It couldn’t have gone more wrong.
All the planning and none of it had happened the way he wanted. Even from the start of the evening, everything had been off.
Now, thrashing deeper into the forest, he began to panic. There was so much blood. He was covered in it. His hands, which he’d wiped down the front of his shirt without thinking, his boots, although the fallen brush was taking care of that, and his favorite shirt.
He stopped and held out his shirt to see how bad it was. The pentagram on the front was marred by two elongated streaks down the front. There was no way he could hide that.
He pulled it over his head, taking care not to get blood anywhere else, and stomped farther in. He needed to find a good spot to stash it. Somewhere no one would ever find it or think to look. Up ahead, the forest opened into a clearing and below a cliff that overlooked the sweeping waters of the Red. The river might wash it away, maybe some of the blood too. But they had tests for that. He’d seen it on TV. No, the river was a bad idea. There was no way to judge where it could end up. Some kid might find it stuck on a branch near the edge and then what?
He had to keep his cool. That was the only way out of this. He stopped at the edge of the clearing and looked up at the night sky. The stars, one of the best things about living in this shit-ass town, sparkled like crystals above. Wind played with his hair, cooling the inner storm that raged. His heart, which had been drumming against his chest, slowed.
He needed to hurry and get back to the truck to meet up with everyone. They’d been counting on him tonight. He had to pull his shit together. Turning back toward the darkness of the forest, he spied a cubbyhole at the base of a nearby tree. Few people came through here. There were no roads that led to the clearing, and the forest was dense in this part. He bent to examine the crevice, rotted out by a previous occupant. It was perfect. He balled the shirt up and stuffed it in as far as it would go. As he stood, he made a silent prayer no one would find it or discover what he’d done. He headed back toward the truck and what promised to be a great night.
The dirt road kicked up tiny pebbles as the cruiser sped by the entrance to the Old Bailey farm. The only lights this far out were the cruiser’s. They jumped with each pothole—plentiful on the unpaved back roads of Flynn County.
From the open window, Elle Ashley could smell summer barreling toward Turlough. The small town lay hidden in the southern tip of Illinois’s boreal forests. It sat between two rivers: one a raging behemoth, the other a lazy Sunday afternoon stroll.
Pretty soon everything would be covered in a fine dust, from porches, to petals, to people. And then the humidity would come. It would set in, squeezing the town in a wet suffocating embrace. A grasp it held until the waning days of summer late in September.
The cruiser curved around bends, taking corners quicker than the tires or suspension would have liked. The last bordered by Nelly’s ravine on the passenger side, a yawning drop to the trickle of the Red River below. The town named the ravine for a young girl who, years previous, had wandered to the edge and lost her footing. She slid to the bottom, only to drown in the two inches of water slopping past.
The red and blue lights atop the car sat dark, and both front windows were rolled down. Elle always kept the windows down in summer, even when the cruiser’s air still worked. All three cruisers in Turlough were a gift as far as Elle figured it. They still worked—mostly. Unlike their neighbor county, which had five of its cars repossessed by the bank, they’d paid Turlough’s off last year. Even if they were ’05s, even if you had to disregard the rust spots for the paint, and even if the sirens only worked half the time, each deputy had their own.
The recession had hit small towns harder. And Turlough was no different. It had been leaking young folks for years. To places like Evansville, Louisville, Nashville, Chicago. The big cities promised jobs. The most you could hope for in Flynn County was trucking or laboring on the roads, or a fat baby and a dusty garden. But it had taken Turlough longer to recover than others. Some said they never would.
Before the noise came the lights, playing with the tree branches in the distance. They’d constructed a bonfire in a small clearing. The harsh powerful colors painted everything around it an orange hue. As the cruiser started up the hill toward the group of teenagers parading around with plastic cups, Elle flicked on the red and blues.
The cruiser’s lights created a panic. Fingers loosened, dropping cups to the ground, feet uprooted, the crowd scattered to the trees, leaving the area and refuse behind. A lone officer was not enough to catch and hold an entire party. If they could stay upright long enough to get out of range, they’d get away.
Elle unfurled from her cruiser. She watched as the crowd bounded for the forest, leaving a keg, two young men, and a mishmash of cigarette butts and crumpled red cups behind. The two sipped their beer and eyed Elle from the safety of a far tree.
“Dan, EJ,” she said.
In unison they said, “Sheriff.”
Clad in the Flynn County uniform of tan pants with a gray stripe up the seam, a black cotton uniform shirt with the gold star-shaped badge of a sheriff and a straight, unwavering tie to match the pants, Elle strolled up to the keg with her thumbs hooked into her Sam Browne belt. She’d left her hat on the passenger seat. Her dark red hair was coiled in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She kicked the keg. Her boot made a soft metallic thud, indicating the keg was still half full.
“Where’d you get it from?” she asked.
EJ shrugged but kept his eyes on the dirt in front of his worn Chucks.
“Is it Christmas? Because usually I don’t get presents like this handed to me any old time.” She picked up a cup and sniffed it before setting it down on the keg. “Which one of you knew underage drinkers are my favorite?”
“The pump’s mine,” said Dan, his eyes level with hers. “We didn’t steal it.”
Someone giggled close by, a soft feminine noise. The bonfire had slowed without encouragement, but there was still enough light to make out the white faces lining the edge of the trees.
Elle let a slow, long breath escape between her tight lips. “Go home,” she said to the trees in general. Silence. “Or I’ll call every one of your parents and wake them up.” She turned to address the trees full on. “Don’t think I didn’t see you,” and she began trilling off names. “It’s a lot of work, but if you piss me off enough I’ll do it.”
There was a quick and violent rush of noise and the trees were clear. Cracking twigs and branches echoed down the hill.
“Come on.” She waved toward the cruiser. “In the back.”
“That pump cost me fifty bucks.” Dan chugged the last of his beer. He crumpled the cup and tossed it to the ground.
“Fine. But if someone takes it before I get a chance to pick it up…” He ran his hand over the pump as he passed, stealing a look into the forest, letting the words trail. Then, almost as an afterthought, he picked up a sharp rock and gouged a mark into the hard black plastic of the pump handle.
