Bill McQuarrie

A 100,000 Words of Pulp Fiction

01/04/09

Posted by billmcq on January 4, 2009

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.


 

Chapter Three

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

Posted in 01/04/09 | Leave a Comment »

12/06/08

Posted by billmcq on December 6, 2008

Chapter Two

           Approaching the turnoff for Fire Mountain, Kate noticed the helicopter disappear behind the trees as it prepared to land.  The road itself was blocked by two patrol cars and just beyond the blockade you could still see clouds of dust rising. It was obvious that a number of vehicles had just raced up the road.  Kate pulled up beside the parked cruisers and was startled to see one officer approach her with his handgun drawn. Three other officers remained behind their vehicles with shotguns held at the ready.

Nearing her car, the officer recognized Kate and holstered his gun but his look remained grim and his greeting of, “Morning Ms. Thomas” served to confirm the seriousness of the moment.

The man approaching was a young, good natured cop by the name of Tim, who usually greeted Kate with a boy-like smile and an easy going, “How you doing, Kate?”  But this time, Kate saw a very intense young man and there was certainly no smile.

Trying to ignore what she saw, Kate smiled, “Good morning, Tim.  I understand we have a bit of a commotion going on here.  What’s up?”

Ignoring the question, Tim stepped up to her window, looked inside, including the back seat before replying, “Ms. Thomas, this is not a place for a woman right now.  There’s a very serious situation here, the area is not yet totally secured and I’d ask you to leave now.”

Kate Thomas was many things but she was not the lil’ woman needing protection from the real world.  No, Kate had paid her dues as a reporter on the streets of South LA.  Had worked her way up the ladder fighting the internal turf wars of the male dominated newsrooms and had spent a year in Europe covering the civil war in Bosnia.  But this was small town America and Kate felt it best to try tact before going ballistic on this poor hapless kid.

“Tim. I appreciate your concern,” Kate lied.  “But would it be alright with you if I pulled my car up beside yours?”  Deciding she was now committed, Kate swallowed her pride and pulled all the stops out.  “And maybe I could stay with you guys, until you can make it safe for me to go up there?”

Tim stepped back from the car, scratching the top of his head while considering the situation, then smiled and said, “Kate, why don’t you pull your car up and to the left of mine.  Once everything is secured,” nodding towards the hill, “I’ll personally escort you up to the lot and insure your safety.”

Kate smiled sweetly.  Jesus, she thought, put a hormonally super-charged boy in uniform and he suddenly feels it’s his personal calling to save the women of the world from the evils of mankind.

During the next 15 minutes, five additional state patrol cars arrived.  The helicopter left and flew in ever increasing outward circles, a definite search pattern, thought Kate.  Ten minutes later another ambulance arrived, making a total of three now on the scene.  As Kate watched, Tim and his fellow officers walked up to the ambulance to talk with the driver.  Frustrated with the delay and seeing her opportunity, Kate grabbed her camera bag, slipped out of the car and quietly ducked into the bush.

The sun, now filtered by the mix of pine and aspen, gave the forest an almost surreal effect.  Dust from the traffic going up the road had worked its’ way into the woods creating shafts of sunlight.  Narrow at the tops of the trees and expanding like a fan, as they slanted downwards towards the forest floor.  The temperature was three to four degrees cooler and the entire effect caught Kate by surprise.  She paused for a moment realizing that there wasn’t a sound coming from the forest.  Not a bird, a squirrel or anything at all that would indicate Kate was not alone.  A tiny shiver ran up her spine and she wondered why something so visually pleasing was in fact making her feel very uneasy. 

Behind her and without warning Kate thought she heard something move.  Could it have been a footstep, muffled by the soft soil?  Freezing in her tracks, she leaned her head towards the source of the noise in a futile attempt to pick up the sound once again but it was not repeated.  For a moment she considered returning to the car, to the safety of Tim and the other men.  But the thought of being the lil’ woman, needing the protection of young Tim and company decided the matter.  Putting her fears aside, Kate proceeded to make her way through the woods towards the action up ahead.

Not wanting to get shot by surprising anyone up ahead, Kate made the wise decision to step out onto the road before the last bend leading to the parking lot.  Rounding the corner she assumed her practiced walk of authority, learned years ago. “Look like you know what you’re doing and everyone will assume you’re part of what’s happening,” was the advice of her very first editor and it was good advice and had served her well over the years.

Keeping her camera in the bag so as not to arouse any interest, Kate surveyed the scene before her.  Ahead and to her right were two police cars parked at right angles to each other, both drivers’ doors open.  The car furthest away had a yellow tarp draped over the windshield and door opening.

Taking a few more steps forward, Kate noticed a brown pickup parked on the left side of the lot.  As she continued to walk in that direction, she caught a glimpse of another yellow tarp, this one spread on the ground with the distinctive shape of a human body underneath.  Then between the truck and two cars she could see yellow crime scene ribbon tied to trees and heading off into the forest.

Replaying in her mind the bits and pieces of radio communication overheard on the scanner, the various parts of the scene were falling into place.  What until now had only been voices on the radio was suddenly very real and judging from the expression on the stern faces around her, very brutal.

With the ease and confidence born of experience in the field, Kate smothered her true feelings and continued to walk forward while dropping her right hand into the camera bag.  Withdrawing the Nikon in one fluid motion that brought camera to eye without hesitation, Kate prepared to take the first of a series of photographs.

“Ms. Thomas, please don’t do that and put the camera away.”

Kate turned towards the voice behind her and was met by a pair of unwavering green eyes.  Her reply faltered under the gaze and she knew she’d lost the momentum necessary to win this type of reporter versus cop scenario.

“But I have a right to,” she started and instantly cursed herself for using such an inane approach.  Maybe that kind of Journalism 101 stuff would work on guys like Tim but not this one.  She had never been introduced officially but those green eyes belonged to Evan Stone, Sheriff Stone, she corrected herself.  And it wasn’t just the eyes, it was the expression on his face and the posture of his entire body that left no doubt he was in charge and wasn’t looking for second opinions on any order he gave.

“Excuse me, Sheriff Stone,” she began again.  “We haven’t officially met but seeing that you know my name, I’ll assume you know what I do.”  Slipping a bit of an edge into her voice, Kate continued,  “And knowing that, is there any legal reason you can give me as to why I shouldn’t be allowed to do my job?”  Placing both hands on her hips and thinking the best defense is a good offense, concluded with, “And perhaps I missed something this morning but did Congress happen to amend any articles of the Constitution regarding freedom of the press?”

Stone just stood there staring at her, his expression unchanged as though he hadn’t heard a word Kate had said.  In the silence, Kate couldn’t help but think of Sue’s description of him and how much she had left out.  About 6’2” she guessed, 190 to 200 pounds and from what she could see not an ounce of fat.  Not your typical over weight, beer drinking, small town sheriff.  And those eyes, they were like his voice, full of authority, able to command and capable of accepting responsibility.  Everything about him signaled trust and confidence, yet demanded respect.  Without a doubt, Stone would be a very interesting man to get to know.

The silence grew and in response Kate found herself putting her camera away.  She hadn’t meant to but somehow felt it was necessary and as the camera disappeared the expression on Stone’s face softened.

“Thank you, Ms. Thomas.  May I call you Kate?

“Certainly,” replied Kate, “and may I call you…”

“Evan’s just fine,” interrupted Stone. “Kate, I know a bit about your background and I gather you’ve seen and reported on any number of small and major crimes, not to mention covering a pretty vicious war.”  He raised his eyebrows before continuing.  “This gives me reason to believe that you’re pretty experienced and know how the game is played.  And I might add, you’ve probably seen more then your fair share of what mankind is capable of doing.”  Another pause as those green eyes drilled into her before Stone finished with a question,  “Would that be a correct assessment?”

Taken aback, it was obvious Stone had looked into her background.  Unsure whether his brief summation of her abilities and experience was an ego pat on the back intended to misdirect her intentions, Kate was momentarily lost for a response.

Stone guessed correctly  “No, Kate, I haven’t been doing a background check on you.  You’ve got to remember, we live in a small town and there really are no secrets.  Now tell me, is what I’ve just said a pretty good summary of town gossip?”

Kate relaxed a bit and returned the half smile that had accompanied his explanation.  “Yes”, she said, “I guess there are no secrets around here.”

“Good,” and then like a door being slammed shut, his smile vanished in an instant.  “I know you have a job to do and no, Congress has not made any changes regarding the freedom of the press. But there are things that have happened here today that may go beyond what even you have experienced.”  Looking down at his feet for a moment, as though gathering some inner force, Stone added, in a quiet almost reflective voice, “They certainly go way beyond anything I’ve ever seen or experienced.”

