Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Jerry held out a bottled water, and I took and downed the whole thing in one pull then forced myself up from the hammock.
“I need to get out of here. There was an accident. People are dead.”
“Cool,” he said, “But you probably shouldn’t go anywhere until O’Brien shows up.”
I ignored him and left the closet on my own two feet. The pain in my leg was bad but bearable, and I’d rather power through than “borrow” somebody’s spare crutches. When I stepped out into the store, the combination of natural and fluorescent lights stung my eyes and gave me the realization that I had absolutely no idea what time it was.
“Is that him?”
I looked where the voice had come from to see a woman in a deputy uniform, staring right at me. She was tall and attractive, dark-skinned, with hair pulled back in a ponytail and a look on her face that said “Don’t even think about fucking with me.” She had been leaning against the counter next to the cashier, the one with all the books. He looked over at me, then whispered something to her that I couldn’t make out, which caused her to stand up straight and put her right thumb in her belt next to her gun holster. I’ve seen that tic before. She was trigger-happy and already ready to put me down if she needed to.
“Mr. Riggin?” She asked.
I stood perfectly still and put up my hands in front of me in the least intimidating way I could, remembering only then that I still had fresh red nail polish on my fingernails.
“Officer,” I said.
She took a second, probably trying to figure out what kind of lunatic she was dealing with. In an effort to get in front of the whole thing, I tried explaining the situation, “There’s been an accident, and I want to give a statement, but I’ve been attacked and require medical assistance.”
She cocked her head slightly to one side and said, “You look fine to me.”
Bullshit I do.
“I was in the truck when it flipped.”
“Are you fucking with me right now?”
Shit. Too much. Now her fingers were on the gun, ready to pull. I needed to reel it in a little. After a long, deliberate, loud breath I said, “Sorry officer, I’m a little shaken up because I was just in an accident. The vehicle I was in went off the road and flipped.”
“You were in an accident?”
“Was anybody hurt?”
Was anybody hurt? That was unexpected. How long had I been unconscious? There’s no possible way they hadn’t found the wreck--and the bodies--by now. Which meant she was either screwing with me or testing me. If it were the latter, then why? Was she trying to trip me up, get me to contradict my own story?
That’s when it hit me. This was an interrogation. There were bodies--victims--now, and someone was going to have to hang for it.
I chose my next words very carefully.
“Yeah. Three people died in the wreck. I came straight here to call the police, but the blood loss knocked me out before I could. I can take you right to where it all happened.”
She took a step towards me. Just one. Putting herself between me and the cashier.
That’s interesting, I thought. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I might have missed it, but her body language was telegraphing a clear message. I was an unknown, a potential threat, and her priority in this situation was protecting the guy behind the counter.
What was even more interesting was what she didn’t do.
“Alright Mr. Riggin, we’ll take my car and you can show me exactly where this all went down. Sound good?”
It was only then that I noticed her soft Brooklyn accent. One thing was for sure, she wasn’t local. I’d have to look her up once I got back to my phone or some place with internet.
She gestured towards the door and let me lead the way, her hand never leaving the gun until we were both outside.
She didn’t call it in. I had just informed her that there were three dead bodies, and she didn’t radio dispatch, backup, EMT’s, anyone. There was one obvious reason why that would be the case. She must have already known about the car wreck.
I saw her cruiser in the space farthest from the doors, parked backwards in the spot for a fast getaway. I stepped around to the passenger side and looked back at her, half expecting to see her pull the gun and take me down right there. But now that we were outside, she seemed instantly calmer.
“Well?” she asked, “What are you waiting for? Door’s unlocked.”
She opened the driver’s side and took her spot behind the wheel.
She isn’t going to make me ride in the back seat.
I took my spot on the passenger side and instantly pulled on my seatbelt, but before I could even click it into place O’Brien had the car pulled out to the road.
I pointed back in the direction I had come. Downhill, away from town. She peeled out and gunned the vehicle.
I watched the side of the road for any signs of the “bear” or the little girl, but at the speed she was driving, I doubt I’d have been able to pick them out if they weren’t right next to the street. We passed the dirt road that led to the family’s hunting ground and I made a mental note to come back later and find where Ned had left my wallet and keys. “It should be right up here, around this bend.”
I replayed the event in my mind.
"Straight for about a mile. Then you’ll see a dirt road on the left."
Paw punching me in the gut.
Their perverse laughter.
“Alright, slow down. It should be right…”
O’Brien slowed the car and hit the red and blues, but we were right on top of where the truck had gone off the road, and there was nothing.
“Where?” She asked.
“Stop the car.”
I hopped out before she had even come to a complete stop on the shoulder of the road, ignoring the stinging in my leg as best I could. This wasn’t possible. I couldn’t have been unconscious that long. They had already moved the truck?
I ran into the grass and stood in the exact spot where I had been pulled from the mangled wreck earlier that day, but there was nothing there. No sign of any wreckage. No blood. No debris. No ruts in the dirt. Not a single blade of grass out of place.