EJ slouched against the back door, waiting. As the tall and lanky have a way of doing, he always managed to melt into his surroundings. If life were a track, EJ would plod along, taking each step as if the next didn’t matter and the last had never happened. A mash of freckles peppered his white complexion. A by-product of his flaming red hair, which sat on his head as it grew, curled and frizzled.
Elle opened the door and watched EJ climb in and slide to the far side. She felt Dan slink up behind her but turned before he could place a hand on her ass.
“You can arrest me anytime, Sheriff Ashley,” he said, a blast of his beer-infused breath hitting her in the face.
“Well, thank you, Mr. Baker. I will remember that the next time I pull you over for broken taillights.” She ushered him into the back and closed the door, scanned the clearing one more time, then walked to the pit. She circled the fire, spreading the logs out with the tip of her boot, then picked up an empty Solo cup and doused the fire in dirt. It crackled and smoked as it died. She watched it for a couple minutes, letting the boys stew in the back of her cruiser, until it was out.
The inside of the cruiser smelled of artificial apples, a condition of daily scrubbing with scented Lysol wipes. The paint was peeling on the cage separating Elle from her guests, but a recent sand job had removed any chunks that could fall and mar the upholstery. The windows gleamed from Windex, free of streaks and dried water spots.
Dan watched her drive, twisting the white threads on his jeans between his fingers. He oozed confidence the way a half-cracked beer oozed foam. His short butterscotch hair blended with his smooth, tanned skin. His gray, unblinking eyes followed her hands as they moved over the steering wheel. They turned down County Road 12. She slowed the speed of her cruiser to account for the potholes along this belt of road.
“Wait up,” said Dan. “Why’re you turning here? I’m down number six.”
“If I’d told you I was taking you to lockup would you’ve gotten in voluntarily?”
“I didn’t think so.”
“Fuck that!” His body straightened in the back seat. “What about my parents?”
“You can call them. I’m not arresting you. I’m employing a different tactic. Because talking at you about trespassing on private property and underage drinking have no effect. A sparse cell and shared cot, on the other hand…”
“If it smells like disinfectant, I’m out.” Dan crumpled down on the back seat.
“And, Dan? If you use that kind of language in my car again, I will bust you for that bag of pot in your pants.”
“Your sister has the largest arm of the law stuck right up her ass.” He demonstrated with his own arm, then used it to punch EJ’s thigh.
EJ turned his gaze to the ditches and roadside hills. He let the cool night air from Elle’s window wash over his face. Sometimes he would turn his head toward the wind and let it steal his breath, seeing how long he could go without breathing. He stared as they passed the marker, a red stake he’d stuck in the ground. The paint was fading back into the wood, and the grass stalks obscured more of it each year. He turned to gauge Elle’s reaction. Their eyes met, then released. She had noticed it too. A brief smile came to the edge of EJ’s lips.
Elle was twelve when EJ came home from the hospital. She’d decided he was a rumpled mess. And from the moment she became the built-in babysitter, EJ was the black spy to her white. The irritant who’d wear himself out to keep up on his BMX as she and her friends sped down the road in their old Buick. Red hair and a chalky complexion were their only comparable traits. EJ’s hurdles were walked around. Elle’s were leaped over. Where EJ waded, Elle splashed. EJ the underachiever. Elle the valedictorian. Her success was practically assured.
And then one phone call changed it all. In her last semester at the University of Chicago, about to take her finals, Elle got a call from Sheriff Bailey. There’d been an accident out on County Road 12. No details, but she should come home. EJ was staying at the Cases’.
From the moment she saw EJ, only ten, holding on to the porch frame, fighting back tears and waiting for her to come pick him up, they were a team. From that second forward, she would do anything and everything to never see that look in his eyes again. It crumpled her, that look of anguish, of losing everything that mattered. She would matter. From then on, she would be perfect for him.
Elle pulled the cruiser into one of three empty parking spots in front of the sheriff’s office. For such a compact building, it also housed the coroner’s office and the county morgue, making it a veritable multi-tool of office space. Turlough’s main strip came to an abrupt stop next to the sheriff’s office. Beside it was a small square that folded into the forest on the other side. Across the street was Dell’s Diner, the only restaurant in town open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The other two were Finnegan’s, the local pub, and Torrini’s, an Italian restaurant. It served hard spaghetti and limp baguettes but managed to stay open anyway. They all stood dark, except for the sheriff’s office.
As Elle marched the boys past the empty clerk’s station, the clock above read 2:11 a.m. The layout resembled an old-style newspaper room. The main floor was open concept with several multipurpose desks, tidy except for a few files in the out-boxes. Only one had a computer—a discolored mammoth from the early aughts—parked in the corner to give a modicum of privacy.
Elle seated the boys in the tiny waiting area outside her office—it was the only one with a door on the first floor—before grabbing two large clear Ziploc bags.
“Dan, you can use the phone if you want to call your parents.” She nodded at the phone on an empty desk across from him.
He shook his head.
“You’re eighteen. I’m not calling them for you.” She placed the two bags in front of them.
“I said I wasn’t calling them.”
Elle shrugged her left shoulder. “Empty your pockets. And, Dan, I want to see that bag of pot in there.”
“I’m just guessing here,” he said as he began emptying his pockets and placing the contents in the bag. “But I’m never seeing this pot again, am I?”
“This particular pot?” She lifted the small Ziploc bag containing two large buds from his hand. “No, but I’m sure that won’t stop you from buying more.”
EJ sat holding his breath, pleading for Dan to stop. His bag contained nothing more than a wallet, a Zippo, and some spare rolling papers. A distant rush of water moving through the pipes indicated a toilet had been flushed somewhere in the building. Stan Carrick emerged from a door behind the workstations, zipping his fly, a newspaper under one arm. He half smiled when he noticed Elle and the boys.
“Hey,” he said, a soft pink taking root in his cheeks. “Need any help?” Stan wasn’t just thin, he was concave. Underweight in a way that spoke in terms like anorexic or anemic. He had deep, dark pockets under his eyes, and his belt had several extra holes.
“I’ve got it. But thanks.”
“No problem. Want me to start on the report about that dog?”
Elle nodded. “Please. I’ll have Neil follow up with the owners in the morning.” Before making her rounds she’d been called to a convenience store just outside of town. Someone had broken in and beaten a dog to death. What had started out as a quiet night had turned into one of their busier ones.
Elle motioned the boys to lead the way to the basement.