Kate was confused.  Before her was a man who moments ago personified strength, character, and even charm, yet now she saw something totally different, a man with a profound sense of sorrow mixed with confusion.  For a brief instant she saw a little boy who had just discovered that Santa is a myth.  Her heart wasn’t in it but years of experience kept her on auto-pilot.  “Evan, I hope you’re not planning on telling me to leave.  I’ve been around long enough to know what I can and can’t do and I want this story.” 

Hearing herself speak, she wondered how much of the city shark was still left inside her.  She’d been called the journalist bitch many times before and thought she had left that behind.  But looking into the face of Evan Stone, it was easy to see that bitch was being spelt with a capital “B”.  Kate desperately wanted to say she was sorry and start all over but it was too late.

“OK, Ms. Thomas, we’ll play it your way. But I have one condition.”

The missing first name only served to confirm Kate’s blunder.  She had blown it and knew it.  In hopes of a return to better relations, Kate kept a friendly tone to her reply, “And what kind of condition did you have in mind, Evan?”

“I’m going to take you over to meet the late Dave McPhail,” was his steely response.  “The condition is no pictures at first, but once you’ve been properly introduced,” he continued “you may take as many damn photographs as you want.”  As an afterthought, Stone, in a raised and angry voice that drew looks from those standing some distance away added, “And maybe you could get some good color shots for his wife and kids.”

Kate knew she deserved most of that but she felt the last barb was uncalled for.  Her own temper beginning to rise, Kate simply said, “Let’s do it.”

Stone, placing a hand on her shoulder, led her over to the parked police cars she had observed earlier.  Stepping up to the one with the yellow tarp, Stone drew the flap aside revealing a blood soaked sheet covering what was obviously Dave McPhail.  Looking straight into Kate’s eyes, Stone asked, “You ready?”  It was more a statement than a question.

Kate nodded and prepared herself.  Although the sight of dead bodies was not new to her, it was always a bit unnerving for the first few moments.  But she told herself there was no way Stone was going to win this game.  I’ve been around and nothing can get to me now, she thought.

Stone yanked the sheet off McPhail. “There you go, Kate Thomas, experienced reporter, meet my very good friend David McPhail, father of two wonderful children and husband to Sharon.  Got lots of film for those pictures?”

Kate gasped and spun around.  Yet in the few seconds available, her eyes had taken in every lurid detail of the scene before her, a tableau of horror that would be recalled in dreams for the rest of her life.

Falling against Stone, Kate pounded his chest.  “You bastard, you filthy, filthy bastard!”  Slowly falling to the ground, her outstretched hands dragging along Stone’s chest, she crumpled onto the dirt of the parking lot.  Deep gasping cries of anguish and then unable to stop, she threw up.

Between dry heaves and unstoppable tears, the image of the interior of the car wouldn’t go away.  McPhail’s head, canted to one side with his mouth wide open in a crimson circle of blood, his tongue gone and sitting as a long piece of purple meat atop the radio.  His chest split from belt buckle to neck had his right hand, which held a crudely fashioned wooden cross, shoved Napoleon like inside this raw and ragged wound.

Uncontrollable sobs racked her body as Kate felt a pair of strong hands lift her off the ground and someone whispered urgently but gently into her ear, “I’m sorry, Kate, but he was my friend.  That was so unfair of me and I’m so sorry.”

She was being carried, taken away to somewhere.  Anywhere but here, she prayed while her chest rose and fell in irregular contractions of sobbing.  Please make this a dream, she silently begged before feeling the cool sheets being pulled over her.  For a moment, just a brief moment, Kate felt certain she was in bed and indeed this was only a bad dream.  Something was being placed on her face, over her mouth and nose and she screamed in terror, imagining the beast was suffocating her and wanting her tongue.  Her eyes flew open in panic and quickly tried to focus on the monster trying to kill her.  But the images refused to register in her mind and with the taste of cool clean air flowing into her mouth, Kate Thomas closed her eyes once again.

Stone ducked and stepped out of the ambulance.  Sweeping his eyes around the parking lot he thought, god, what a day.  First of all this, nodding towards the crime scene and then for no good reason I do my best to terrify that woman.  Glancing back into the ambulance, he saw the medic was still holding the oxygen mask to her face.  Well, he concluded, I messed up big time and I’m sure I’ll be paying for it.  With one last look at Kate, Stone turned and walked over to the State van, now being used as the mobile command center.

Coming up to the open side door, Stone spotted Captain Bob White, State Trooper, seated inside, hunched over the radio.  Bob had taken command on behalf of the states’ interests and he and Bob would run this as a joint operation.  Having worked together on several occasions, Stone was not anticipating any problems.

Seeing Stone approach, Bob held up two fingers to indicate he’d just be a moment and then turned back to the radio and continued his conversation.  It was obviously the helicopter crew and they were looking for clarification on specific types of search patterns.  After issuing the necessary instructions, Bob turned to Stone.  “I need a smoke, if you got a minute, let’s go for a walk. Those techies, who maintain this unit, get real choked when I smoke in the van.”  Stone nodded and they both headed off towards the far side of the parking lot.

“You know,” started Bob once they were out of earshot of the van, “We got ourselves a shit load of trouble here.”

Stone again just nodded. Pausing for a long drag on his cigarette, Bob continued, “We’ve got three victims.  According to the M.E.’s best guess for now, victim 1 bought it early last evening.  Probable cause was a broken neck.”  Exhaling he half chuckled, “Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one considering his head was twisted completely around, to face backwards.”

Stone wondered what the public would think if they heard cops talking at crime and accident scenes.  The laughing and the jokes made them sound so callous when in fact it was just a way of relieving the tension and stress.  Gallows humor was standard fare for this business.

Becoming serious again, Bob asked the obvious,  “But why his eyes?  Why did this little fuck dig out the victim’s eyes?”  Shaking his head back and forth, confirming the inability to answer that question, he returned to the facts at hand.  “Our victim is probably one James Esseltine.  At least according to Motor Vehicle Registration in the truck.  Hair color and height match and I’m pretty confident we’ll get a confirming ID later.”

Slowing down slightly, Bob looked over to Stone to see if he was ready.  In turn, knowing what was coming, Stone simply said, “It’s OK, I know we got to do this.”

“Our second victim is young Bill, your new officer.”  Waiting for a response and getting nothing, Bob went on, “Bill, last name Elliot died this morning.  It would appear from the ME’s on site report that Bill died of animal bites to the lower abdomen.”

This was the gentlest way of stating the facts.  Both he and Stone knew the truth.  Bill had literally been disemboweled and his entire intestinal tract was missing and presumed to have been eaten on the spot.

“Victim 3 is Dave McPhail.  And as I see that you and our new Journal owner reviewed that case a few minutes ago, I won’t go over the specifics.”

Stone winced at the comment but he deserved the rebuke.  Civilians, especially reporters, shouldn’t be involved in the way he had involved Kate.

Seeing Stone’s reaction, Bob quickly interjected, “I’m sorry Evan, I was out of line there.  I know you and Dave were good friends and that lady just picked the wrong time to push your buttons.”

“It’s OK, Bob, what’s done is done.”

Both men were quiet for a few moments, as if gathering their thoughts.  In the silence, Bob lit another cigarette, inhaled deeply and turned towards Stone.  “Evan, whatever happened here is way beyond anything I’ve seen in my entire career.”  Looking out to the trees, then down to the ground and finally back to face Stone, he continued.  “Frankly, it scares the living shit out of me.  Whoever has done this is one very sick puppy.”

“Not whoever, but whatever,” was Stone’s simple reply.

For the next fifteen minutes, Stone and Bob continued their review of the known facts. Standard investigative techniques, common to all crime scenes, would provide the answers to many questions but not the important ones.  The latter would take a lot more work and effort.  Of particular concern was the speed with which the killings occurred.  Considering the methods employed by the killer, it seemed impossible that two armed police officers could be subdued and murdered so quickly and so easily.  And then there was the matter of the message on Stone’s data terminal.  No other terminal received that message.  It was unique to Stone’s unit and that should be impossible, at least according to the computer guys.

Finally, the matter of what to tell the public came up.  Bob was the first to offer a suggestion.  “We have to confirm the murders.  There is no way we can keep this quiet but I don’t think we want to get into the specifics.”  His voice trailed off while he thought it through.  “I guess we do the standard No comment, with the old explanation that additional disclosure might hinder further investigations.”

“Fine,” replied Stone, “But we have one little problem.  That problems’ name is Kate Thomas.”  Accepting the inevitable he went on, “But, it’s a problem of my creation, so I guess I’d better take care of it.”

