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Somebody Dies

SOMEBODY DIES

by

Steven D. Bennett

 

Shakespir Edition

 

Copyright © 2014 by Steven D. Bennett

 

Chapter 1

 

Because he was coming someone was going to die.

There was no way around it, no way to deny it. No way to run or hide from it. Certainly no turning back, not now, not ever.

Because he was coming someone was going to die.

And no matter how you presented the words, it came down to that same finality, that same destiny which awaited all with a timetable of its own making.

Someone was going to die…because he was coming.

Someone who—at that very moment, perhaps—was laughing at a joke, or shaking hands with a friend, or planning a date, or drinking a warm cup of coffee, or speaking encouragement to a colleague, or firing an employee, or hugging a loved one, or maybe even a child digging innocently in a safe, secure sand box. Someone who was living life as all have lived would in a matter of time no longer be; mercifully unsuspectful of the dark eternity approaching; like the clicks of a clock running backwards, erasing precious seconds with every step in the ever-narrowing gap of time. Days, weeks, a month at the outside. Maybe today. Not even Thadeus knew the who or the when or even the why.

He only knew one thing:

Because he was coming.

And still he walked.

But the day itself was beautiful. Spring had finally come, leaving cold deadness behind and springtime in New England was life itself. Trees had shaken off their cold, snowy coats and plants were bursting through the thick blanket which had covered the Earth for too long and now were making the most of the stores of water and abundant sunlight, digging roots deep into dark dirt while stretching high toward the sky. Everything was green and lush and blooming as if an explosion had taken place in the last few days and nature itself was daring the snow to reappear amidst the onslaught of the thickening foliage.

Thadeus took a deep breath and smiled for the first time that day. The air was still cool, biting his lungs as they filled, but the sun was full with the promise of warmth for days to come. The ground was thawing and the roads had changed from frozen tundra to slimy mud to cool dirt. Not yet the choking trails of summer—he was well acquainted with those, as well—but a nice, firm hardness underfoot, a good foundation. There was comfort in the solid ground, a joy in the assurance of heat and for him each step took him further from the future for there was peace and calm to balance the approaching storm.

It hadn’t always been that way. In the beginning it was all dread and instead of being in the peaceful center of the hurricane he found himself tossed and battered amidst the destruction he brought.

So he sought distance.

The end of a life, after all, began with a single step, so he would put off that step as long as possible, finding endless projects of distraction around the house until rising anxiety would almost chase him out the door. Then, once the journey had begun, he would start off in the opposite direction, meandering through old roads and trails, studying animals on the way, stopping to examine tracks in the mud, pretending to ponder the motives of movement of a deer or squirrel or gopher.

When that failed to stop time he took to counting and found diversion in numbers. He would count steps as if they were breaths; so many inbetween this fence post and the next, between that birch and the next, that oak…yet the temporary comfort turned to annoyance at the inconsistencies of man and nature as space could not be brought into line with mathematics. That led to increased counting in an attempt to erase those same inconsistencies which found even more inaccuracies which led to a deeper counting in an effort to find consistency even within inconsistency and when that was not realized there came anger and frustration at the failed expectations of men and nature and God and he raised his fist and cursed the creator and begged for it all to be taken away…even life itself.

But it wasn’t.

So he concentrated on the steps, trying to find consistency in them and a meaning to his wanderings. So many steps from his home to the next house, or his home to the next town, or the steps from his front door—entire journey, now—back to the safety of his own bed.

Still no relief.

Then he took to a more morbidly defiant counting. So many steps to this victim, to this death. Almost, God help him, making a game of it at times. Fourteen thousand, six hundred and forty-one steps to that murder. Twenty-one thousand, five-hundred and twenty-nine ‘til the next. Wondering if the final number had any significance; related to a scripture or some prophetic day or year.

But he found no consistency or significance in the numbers. And still he trudged on, certain that he was losing his mind.

Then, without even a prayer, it had all been taken away.

The darkness was gone in an instant and a new vision took its place. It had to, because all of the mental ruses had become ways for Thadeus to disassociate himself from the task at hand; a way, ironically enough, of stepping away. If he became a simple observer to his surroundings then he wasn’t really a part of them and they weren’t a part of him. It was a thing, like a day, that happened whether you got out of bed in the morning or laid there with a pillow clenched over your head.

Just a thing.

All the oppression had to be removed so he could become part of the journey in a way which kept his sanity. As had happened so often before with things in his life, the task wasn’t removed, the burden was. Lifted, gone, as if it had never been. And though he might never revel in the call, he at least approached it without fear.

Now he simply walked the straight and narrow. He smiled again—twice today—for it was a geographic reference and not a spiritual one, though at times the two did converge. On occasion, without defiance, he would make a slight detour, giving that unknown face at the end of the steps more time, and why not? Why not give them an extra few minutes, a few hours? What difference would it make?

He smiled again—third time—without joy but acknowledgment of experience, for it was like rushing for a plane after oversleeping and finding, upon arriving hours late, that fog had delayed your flight and the plane was still at the gate waiting for you all along. Or taking an extra weeks vacation on a whim and learning, upon return, that the extra week was already on the calendar and you had come back when expected.

Never late. Never early. Always right on time.

So it was with Thadeus. No matter what the delay, purposeful or not, when he finally did arrive at his destination he would discover that all things were as they should be. So now he walked until he didn’t and let destiny have its way and he learned to love the steps.

