The coroner’s crime scene investigator was waiting for them at the command vehicle. He’d been at this job for close to twenty years but both men noticed that he too looked pale. Even twenty years didn’t prepare you for this morning.
“Afternoon, guys.” He said in a very subdued voice. “I’m done here. I’ve told the others that they can bag and move the bodies now.” Turning his attention to Stone, he added, “Evan, I’m really sorry about your boys. They didn’t deserve this.”
Stone thanked him for his concern and asked when the post mortem would be done. Looking back towards the bodies, the Coroner’s Assistant advised him, “Considering who they are and the circumstances, I’d say, Doc. will stay up all night if he has to. My bet is you’ll have everything, excepting the toxicology reports, on your desk tomorrow morning.”
“Good,” then looking at Bob to make sure he understood, Stone explained, “Bob and I are very interested in what Doc Stevenson has to say.”
Bob grimaced at that last remark, accepting but not liking the implied message and reminder of his deal with Stone. Billy Two Feathers’ story was still a vivid memory and Bob began to wonder if he could afford to pull the plug now and retire on a slightly reduced pension. Crazy fucking Indian and his crazy story, he thought. In his opinion, what made it even worse was he feared Stone was buying into all that mumbo-jumbo bullshit. He shook his head and shoulders like a dog shaking off water and started to give some very serious thought to an early retirement.
“Did you say something, Bob?”
Afraid he might have spoken his thoughts aloud, Bob looked at Stone and replied, “Me? No, nothing.”
Stone, with head tilted to one side and one eyebrow raised in a questioning gesture said, “OK, sorry, thought I heard you mumble something.”
Wanting a change in subject, Bob started, “Evan, I think my boys are done with your car.” And then, with true sincerity, continued, “I guess you’ll want to get over to see McPhail’s wife and then Bill’s parents.” Seeing the look on Stone’s face, he quickly offered, “Would you like me to come?”
It was the worst job for any cop, no matter how experienced. Usually, it involved telling relatives that their son or daughter, father or mother had been killed in a highway accident. This time however, the pain was even greater as it was one of their own. “Thanks, Bob, but I’ll look after that.” With an empty stare he explained, “Charlie and the priest have been with Sharon since this morning and the mayor and padre have been with Bill’s parents.” As if attempting to explain away his absence in their time of need, Stone added, “They’ve been told that I was involved, first on scene and as such would be delayed in getting over.”
Seeing the difficulty Stone was having, Bob consoled, “Hey, Evan, we know the rules and so do they. As first on scene you become part of the investigation. We also had a totally uncontained and potentially dangerous site here. No one can blame you. You were required to be here.”
Unsure whether or not his advice was hitting the mark, Bob placed a reassuring hand on Stone’s shoulder. “We can finish up here. Your car is cleared now so why don’t you head down and see how Sharon’s doing?”
The two men walked in silence to Stone’s car. Those around them seemed to sense where Stone was going and a stillness descended amongst the officers on the hill that afternoon. It was a closed brotherhood, a fraternity with a limited membership and it was as if all had suddenly and finally accepted that two of their own were dead. No one cried because that went against the creed of their profession but all felt a sorrow that would be kept locked up inside them.
As Stone climbed into his car Bob whispered into his ear, “Tell her we’ll get them, Evan. Make sure she knows that we,” looking around at everyone in the parking lot, “that WE will get those motherfuckers!”
Stone put the car and gear and drove out of the parking lot. “Yes, Bob, we will get them.” And as he rounded the bend and the images of the Fire Mountain parking lot were replaced with the dusty road leading to the highway, Stone asked to no one in particular, “But who is them?”
Kate despised reporters, especially those from TV news who callously shoved microphones in front of grieving spouses and asked in earnest young voices, “How do you feel?” usually shouted over or on top of questions like, “Do you know who did it?”
Stupid and heartless questions designed for ratings and fifteen-second sound bites and as she pulled up in front of Dave McPhail’s house, she could see the vultures had gathered. Perched on the lawn were three TV stations, three dailies, a couple of radio stations and an assorted bunch of wanna-be freelancers.
Maybe I’m no better, thought Kate as she finally found a place to park. But then her mission this afternoon was a little different. About an hour ago, she had talked briefly on the phone with Sharon McPhail. Kate had explained how she had been to Fire Mountain and wanted to know if there was anything Sharon would like included in the story about Dave’s background, family life or community involvement.