“You guys are going to smoke that pot, aren’t you? I bet you’ll be going back for our keg too.” Dan handed her his bag.
“You’re right. I will be going back for the keg, so I can return it to Finnegan’s where you stole it.” Elle tucked the two bags under her arm and followed them down the stairs to the basement. The hallway continued for several feet beyond with doors on either side. The coroner’s office was through the door on the right, the morgue at the end of the inky, uncarpeted hall. To the left stood a single diminutive cell, complete with a stony cot and staunch bars.
EJ studied the windowless cell with its cement walls and water-stained floor. “Are you really going to lock us up in here all night?”
The floors had been scrubbed with vinegar recently and the pungent smell was prickling EJ’s nostrils. This combined with the harsh florescent lights above, and the fact that he was sobering up, made his head begin to throb.
Elle checked her watch. “Not that there’s much of it left,” she said. But she squeezed his elbow when she was sure Dan couldn’t see.
They both turned, Dan with a look of disdain, EJ with accusatory eyes. “Sit, sleep,” she ordered, pointing to the lonely cot.
“What if we need to make pee-pee?” Dan asked, folding his arms and kicking the side of the cot with his scuffed shoe. The cot was basic. It had a thin pad as a mattress, an even thinner pillow, and clean sheets. The laundered smell mingled with the vinegar. Like much of Turlough, the cell functioned. Any frills were best left for the cities.
“If you’re sleeping, you shouldn’t need to go.”
Elle closed the door, jiggling it to make sure it was locked. “Stan will be down to check on you in a couple of hours.” She turned and walked back down the hall and up the stairs.
They could hear the lock from the door click back into place. The silence was painful. The kind that bounced around in your head, knocking things off shelves to fill the void.
“Well, this is the shits.” Dan plunked down on the cot and began taking off his Chucks. “I’d much rather be banging Tully and her big, fat husband than down here, surviving the night with you.” He threw one shoe, then the other against the far wall, each with its own loud echo ringing through the basement. It made EJ flinch. “Why’s your sister such a bitch anyway?”
Without any warning EJ punched Dan in the arm fast and hard. He stood quickly, with his back to the bars, ready if Dan came at him. “Don’t call her that.”
But instead of showing anger, Dan laughed it off, rubbing the outer part of his bicep. “Why? What would you call her?”
EJ still hadn’t completely relaxed, but his fists were starting to drop.
“Because where I’m from, locking your brother up overnight doesn’t inspire the warm and fuzzies.” A grin spread across Dan’s face, big enough to take up the entire lower half. His teeth were so white they almost managed to brighten the cell. He patted the cot next to him. “I’m sorry, all right?”
EJ nodded and took a seat next to him. Shrugging off his jacket and shoes, he passed Dan the lone pillow. “Where you’re from they probably don’t worry so much about this kind of thing. I’m guessing big cities have more important things to worry about.” EJ crumpled up his jacket to use for himself.
“I wouldn’t exactly call Evansville a big city. It’s more like a trough for big city runoff.” Dan fluffed up the thin pillow. “How come your sister’s like that anyway? All stiff like she’s got a fire poker up her ass?”
EJ shrugged. “You should’ve seen her before…” He trailed off, unable to finish.
With their bodies in the fetal position at opposite ends of the cot, they settled in for what was left of the night, awaiting the consequences of what only morning could bring.
“The mayor’s on the line, boss,” called a voice from the other side of Elle’s office door. Sitting up with a groan, she tied her hair back and stretched out the kinks.
After rejecting the idea of going home around four a.m. last night, she settled for the love seat. Her office wasn’t large, or even grand, but it was more of a home than her house as of late.
Elle picked up one of many mugs at random and sniffed, taking a tentative sip she lifted the receiver to her ear. “Ken, what’s up?” Her voice echoed into the mug.
Contrary to her sparse cruiser, Elle’s office overflowed. Every surface was blanketed with orderly stacks of files rising like saplings from the forest floor. An ancient Cary safe stood stoic in the far corner. With the weight and girth of a cruiser, it acted as the station’s evidence locker. The doors were propped open, revealing various size wooden drawers.
“I wanted to talk to you about something that’s come up.” He had the kind of voice that belonged to game show hosts and radio personalities.
“If this is anything to do with the festival, direct it toward Neil.” Elle made an unpleasant face as she took another sip of cold coffee.
“It does, but only indirectly.”
“Then talk to Neil. He is the grand poobah of the festival this year.” She stifled a yawn and sat down in a huff. Not generally a morning person, this was shaping up to be a bad start.
“There’s no such thing as a grand poobah of the festival. That’s not a thing.”
“Yes, it is. I just made it a thing.”
“Elle, this is serious. I need you to be serious.”
“When am I not serious?”
A deep sigh drifted through the receiver. Elle didn’t even try stifling her grin. She lived for winding Ken Brady’s crank.
“Have you ever heard of Verve Magazine? They want to send a reporter down and do a story on us.”
“Have you ever heard of Verve Magazine?”
“It doesn’t matter if I’ve heard of it. It’s a Chicago magazine. All that matters is people read it. Their website says it has over a million subscriptions. Just imagine how many people we could potentially reach.”
“We’re not exactly a tourist destination.”
“No, but we could be. The festival is coming up in a little over two weeks. This could be a chance to get people interested, you know, for next year.”
“In the Beer and Berry Festival? In Turlough? Ken, you’re dreaming if you think anyone wants to trek all the way out here to get bitten by mosquitos and consume flat beer and stale pie.” She tried to keep her hands busy by organizing the stacks of files into even taller, less stable piles.
“Goddammit, Elle. It’s not like it used to be when the brick factory was still running. In fact, the council is trying to find ways to cut money. We need this. We need to bring in some tourism dollars. And if someone from Chic—” But she didn’t let him finish. She calmly replaced the receiver and trudged toward the door.
In the outer office Neil Dell, Elle’s senior deputy, perched his considerable bulk on the edge of the reception desk. “Heather’s sick today,” he said as she swept past. “And Mr. Rutherford’s been hounding us to speak to you.” But she was already out the station door before he could finish.
It was late spring in Turlough, which meant peach blossoms. They had a way of becoming the next season’s carpet. They coated benches and stoops and cars that hadn’t moved since the night before. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the buildings, adding a sleepy dreamy effect to the morning mist. The sight reminded Elle of a Dr. Seuss book she’d read as a kid. It was like you could take the whole world in your arms and give it a big hug.