He remembered a verse he had written long ago, late childhood, when he was searching for meaning in existence. The reality of the life he lived at present was many years in the future, of course but the words had come to him then as some type of prophecy, as a younger man looked ahead.

 

Why is this the road I’m on

I can’t remember where I’ve gone

do I seek a dream that’s in my mind?

Is my goal within my sight

will it be reached with this day’s light

or has it been beside me all the time?

 

Fading words in a notebook long since stored away but brought to mind now and then with the inevitable melancholy; like someone looking at a photo album and seeing in the youthful faces joyous anticipation of the future, while that same someone looked back from that future with a heavy heart for the broken dreams and shattered lives and disassembled hope experienced in the silent strain of time.

But for Thadeus…well, today was different and he looked back on his younger self with affection. There had been such naive innocence and overwhelming self-confidence, such unshakable assurance that the world was awaiting his arrival and the greatness to be bestowed. The prideful egotism of youth.

Now, it wasn’t the world waiting, maybe not even a handful of people but he felt the same adrenal rush at the thought of the unknown and of the lives that would be touched and changed by his arrival and it brought purpose and gave his surroundings a crystal clarity.

Pastures of deeply watered grasses and weeds and wild roses surrounded him as they had for miles and on them, cows. Lots of cows. Some congregated around tiny pools of water left from snow melt, taking advantage of the convenience of drink that would soon disappear. Others stood alone, scattered to the woods on the far side. Most were near the edge of the road, by the fence, enjoying the rye, looking up as he passed.

Enjoying? he wondered. Was enjoyment even possible for them? Contented cows, to be sure, but if so, why were so many gathered near the fence? Did they see the cows across the road and recognize a friend or relative? Did they wish to seek fellowship amongst their own? Did they lift their huge heads and look over and wonder through color blind eyes if the grass was truly greener? Greyer?

Thadeus pictured them storming the fences on either side, stomping them flat, then meeting in the middle of the road and saying, ‘Enough of this! Let’s go home.’ And they would walk on two legs, arm in arm, down the road and off into the distance.

He watched them munch behind the fence. One looked up and mooed deeply as if groaning in agreement. ‘Yes, you’re right, it’s truuuue,’ he imagined him saying. ‘Help us escape!’

He laughed at the moo and walked on with enthusiasm. The silliness of it renewed his strength. He would reach his destination soon, he could feel it. It would be nice to sit and relax and enjoy a warm meal. It would be interesting to see what type of town was up ahead, what type of place he would be staying in—and the people—or if there would even be a place to stay. There were times he’d slept on park benches, in open gazebos, in church basements, in motels, in houses boarded by non-use, even in parked cars; any place provided, though another motel would be nice. Those had been few and far between. He never knew what would await but he had a feeling that the place he would be staying wouldn’t be too uncomfortable.

I will meet your needs.

Those had been the words whispered in the wind from long ago and he had been going on faith and promises ever since. There had been additions and deletions along the way but when he walked he did so with only the clothes on his back and the spoken assurance from years past. Even now he had nothing with him but the clothes he wore…and four-hundred dollars in his pocket.

There was faith and there was faith.

A few miles up ahead the road turned and seemed to disappear into a dark hole in the woods, like the door to a mystical land promising adventure. With his destination closer now he walked faster…full of faith, promises and four-hundred bucks.

Chapter 2

 

The pastures were behind him now and the road seemed to dissolve and dead-end into the woods. But a squint and a few steps later saw the hole appear bigger. Big enough for a rabbit or Alice, he thought, and a few steps more found it bigger still as the woods seemed to expand like a curtain being pulled back to gain entrance. Thadeus smiled at the tricks of the mind and imagination, scowling at the tricks of age and diminishing sight.

The trees had such fullness of growth that their large limbs hung over the road like menacing watchmen ready to weed out the undesirables and allow only the chosen few entrance to the promised land. Thadeus hesitated, looking up half-expectantly at the giant guardians. But there was no action amidst their disapproval and he ignored their frowns as he entered the hole in the woods.

The road was dark with shade, trees blocking out the sun and damp moisture hung in the air. Without change in elevation, a broken sidewalk appeared beneath his feet, transitioning into solid cement with curb and gutter. The dirt road became asphalt, a broken white line in its center. The wildness of the woods became elm and maple and oak trees spaced in a more orderly arrangement, neatly pruned to allow light and warmth and giving the street a pleasant canopy of blue sky. He passed a metal post and looked up at the sign on top: Main Street. Across the road houses appeared. He reached his right arm out absently and found his fingers running along the pickets of a white fence which enclosed a manicured lawn. There was a white house at the end of the grass with green trim and matching shutters. Inside the fence was a long bed of roses, encased in its own tiny white picket fence, all bare except for the beginning of buds.

A dozen more steps brought him to an arched-trellis which spanned a brick walkway leading in a straight line to the front door. The rose bed was broken by the brick, continued over the trellis to the other side, continuing further to a driveway. Before the drive is where Thadeus saw a figure on hands and knees wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat which shielded the face. A woman, Thadeus thought inanely, and as he came closer, still running his fingers over the pickets, the woman looked up at him, wiped her hand over her brow and stood with a smile.