Sharon had seemed eager to meet and explained there was lots she wanted Sheridan Corners to know about. How Dave was a good family man and totally committed to the community. But Kate also knew that same eagerness included a desire to hear what had happened on the Mountain and Kate had no intention of providing the real details on that subject.
Walking towards the house, a reporter for WSCR recognized her and shouted, “Hey, Kate, heard anything?” Good grief, thought Kate, that blond talking face couldn’t find a story if it fell on her. To her, research was a word she could hardly spell let alone put to use. Coming up beside her Kate replied, “Who’s doing your make up now, Chris?” a subject Kate knew Chris would be completely consumed by.
“Oh, Kate, you like it?” she chirped. “Have a new make up artist at the studio now. Very French and very good,” she mewed.
Kate cringed inwardly and for a moment considered asking her who was the current Vice President or what was the capital of California but figured without a teleprompter, the poor girl would be at a loss. Instead Kate simply smiled and continued to walk through the gathered mass.
Arriving at the front door, another talking face, this time a male with a $100 haircut, said in a tired disinterested voice, “Don’t waste your time babe, they’re not talking with anybody.”
At the same moment the front door opened and a soft voice inquired, “Kate Thomas?”
Kate nodded and a hand reached out, took her by the arm and gently pulled her inside, while another hand closed the door in the face of a very startled $100 haircut.
The curtains were drawn giving the living room a dark and somber feeling. What light there was came from a shaded reading lamp on a table in the far corner. The hand that had guided her in let go of her arm and still obviously choked with emotion, explained, “Ms. Thomas, I’m Sharon McPhail and I’m so glad you could come over.” Then, pointing to a vacant armchair said, “Please have a seat, we have a lot to talk about.” Quickly adding, “Would you like some coffee, or perhaps tea?”
The woman standing before Kate appeared drawn and tired. Her red eyes swollen, grief and despair beyond description etched in every line of her face. Kate found it difficult to speak, so tragic was the figure before her. Finally Kate managed, “Mrs. McPhail, I am so sorry for what has happened to you and your family today and mere words can not convey my sympathy.” Struggling to keep her own tears back, Kate started to stand as she said, “Under the circumstances, perhaps it would be better if we talked at another time.”
“Thank you but please stay, I need to talk, to tell you and through your paper, everyone else, what a wonderful person Dave is.”
Kate caught the use of the present tense but knew in time Sharon would come to accept phrases that started with Dave ‘was’. But this was a time of painful transition and she would let Sharon travel that road at her own pace.
A little over an hour later, Kate gave Sharon a long hug just before opening the front door to leave. Both had cried and even managed to laugh once, as stories were told about Dave McPhail’s life in Sheridan Corners. Promises were made to stay in touch and Kate knew that this was not the typically idle promise of, ‘yes, yes, lets do lunch some time’. Sharon McPhail was an honest down-to-earth woman that Kate instinctively knew could be a trusted and valued friend.
Pushing her way through the crowd of reporters, ignoring every foolish question, Kate arrived at the curb just in time to see Stone pull up in his patrol car. TV lights flicked on and cameramen jostled for a shot of the Sheriff arriving to meet with the widow. “Good five second lead to your story,” moaned Kate in an exasperated voice that no one heard. She could just see the anchor on the six o’clock news, his serious grave voice commenting, “…and Sheriff Stone arriving at the McPhail residence was faced with the dreadful task of informing Mrs. McPhail that her husband would not be returning from duty.” And then turning to his sidekick weatherman, all smiles now, “So Chuck, I hear we’re in for some good weather this week. Time to get those golf clubs out, Chuck?”
Not wanting the embarrassment of a public brush-off from Stone, Kate quickly faded into the crowd of anxious reporters and made a hasty retreat to her own car. Feeling her cheeks redden in humiliation, Kate tried unsuccessfully to think of something, anything other than her school girl antics of earlier today.
Opening the driver’s door, Stone was pleased to see Kate at the curb. A friend amid the sharks that now awaited him and was disappointed as he watched her turn and vanish into the crowd. Moments later he again caught sight of her, as she quickly jumped into her car and sped off. So much for Kate, he thought to himself. Guess my subtle introduction to Dave’s body has left a lasting impression on the lady he concluded with self-reproach. .