Less than a block down, Elle pulled at a large wooden door, rushed past the reception area and through a door in the back. Behind the oversized desk sat Ken Brady, Turlough’s mayor. He was still questioning the connection when Elle barged in.
“Ah.” He replaced the receiver. “So you did hang up.” Brady’s golden brown hair appeared glued to his head. Combined with the bronzing moisturizer he wore, it made him look plastic.
Elle stood with her hands on her hips and gave him a let’s have it look.
Brady raised his hands in surrender. “Okay, I know I kinda sprang this on you, but let’s face it, you’ll make a better PR front than me.” He placed his hand to his heart. “As much as it pains me to say that.” His teeth were fake, covered in veneers that were too white and perfect. When he smiled his face looked fake.
“Don’t schmooze me, Ken. You know I hate it when you do that.” Without asking, Elle skirted behind Brady and helped herself to a cup of coffee from the sideboard. She inhaled the steam before taking a large gulp.
“I need you to do this interview,” he said. “Just show him your smile, flap your gums about community and safety, I’ll handle the rest.”
Elle took another sip before responding. “Don’t you find it kind of odd that a journalist from Chicago wants to come all the way down here to do a piece on us? Some no-name town?”
“City. That’s no-name city. We’re incorporated.”
“Ken, I know how you love your ego stroked and everything, but nine hundred people does not a city make. Get over yourself.” Three years ago, Turlough had incorporated. The purpose of which was to leverage more money from the state. It had only succeeded in giving a few people more impressive titles. The county commissioner became the mayor of Turlough, and the board of county commissioners became the city council. The lobbying for this change, of course, had come from Brady himself.
She sank into a seat across from him and eyed the picture frames sitting on his back wall. There were several she knew to be fake. The one with Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Photoshop job, as well as the one with Pat Quinn. The only real photos were the one with his mother the day he moved her into the retirement home in Mason and the one from the breaking ground ceremony for the new hockey arena. It was also the only one with a genuine smile on his face. His arms were in an upward swing as a shovel full of dirt flew over his shoulder. His eyes, which were crinkled at the edges, followed the arc of soil. That was over a year ago and the foundation had yet to be poured.
“I think we should put our past differences aside and focus on being professional. As sheriff, it’s your job to schmooze occasionally, throw a little PR voodoo around and make us look good. Besides, I already said you’d do it.” He muttered that last line quick. Instead of answering she just eyed him over the brim of her mug. As long as she’d known Brady, the only way to win any argument was to let him do the talking. The longer she stayed silent, the more concessions he’d be willing to make just to get her to leave his office.
He steepled his fingers and leaned back, as the seconds turned into minutes. Elle took another long sip of her coffee, relishing the caffeine coursing through her bloodstream.
“I need you to do this, Elle.”
She shrugged one shoulder, continuing to stare.
“Dammit, Elle, this is part of your job.”
“Ken, don’t tell me my job. I know it may not be as impressive as yours, but it sure as hell doesn’t involve kowtowing to some shithead from Chicago who thinks he can poke fun at hicks, ’kay?” She stood, straightening the creases in her pants as she did.
“Elle, come on, they’re not here to make fun of you.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean me.” And she left, taking the mug of coffee with her.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Dan asked. He looped around potholes in his ’89 Dodge Dakota like he was dancing with an unseen partner. The truck grumbled as it rode the hard back roads.
EJ poked his head out from under the passenger seat. “I’m looking for my knife. I think I dropped it in here last night.” The sweat from EJ’s hairline was creeping down his face one stream at a time. It invaded the corners of his eyes and the creases around his nose and settled at the edge of his jaw.
“I haven’t seen it. We’ll have a look when we collect the keg.” Dan turned a sharp corner fast.
EJ grabbed for the oh-shit bar. “I told you, Elle would’ve gone back for it last night.”
“Right, like her and Deputy Do-Right could lift that thing into the back of a cruiser.”
EJ shook his head. “Elle’s stronger than she looks. I’ve seen her lift a tractor wheel just because someone told her she couldn’t do it.”
“You think she’ll give me my pump back?”
EJ grinned as he pulled a tiny silver key from under the seat. He slipped it into the lock of the glove compartment and turned. It gave a groan, then a pop as it flipped open. EJ shoved his hand inside and began pulling things out at random and piling them on his lap. “Ugh! That’s disgusting,” he said as he pulled out a clump of melted condoms. They had fused together in a congealed mass of latex. He threw them out the window into a damp ditch where they sank to the bottom.
The morning was setting the stage for a brilliant spring afternoon. It was the kind of day people made excuses to be out. The kind of day that made you forget winter existed and carried the promise of summer vacation on the wind.
They’d met Dan’s first day of school. He’d moved with his family from Indiana halfway through the year. EJ huddled in a corner near the back of the school, lighting a smoke in the cold November wind. A couple of guys Dan could tell were football players by their bulk and swagger strolled up and started rolling EJ for money.
At first Dan held back, listening, taking stock of the situation, enjoying his own smoke at the edge of the tree line.
One of them laughed loud and punched EJ’s shoulder hard enough that EJ slammed back against the brick wall. “What else you got in that jacket? Got any money?” EJ shook his head. “Why? Your sister make your lunch today? She make you a chickenshit salad sandwich?” The group all laughed.
EJ didn’t say anything, just stared back at the wall of football players, wary, his eyes darting between faces, waiting for the next blow. One of the bigger guys, the one going through his wallet, pushed him against the wall. “Hey, retard, where’s the rest of my money?”
“It’s not your money.”
“Well, my fist says it is.”
“Yeah? Well, my mouth says it isn’t, so go jerk off or something.”
Before EJ had even finished the sentence, a meaty fist smashed into his face. Blood exploded from his nose and mouth, but he stood up straight again as if he wasn’t bleeding and stared at the group.
“You’re still not getting how this works, Ashley.”
The taller one wearing a hoodie with the J.P. Flynn Cavaliers logo on the back pushed EJ back against the wall. “You going to go cry to your big sister now? Little baby Ashley.” They all laughed again.
“She wouldn’t give a shit anyway, guys, she knows he’s just the retard in the family.”