He noticed her hair first. Medium dark red, blending in neatly with the yellow shirt which matched the ribbon on her hat. Over that she wore a small jean vest which complimented her tight blue jeans. Tight. He kept his eyes higher as he stopped on the opposite side of the fence.

“Morning.”

“Good morning.” She wore white flowered gloves and held pruning shears in her left hand with black tape on the handles.

“Beautiful day.”

“Um-mmm,” she hummed, looking around. “We needed all the rain but now we need the sun. I’ve had enough cold for one lifetime. This is the first day in months I’ve been able to get outside and tend to the garden.”

“Seems pretty well-tended.”

She gave it a quick look-over. “Somewhat. But there’s always a lot to do. Do I know you?”

Thadeus shook his head. “Thadeus Cochran,” he said, and extended his hand.

She gave him a funny look but only said: “Amy Emerson,” while extending her own gloved-hand.

“You must like roses.”

She hummed again congenially. “They take a lot of work but they’re worth it.” There was a pile of cut branches on the ground, a bag of compost near that.

“When will they bloom?”

“Different times. Some will start fairly soon, some six weeks or so, others will bloom a few times during the year. If the weather stays nice it will be a good season for them. But you know what they say about New England. If you don’t like the weather”

Thadeus nodded as she finished. He’d heard that saying once or twice before. “What type of roses are these?”

“Are you interested in gardening?”

“Mmm—not really.”

“I have them sectioned off by variety,” she said. “These in front are all the Old Garden Roses, starting with Albas, then Ayshire, Bourbon, alphabetically to the end of the bed. I’ve got the modern roses all along the house, alphabetically, and in the back yard I’ve got my miniatures.”

“Alphabetically?”

“Of course.”

“You sound pretty organized.”

She laughed. “Hardly. No, my husband was the gardener, or I should say, the planner. He loved roses and made sure they were all taken care of.” She hesitated a moment. “He died two years ago.”

“I’m sorry. He must have spent a lot of time out here.”

“He did. We both did.”

They were silent for a moment.

“Don’t all roses have names?” Thadeus asked. “Mr. Lincoln and so forth.”

Amy nodded, bending down to the one closest. “This one is the Village Maid.”

“You must have a good memory.”

“I leave the tags on,” she said, letting him see the small white plastic attached.

“What about the climbers here?”

She stood and took a step to the trellis. “This is actually two that have grown together. This one is Angel Face. That one is Don Juan.”

“This is pretty…what’s this?”

She looked down at her feet where he indicated. “Those are weeds.”

“Oh. Right.”

“More work.” She pulled out a handful and tossed them to the side.

“I’ve heard it said that tending a garden is a lot like taking care of a relationship.”

She stood with a look of amused skepticism. “How’s that?”

“It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, wisdom. You have to know when to let things grow and when to cut them off.”

“Sounds like you read that on a fertilizer bag.”

Thadeus laughed, surprised. He suddenly couldn’t stop staring at her face. She had freckles, of all things. He wondered if he’d be around long enough to count them. More counting. How do I love thee? “Something like that.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you before today.”

“Just came into town.” He looked back the way he’d come, then thought better of explanations and let it go.

She nodded, looking with him, looking back. “Staying a while?”

“I’m…not yet sure.”

“Are you visitingfriends, relatives?”

“No.” He took a breath, considering. “You might say I’m here on business.”

“Oh? And what type of business are you in?”

Thadeus Cochran hesitated. “Futures.”

Amy Emerson laughed. “Boy, have you come to the wrong place. Newbury is hardly the hub of the investment world. You should be headed for New York. Of course, that’s the opposite direction.”

“Newbury,” Thadeus said, nodding to himself. “Is that the name of this town?”

Amy crossed her arms and took a step back. “You say you’re here on business but you don’t know how long you’re staying and don’t even know where you are? You should probably be more concerned with the present than in futures.”

She was definitely amused by him now and he was beginning to feel self-conscious. Maybe it was the jeans, or the freckles.

“But,” she continued, “you look harmless enough. Would you like some iced tea? It’s strawberry lime…homemade and homegrown. The strawberries, not the lime.”

“Don’t go to any trouble…” he began, but she had already turned toward the house. He watched her walk until she was out of view before turning to look at the sky. The tea, he thought, would be refreshing. It was becoming unseasonably hot.

And it was refreshing…cool and soothing like an elixir. He took his time letting the liquid refresh his body from the inside out. She was watching, he noticed, sipping her own with that curious look.

“You look like you haven’t had a drink in a long time.”

“Mmm,” Thadeus said, wiping his mouth. “A little while. It’s a good day for a walk.” He took a long drink, ice cubes sliding to his lips.

“Glad you like it.”

He nodded, shaking the cubes in the empty glass. “How long have you been gardening?”

“All my life…almost, anyway.”

“You must be an expert.”

“It would take a few more lifetimes for that.”

“I suppose. I suppose I should let you get back to work. Are there any…”

She was already shaking her head.

“…motels around here?”

“Closest one would be Clarksburg, ten miles up the highway. Mrs. Schneider rents out rooms sometimes. She’s just up the street.”

“How far?”

“Walking distance,” she said. “Three houses up. That white two-story on the right.”

“That would be great. I hope I see you again.”

“I’m sure you will. It’s a small town,” she added.

He handed her the cup. “Thank you again.”

“It was only tea.”

