Investigation. They had helped last year when a group of druggies thought Redbud would be the perfect nowhere place to set up headquarters.