 “I’ll leave it in your capable hands, my friend, and good luck.”

“Thanks, I think I’m going to need it, Bob.”

“You see what can be done with our friend over there.  Me, I’m heading back to the van for an update.  I figure about another four hours and it should be a wrap here.  I’ll talk with you later.”  And with that the two men walked back, Stone heading over to the ambulance and Bob to the command vehicle.

As he approached the ambulance, Stone could see Kate sitting on the edge of the gurney, watching him make his way towards her.  Why he wondered, was he thinking about that old poem that ended with the line “…said the spider to the fly”?  There was, he admitted, a newfound sympathy for the fly. 

Seeing Kate rise and move towards the door to meet him, Stone asked, as he walked up to the ambulance, “How you feeling, Kate?”

Lost for words, Kate simply sat down on the back entrance to the ambulance and with feet dangling over the edge, just stared at the ground.

Sitting down beside her Stone spent a moment gathering his thoughts while he too shared the view of the ground beneath their feet.  Why he thought, should the truth be so awkward?  He knew he had managed the situation badly and it was time to face the consequences of his poor judgment.  With no acceptable options but honesty, Stone began.  “Kate, what happened here and what I did to you was inexcusable.  For the rest of my life, I will regret it.”   Not knowing what to do with his hands, Stone placed them on his knees, straightened and stretched his back.  “Kate, I’m…” he faltered and tried again, “Kate, I am terribly sorry.”  Then staring straight at her added, “If you can’t forgive me at least understand that wasn’t me out there.  I guess something just snapped.”

Kate continued to swing her legs back and forth and then, without looking up she finally commented, “Forgive?  Never in your lifetime, buddy.”

Stone felt every muscle in his body sink in despair with Kate’s rejection of what he now felt was his bumbled apology.  Wondering what to do next he looked to Kate and noticed a slight smile forming at the corners of her mouth as she twisted her head in his direction.  That smile spread to her lips before she said, “That is, not without another decade or two of groveling.”

Stone’s shoulders relaxed and with it came an understanding that this was not a simple game of cops and reporters.  He realized with some shock that he truly cared that Kate forgave him.  More importantly, he was sorry and desperately needed Kate to know this simple fact.

“I understand, Evan.”  Then in a quieter voice she continued, “Two of your men were killed today.  One was also a very good friend and if I had taken just a few moments…asked a few questions.  Well, let’s just say that none of this would have happened had I done my job the right way to begin with.”

They looked at each other for a moment and then Kate placed her hand over his.  “Evan, you’ll find them.  You’ll catch the bastards who did this.”

Placing his free hand over hers, Stone felt suddenly lost yet somehow more at ease and relaxed in her presence than he had with any other woman since Beth.  Knowing he was now suppose to obtain Kate’s agreement not to print all the facts she had witnessed here, he found himself unable to proceed.  “Kate” he stammered, lost for words.  “Kate, I was suppose to…”

“I know what your intentions were, copper.” interrupted Kate.  “I was watching you and that state guy talking over there and know exactly what was being discussed.”  Her smile grew wider and her whole face seemed to sparkle as she went on.  “Let me see now, would I be right in saying that you two guys were trying to figure out how to get this hard-bitten reporter to keep some of the facts to herself?”

She hesitated and the smile and sparkle were gone.  “Evan, I have no intention whatsoever,” another pause and Stone braced himself, knowing the battle was lost and wondering what the effects would be as the story was splashed across the front page.  “No intention,” Kate continued, “of describing the specific details of the deaths of these three men.”

Stone, speechless simply stared at Kate.

“Look Evan, the whole idea of my moving here and buying the paper was to get away from the ‘take no prisoners’ attitude of city work and life.  But after all these years, it’s difficult to simply stop and this morning was a perfect example.”

Stone smiled and at first Kate thought she was being mocked but the smile spread throughout his face.  “Kate, I understand better than you could imagine.”

For the next few moments neither spoke.  It wasn’t an awkward silence where two people simply run out of things to say.  It was more a period of quiet, personal reflection.  A gathering of thoughts, where people often decide whether or not they continue a conversation without the limits or boundaries imposed by society’s rules of polite but impersonal conversation. 

“Evan,” Kate started but was quickly silenced by the sight of a State Trooper ambling in a sort of half jog half walk towards them.

“Sheriff, we’ve found someone in the woods!” he yelled and then fell silent as he suddenly realized Kate was there too.

“It’s OK, Trooper…Trooper Simpson, isn’t it?” asked Stone and seeing him nod, continued,  “We’ve sort of been, well, off the record so to speak.”  Then looking in Kate’s direction added, “And I think we can stay off the record?” 

Simpson looked first to Stone, then Kate and then back to Stone before giving a quick nod of acceptance and continued.  “The chopper spotted him about three miles from here.  One male, native, alive but apparently dazed.  More likely drunk.” Taking a deep breath, he added. “They’re bringing him back so we can have a pow-wow.”

Stone frowned at the mention of drunk and pow-wow.  Everyone knew, or should have known, that Stone had spent a considerable amount of his time working with the natives and he didn’t put up with any nonsense or remarks from local rednecks.  Racial tensions had been high when he had first arrived at Sheridan Corners but through his efforts, much of that was in the past.  In fact statistics for the area showed that on any given Saturday night, Stone had more whites in the drunk tank than natives.  A trend that ran contrary to other jurisdictions and was a direct result of Stone’s hard work, community policing, education and the slow but steady growth of mutual trust and respect.

For a couple of seconds Kate saw Evan’s jaw set and his eyes froze into hard ice cold pockets of jade.

“Ah, shit Stone, don’t give me that proud mighty Indian crap now,” growled Simpson.  “Save that for your Chamber of Commerce lunch speeches.  This ‘injun’ just might be sober enough to tell us something.  Mind you, the fuck will probably just lie to us anyway.”

Stone stood so quickly, Kate almost accepted the idea that he must never have been sitting in the first place.

“Trooper!” he snarled in a monotone.  “First, as far as you are concerned, my name is Sheriff Sir.  Second, if and when you get a brain and learn how to use it, let me know.  Until that time, keep your mouth shut as it only serves to confirm your ignorance and do your best to stay out of my way.”

Trooper Simpson, speechless, stood as Stone, heading for the command vehicle, pushed by him.  Looking at Kate, Simpson finally asked, “What’s with super cop?”

Kate stood to follow Stone, at first ignoring Simpson’s question, then stopping beside him, asked in a sweet sexy voice, “Hey Simpson, is it true you’re a real stud?”

Standing straighter and sucking in his belly, “You bet, babe, maybe someday you and I could give it a try.”  Adding with a leering wink,  “Know what I mean?”

“I don’t know, honey.  Everyone I’ve talked to say you’re a dickless asshole and rumor has it you like doing guys.  Besides,” she purred, “I like my men to have IQ’s larger than their dicks.”

With that, Kate headed off towards the command vehicle where she could see Stone and Bob White already involved in conversation, which abruptly ended as the sound of the approaching helicopter announced the arrival of their possible witness.

As the helicopter flared for a landing, Stone, seeing Kate heading towards him, turned his back to the dust being kicked up by the rotors and ran in a crouch towards her. Taking her by the arm, he led her away and behind the scant protection offered by the van.

Bringing his lips up beside her ear, so as to be heard over the noise, Stone asked, “Can you hear me?”

Kate nodded

“I’m sorry Kate, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave for now.  This is a possible witness and we’re going to have a good long talk with him.  It’s not the time or place for the press.”

Kate knew this to be true but still wanted to stay.  Seeing the look of determination on her face, Stone said, “Look, I understand but you’ve got to understand too, we’re just at the beginning of a major criminal investigation and I have a job to do.  We’ve got one sick son of a bitch out there and I want him or them badly” Then as almost an afterthought and in a cold, firm voice added,  “Or it.”

Realizing that the noise was diminishing, as the chopper turbine wound down, Stone took a half step backwards to look Kate directly in the face and in a quieter voice continued, “You let me get on with it and I promise I’ll keep you informed.”

Sensing a return to the more formal relationship, Kate asked, “Exclusive?”

“Deal,” responded Stone and then seeming to not want to loose something important and before he could catch himself, blurted, “How about we try starting over again with dinner tomorrow night?”

“Now that’s my kind of exclusive, Evan.  You’ve got yourself a deal.  Now, if you can spare one of your officers to give me a quick ride back to my car, I’m out of here.”