Thadeus smiled, lingering too long, he thought later, and walked down the sidewalk.

“Look for a sign,” he heard behind him, not the first time, but it gave him an opportunity to turn and wave and smile like a fool.

A few steps later found him still the fool. Amy Emerson. You never know, he thought, feeling suddenly energetic. I could learn to like it here. Maybe even…live here?

As Thadeus bounced on the soft concrete he remembered another verse of the poem from his youth, so long ago.

 

Is it love to set me right

hiding high, an unseen height,

caught up in the wind, above the trees?

should I not search, stay on the ground,

wait and listen for its sound

then inhale deeply when I feel a breeze?

 

Another prophecy from youth? He smiled and took a deep breath, symbolically silly, trying to fill his heart as well as his lungs. He stopped dead on the sidewalk as a sudden shiver went through him.

Oh, God, he thought, then said in a low voice. “What if it’s her?”

Chapter 3

 

“There are two to choose from,” the lady was saying as Thadeus followed her up the creaking staircase. Her name was Ruth Schneider and she gave the unhidden impression that she didn’t appreciate being bothered so early in the morning. She was the owner and manager of the converted two-story house and lived in one of the rooms on the first floor. Another border lived across from her. The rest of the downstairs was one bathroom and kitchen, off limits to all, and washer and dryer, also off limits. The rooms upstairs were empty. “Either this one or that,” she said as she reached the landing, indicating the rooms with her head. “This one has a nicer view of the backyard and the sunset over them trees. The other looks out over the street. Quieter in back. Prettier.”

“I’ll take the one in front.”

“Don’t you want to see them first?”

He shook his head as he veered toward the door.

She opened the room for him. It wasn’t much. A bed, a dresser, a nightstand, a closet, a small bath. Toilet, sink. No shower.

“There’s a shower in the downstairs washroom,” she said as if anticipating his thoughts or of hundreds before. “You can use it but you have to let me know beforehand so I can do the wash first. If you don’t you’ll use up all the hot water.”

He opened the nightstand drawer and was surprised to find a Gideon. He picked it up and opened it. It looked untouched.

“Somebody came by and left one for each room. Free, so I says, sure. Feel free to read it. Leave it when you leave.”

Thadeus thumbed the crisp pages before putting it back and closing the drawer. “How long ago was it left here?”

“Couple weeks, a month.” She shrugged.

Thadeus nodded.

“It’s twenty a day or a hundred for the week.”

“I’ll pay for the month up front.”

“That’s non-refundable.”

Thadeus smiled as he handed her four hundred-dollar bills. She grabbed them wide-eyed. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if you used the washer and dryer. Let me know first.”

“I appreciate that,” he said, feeling his empty pockets. The four hundred was all he had. He thought of dinner.

“How long you planning on staying?” she asked, counting, turning the bills over and over.

“I don’t know. Maybe a week. Maybe a few months.”

“You don’t know and you’re paying a month in advance? Mister, you must have a lot of faith. Or you’re a fool.”

Or both, he thought a moment later, looking out the window and wondering if there were a third option out there. Trees obscured his vision somewhat but he could see the sidewalk and a few houses to the right, same to the left. He angled his line of vision but could not see Amy Emerson’s house. Just as well, he thought and looked again.

He opened the window and took a deep breath. Lord, but there was life in these New England woods. Everything emanated that feeling; the trees, the bushes, the dirt itself. You could hear it in the air as it made its way down the street, carrying with it the heartbeat of the town. Voices talking from across the road and down the sidewalk, cars moving by slowly, children’s laughter coming in waves from far off, the unmistakable sounds of the schoolyard.

But there was more than the present in its swirls of wind and dust, for what was New England but a landscape of history, a testament to the unforgettable past? So many generations had dug deep in these woods, fiercely proud of their heritage given by their fathers and forefathers. Battles for freedom were fought here and families didn’t forget. It was ingrained in you, it was in your blood and its presence was felt as if the ghosts of yesterday were parading proudly to remind the town of their sacrifice. For down these quiet streets peaceful men died violent deaths; men who themselves were not violent but who did not hide when violence was so encountered. That was the heritage left from the past and those alive today were not far removed from the violence of yesterday. Some would see it again. Some soon.

There was a knock on the door. He shut the window and turned to find Ruth Schneider standing in the open doorway holding a large box in both hands. She looked less cranky than before.

“Here.” She handed it to him. “These have been in storage for a time. There was a man who stayed for a week and took off in the middle of the night—without paying, mind you—and left all his stuff. Maybe you can use it, maybe not. I noticed you had nothing with you. Not that it’s any of my business. If you can’t use them, throw them out. I don’t care.”

“Thank you,” Thadeus said, but she had already turned and thrown her hand up in an impatient wave before heading down the stairs.

Thadeus took the box to the bed and opened it. Clothes, clean, neatly folded. He took out a shirt. Nice condition and more importantly, his size. Four…no, five shirts, three pair of pants, even two pair of underwear. He might use those, if desperate. And some socks. No shoes. He took the pants and spread them on the bed. One had a lump in the front right pocket. He put his hand in and pulled it out. It was paper. Three twenty-dollar bills and two fives. And a paper clip and four pennies.