Turning his mind back to business, Stone started his purposeful walk towards the house. Not really listening to the questions but with the practiced ease of experience, Stone simply repeated, “No comment,” to each and every question asked. When he was half way up the front steps, the door opened and Sheriff Stone quickly disappeared inside.
As evening turned into night, Stone stared vacantly into space. The late dinner he had prepared, after returning home an hour ago, remained largely untouched. His glass of scotch, held lightly in one hand appeared forgotten and he seemed deaf to the call of two loons sliding through the still water of the lake, in front of his log home.
His mind, unable to hold one thought long enough to reach any conclusion, bounced and skipped its way through a collage of the day’s events. Sharon’s tears, the bloodied bodies, Billy Two Feathers and his strange story, but mostly he kept coming back to what he could have done differently that might have saved one or both of his men.
Stone knew that type of thinking was dangerous. Monday morning quarter backing was an exercise in futility. What was done was done but despite that knowledge, one always wondered and second-guessed. It had been much the same with Beth. She was dying of cancer and yet, in those last few months, Stone punished himself for not being able to find another doctor, another way, anything that would save her. Often it would be Beth comforting him, gently confirming the simple truth of what lay ahead while explaining that despite his best efforts and intentions, some problems just can’t be fixed. There were nights they would both cry, holding each other closely, whispering confirmation of their mutual and lasting love. Finally the pain for Beth came to an end, leaving a huge emptiness for Stone.
Some of the larger logs in Stone’s house creaked as the heat built up from the day was lost to the evening chill. The noise seemed to stir him from his thoughts and with that came a realization that a chilly breeze was now coming from the open deck door. Standing and heading over to close the glass door, Stone spoke to the empty house, “Damn, it’ll be nice when summer finally arrives.”
Stopping in mid stride, Stone repeated, “Damn, damn, damn,” as it finally dawned on him. “Swearing! That’s what’s been wrong!” Walking over to the door and absently closing it, Stone congratulated himself for figuring it out, while admonishing himself for being so slow. Dave McPhail was a very religious man and in all his time of working with Dave, Stone had never heard him swear. “And,” he scolded himself, “we’ve been in some pretty tight situations where everyone but Dave could have taught a Marine Drill Instructor a few new words.”
Now aware of what he had been trying to dig from the recesses of his mind, it was time to figure what lay behind Dave’s sudden lost of his abhorrence for taking, as Dave would say, the Lord’s name in vain. Returning to his chair, Stone picked up his glass and continued to the kitchen for some fresh ice.
While Stone was catching his second wind, Kate lay snuggled under her eiderdown, trying without success to sleep. Her small townhouse was quiet and still, while her mind raced in depressed repetition, replaying again and again the events of the day. The full ashtray, a despondent reminder of her useless promise to smoke only one cigarette, fueled her guilt and served to deepen her blue mood and frustration.
She had even tried counting sheep but the images of the fluffy white farm animals were quickly replaced with severed tongues being chased by bloodied torsos. She tried thinking of crystal clear mountain lakes but every time she started to relax, Stone would appear and she’d immediately throw up on his shoes.
Looking at her bedside clock and seeing it wasn’t that late, she decided her only hope was Allie. “She’s probably not asleep anyway.” she rationalized while rolling over and reaching for the phone.
A few moments later, a sleepy voice on the other end of the line simply said, “Hi Kate, I know this has got to be you.” Then to get the conversation underway, quipped, “Saw your town’s Sheriff on TV this evening. Is he married?”
Kate smiled for the first time in hours and snapped back, “Since when has that ever stopped a babe like you?”
“So what’s stopping you? I’m surprised I haven’t received the invitation to your wedding and a shower party for your first kid.” Then with impeccable timing added in a perfect Groucho Marks imitation, “And not necessarily in that order, kid!”
Kate’s laugh was long and wonderful and with it came a release of stress that allowed the tension to seep out of her body. Over the next hour she explained how the quiet country life of Sheridan Corners had turned out to be anything but. In turn, Allie explained that the paper was falling apart without her and Brad, despondent over Kate’s departure, was resigned to having to play with himself.
At the mention of Brad’s name, Kate couldn’t help but compare him with Stone, which in Kate’s mind, was like asking for the similarities between, north and south. Other then both being a direction, they were at opposite ends of the poles. So it was for Brad and Evan. Other then both being men, the resemblance ended there.