As Stone turned to find a ride for her, Kate was sure she caught a glimpse of a slight reddening on his cheeks.  My God, she thought, here’s a man who can still blush after asking a lady out for dinner. Allie is never going to believe real guys still exist in this world!


 

“You OK, Kate?”  The voice belonged to Tim, the officer she had first encountered at the entrance to the parking lot. 

Like someone woken from a deep sleep, Kate took a moment to survey her surroundings, letting the various parts of her mind organize themselves into one coherent unit.  She remembered one of Evan’s men driving her to her car.  Tim had been there and she was pretty certain she had apologized for her actions earlier in the day. 

“Tim, did I tell you I was sorry?”

With a mixture of both concern and amusement, Tim interrupted, “Yes, Kate, in fact this will make it a total of three times now.”  The amused smile disappeared, leaving only concern.  “How about I get someone to give you a drive home?”

Finally her mind kicked into gear and the horror of the events up the road returned with a blinding flash.  Ever since getting back to her car, the reality of what had occurred had finally sunk in and like a shell-shocked soldier, she had simply sat, dazed and sickened by what she had seen.

“Tim, I’m OK, it’s just that up there,” she tried but failed to find the right words.  “Up there is pretty bad,” was all she could manage.

“I understand but I’d feel better if someone else did the driving for you right now.”

“Seriously, Tim, I’ll be fine.”  Regaining more of her composure, she lied without the conviction she had hoped for, “I’ve seen worse.”

Indecision clouded Tim’s face.  He’d heard stories about Kate and the things she had covered when she worked for the ‘real’ papers.  Maybe, he thought, she has seen worse. Making up his mind, Tim said, “Ok Kate, if you’re sure then I see no reason to insist.”

Putting the key in the ignition and starting the car, Kate slowly eased her way out from beside Tim’s car.  Shifting into forward, she began to make a U-turn that would bring her back onto the highway.  She noticed Tim standing off to the side and as the half circle of the turn brought her beside him, she stopped and leaned out the window.

“Hey, Tim,” she inquired, “you happen to have a cigarette you can spare?”

Tim reached for his shirt pocket thinking he’d never seen Kate smoke before but with a slight shrug and handing her his pack said, “Sure, here you go, take a couple if you like?”

Taking one from the proffered pack, Kate simply replied, “Thanks, but one will do.” Handing the pack back to Tim, Kate smiled in a half-hearted kind of way, pushed in the dashboard lighter and started to drive away.

Tim watched Kate stop at the entrance to the highway and smiled as he saw her signal her left-hand turn.  “Whenever there’s a cop around people are such careful drivers,” he mumbled before he caught sight of the backup lights coming on in Kate’s vehicle.

More accustomed to taking taxis, backing up was about on a par with parallel parking but she managed to stay on the road.  Pulling up beside Tim once again, Kate rolled down her window.

“Tim, you got a moment or two?”

 “Sure.”

Thinking this standing cop, sitting driver situation was not ideal for conversation; Kate put her car in park and got out.  Cigarette in hand and already a third of it gone, Kate took another puff before dropping the remains on the dirt and grinding it out with her foot.

Feeling dizzy from the effects, she looked guiltily at Tim and explained, “First smoke in nearly three months.  Makes you a little light headed.”

“Kind of wondered, as I can’t say I’ve ever seen you smoke before.  Keep trying to quit myself but I guess job stress just keeps me going.”  Then, nodding towards the parking lot,   “I guess it was pretty damn shitty up there.  Excuse me,” he corrected himself, “I mean pretty darn bad.”

“No Tim, shitty is OK, but even that doesn’t come close to describing it.”

Kate placed her hands on her hips and looking around but in reality seeing nothing, exhaled through clenched lips and then focused her attention on Tim.  “What happened up there,” lifting her right arm and pointing, “is way beyond shitty.” 

In the silence that followed, Kate realized her arm was still raised like an accusatory pointer, unable to explain but able to condemn.  Lowering her arm, she turned away from Tim in an attempt to gather her thoughts.

Tim broke the silence that had descended.  “I think you’re suffering from…what do those doctors call it?  Post trauma,” searching for the right word, “syndrome I think it is.”

“You mean, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. You could be right about that.  Up there,” resisting the urge to point again, Kate just flicked her head in that direction, “is one of the most brutal, disgusting things I’ve ever seen. And yet…” she faltered knowing suddenly what was also bothering her.

“And yet what?”

Kate felt ashamed and needed to get away from Tim.  “God, I’m sorry to be bugging you like this, Tim.  Never mind, I guess this whole thing got to me just a bit too much.” 

Tim simply shrugged.  A gesture that said reporters, like women can be difficult at times.  “Suit yourself, Kate, I certainly don’t mean to pry.”

“No, it’s not that Tim. You’re a good guy, I can tell, it’s just…well I’d better get back to the office.” 

With that final statement, Kate got back in her car, absently waved good-bye and drove off.  Watching her go, Tim just shook his head and like a good cop, noticed that Kate didn’t signal her turn this time.

Driving back to town, both hands gripping the steering wheel tightly, Kate told herself she must be one sick puppy.  What must Stone think of her, she thought?  Amongst all the carnage and horror, what do I do?  She ticked off her morning’s achievements to the empty car.  “Well, apart from sneaking into the crime scene and getting caught trying to take some pictures, not much.  Oh yes, guess I shouldn’t forget bragging about how nothing can upset me.  Sure proved that point when I threw up on his shoes!” she told her dashboard.  “But then fainting really showed the world how tough I am” she explained to the windshield.  “Least that got me out of having to clean my barf off his shoes!”

Seeing the Fire Mountain gas station and general store up ahead, Kate pulled off the road, parked, left the motor running and was in and out of the store in under a minute with a new pack of cigarettes.  Sliding back into the car and ripping the cellophane off the pack, she jabbed impatiently at the lighter and hit the gas at the same time.

“You sick bitch” she scolded herself as she swung back out on the highway.  “To hell with heaving my guts out or fainting.”  Taking a drag on her cigarette and blowing smoke at the mirror, “And to hell with forgetting about doing my job.  You remember that don’t you, Kate?  Your job, gathering facts, reporting?” she barked sarcastically. 

Slowing down, she let what was really bothering her work its’ way out.  Finishing her smoke without the slightest of side effects, Kate let the images of Fire Mountain wash over her in way that would hopefully expunge the guilt she felt.  The carnage, the blood, the waste of human life.  Pounding the steering wheel, all she could see was the cross.  An obscene gesture of contempt left by someone wanting to defile the very essence of Christian beliefs and concepts.  “And what do I do in the face of such grotesque violence,” asked Kate?  “I flirt with Sheriff Evan Stone is what I do!” she yelled.

“God damn you Kate, you’re a selfish bitch you are.”  Keeping her eyes on the road, Kate continued to punish herself.  “The poor bastard is up to his neck in murders.  Three dead including two of his own officers, one of whom was a friend and I pant like a freshman co-ed in heat.   Now that’s my kind of exclusive, Evan’,” she mimicked in an overtly flirtatious imitation.  “Oh well,” she tried to comfort herself, “ain’t no sense in dwelling on my personal problems, lack of integrity or foolishness, because I’m certain I’ll never have the opportunity to talk with him again.”

In an attempt to get her mind off Evan, Kate reached for her purse, pulled out her cell phone and called the office.  Getting Sue on the line, she checked on the progress of everyone in the office and then asked Sue to turn on the tape so she could dictate her story.  By the time Kate reached town, her story minus the details previously agreed upon was on tape and being transcribed in the production department.


 

Watching the helicopter with Billy Two Feathers aboard lift off from the parking lot and head towards town and the hospital, Stone simply shook his head.  “Quite the story.”

“You got that right, Evan,” replied Bob, in a pensive voice.  “You believe any of it?  I mean, I’ve never heard anything like that before.”

“I just don’t know, Bob.  I have a lot of respect for Billy.  Been around for a good number of years but I got to admit that was one strange tale he had to tell.”

Rubbing his chin in a kind of circular motion, Bob gathered his thoughts.  “Here’s the way I see it, Stone.” he finally started.  “Billy didn’t actually see anything, did he?”

Stone nodded, knowing what was coming next.

“OK, so he’s not what we could call a witness to the crimes.”  His thoughts were falling into place faster now, as if he wanted to rush into his rationalization and in so doing quickly erase and forget Billy’s story.  “We also agree that he had nothing to do with it either.  So he’s not a suspect and he’s not a witness but he does have one hell of a wild story dealing with,” he searched for the right word that would keep his summation bureaucratically neat, clean and neutral.  He settled on, “folklore.”

Stone waited, he wasn’t letting Bob off the hook that easily.