He was suddenly hungry. He washed and went into the hall. He walked to the back where two glass doors opened onto a small deck. He stepped out and looked out over tops of trees, a vast sea of green. He looked over to the right, counting yards, squinting at the third one down. No one visible. He looked over the backyard. Grass, mostly, brown, mostly, a small gazebo in the right corner, a small bed of roses surrounding. No blooms. Ruth Schneider walked below him with a basket attached to her hip, then let it drop with a bounce beneath a square clothesline with looked like a tent’s skeleton from overhead. It turned with a creak as she began pinning laundry. Aware of being watched she looked up and Thadeus waved but she made no motion and continued with her work.

What if it’s her?

He looked down at the old woman, then over to Amy Emerson’s house. Thadeus knew that the thought hadn’t come from him. He also knew that was the point.

He went back inside and started down the staircase. Halfway down something caught his eye. Movement. The door on his right, the one across from Ruth Schneider’s, the other room occupied, had moved inward slightly and now showed a crack of darkness where it was open. Maybe the wind. But it seemed to Thadeus that someone had been about to come out of the room, but hearing footsteps on the stairs had frozen and was now waiting.

He continued downward, his eyes on the door and as he reached the landing he stopped. There was a moment of nothing, then the door closed slowly and clicked shut. But before the door shut he caught a glimpse inside. Stacks of newspapers lined one wall and where they weren’t, cases of bottles filled the void, reflecting back light from the foyer as there was no light within. Thadeus felt his neck muscles tighten but the uneasiness didn’t come from the room’s contents. It came from a discomforting feeling that the person now standing on the other side of that door would play an important part in the events to come. And it was that same discomfort which accompanied him outside and with it not a small amount of annoyance.

Chapter 4

 

Five minutes later found him in better spirits as he walked toward the heart of Newbury. As he passed shops more people were outside; sweeping, walking, browsing. He avoided faces. They sometimes came with signs and impressions which could definitely upset someone’s day or life or lunch. There would be time for that but not now, not yet. This was a day to relax, get a feel of the place, the people. Destiny’s could wait.

A sign hung sideways over a door, pointing the way in. Harry’s Place. It was a small diner with advertisement on the window. Breakfast, served all day. There was a Breakfast Special. Two Eggs, Hash Browns, Toast, Coffee. $2.99. A good price for any year. Thadeus opened the door and went in. There were half a dozen tables and chairs set on black and white tile and just as many stools at the counter. Two tables were occupied by older men, locals, talking the town talk. No one at the counter. He made his way over and picked a stool at the end, spinning it slightly before sitting.

A young girl popped her head up from the kitchen, caught his eye momentarily and disappeared just as quickly. She had dark hair and eyes but it was the hat she wore which drew his attention. Some kind of purplish knit beret-type thing. Presently she came around the corner carrying plates and passed by with a quick smile. She wore a pink apron over a white dress which touched her knees. She also wore earphones, he noticed, and as she approached the table with the three older men she spoke too loudly for the room.

“Here you go, gentlemen,” she said, dealing the plates out quickly. “Everything’s hot, so be careful. Are we doing okay on coffee? I’ll be right back.”

She came back behind the counter and grabbed a pot of coffee. “Coffee?” she asked Thadeus, who almost had time to open his mouth before she poured him a cup and spun away.

He shrugged and grabbed cream and sugar from down the counter. He hadn’t finished stirring before she was back.

“How’s the coffee?” she asked, her smile showing big teeth. She was young. He noticed that he noticed that first. Twenty, twenty-two, tops. An ethnic-looking face but he couldn’t tell from where. The mid-east, maybe. She had dark eyebrows, dark eyes, brownish-olive skin. Perpetual tan. Her hair was black and hung to her shoulders. The earphones were now down around her neck and scratchy music blared out. The hat was wool, almost like an old-fashioned rug which started in the middle and wove its way out and around itself. It was purplish-black except for a squiggly red line about an inch from the top. It didn’t match her outfit, or any outfit, anytime, anywhere, Thadeus thought, at least outside a Rastafarian ski slope. Certainly out of place in a diner but absolutely appropriate for the girl. It was hard to take his eyes off it. Or her.

“Don’t know yet,” he said, stirring more. He took a sip. “Perfect.”

“Thank you.” She curtsied, adjusting the volume of her music and voice. “What will you have?”

“The special, I think.”

“What a surprise,” she said, smiling. “How do you like your eggs?”

“Poached.”

“Soft or hard?”

“Runny.”

“Toast or muffin?”

“Toast.”

“White or wheat?”

“Wheat.”

“Brown or burnt?”

“Brown.”

“Be back in a flash,” she said with another big smile and curtsy.

Thadeus shook his head. He couldn’t remember ever being that energetic. He turned around slowly, looking the place over. Black and white chessboard floor, white Formica tables, pink and light blue touches here and there; the jukebox, the napkin holders, the picture frames. An old-time diner in an old-time town. The white tiles on the old-time floor needed washing.

He caught comments from the conversations in the room. Farming, wives, weather. No impressions other than the natural ones: decent, hard-working men who had grown up together or known each other a long time, meeting to keep friendships alive, reliving the past as it loomed so much larger than the future…for one of them perhaps much more so. He noticed one of the men at the table looking at him as he talked to his friends. Maybe the conversation wasn’t about farming, wives, or weather, Thadeus thought. Another man gave him a glance. The stranger amongst us. He was suddenly sullen and turned away from the men.

“Everything okay?”