Dan dropped his smoke and it fizzled in the wet grass. Ten strides and he was face to chest with the bulkier one of the group, his fists clenched, jaw tight, ready to go.
They’d all ended up in the office sitting across from the principal’s door. Dan was the only one not bleeding on his clothes, and he had a great big smirk on his face. He and EJ had been friends ever since.
They arrived at the clearing to reclaim Dan’s pump and, with any luck, the stolen keg. The glade was empty save for a makeshift fire pit and forgotten red cups, left behind as a memento and calling card for future partiers.
“What now?” EJ asked as he foraged along the tree line, scanning for his knife.
“We find your sister and give her a talking-to.”
“Come on, she’s just doing her job. It’s not like she pressed charges.”
“Aren’t you pissed?”
EJ shrugged his left shoulder, still in search mode.
“You should be. Your sister just locked you up for the night like it was no big deal.” He applied a falsetto voice. “Oh, boys, underage drinking is bad. It’s my mission to see all you hooligans sent to camps.”
EJ laughed. It came in one loud spurt. But Dan’s eyes made him stop. He sighed instead. “She’s the sheriff.”
“That’s not an excuse.” Dan punched him playfully in the arm. “It’s a cop-out. You need to cowboy the fuck up.”
“Elle always says I need to put my big girl panties on and deal with it.”
Dan stared at him. “No. See? This is what’s wrong with being raised by a single woman. They rip your balls off and serve them up for dinner and bitch at you for not having any over dessert.” Dan checked the air pressure on his tires for the fourth time that morning.
“Doesn’t look like it’s here.”
“What’s the big deal? So we buy you a new knife.”
“It belonged to my granddad.” EJ desperately tried to remember the last time he’d seen it. He wasn’t even supposed to have it. He’d taken it from his dad’s toolbox a couple of months ago. Elle had caught him with it a few weeks later and confiscated it. He’d found it hidden in the back of her underwear drawer. Even when they were kids she’d always thought the fear of her underwear was enough of a deterrent. If Elle found out that not only had he been through her private things but he’d lost their granddad’s knife, she’d be furious.
His grandfather had been dead long before EJ was born, but he’d seen pictures of the tough Irishman. He looked like someone who didn’t take any shit. EJ liked carrying the knife; it made him feel like he didn’t take shit either.
Dan smacked him on his back. “Don’t worry, it’ll turn up.”
“We should get going, Tanya’s probably waiting for us by now. Maybe I dropped it somewhere over there.”
Dan jumped into the cab of his truck. The engine started with a slow sputter. “I’ve got a better idea. Come on.”
The main strip of Turlough reminded Robin Oakes of a zombie movie she’d watched as a kid. It looked deserted in the early morning. There was no traffic and the only noise came from the birds chattering at her from the trees above.
She’d been in town less than an hour and already everything she’d brought was covered in a fine pink dusting. The way it stuck to your skin and clothing was like a fungus.
The walk from the Collard’s Bed and Breakfast had been shorter than she’d expected. There wasn’t much to the town. It looked more like a strip of houses had attempted to escape the forest, only to give up after a couple of blocks. The forest held the town within a swath of green. Protective or suffocating, she wasn’t sure.
As Robin entered the sheriff’s office, she brushed her pale blond bangs to the side. A few delicate petals fell to the floor by her heels. She swiped at her clothes, more as an excuse to inspect her shoes for scuffs. Finally she pulled her attention to the inside of the building. It appeared larger on the outside. She’d had apartments bigger than this. And that was in Chicago, where they charged a premium for tiny shit holes.
A rotund officer sat on the edge of the reception desk speaking into the phone. He stuffed half a muffin into his mouth.
“Hold on a sec,” said Neil as he pulled away from the phone. “Can I help you?” Bits of muffin dropped from his mouth to his uniform.
“I have a meeting with the sheriff.” Robin stood in the doorway, her tall frame blocking most of the sunlight. Robin exuded urban. Like most city dwellers, she wore her arrogance like a shield. A safeguard against any number of embarrassments or misunderstandings.
Neil chewed as fast as he could, moving his right hand in a circular motion as if to speed up the process. “She’s out for a sec. You can take a seat by her office and wait if you like.” He turned his attention back to the phone, but not before giving her backside the once-over as she passed.
Instead of taking a seat outside, Robin stepped into Elle’s office. “An open door is an open invitation,” she whispered to herself. Her eyes roved around the room. Busy desk, old safe—open. “So much for security.” A pump-less keg. “Interesting.” The room was devoid of personal pictures and items.
She felt a buzz in her pocket and slipped out her cell phone. She smirked at the caller ID. “A little light on the content, were we?” She ran her fingers over the spines of the books as she listened. “I know it was a rush job and it looks great. But can you beef it up a little? It’s way too flimsy.” Her red lips curled into a pleasant smile. “Thanks, you’re a doll.” She slid the phone back into her skirt pocket.
After getting a brief glimpse of the town, Robin expected Sheriff Ashley to be the female version of the burly deputy stuffing his face in reception. So when Elle marched in, Robin’s throat nearly swallowed her tongue.
“Who are you and why are you in my office?” Elle moved around to the back of her desk. She placed her stolen mug of coffee on the blotter and shifted piles of folders around. She was unsuccessful at trying to clear space on her desk.
Robin had to shake herself mentally. The image she’d held in her mind of an oafish woman in her fifties was replaced with this woman and her flaming hair. “I’m Robin Oakes. I’m with Verve Magazine.” Robin stuck her hand out, but the look of sheer death in Elle’s eyes made her pull it back in.
“I haven’t even agreed to give you an interview and you’re already snooping around.” Elle made a quick scan to see what Robin had seen, her eyes landing on the keg. “Why exactly are you writing this story anyway?” She remained standing. So did Robin.
“Oh.” Robin’s smile was smooth. She was used to coming up against opposition with her job. Very few people were happy to see her. When she showed up, it usually meant something had gone wrong. There wasn’t much that ruffled her on a daily basis. “Mr. Brady assured me this was all set up.”
“I’m sure he did.” Elle’s face was stone.