“So,” Bob continued, “my report will simply state that he’s a person of interest, not a suspect.” he repeated.  “Just a person of interest that may require an additional interview.”

Stone folded his arms across his chest, cocked his head to one side and gave Bob a good long look but said nothing.

“Ah, come on, Evan, give me a break.  Just what in the hell do you expect me to say.  I got a pension to consider and if I put anything in my report about Billy Two Feathers and his story, I’d be lucky to stay out of the nut farm, let alone collect on my retirement.”

Stone didn’t move nor blink but after a few moments asked.  “So how do you think these guys died, Bob? 

“Don’t do this, Evan, it’s not fair.”

Knowing he wouldn’t win this argument, Stone relented.  “OK, maybe it’s not fair so I’ll make you a deal.  I won’t mention this again, at least for now,” he added as a cautionary warning.  “We’ll wait for the M.E.’s report but after that we may open this for discussion again.  How’s that?”

Grabbing onto this small victory and wanting to stay as far away as possible from the Billy Two Feathers story, Bob quickly agreed and the two men continued walking towards the van.

Posted in 12/06/08 | Leave a Comment »

Chapter 1 (Pt II)

Posted by billmcq on November 28, 2008

The call came into dispatch just as Stone was coming back along the hallway towards his office.  Passing the radio room, coffee in one hand and a blueberry muffin in the other, Stone stopped in mid-stride.  The sounds of gagging could be heard on the speaker, background noise to Deputy McPhail’s urgent request for assistance.  For now Stone assumed the retching had to be McPhail’s partner but assumptions got people killed in this business and something was very wrong.

Dave McPhail, a seasoned cop with nearly 15 years on the force, was in Stone’s opinion the best and most experienced officer in his department.  Yet, hearing the fear and disgust in Dave’s voice, Stone felt his stomach go hollow and his skin grow cold.  If McPhail was scared, so too was the Sheriff.

Resisting the urge to take control of the radio room and the situation, Stone let his dispatcher and Watch Commander manage the emergency.  He could hear Dave’s’ voice regaining control as radio discipline returned.  Confirming that his partner was OK, McPhail was now requesting a supervisor and M.E. attend the location.  The request for the Medical Examiner’s office meant a death. 

Coffee and muffin quickly laid aside Stone caught the attention of the Watch Commander.  Pointing first at himself, then the radio and finally the parking lot, Stone indicated to the sergeant that he would be taking the request for a supervisor call.  With a quick nod of understanding, the Watch Commander turned back to the dispatcher and the message was sent that Stone would be attending.

As had been his practice, Sheriff Stone did not use his siren as he drove out of town.  Sheridan Corners was a small town and lights and sirens attracted everyone’s attention.  That in turn led to days of people stopping him on the street to say hi and ask about the commotion. Commotion being the catch all phrase to refer to any incident requiring the police.  As a result, Stone and members of his department rarely, if ever went code three in town.

As an additional precaution to small town gossip, Stone had managed to get computer terminals installed in each patrol car the previous year. The benefits of scanner proof communications had proven invaluable and as he pulled out of the station parking lot, Stone noted with satisfaction that dispatch and McPhail’s unit had switched from voice to data transmissions.

Scrolling through the messages, Stone discovered there was no indication that the M.E. had yet been notified. By delaying that call, Charlie, his Watch Commander was giving Stone an opportunity to assess the situation without interference and have a good look at whatever was happening before the shit hit the fan.  Remembering the almost pleading sound in McPhail’s voice, Stone was also convinced that there was a whole lot of shit out there just waiting for a fan.

According to the terminal Unit 3, McPhail’s car, was located at the parking lot for the Fire Mountain hiking trail.  Still about five minutes away, Stone saw the incident was now being reported as a probable homicide with one victim. Thinking as he drove, Stone considered the possibilities of just one hiker. Slowing down and starting to type with one finger, Stone requested the K-9 unit be sent.  “Now we’re getting organized,” thought Stone.  “Missing hiker, victim or fugitive search, having the dog on scene will cover some of our bases.”

Suddenly the radio came to life.  McPhail’s voice, unable to hide his growing panic, screamed, “This is Unit 3!  Officer down!  I repeat officer down!  Need assistance now!” 

Dispatch was on the air immediately, Charlie’s calming yet authoritative voice, “Copy three, backup rolling now.  Unit 1 is less than four minutes from your location and Units 12 and K9 on their way.  All units are code 3. Describe your situation?”

There was a momentary pause that felt like hours before Unit 3 responded and as soon as McPhail began his transmission, Stone felt his stomach go hollow.  Over the air he could hear the sound of a man screaming, followed by gunfire. McPhail’s voice, full of more fear than Stone thought possible, was yelling.  “That was my last fucking clip!  Bill’s down on the other side of the lot.  Jesus Christ!  Something from the woods is dragging him into the bush and he’s still alive!  Where the fuck’s my backup?  We’re dead up here for Christ’s sake!”

Stone was immediately on the radio.  “Dave, this is Evan, I’m just a couple of minutes away.  Hang in there, buddy.  We’re going to get you out!”

Silence, dead air on the radio, it was a cop’s greatest fear.  Stone was just about to try again when the radio came alive.  “Unit 1, this is 3.  Copy your last.”  The voice was calmer, out of breath but more in control.  “Look, Evan, Bill has gone quiet.  Can’t see him but he’s not screaming anymore.  I’ve got the shotgun now with five rounds and an additional 20 in the trunk.  Evan, this is real spooky and totally out of control. 

“How many shooters you got up their, Dave?” asked Stone, referring to the number of men Dave was up against. 

“I haven’t got a clue, Evan!  It’s so weird and I am so God damn terrified.  I’m going to get the car going, head over to where I saw Bill get pulled into the woods, and get us the fuck out of Dodge City.”

It was a hard but necessary decision and Stone quickly ordered Dave not to attempt a recovery of his partner.  Chances were that Bill was already dead and there was no sense in killing another to confirm the obvious.  A quick check with dispatch indicated that backup was expected within 7 minutes.

In all his years of working with Dave, Stone had never heard him admit to being terrified.  And there was something else, something just at the edge of Stone’s mind that was causing him even more concern, but the thought vanished in an instant as the radio came to life.

 “One, this is three.  There’s no sign of Bill.” 

Stone knew Dave wouldn’t follow his order to get out of there.  You just didn’t let your partner down.  But orders were orders and Stone was the boss.  “Three, you get out of there now, I’m just coming up to the turn off, meet me down here.  Backup is coming and we’ll wait until everyone’s here.  Copy that three?”

“Copy one.  Just heading back to the car.” 

The car!  Dave wasn’t in his patrol car, he was still on foot using his portable.  Stone yelled into the microphone,  “Dave, get back to your car and get out of there!  That’s an order!  Now!” 

Stone could hear the short quick breathing indicating Dave was running as he replied, “10-4, car’s just up ahead.  I’ll be out of here in a few seconds.” 

The data terminal in Stone’s car chirped indicating an incoming message.  In the background he could still hear Dave running and talking on the radio, asking between breaths if a dog unit had been requested.  Letters started to appear on the screen.  Confusion started to cloud Stone’s mind.  Dave was still talking, still running.  The screen relayed the standard start command line.  “Unit 3 to Unit 1” It was coming from Dave’s car but Dave wasn’t in his car.  Stone grabbed the mike while transfixed by the screen.  McPhail was still on the air, still talking when two lines of type appeared on the screen.

“Hush, hush

Thought I heard you calling my name now.”

Stone screamed into the microphone:  “Dave, Dave, they’re in your car!”  All pretense of radio discipline gone, “Get out of there! I’m on my way up.”


 

Like most newspapers, The Sheridan Corners Journal had, as part of their standard equipment, a police radio scanner.  Kate and those in the office had heard McPhail’s initial call and noted, as Stone had, the urgency in McPhail’s voice.  When the radio went silent, indicating the new computer system was being used, it only served to confirm that the events unfolding were leading towards a major story…possibly a murder.

In the silence that followed, Kate stared at the scanner, willing it to action once again.  “That damn Evan Stone and his new computer system,” she mumbled to herself. 

“Come again?” said Sue, snapping her head towards Kate.

Feeling she might best use this period of radio silence as time for some background information, Kate ignored Sue’s question and asked.  “This Stone guy.  What’s he all about?  How long has he been chief cop?  Is he a good cop?  Bad cop?  What’s the town think of him?”

“He’s a good man and a good cop.” replied Sue in a quiet but strangely firm voice.  “He’s 44, with one kid, a son currently in second year pre med.  Every single woman in town, plus a few not so single, trying their best to help him make his bed in the morning.”  Seeing Kate tilt her head in a questioning look, Sue quickly explained,  “His wife died a little over 4 years ago of breast cancer.”