It was the girl, standing in front of him with her big smile and a pot of coffee.

“Oh, sure. Thanks.”

“You’re not from here,” she said as he took a sip.

He shook his head. “Nope.”

She waited and getting no response said: “Alba Urbina. Pleased to meetcha’.” She extended her hand .

He took it. Small, slender fingers. “That’s an interesting name,” he said. “Alba. It’s also a rose.”

“What is?”

“Alba. It’s a type of rose.”

“Are you a horticulturist?”

“No.” He laughed. “I just learned that today….about the rose.”

“Browsing the internet, I see. You didn’t tell me your name.”

“Thadeus Cochran.”

“And you think my name’s odd. Where are you from, Mr. Cochran?”

“Thadeus, please.

“Where are you from, Thadeus please?” she said after he didn’t answer.

He took a sip. “Down the road a bit.”

“How far?” she asked, smiling.

“Not far.”

She laughed. “That’s a pretty vague answer. A man of mystery who studies Alba roses. Or do you study all types of Albas? Just passing through?” she said before he could answer or blush.

He shook his head. “I’m staying at a rooming house down a few blocks.”

“Ruth Schneider’s place? What a dump. At least, the only time I’ve been inside it was a dump. Of course, that was a few years ago.”

“It’s much better.”

“It would have to be. Even a fire would be an improvement. Speaking of which, let me go check on your breakfast.”

She turned the corner and came back almost as fast with plate in hand. She set it in front of him. “There you go. Enjoy.”

“Thank you,” he said. Alba didn’t move.

“Will you be staying in town long?”

He buttered his toast. “Depends.”

“On?”

He chewed his toast, took a sip of coffee. “Different things.”

“Are you on vacation? Retired? Wealthy?” She drew out the last word and bounced her eyebrows comically.

Thadeus laughed. “None of the above. I’m here to see someone.”

“Who?”

He peppered his eggs and said casually, “I don’t know.”

Alba leaned on the counter. “You’re not giving me much to go on.”

“What do you mean?”

“For the gossip chain. Don’t you know that’s what people in small towns do the most, gossip about others? And it doesn’t necessarily matter how accurate the gossip is. As a matter of fact, the less accurate the better. But you’re not giving me any ammunition.”

“I guess you’ll have to make something up,” Thadeus said.

“Trust me, you wouldn’t want me doing that,” she said, smiling devilishly. “I have a pretty good imagination.”

She waited while he chewed. Thadeus stopped. “There’s really not much to tell,” he said.

She frowned, then smiled. “Even that can be interesting…if presented properly.” She took off to make the rounds with the coffee pot.

Thadeus closed his eyes and enjoyed the taste of the food. Whoever cooked it knew what they were doing. Then again, how could you ruin poached eggs? Easy, he remembered.

The girl came back and he was instantly glad. There was more under that hat than she was showing. Intelligence, wit, interest…youth. None of those ever hurt, not one bit.

“Have you given it any more thought?”

“What?”

“The story of your life.”

“Not really.”

“People are already beginning to talk.”

“Who?”

She nodded her head to a table. “Those men two tables over. They were pumping me for information about you.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “What else is there to do?”

“What did you tell them?”

“That you were a drug-selling sex addict, here to set up a meth lab franchise and rape as many of their daughter’s as possible.”

“That’s about right,” Thadeus said. “Except for the drugs and daughters part.”

“Don’t worry, they didn’t believe me. People have learned over the years not to. One look at you and they knew their daughters were safe.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“I did hear one man saying that you had checked into Mrs. Schneider’s place and paid a month in advance. True?”

“True,” he admitted. “You weren’t kidding about the gossip chain. I haven’t spoken to anyone in town except you.”

She twisted her lips tantalizingly. “Really?”

“Except Mrs. Schneider, of course.”

“And?”

“And?” Then he remembered. “I did speak to a lady on the way into town…”

“The truth comes out,” she said, smiling. “Nothing is hidden from my powers.”

“And I suppose you know who it was.”

“Maybe I do.”

“Well?”

She laughed and went around the counter.

By the time Alba returned Thadeus was almost finished with his breakfast. She caught him with a mouthful and held up the coffee pot. He pushed his cup forward and she filled it. He took a sip and a gulp as she waited with a smile.

“Now,” she said, leaning on the counter, “tell me why you’re really here.”

He shrugged. “I like to travel, I thought this was a nice town and I thought I might know some people here. Maybe distant relatives, or such. But I’m not looking for anyone in particular.”

She frowned. “You were right, that’s not very interesting.”

“I’m a very uninteresting person,” he said as she nodded. “My compliments to the chef, by the way.”

“I’ll let him know. He’ll be thrilled.”

“What about you? How long have you lived in Newbury?”

She blew out a breath. “Forever. Three years.”

“What made you–?”

“Boyfriend,” she said. “I met him at a coffee shop in Boston. He told me all about life in a small town. I was intrigued.” She shrugged.

“So you grew up in Boston.”

“More or less. More less than more. I was born in Guatemala but didn’t spend more than a few months there before my parents moved to Texas. After a couple years we moved to Virginia, then New York, then Boston.”

“You’ve seen a lot of the world.”

“I guess.” She said it indifferently. “Home is where your mother’s new boyfriend is, I always say.”

“So you moved here with your boyfriend, or—“

“With.”