Robin took a moment to pull from her arsenal of persuasion tactics and settled on conspiratorial girlfriends. “Listen. I get it. You don’t want someone hanging around getting in the way. But I’m used to staying on the sidelines. I assure you, I will stay out of your way. And I won’t print anything you don’t want.” She found it disconcerting the way Elle’s dark green eyes scrutinized her, like she was waiting for her to commit an offense.
“You didn’t answer my question,” Elle said, still standing.
She shrugged. “Why wouldn’t someone want to write a story about Turlough? Or you, for that matter? Female sheriff in a small town. With everything that’s going on in the world right now, people will eat this shit up.”
Elle’s eyebrows rose.
Robin internally chastised herself. Dial it back a bit. “Sorry. The company I usually keep isn’t all flowers and sunshine. What I mean is, women in power positions is a story. America needs to see more of this.”
“I’m sorry, but I was under the impression you were doing a profile piece on Turlough for the Beer and Berry Festival.”
“No. I’m doing a profile on you.”
Elle blinked. She was unsure how to react. She took refuge in the most comforting: fury. “You told Brady this, didn’t you? Did it ever occur to any of you that I might not want to be written about?” Her usually pale skin began to color as she built momentum.
“Phone, boss,” Neil yelled from the outer office.
Elle grabbed at the receiver, glad for the reprieve. “Sheriff Ashley,” she said.
Robin scanned the room again, each item taking on new meaning now that she’d gotten a glimpse of the owner. She walked to a small bookshelf stuffed behind the opening of the door and the love seat. It, like everything in the office, was very old and falling apart. Books were shoved into every space, like a life-size game of Tetris. Mostly criminology books. Several of John Douglas’s profiling books stood out. She picked up a book draped across the arm of the love seat. The title read Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death. She opened a page at random and began to read. Robin stopped reading and looked again at the title. Interesting. She’d have to pick up a copy.
“Wait—you’re mad I didn’t press charges? He’s eighteen, they would—” There was a pause as she listened to the speaker on the other end.
Robin watched with growing intrigue as Elle stood with her fists balled, eyes closed, trying to rein in her temper. Her uniform was rumpled like she’d slept in it and much of her hair had escaped her bun, but there was no doubt in Robin’s mind, beneath that sleepy exterior was a woman of passion. In fact, the image was breathtaking. If she hadn’t been there on business she might consider getting to know Sheriff Ashley a little better. But she had a hard and fast rule of never shitting where she ate. It had served her well.
“I appreciate that you’re trying to find the best way to discipline your son. But trespassing and underage drinking are not good reasons to give your son a permanent criminal record,” she said.
Robin had once read it was difficult for people to imagine the other side of a phone conversation. Robin’s imagination was better than most. She loved eavesdropping on these phone calls, trying to piece together all the possibilities.
“Hold on,” Elle said, a little too loud. “My brother being there had nothing to do with why I didn’t file charges. I have never compromised my position as sheriff for EJ.”
Robin turned to see if the volcano would erupt. Still standing, Elle had closed her left fist around a stress ball. Her lips were a thin line. She breathed. Her hand squeezed tighter.
“I know you’re relatively new to the area, Mr. Baker, but things work a little different here. Turlough has a way of ebbing the reactionary instinct out of people over time.” She tried to smile, restoring color to her lips. Her eyes opened. She caught Robin watching her and turned her back.
Robin replaced the book on the shelf, convinced more than ever that Sheriff Elle Ashley was going to be a wicked temptation during this assignment.
Mr. Rutherford took his time. Each step was a snake pit. Sharp pains struck at his legs, starting with his weedy ankles and working their way up his thighs. People watched as he progressed toward the sheriff’s office, each wondering if it would be his last trek from the old Victorian tucked into the woods behind Turlough.
He sucked in a sharp breath as he pulled open the station door. Neil rushed to help.
“Off!” Mr. Rutherford slapped at Neil’s hand. “Off! I can manage a silly door.” The way he used it for leverage, he appeared to be heaving himself onto a ledge. “Where’s the sheriff? I’m tired of waiting for her to return my calls.” He puffed himself up. “Elizabeth!”
“The sheriff’s in a meeting right now. You can wait if you like.” Neil waved toward Elle’s office and the row of chairs outside her door.
“I do like.” Mr. Rutherford hobbled over to the chairs, peering inside to see who Elle was speaking with. If his hearing was any better he would have liked to eavesdrop. But even up close, you needed to shout to be heard.
“Can I get you something while you wait?”
Mr. Rutherford waved him off with a furious hand gesture.
Inside her office, Elle held up a hand for Robin to stop talking, distracted by the sight of Mr. Rutherford wobbling past her door.
She rounded her desk toward Mr. Rutherford and sat down beside him. “I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to return your calls, Mr. Rutherford.”
He squeezed her arm. “Gives me a chance to get some much-needed exercise.” He smiled for what was probably the first time all day. His teeth hadn’t fared better than the rest of him. Many of the back molars were missing, and a few bicuspids. The ones he did have were the color of old ivory. “And this gives me a chance to flirt with you.”
“What was it you needed?” Her face relaxed and some of the tension she’d felt earlier eased out of her shoulders.
“I wanted to tell you about Mrs. Collard and her hedges. I checked the bylaw. She has an obligation to cut them if they’re too high. She says they’re not too high.” He took a big gulp of air. “I had my nephew measure them last time he was here and that was several weeks ago. They’re too high.” He nudged her arm. “You remember him? He’s single again, you know.”
Robin watched from the door, a small smile curving her lips.
“Mr. Rutherford, you know I’m far too busy to worry about dating.” She tried to brush his comment off with a smile, but the color creeping from her ears gave her away.
“It’s nice to see you smile.” Mr. Rutherford patted her cheek. “You’re far too serious these days, Elizabeth.” He began the long process of standing. “And far too pretty to let yourself go to waste.” Elle helped him to his feet. She hooked his elbow with a strong grip.
“I promise to talk with Mrs. Collard about her hedges, as long as you promise me to stay put. I’m sure your family doesn’t want you using up all your strength for bylaw complaints.”
He turned grave eyes on her. “And what else do I have to occupy my time with? I don’t have much of it left. I would think my prize for making it this long would be a free pass on unlimited complaining.”
Elle sighed, but smiled despite herself. This argument was old. “I’ll come by when I have a free moment and you can beat me at cribbage. How’s that?” She let go of his arm in increments, allowing him to take possession of his own gravity.