Understanding registered on Kate’s face and Sue continued,  “Moved here nine years ago to take over from Sheriff Turner.  Had a hard time of it for the first year or so, as most in the department felt miffed that a local hadn’t been picked for the job.  But he was good, fair, honest, hard working and slowly but surely won them over.  He eventually earned the loyalty and respect of the department and the town.  When his wife died, the church wasn’t large enough to hold all those wanting to attend the funeral.”

With an unfocussed almost distant look, it was evident that Sue was reaching back to those times gone by.  “We all thought we might loose Evan following Beth’s death.  State had offered him a job running their major crimes division.  It was a great opportunity for him and after her death, it was also a chance to leave behind the memories and start a new life.  But Stone declined.  Said this was his and Beth’s town and he was staying.” 

Suddenly that distant look disappeared and with it went whatever memory Sue had been reliving.  Turning back to Kate she continued matter-of-factly.  “On the job, he’s done a lot to bring the force into the modern era of law enforcement.  Introduced a new program that pays for any deputy wanting to upgrade his education.  Hired the first female officer.  Got those new patrol car computers you were muttering about. And….”

Cut off in mid sentence, as the scanner burst into life, everyone turned in response to Dave McPhail’s high-pitched cry for assistance and the chilling notice that an officer was down.  Then moments later, like helpless bystanders, they heard the last transmission from Stone, begging McPhail to stay away from his car.

Shocked by the reality of the horror unfolding before them and transfixed by the proximity of death, no one in the Journal’s office moved.  This was not a TV show and these events were happening to people they knew. Being relatively new to the area, Kate had the least amount of personal attachment to those involved in the terror of the moment and was therefore the first to react.  The Editor in her began to sort through the haze.  Mustering all the strength she could gather and trying very hard to control her voice, Kate issued some quick instructions.  “Sue, get over to the police station and start sorting out what’s happening.”

Turning toward her only other reporter, Kate ordered:  “Brian, I want you to phone the State Troopers and see if they’ve been called in.  Then I want you to head over to the hospital and be ready to cover events unfolding there.  I’m heading out to Fire Mountain.  Everyone, make sure you’ve got fresh batteries for your cameras.  OK, we got a job to do, so let’s get moving”

Returning to her office to retrieve her purse and camera and preoccupied with the issues at hand, Kate was unaware that Sue had followed her in.  Startled by the hand she suddenly felt on her shoulder, Kate gasped in surprise.  Taking another deep breath to calm her jittery nerves, Kate apologized, “Sue, I’m sorry but you gave me a bit of a start.  I didn’t hear you come in.”

Like everyone caught in a similar situation, Kate was both embarrassed by her startled reaction and angry with the person who was the cause of such wide-eyed surprise.  Then she noticed Sue’s chalk-white complexion along with her, I’m about to cry but won’t posture and concern instantly replaced the mild anger she felt. “What’s wrong?” she asked and then seeing the look of anxiety on Sue’s face, a sickening thought rushed into Kate’s mind.  “Oh my god Sue!  Please don’t let it be true.  Were you going out with…”

Sue quickly cut off Kate’s question.  “No, I wasn’t going out with Dave or his partner.  It’s not that at all.”  Absolute quiet engulfed the room while Sue decided whether and how she should go on.  Having made the decision, Sue could only manage a whisper.   “It’s just,” she began hesitantly while still trying to find the right words. “It’s just that something is very, very wrong here.  Kate, I have never felt so scared in my life.  There are things you don’t know about Fire Mountain…” The final statement remained incomplete as tears welled up in Sue’s eyes, tears that were a mixture of both sorrow and dread.

Caught between conflicting emotions of wanting to comfort Sue while at the same time wanting to press for answers to the new questions now rapidly spinning through her mind, Kate was momentarily lost for words.  But before she could do anything Brian was at her office door, talking before he had made it all the way in. 

“Paramedics have rolled.” he reported.  “State troopers have been called and our guys are requesting the Troopers’ helicopter.  We have no confirmed dead but from what we’ve heard I think we’re safe to assume at least one killed.”

Kate glared at Brian, then remembering his age and lack of experience, reminded him in a voice calmer than originally intended that reporters don’t assume anything.  They know something or they don’t and if they don’t know, they find out.  Then in a voice more like the editor she was, Kate said:  “Brian, you’ve got your marching orders.  Get out there.  Do your job and we’ll meet back here no later than 4 this afternoon.  Anything changes or new facts come up, you can reach me on my cell phone.”

Returning her attention to Sue, Kate was glad to see some color had returned to her face and the tears had stopped for now.  “Sue?” Kate asked, but Sue had begun to walk out of the office.

Stopping by the door, she turned to look at Kate, an expression of anguish mixed with something that remained indiscernible yet held more than a tinge of fear, passed across her face.  “Kate, maybe we can talk about this later.” she whispered.  “Be careful out there, Kate.  Things don’t feel right.  I know this sounds silly but please, Kate, be careful.”  And with a last long look at Kate, Sue left.

Standing alone in the middle of her own office, Kate wasn’t sure what to think.  In the short time since she had taken over the paper, she had never seen Sue so consumed with foreboding.  On top of that, last week the news had been about Girl Guide cookie sales and the Chamber of Commerce meeting.  Now, in less than a quarter of an hour, the top story was about a possible murder, maybe a multiple murder.  That was the kind of story that happened in the city, not Sheridan Corners.  Shaking her head in disbelief but unable to dismiss Sue’s words from the back of her mind, Kate headed for the front door.

Pausing by the scanner, Kate asked about the latest from Stone.  “Not a word since that last transmission.” was the chilling reply.

 “Maybe they’re back on data link.” Kate responded weakly.

 “Don’t think so.  Dispatch has been trying to reach him for the last 5 minutes.”

 

Stone raced up the entrance to the Fire Mountain parking lot, three hundred yards ahead he could see McPhail’s unit, light bar lit, driver’s door open but no immediate sign of anyone.  At one hundred and fifty yards, Stone brought his car to a halt.  Instantly he flung open his door and using it as a shield glanced through the window opening.  Ducking down behind the full protection of the door, Stoned yelled loudly.  “Dave?  Bill?”  The names echoed off the forest rapidly fading until only the silence remained.  Again, Stone dared a quick look. 

A sudden breeze to the left of Stone rattled the aspen leaves.  Spinning towards the sound, gun pointed at the noise, safety clicked off and heart pounding in his chest, Stoned suddenly realized how exposed he really was.  Relaxing his finger on the trigger, Stone knew he had to get control of himself and the situation. Assessing his position, he considered his options.  The rules said he should back off and wait for backup but those were his men out there and they were relying on him. 

Stone thumbed his gun back to safe and started to slowly get back in his car.  His vehicle was his only protection and as he lay the semi automatic beside him he knew what had to be done.  “Screw the rules!” he yelled and hitting the siren, lights and accelerator all at the same instant Stone covered the last hundred and fifty yards to McPhail’s unit in seconds. 

Jumping out of his car in a crouch, gun in hand, Stone dashed towards the open door of McPhail’s vehicle.  Stopping at the driver’s side of the car, Stone assumed the classic battle stance, arms outstretched, weapon held in both hands and knees slightly bent.  Now ready for anything, his gun and eyes swung in unison towards the interior of the car.

The vomit rising in his throat stung as it touched the back of his tongue. The acidic bile burned and Stone desperately fought for the strength to swallow and force it back down.  Mouth wide open in an attempt to force air into his lungs, he tried to will his body to function, to regain enough control to simply be able to breathe again.  But each time he felt he might finally get one good deep breath, he would again start gagging.  Finally, giving into the natural reflexes controlling his body, Stone leaned over and placing one hand on the roof of the car, let wave after sickening wave of nausea ripple through him.

Pushing himself upright, eyes watered from the effect of such deep powerful retching, Stone wiped his eyes and quickly scanned a full 360 degrees around him.  That was Dave in the car he reminded himself, although if it weren’t for the nametag on the uniform, it would be difficult to tell.

Regaining some composure, Stone managed to take his first long deep breath in what seemed like hours then bent down to look into the car once again.  Barely hearing the sounds of approaching sirens and the distinctive rotor noise of the helicopter, Stone straightened, turned his back to the car and slowly slid to the ground.  Drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around his legs, he simply moaned, “Dear God”.