O’Brien yelled out to me from her spot next to the cruiser, “I don’t think it’s out here. Maybe we should head up the road a ways. This all looks the same to me.”
“No, I’m certain it was right here.”
“Well, it’s not ‘right here’ anymore, so how about we get you back into town and you can give a statement?”
I took a deep breath and caught an all too familiar aroma, one glaringly out of place on the side of the road near a thick forest. Bleach. I scanned the grass for something, anything that would prove I hadn’t imagined it all and walked up to the road for a better look. From there, I scanned both directions. No skid marks. No nothing. This wasn’t a “pull the wreck out of the woods” operation. This was a hard core cleanup crew. Somebody had put a hell of a lot of effort into covering it up. But why?
“Does this street look like it’s been cleaned recently?” I asked.
O’Brien scoffed by way of an answer.
I crossed to the opposite side of the road and knelt down.
“Pretty sure there’s not a wreck over there either, Nail Polish.”
Whoever did this had resources that I could barely even fathom. This would have taken money, manpower, precision. But even the most thorough cleanup crews will make mistakes when time is a factor. I reached into the grass and picked up a tiny shard of broken safety glass.
An old silver pickup truck pulled up behind the deputy’s cruiser and again I reached for the empty spot on my right side. Like a phantom limb, I keep expecting to find my handgun, only to remember that I’m as vulnerable as I was when that family was arguing over who would get to kill me.
The man stepped out of the truck and came around to face us with a big friendly smile. He was late fifties, with a dirty white beard and a camo jacket. A tucked in white t-shirt showed off a pot belly spilling over the edge of his jeans.
“Mornin’” he said to me, basically ignoring O’Brien.
Wait, was it still morning? I hadn’t actually seen a clock since I woke up, but there’s no way all of this could have been cleaned in just a few hours.
“Hey.” I said back.
He laughed and said, “You look like shit. What happened?”
“Cut myself shaving.”
He finally acknowledged O’Brien with the simplest flash of eye contact before looking back to me and asking, “Y’all lose something?” Before I could answer, his cell phone started ringing and he put up a finger and dug it out of his pocket. “Yeah?” He said.
His look turned into one of slight confusion before he lowered it, took a look around, then at the phone, then at O’Brien and me. Then he said, “Is one of you Eric Riggin?”
I looked at O’Brien who shook her head and laughed softly. “Don’t look at me.”
“It’s… uh… for you.”
I put the glass shard in my pocket and walked over to the man extending his phone. This whole situation was too much for my brain to digest, and I genuinely had no idea what was going on, who to trust, or even what was real anymore.
That’s when I first noticed that my tongue was feeling extra fat, and a warm sensation was pouring over me. It could have just been an effect of the blood loss, but somehow this felt different. I decided to ignore the feeling for now, and reached out for the phone.
“This is Eric.”
“Finally! Where the hell have you been all day?”
Of all the possible voices I expected to hear on the other end of that line, this was not one of them.
“Who were you expecting? Santa Claus?”
“How did you find me?”
“I know things, detective. Time to take a little bit on faith, alright? I know the investigation got a little derailed this morning, huh? Somebody is screwing with you, which is a good sign. They’re trying to throw you off the scent because you’re asking questions and they aren’t used to people in this town asking questions. You kicked their hornet’s nest, and they’re pissed off.”
I leaned away from O’Brien and whispered this next part into the phone.
“Roger, I was attacked. People are dead.”
“Really?” He didn’t sound all that surprised, “Well we’re definitely going to have to talk about that later. For now though, I found something in Vanessa’s file that we need to discuss. You got a gun, yeah?”
“Ditch it. Drop it in the bottom of the ocean if you have to. I guarantee by now they’ve tied the ballistics to one or two of the open murder cases in town.”
“Tell me one thing. What the hell is going on?”
“Lose the copper. I don’t know who to trust yet. And meet me at the bowling alley tonight at eight. Come alone. Pay attention, because you’ll probably need to shake a tail. And Detective?”
“Take a shower.”
With that, he disconnected.
I looked at O’Brien, who was leaning against the trunk of her car, arms crossed and watching me. “Who was it?” she asked.
I handed the phone back to the man and shrugged at the deputy.
“Looks like I made a huge mistake.”
“Yeah?” she asked incredulously.
“Yeah.” I answered.
She gave me a ride back to the gas station while I spun a yarn about having a serious case of sleepwalking. I assured her that I had dreamt the whole thing up, and must have gone off into the woods in my unconscious state, gotten myself scraped up pretty bad, then wandered back into town confused and a little worse for the wear.
Either she bought my story, or she had her own reasons to accept that there was no reason to press it further. She didn’t strike me as an idiot, so I concluded that it must have been the latter.
She brought me to my car and gave me a straightforward warning before she took off.
“I don’t know what answers you think you’re going to find, but I wouldn’t stick around much longer if I were you. We got the guy who killed Vanessa. And take it from me. Closure is overrated.”