“Is he still….around, or—“

She nodded, smiling. “Disappointed?”

“What does he do?”

She yelled over her shoulder. “Jesse. Come out here for a second. He was poisoning your eggs a few minutes ago. Or he would have been if he knew you were hitting on me.”

A pale, skinny kid came out from the kitchen. He looked young, high school age. Not a line on his face and stubble where the goatee he was growing should have been. He wore all black, down to the baseball cap he wore backwards. Thadeus tried not to stare at the earring in his left ear but a nickel-sized red stone embedded in the lobe held his gaze. There even seemed to be a tattoo on the boy’s arm that he couldn’t see very well, or maybe it was just grease. The boy was not smiling.

“What?”

Alba held out her hand. “Meet Thadeus Cochran.”

He considered, confused, then raised his head slightly. “Hey.”

“I wanted to compliment you on breakfast,” Thadeus said. “It was very good.”

The boy looked at him, then at Alba, then back. “Okay.”

Alba rolled her eyes. “Don’t be such a putz.”

The boy didn’t say a word. His expression was deliberately blank as if forcing the world to make him react. The front door opened, banged shut, and as the boy’s eyes glanced over every muscle in his face seemed to tense slightly. Thadeus turned to look at the cause.

A large man wearing a red plaid shirt and blue jeans and a John Deere hat had stepped into the diner and was making his way to the table already occupied. He greeted the men by name, slapping them on their backs and was engaging in small talk as he pulled up a chair. Thadeus couldn’t see the man’s face but the men at the table, he noticed, seemed coolly cordial.

Thadeus turned back to the boy and Alba. His expression had changed back to blankness.

“That it?”

Alba shook her head in mock reproval. “Yeah, yeah. Go back to your burgers.”

The boy disappeared back around the corner.

“Excuse him, he thinks he’s angst-ridden.”

“Maybe he is. Who’s that?”

Alba looked to man Thadeus indicated with a head nod. “Fred Birch. He runs the lumber mill and hardware store near Willoughby, which is a few miles north. Probably half the town has worked for him at one time or other.”

“I guess he’s well liked.”

“Mmm-huh.”

“But not by everyone.” He looked her in the eye and she caught on right away.

“Oh, Jesse.” she rolled her eyes for the third time. “He’s just suspicious. Of everyone,” she added, looking deeply into his eyes, then she smiled and spun away.

Chapter 5

 

For the rest of the day he walked.

He wasn’t always given the opportunity and he was going to make the most of it. So many times he had arrived in the midst of chaos, at the exact moment when someone—

He shook off the memories. None were very good. Death and more death. Misery, suffering, shock and disbelief. Lives thrown away on a whim and lost on a whisper. Suspicions raised and suspicions confirmed and a river of unresolved regrets as dispassionate time moved through the moments and away.

But for him, of course, there were the rewards: anger, resentment, fear. Uneasy politeness, if he was lucky. The good life.

And in the end, resolution. And a tip of the hat and a fond farewell.

Come back, visit, and soon.

Sure.

So now Thadeus took the rare opportunity to explore.

Of course it was all a lie. And he knew it. For as he casually walked the outskirts of Newbury he knew he was still running. Or rather, avoiding. That seemed less accurate and more palatable. He was avoiding the eyes of people, the heart of town.

‘If you have something that needs doing,’ his father liked to say, ‘do it fast and be done with it.’ Good advice, but his father had been in the plumbing and heating business. Whenever he was called it was because he’d bring warmth and the promise of clean drains. People loved everything about his father, except perhaps the bill but even that was fair and usually below expectation. For Thadeus, his appearance was rarely welcome and the final bill a shock forever etched in the soul. ‘I’m here, your life is over.’ The dynamic was somewhat different.

So far he’d been fortunate with the few people he’d met in Newbury.

There was Amy Emerson and her quaint rose-lined home and the possibilities of the future.

There was Ruth Schneider and the comforts of her dilapidated lodgings.

There was Alba Urbina and the exciting strangeness of her youth and energy.

None of those faces, or any others he’d seen, held death. He wasn’t about to spoil things by actually talking to people.

Besides, it was still sunny and warm. And breakfast had been good. And he felt fine, no aches or pains. And maybe, just maybe—he could still dream—maybe this was the place. The place he would end his journey and settle down. Maybe this was home.

And that warmed him as well.

He came full circle and found himself standing, almost as if unplanned, in front of Amy Emerson’s house.

She was not outside tending her garden.

Thadeus stood looking at her home. Could he spend the rest of his life here? Absolutely, and the answer was that easy. What was there to think about? All that he would leave behind? Here there would be security. Friendship. Love. Sex. That still existed somewhere in the world, didn’t it? Hidden somewhere in the years? Sex. Passion. He would settle for the first two, maybe even the last two. Maybe a mixture of all four, as long as sex was involved. He smiled guiltily at the thought but glad just the same that the passion of remembrance still survived.

He stared over the fence lost in thought for entire minutes before walking home.

The shower started hot but cooled quickly just as be began washing the shampoo out of his hair. He could hear the washer banging outside the bathroom and rubbed his hair hurriedly to finish as it sucked heat from the pipes. He had forgotten to tell Ruth Schneider about his shower and, as she had said, she was doing her daily laundry and taking all the hot water with it. He dressed, shivering on the bare concrete floor and made his way dripping to the stairs. He heard a sound of metal as he reached the bottom step and saw movement from the knob on the door to his left as it began to open. He clenched his teeth and attacked the stairs angrily, taking the last two steps with a leap and opening his door quickly, shutting it with a slam. Not today, dammit, he thought, drying his hair with a vengeance. Not today.