Posted in 11/28/08 | Leave a Comment »

Chapter One

Posted by billmcq on November 25, 2008

It’s time to meet your two principle characters and over the next few pages I’ll give you an opportunity to get to know them just a bit.  You’ll see them during their last moments of innocence.  It’s Monday morning and in less then an hour, their lives will never be the same and could come to a horrific end……….. 

Chapter One

Sheridan Corners, or simply the Corners as the locals were fond of referring to it, was what many dreamed of when they fantasized about escaping from the urban sprawl and associated stresses of city living.   On this strikingly beautiful morning in May, thoughts of traffic jams, cell phones single-mindedly demanding one’s attention and irritated drivers fuming over their lack of progress were the furthest things from the mind of Kate Thomas.  In fact, as she drove through town towards her office, Kate was again congratulating herself on finding such a perfect place to live.  Was it a matter of luck, good fortune or simply destiny?  The question and perhaps more importantly the answer no longer seemed to matter, for in her mind and heart, Sheridan Corners was her town as well as her life.

 With a population of just under 4500, the Corners was situated on a long narrow plateau on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains.  The 3600-foot elevation the town enjoyed insured this Monday morning remained crisp and it would require another hour or two of sunshine to warm things up.

Accustomed as Kate had become to the difference in climate between here and her old neighborhood in Seattle, many aspects of life in the Corners remained refreshingly wonderful.  One startling example and so evident this morning, was the sky.  Until a few months ago, Kate had no concept of a sky that was anything more than a pasty, water-downed version of blue.  A total lack of…she searched for the right word and settled on vibrancy.  Whereas her sky over her newly adopted town was like everything else out here, full of life and sparkling with color.  Raised in the city, Kate felt certain she would never get use to the unimaginable blue that spread from horizon to horizon. A deep rich New Mexican style turquoise filled with depth and character that could only come from the hand of nature.

Continuing her drive along Birch Avenue and without conscious thought, Kate reached for the pack of cigarettes that customarily sat in the tray between the bucket seats.  “Damnit” she muttered, realizing how hard some habits were to break.  “Will the craving never end?” she demanded of her image in the rear view mirror.  There was no reply but in its’ place Kate did witness the start of a small mischievous grin.  There were any number of vices to be given up but the beginnings of that playful smile reminded her that not all supposed vices were indeed wicked or harmful in an addictive kind of way. Mind you the Surgeon General had declared the need for safety but fortunately our doctor in charge of the nation’s health had not determined that the libido would, among other things, stunt your growth. Of course ever since moving to Sheridan Corners the need to even consider giving up sex was a moot point.  There had been none to give up.  And with that less than cheerful thought but at least distracted from the craving for a cigarette, Kate Thomas pulled into her parking space, ready to begin another week as owner and publisher of the Sheridan Corners Journal.

Ever since buying the Journal two months ago, Kate had truly enjoyed life in Sheridan Corners, albeit no sex for the past two months but everything else was OK.  Maybe better then OK, reconsidered Kate.  Her dream of living in a small town and running her own weekly paper had worked out better than she had dared hoped for.  With the clarity of hindsight, giving up smoking at the same time had been an incredibly optimistic gamble, but it was suppose to be a new life and that included getting rid of an old lifestyle as well as ridding oneself of old habits.

The first old habit to go was the job, city Editor for the Seattle Times.  Kate had started her career in journalism as a reporter in LA and moved to Seattle 10 years later to take on the City Desk job.  It had been fun but very intense and the idea of owning her own paper had always been in the back of her mind.  Doing so in a small town had been a goal she secretly harbored as well.  Here the weekly crime report included not much more then the occasional stolen car or maybe a fight in the parking lot in front of the bar.  However, murders, rapes, armed robberies and other such “city” crimes were unheard of in Sheridan Corners. 

Next on the list of things to go was Brad Wilcox, one of the best fashion photographers on the coast.  It was a sixteen-month relationship that upon reflection was perhaps 15 months and 29 days too long.

Brad was handsome in every respect and knew it.  He was without question one of the best looking men she had ever laid eyes on and you could only describe his abilities in bed as spectacular.  Everything about Brad was perfect and therein laid the problem.  He was boring.  Life had been too kind to Mr. Bradley Wilcox and as a result his character had no need to acquire and develop depth or compassion.  This character flaw accounted for his success in fashion photography.  He dealt only with perfection as decreed by the country’s leading fashion magazines.  Real life, which included wrinkles, imperfect noses and weight in the wrong places was not part of that world.  There was no need to look beyond the lens when you were dealing with a flawless model in designer clothes.  It was formula photography and Brad excelled at his trade.  He was always on time, on budget and manufactured exactly what the editor had ordered.  However, ask him to capture on film the spirit and soul of an individual and you quickly became aware of just how empty those big blue eyes of his really were. 

Kate’s best friend, Allie Morgan had provided the most accurate summation of Brad when she described him as “Kate’s finest and best vibrator… incapable of carrying on a conversation but boy, could he make you feel good.”  In fact, it had been Allie’s idea, no make that order, that Kate invite Brad out for one last date before letting him know she was moving.  And what a night it had been.

Following Allie’s instructions, it was to be dinner at Kate’s place.  Candles, wine, fresh pasta from the deli down the street and a mood-setting selection of acoustic guitar instrumentals on the stereo.  Allie had also decided Kate’s wardrobe would be casual chic on the outside and Victoria’s Secrets on the inside.  Allie’s instructions were, “Give him good food.  Give him good fantasy.  And give him a good…” and then she’d broken down in laughter, unable to finish the final of the three F’s rule, as she called it.  But never truly at a loss for words, Allie had looked thoughtfully at Kate, smiled her best hedonistic grin and concluded, “Oh what the hell, Kate, use him, screw him and loose him.” 

Walking through the front door of the Journal’s office, smiling to herself, her thoughts were interrupted when a voice behind her said, “Hey, Kate, with a mischievous grin like that, I don’t think I have to ask how your weekend went! 

Brought back to reality, Kate quickly turned to see Sue McMillan, her secretary and sometimes community events reporter, standing by the front desk with an eager, let’s hear the gossip smile on her face and an extra cup of coffee.  Handing the steaming mug to Kate, she continued with her traditional morning greeting, “So, what’s up boss?” then paused and with a decidedly wicked smile, added, “Or should I say, what was up this weekend?”

Since buying the paper, Kate had found Sue to be indispensable.  Knowledgeable in all aspects of the paper and a hard working member of the team, it was Kate’s hope that Sue would soon be ready to take on even more.   Now, looking at that impish smile, accentuated by the high cheekbones and perfectly framed by her straight jet-black hair, Kate couldn’t help but laugh.   Then, returning the conspiratorial smile, Kate replied, “Sue, don’t I wish!” 

Shrugging her shoulders, as if to dismiss the lack of good weekend gossip as only a minor disappointment, Sue held up her hand, to show a fistful of pink message slips, “Your editorial on the State’s plan to reduce funding to rural schools got some heavy duty response.”  Fanning the messages out like a deck of cards, Sue continued, “Let me see now,” as she started to point and tick off certain messages.  “Loyal reader, loyal reader,” she kept repeating before pausing and then bluntly demanding, “Who’s this guy?  Oh, that would be the Chief Administrator of the school board.” she answered with feigned surprise and innocence.  “Bet you he’s not a happy camper today.  But the little weasel deserved every shot you gave him Kate.  Congratulations, all but one of these calls,” letting the offending message fall from her hand and drift to the floor, “are one hundred percent behind your editorial.”

Kate was pleased, this had been her first serious editorial since taking over the paper and she had been concerned and uncertain about how the readers might take to her style of writing.  She was rocking the boat and in a town of just over four thousand and the resulting waves could have been very serious.  Feeling a sense of relief, Kate was also surprised by the growing sense of community involvement this had brought to her.  Small town life was more intimate and direct than life in the city where you could hide behind multiple layers of staff, bureaucracy and even lawyers if and when required.  Walk out of the office door in Seattle and you were instantly anonymous.  No one knew, or for that matter cared, who you were.  Here in Sheridan Corners, Kate reflected, you had immediate recognition and the responsibility that came with it.

Bending over to retrieve the message slip on the floor, Kate said, “That’s great news, Sue, but this,” holding up the phone message, “is the first call I’ll return. And you know what?  I’ll offer our friend here, an equal amount of space for a rebuttal in next week’s paper.” 

Kate fully understood the meaning of the word community, in describing her paper.  It involved communications and she was not about to exercise a monopoly on the right of expressing an opinion.  It was what made this new venture so exciting and so different from her previous experiences.  God, she thought, this is what I’ve always wanted to do.  Looking to Sue, Kate asked, “What do you think?  Should we give that weasel, as you call him, a chance to have a go at me?”