“Okay. As long as you bring your own money. I’m not spotting you this time.”
Elle waited until he was through the door before she turned back to Robin.
“Who’s that?” Robin asked, following Elle into her office.
“That would be Mr. Rutherford. Turlough’s oldest resident. He’s about ninety-eight.” She sat, nodding for Robin to do the same. “Everyone’s just waiting for him to die. It’s sad.” Her anger, so recently on firm ground, had slipped away. Mr. Rutherford, with all his fruitless flirting, had a way of doing that. He was more than just the oldest resident of Turlough. He was an institution, and as far back as Elle could remember, always had an easy smile for her.
“Is the whole town like that?” Robin asked, easing herself into the scarred wingback across from Elle. She had this idea about small towns being retirement communities.
Elle gave a lopsided shrug and studied the blonde sitting across from her with new scrutiny. She was what Elle would call a cool blonde. There was something remote and hidden about her. But she was stunning. Thin, delicate eyebrows framed her pale blue eyes. She wore just the right amount of mascara to make them pop. Her skirt suit was pale gray with a matching silk blouse. A beautiful gold chain with some symbol Elle couldn’t make out hung around her neck. Everything about her screamed expensive.
“Listen, I’m not exactly sure what you’re expecting to dig up here. There’s no crime because most of the offenses aren’t worth reporting. I’m not going to write someone up for a bylaw violation. So if you’re here for something juicier than that, you’re wasting your time.”
“Why do you assume I’m here to get the dirt on you? Sometimes people just want a feel-good story.”
Elle squinted in disbelief. Her focus shifted to Robin’s legs as she crossed one over the other. Her skirt hiked up a few inches, giving Elle an excellent view of firm, long legs. “What exactly did you tell Brady? He presented a very different story idea to me.”
Robin shrugged. “He didn’t seem the type that would be interested in hearing about empowered women and how that’s beneficial for the economy in general.”
Elle almost snorted. “True. He’d rather one of the good ole boys held this seat. I guess I don’t scratch his back enough.” Elle gave a mental shudder at that thought. She picked up a pen, twirling it around her finger. “To be completely truthful, I’d like you gone as soon as possible. I mean, who would want to write about some Podunk town in the middle of nowhere. And this,” she indicated Robin, her suit, shoes, hair, “doesn’t exactly scream ‘feel good’ story to me.” From Elle’s experience, which wasn’t a whole lot, reporters were opportunists. She didn’t trust Robin Oakes to put the best interests of the town above getting a great story.
Robin leaned forward, offering a spectacular view of her cleavage, and nodded toward the phone. “Looks to me like you do more than deal with bylaw complaints. Underage drinking, trespassing? Sheriff helps younger brother escape the charges of youth. Could be a story.” She was goading her.
“Really? That’s the best you can do?” Elle leaned away, twirling the mug of coffee on the blotter. The inscription read: World’s Greatest Mayor.
“All right. I’m not here to make enemies or write up the dirt on your family. But it is a free country and I’m paid up for the week at the B and B down the road, so I plan on sticking around.”
Elle stood. “It is a lovely B&B. Probably one of the best in the state.” She brushed at her pants, considering, weighing her stubbornness against her common sense, both of which were losing to the beautiful reporter sitting across from her. Part of her wanted to leave it at that. Let her write what she wanted. But another part, the less intrusive, more rational side knew, if she helped, she could control the information instead of letting the town gossips dictate the truth. “Look, I’m not promising anything. But if I can’t convince you that Turlough is the most boring place on Earth in words, maybe I can show you.” Not only was this idea bad, it was dangerous. She could feel her coveted control breaking. There were plenty of stories from her youth she’d rather not have this woman hear. No matter how many years separated her from that version of herself, there were parts of Elle’s past she didn’t want dredged up.
Robin clapped her hands together. “Perfect. I’ll need full access to the town. I’d also like to follow you around for a couple days, get a feel for your day-to-day—”
“Whoa.” Elle held her hand up. “I said I’d be cooperative. I’m not looking for a tail.”
The phone rang. Elle picked it up before Neil could grab it. “Flynn County Sheriff’s Office.” She frowned after a moment. “How long has she been like that?” As she listened, she grabbed her jacket from the back of her chair. “I’ll be there shortly. Thanks.”
“Can I come?”
Elle’s hat lay in the back seat, usurped by Robin riding shotgun. Triumph carpeted her face as the wind blew at her hair. They had already passed out of the downtown and were riding the back roads, trees and ravines enveloping the cruiser. Robin breathed in the scented spring air. It reminded her of the yearly camping trip when her parents and little brother would drive out into the middle of nowhere. They’d load up everything in her dad’s ancient minivan and drive until the mosquitos outnumbered people. Then they’d set up two tents, one for her parents and one for her and her brother. They’d swim and hike during the day and make fires at night. On the Fourth of July they would light sparklers and write letters in the air, usually dirty words they weren’t allowed to say out loud. She hated it as a kid. It was weird, but being out here made her kind of miss it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d sucked in fresh air.
“Where are we headed?” Robin asked.
Elle kept her eyes ahead, navigating the roads like a familiar room in the dark. “The Maverty house.”
“Ah.” Robin’s arm hung out the window, both sleeves rolled up, creasing the smooth silk. “That explains it, then.”
“It’s what everyone calls this abandoned house out in the woods.” She pushed at her hair, curling some wind-whipped tendrils behind her ear. “All the kids hang out there. Hell, I used to hang out there when I was in school.” She glanced at Robin, who was absorbed in the thickness of the forest. When she’d threatened to follow in her rental car Elle relented in bringing her along. It was only a simple noise complaint. This was the perfect opportunity to show how boring Turlough was.
“The council has been trying to get it demolished, but a couple of months ago it was named a historical landmark.”
“So what do kids do at this Maverty house?”
“The usual. Drink, do drugs…have sex.”
“How many times a month do you bust this place up?”
Elle sighed. “I don’t bust it up. I have patrols come by on weekends, make sure no one’s doing anything too stupid.”
“Makes you sound like a babysitter.”
Elle laughed. It echoed throughout the cruiser, joining the wind. Her shield dropped for a moment. “I guess that’s a really good description of what I do.”
Robin watched the dying embers of her laugh fade. She liked it. It made her more alive somehow. She’d have to remember to be funny more often.