Evan was everything Brad wasn’t thought Kate. Evan demonstrated strength of character in combination with physical strength. He had a commanding presence but seemed blissfully unaware of it. There was a wonderful combination of compassion and understanding that seemed sincere as opposed to affected. And apart from being tremendously good looking, there was that little boy aspect to him that made you just want to wrap him up and take him home.
In explaining this to Allie, Kate was amazed to hear herself talk this way about a man she had just met. Kate was certainly not inexperienced. In fact, at age 34 she had met and dated what until now she felt was the complete spectrum of available men. Some had developed into long-term relationships while others had not made it beyond an awkward first date. Yet in all cases there had been something missing that she could never manage to put her finger on but simply knew it was not there.
Allie, being the good friend she truly was, listened and let Kate ramble on without interruption. No more jokes or loquacious commentary about Kate’s lack of nookie, as she often referred to an evening of sex, because Allie knew Kate simply needed to talk. And it was only when Kate finally asked for her opinion that Allie spoke.
“I have a few pieces of advice for you.” started Allie. “First, you’ve had an extremely stressful day and need to get some rest. Everything is getting mixed and jumbled up in that sweet little head of yours and only sleep will cure that problem. Agreed?” she asked but it was more as a statement than a question.
“Yes, Mom.” Kate mumbled, imitating a child.
“Don’t you yes Mom me, kiddo, or there will be no more TV for you.” cautioned Allie. “Now, do you want to hear the rest of my sage advice or do I just send you to bed without your milk and cookies?”
“I’ll be good, I promise.” replied Kate.
“OK, but this is your last chance.” said Allie before continuing in a more serious voice, “Kate, as far as Evan goes, it sounds to me like you’ve discovered a rare individual who doesn’t play games, or for that matter even know there’s such a thing as boy-girl head games.” And being Allie, she couldn’t resist adding, “My God, Kate! Could it be true that a natural man still exists in this world? I once read that years ago scientists found what they thought might be the remains of such a creature but world opinion debunked it as just another mythical fairy tale. Seriously though, Kate, he sounds like the type of guy who won’t pretend anything and you won’t have to be reading between the lines. So my advice is, be yourself, don’t play games and always speak your mind to him. I don’t think he goes for lies or fake personalities.”
Kate thought about this for a few moments before confirming, “You know, Allie, you’re right.” Thinking of past relationships, where love and moral integrity were repaid with deceit and mistrust, Kate asked Allie, “You really think trust and maybe even love can be a mutual undertaking?”
“You bet it can, Kate. And you want to know something else?” Allie questioned. “I have this strange feeling that despite all your worries you’ve lit the beginnings of a flame in the heart of Mr. Evan Stone.” And before Kate could protest, Allie said, “Trust me, Kate, have I been wrong before?”
“Well, true or not.” replied Kate, “At least you’ve given me a pleasant thought to sleep on. And, Allie, thank you, I really miss you, you know.”
“Me too, kiddo. Phone me tomorrow and let me know how things are going. OK?”
Hanging up and turning off the bedside light, Kate pulled the quilt back over herself and snuggled into the pillow. “What a friend,” she softly whispered to the darkened room before drifting off to sleep.
Kate had not been the only one on the phone that night. Two miles away, in a hospital bed, Billy Two Feathers was just finishing his call. “No I’m fine.” he assured the party on the other end of the line. “No really, it didn’t seem to affect me and as I told you before, I don’t know why.” Listening, he nodded and then said, “That’s right – ah huh – true but…” Then in obvious frustration. “You’re not listening to me! I told them. Explained it all.” Interrupted, he waited and then answered. “Maybe Stone did but the other one, not a chance. He thinks I’m just a crazy old man with nothing better to do than make up these stories.”
The voice on the other end of the line spoke non-stop for the next two minutes and the expression on Billy Two Feather’s face grew more serious with each passing moment. Finally, he cut in. “Yes, I agree it will continue. Yes, I concede on your point about putting all our eggs in one basket but have you got any other eggs or baskets to choose from?” A quick silence, as the other side acknowledged the problem before Billy concluded the call, “So she’s the only chance we have right now and I guess we can only hope for the best.”
The conversation came to an end and Billy knew he had one more call to make. It would be tougher than the first one he thought but necessary nonetheless. Waiting for an answer he couldn’t help but wonder if these would be some of the last people that he would ever talk to