This was exactly what Sue liked about her new boss.  Since Kate took over the paper, she involved the staff in the decision-making process and actually listened to what they had to say.  This recognition and active pursuit of their participation in the publishing of the paper had transformed the office into a dedicated and loyal team.  Sue also understood that Kate led by example, unafraid to get her hands dirty, she would get in there and do what was necessary to get the paper out.  She was a willing teacher and would push you beyond the limits of your knowledge.  However, she had little tolerance for those unwilling to learn and mediocrity was a four letter word in Kate’s dictionary.

Sue considered Kate’s question before replying and then, with a straight face suggested, “When you talk with him this morning, ask him to spell potato.  If he gets it right, give him space for 400 words.  If he puts an ‘e’ on the end, he’s just demonstrated why proper funding for schools is a necessity.”       

“I’ll pass that suggestion onto our Chief Administrator.” laughed Kate adding with a wink, “You’re in charge of the office pool and I’ve got five bucks that says he’ll go with the ‘e’”

Two blocks down the street, the start of a new week was also well underway for Evan Stone, sheriff of Sheridan Corners. A tall thick ceramic mug, with less then an inch remaining of strong but now cold coffee, sat forgotten on the right hand corner of his desk. Down to the final report of his review of weekend patrol summaries, Stone reached for the coffee mug.  He ignored the handle and simply wrapped his hand around the mug, and whether it was the lack of weight or the absence of warmth, he finally recalled that he had meant to get a refill over ten minutes ago. Chuckling quietly to himself and wondering if it was true that absent mindedness was confirmation that his 40th birthday was behind him now, he placed his empty coffee mug back on the desk and decided to finish the last file of the weekend, a missing persons report.

According to the report, a young man by the name of Jim Esseltine had not kept a date with his girlfriend last night and despite repeated calls to his apartment, Mr. Esseltine’s whereabouts remained a mystery. Stone tried not to smile but recalling his own youth he had a pretty good idea that the young lady was the only one not to know where Mr. Esseltine was.  However, Stone felt that the people of Sheridan Corners did not employ him and his department for the purpose of arbitrarily selecting who was and wasn’t deserving of their attention. And so, despite any possible preconceptions, Stone continued to read through the file.  A moment later the smile was gone as he discovered that Mr. Esseltine was actually overdue from a hike on Fire Mountain.  Quickly flipping to the last page for the action summary, he was pleased to note that Deputy McPhail had already signed on for the case and was, at this moment, on his way to Fire Mountain to investigate.  He was also pleased to see that McPhail had taken their newest recruit, Bill Summers, along for the ride.  Good way to teach Bill the importance of department policy on following up all calls, thought Stone.

Satisfied that everything, including the missing persons report, was well in hand, Stone stood and stepping from behind his desk, picked up his mug and headed off towards the always full coffee pot located in the patrol room.

Posted in 11/25/08 | Leave a Comment »

Prologue

Posted by billmcq on November 24, 2008

Death has a way of creeping up on you, slithering like a snake through the grass, unnoticed until your flesh is suddenly pierced with the pain of its’ poisonous bite.  Only then do you see the snake, feel the venom pound through your body with each beat of your panicked heart and realize with sickening certainty that you are about to die.

Immortality like strength is the domain of the young and Jim Esseltine like all men of his age was convinced of the timelessness of both.  So, it should come as no surprise that as Jim was finishing his hike, his mind was not considering the fatal consequences of this Sunday afternoon’s outing in the woods. In fact it had been an incredible day, full of the promise and hope that comes only with the arrival of spring in the mountains.

Having started shortly after lunch, Jim was just completing the five-hour loop up and then around the back of Fire Mountain.  Now, only a few minutes away from where he had left the truck, his mind was idly reviewing the many remarkable images of the afternoon walk.  Glancing at his watch, he noted with a sense of self-satisfaction that he had completed the traverse of Fire Mountain in just over four hours.  “Thirty-seven minutes better than the posted time,” he boasted to himself.  This would leave him more then enough time to drive home for a quick shower and a change of clothes before meeting Sally at Clancy’s Grill for drinks and dinner.  Thinking of the night ahead, Jim’s imagination began to substitute images of this afternoon’s trek with visions of the very beautiful and radiantly luscious, Sally J. Franklin.

Rounding the final bend in the trail, with only a few hundred yards remaining, Jim was suddenly puzzled.  Without warning, daydreams of his Sally had within the snap of a finger been replaced by an old childhood recollection.  Perhaps startled would be more appropriate than puzzled as the memory was that of his reoccurring adolescent nightmare. 

So instant was the arrival of that past remembrance, so vivid the recollection that Jim paused on the trail and despite the shiver that ran up his spine managed to smile self-conscientiously.  Shaking his head in a futile attempt to rid his mind of those memories, Jim looked around the familiar trail and abruptly realized that the transient half-light of approaching evening was upon the woods.  Longer shadows and cooler temperatures had replaced the sun’s afternoon heat.  He laughed nervously but that was the only sound in the forest at that moment.

Another nervous chuckle and about to take a step, Jim stopped in mid-stride.  With growing discomfort, he realized just how silent the forest had truly become.  Jim wished he could hear something, anything that would take his mind off the memory of that dream.  But there was no sound, no indication of life and strangely he admitted no relief from his thoughts.  The woods were deadly quiet as if the creatures of the forest were like Jim, waiting.

Standing in a dry creek bed, he could see the path ahead as it wound in a serpentine fashion over a small rise to the parking lot and his truck.  The trail, surrounded on both sides by dense bush was in deep shadow and Jim, foolishly and for some reason unavoidably thought how it reminded him of the stairs in his nightmare. Indistinct shadows created the illusion of undefined form and movement ahead of him. He took a step forward but was increasingly obsessed with the rising pathway and the dread it generated.

That wonderful feeling of immortality was being replaced with a growing understanding of youthful naiveté.  Reluctantly accepting this loss of innocence, it was now that he finally acknowledged there was something to be feared in the woods this evening.  With that newfound awakening the earlier shiver up his spine turned from casual concern to sincere anxiety.  Then like a seed planted in fertile soil, it started to grow and develop.  The long malformed roots of apprehension suckled on the nourishment of memories wished forgotten had begun their destructive journey.  Jim’s unease blossomed, consuming rational behavior as worry was transformed into a festering, raw ugly fear.

He knew he had to go up that path.  His truck, certain sanctuary, was just at the top of the trail out of sight yet so tantalizingly close.  Fear, like a vice squeezed at his chest, each breath becoming more difficult than the last.  Standing, immobilized by his growing terror, he actually wished to hear a twig snap or an intake of breath that signaled the trap had been sprung.  Something, anything that would force him to move but there was only silence.  An oppressive, confining silence that was full of despair and devoid of hope.

Finally, with the woods growing darker by the moment, Jim summoned the last shred of courage from deep within a place he didn’t know existed and took one tentative step.  Pulse drumming in his ears, mouth dry and eyes darting from side to side, his body tensed and waited.  But there was nothing except for a warning from the buried recesses of his mind.  Another step, this time a little faster and still nothing.

Dispassionate and logical thought began to collapse under the weight of his growing terror.  In the grip of fear, rational alternatives flounder in the wake of the more primeval instinct of fight or flight.  Jim, obeying the instinctive characteristics of the prey, chose flight and sprinted up the hill.  His truck, so near and inviting was his all consuming goal.

Running with an intensity that until now had been beyond his ability, Jim was halfway up the slope when he stumbled.  Frantically, clawing the ground in front of him, he started to rise while looking over his shoulder.  His mind screamed in warning, “don’t look back” but it was too late.  In the shadows behind him something moved, coming out of the dark recesses of the path.  Shape and form still indistinct but its’ mere presence filled him with an appalling, hideous panic.   Looking ahead, he could now see his truck.  “God!” he cried.  “It’s only yards away.”

Death, violent death seemed inevitable this evening.  Jim knew there would be no help, no reprieve, no humane and painless end for the chosen.  The vile, repulsive creature coming unseen from the darkness was going to win.  Arms and legs bruised by their attempt to secure a footing, lip bleeding from his fall and fingernails torn in an effort to claw his way to safety, Jim started to cry.

Consumed by this combination of frustration and terror, Jim almost failed to feel his foot bite into the dirt.  He staggered momentarily and then feeling the wind against his face, Jim ran for his life.  Just a few more steps, three more steps and it’s over, he realized, with sudden relief.  Reaching out to touch the truck, just inches from his grasp, Jim tried, like he never had before to focus on his goal and knew beyond all reason that he shouldn’t look back. 


Posted in Prologue | Leave a Comment »