Elle turned the cruiser into a drive obscured by trees on both sides. Only someone familiar with the road would know it was there. Branches scraped at the sides of the car and dug into the paint as if hoping for a souvenir. The car rocked from side to side, a jarring, rough effect on the passengers inside. Robin’s head almost hit the ceiling of the cab as they came to the bottom of a steep hill. When they rounded the last bend in the drive, a tall dilapidated Victorian in a small clearing was visible. Its original color had eroded over time. The porch leaned into the earth and forest around it, bucking where a large tree root had pushed through. A shiny silver BMW coupe parked in the drive made an incongruous scene next to the decay.
A young woman sat on the steps, hugging her knees to her chest. Mascara trails ran down her cheeks. Her stringy blond hair was tucked behind her ears. She appeared tiny next to the forest and house as she rocked back and forth, staring into the distance.
“Stay. You can observe from here.” Elle exited the cruiser.
Robin raised her hands in surrender. “You’re the boss.”
Elle snorted, mentally girding herself against the battles she was sure would be fought with Robin Oakes in the coming days.
Elle approached the girl as one would a spooked horse. She’d taken her jacket off in the car, throwing it over her discarded hat. Her hands were loose at her sides. “Tanya?” Her voice was calm, sure. She knelt down and placed her hands on Tanya’s knees. Tanya jerked away from her. As if noticing Elle for the first time, Tanya looked down at her. Elle kept her hands still, reassuring.
“I got a call about screaming. Were you in an argument with someone?” Elle peered around Tanya toward the front door. “Are they still here?” She turned to look at the BMW behind her. “Was the car here before you arrived?” Seeing the Beemer worried her most of all.
Tanya broke into a sob, her shoulders rolling forward as she crumpled into Elle. Tanya shook her head. “I waited.” She gulped in a lungful of air. “I don’t like to go in by myself.” Another sob as she burrowed into Elle’s shoulder, leaving black smudges on her epaulette. “But they didn’t come. So I went in to see if maybe they were already inside.” She muffled the last bit.
Elle stroked Tanya’s hair, making soothing noises, letting her cry it out. Several minutes passed. Cicadas chirped in the trees surrounding the house. That and the low mewling from Tanya were the only noises. Elle moved to sit beside Tanya on the steps, enclosing her in her arms. She rocked her back and forth, like her mother used to when she was young.
Tanya raised her head. “Why didn’t they come?”
Tanya shook her head. “I shouldn’t have gone in.” She hugged her knees in tighter. Her breath was shaky, but she had stopped crying.
“Feel up to moving?” Elle asked.
“Okay.” Elle helped Tanya to her feet. “Let’s get you home.” She guided Tanya to the cruiser and set her in the back seat.
Robin had turned in her seat to get a better view. Her remark about babysitting, having taken root in her mind, now sprouted branches.
“I’m going to take a quick look around,” Elle said to Robin.
“I’ll go with you.” She was undeterred by the look Elle gave her. “Come on, I’m as curious as you.”
Elle shook her head. “I want you to stay with Tanya. If it’s nothing serious, maybe I’ll let you look around when I come back out.”
Robin eyed Tanya. What she thought of this idea and of Tanya was not lost on Elle.
Elle unclipped a small Maglite from her belt. The underbrush crunched beneath her feet as she approached the front door. She turned before she entered. “I mean it. Stay.” If she’d had the guts, she would have handcuffed her to the cruiser. She didn’t trust Robin Oakes to stay put. She looked like the sort that felt rules didn’t apply to them.
She would never forget the smell of it. The odor was engrained into her senses the way blueberry pie reminded her of summer and hot chocolate of winter. The scent of the Maverty house would always remind her of him. Decades of abandonment had imparted the house with its own distinct aroma. A mixture of decay, mold, stale beer, marijuana, and a hint of nature reclaiming its territory. As Elle entered, there was something else, something new she couldn’t place.
She panned the flashlight across the foyer. The downstairs was dark even in the day. The little light that did filter in came from scattered cracks in the boarded-up windows. Upstairs was a different story. A storm had ripped part of the roof off, leaving several of the rooms full of light and open to the elements. Mounds of dirt huddled in corners, composted from fallen foliage. The battered furniture lay in a funk, preparing to return to base elements as if in purgatory.
Elle stepped over a few strewn beer cans toward the kitchen. She searched the ground for anything out of the ordinary, which was made harder by the nature of the place. She moved with purpose, scanning each surface, then continuing to the next room.
Not much had changed since high school. The same furniture, a little worse off than she’d last seen. She recognized the wingback chair he always sat in. Its position had changed and there were a few more holes and burn marks, but it still stood like a throne. It was occupied by a different quarterback. Different name, same attitude. There had been a time when Elle had spent most weekends and evenings here with Jessie and their crew, wrapped in teenage fantasies. Before the accident.
Her light passed over something in the far corner of what had once been the living room. Like the light through the slats in the window, Elle’s stomach flickered. The new smell was finally identified. She stepped over a fallen rafter to get a clearer view. The distinct shape of a man lay face up near the far wall.
The beam from Elle’s flashlight worked its way up the torso, then stopped, wavering at the head. Elle choked back a sob. Her flashlight dropped to the floor with a clank, rolling under some refuse. Her hand flew to her mouth to hold in the bile.
She’d seen his face, that face. His mouth was twisted in its final expression. Her eyes snapped shut. But like a bright light, the image was fused to the back of her lids. His soft gray eyes, unblinking. Their last image was of the wilted ceiling above.
“I heard you scre— Holy shit!” Robin stumbled, her heels, sinking into the soft floor of the Maverty house.
“Out! Get out,” Elle said, her voice faltering. She pointed at the door behind Robin. As she followed Robin outside she removed a pair of handcuffs from her belt. She placed one around Robin’s wrist and clicked the other end to the crumbling porch railing. Elle tripped down the stairs, running for the edge of the glade. She only made it to the side of the porch before she bent forward and threw up on a patch of dandelions. She straightened, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and swallowed a steady gulp of air. Tears escaped her tightly shut eyes. Some from panic, others anger. Acutely aware that she had an audience, Elle rubbed at her eyes, as if to erase her embarrassment. “Don’t touch anything,” she said. She stomped away, leaving Robin cuffed to the rail.