He read for a dozen minutes before shutting the Gideon and tossing it onto the night stand. He sat on the edge of the bed, then walked to the window and pushed it up and open. A breeze touched his face, beckoning but with it a myriad of voices, also beckoning. He leaned out and scanned the sidewalk. All was calm. He looked up and down intently for any sign of movement. None. Voices, though. His rumbling stomach told him he’d have to overcome such obstacles. He walked to the door and went out, letting cool air fill his room.

It seemed as if everyone had come out all at once. Children played tag on front lawns and drew chalk hopscotch and pictures on the sidewalk. Garages were open and the sounds of woodwork and hammering could be heard all around. Hoods were popped and cars being worked on and the sounds of cursing. People other than Amy Emerson were working in their gardens.

A girl rode by smiling on her bike and Thadeus jumped to the curb to avoid collision, then strode along the curb precariously for a few houses until a man sweeping the sidewalk gave him a disapproving look and with a sheepish grin he returned to the normalcy of the sidewalk.

He came to the heart of Newbury and kept on unhesitatingly. With renewed hope and without fear, he met each face with a smile and even a “Howdy, Hello, Afternoon!” said to even the most unsmiling people he passed. He looked into each shop, stopping at Clark’s Toys to watch the train going ‘round and round in the window, marveling that they still made toys in three dimensions you didn’t need glasses to see. Then there was the Newbury Pharmacy, Spiegelmann’s, which seemed to sell only women’s underwear, Pop’s Cigars, specializing more in liquor than tobacco, Newbury Antiques, closed until Thursday, Spools and Tools, a sewing place with a needlework sign on the door which read: Closed for 10 minutes. Next to that was a door which read Newbury News, and Thadeus squinted in the window. The office, such as it was, seemed only a little wider than the door and Thadeus wondered if more than two people could work together at the same time. And the last place on the corner before the parking lot was Newbury Real Estate. Prices, Thadeus noticed, were reasonable.

On the other side of the large parking lot was Ben & Leo’s Groceries, which promised to be the only grocery store in town. Beyond that the library, looming ominous with its dark stone facade and two large pillars in front. Beautiful, though hardly inviting. Further, across the highway which stretched out to the south, was Harry’s Place. That brought thoughts of food to mind and stomach. He was hungry but twice at the same place in the same day? Probably not. And there had no doubt been a shift change. There was always the grocery store, a makeshift meal off the shelf. He’d seen some type of fast food place about a half-mile up. He pondered and it was indecision which almost got him killed.

A car beeped and he turned to find himself blocking the parking lot entrance. Again, a sheepish grin and wave moved him backwards and as the car passed the driver echoed back the same smile and wave. It was Amy Emerson.

He waited and it wasn’t long before she had parked and was walking up to him. She was carrying what looked like a black carpetbag at her side which was made of flowery fabric and seemed to be full of the same. She was wearing a light pink dress with short sleeves which fell slightly above her knees and with buttons all the way up which ended at a smattering of freckles on her chest. She was smiling in a hurried sort of way.

“Mr. Cochran,” she said. “Enjoying the sights of the town?”

“Yes. It’s a beautiful…”

“I’m sorry I almost ran you over,” she said, continuing by but turning her head back to him as she did. He walked with her. “I needed to run home and get a few things. I work at the fabric store twice a week,” she explained as she reached the door and fumbled for her keys. She handed him the black bag. “Hold this,” she said, then found her keys, opened the door and turned over the Closed sign behind it, which below the word Open read: ‘If the world gives you scraps, make quilts!’ She went inside. “You can bring that in, if you’d like.”

Thadeus followed and shut the door behind them.

She flipped on lights as she made her way to the small counter in the back. The shop itself couldn’t have been more than twenty feet wide and maybe twice that deep. But every inch of the store was used; books filling one wall, quilts and wall hangings on part of another, bins of material in the center, other miscellaneous sewing things on smaller racks on the counter in front and in back. Thadeus put the bag on the counter as Amy opened the cash register and began counting the money inside.

“Looks like I need more ones and fives,” she said, shutting the register drawer. She turned around to a CD player behind her and scanned a small shelf of the same before selecting one and dropping it in. The store was filled with the sound of mandolins.

“Thank you for your help,” she said, taking the bag from the counter and dropping in on the floor.

“My pleasure,” Thadeus said, smiling. She returned his smile, then her eyes began darting and stopping at different things before coming back to his own.

“Well…”

“Yes, I’d better be going. Do you…uh, have any plans for dinner?”

She hesitated, looking at Thadeus with an amused smile. “I had planned to spend the next few hours here,” she said. “I usually close up by five.”

“Ya gotta eat.”

“I’ve got a deadline, too, I’m afraid. I have a quilt I’m finishing for someone,” She gave a sideways glance to a sewing machine on a table near the register which had a long strand of pieced material under its needle which fell to the floor in a tangled pile in front. “They need it for a craft show…” she began, biting her lip.

“I could bring you something,” he said. “Maybe we could split a sandwich…”

She looked at him, considering. “Our church is having an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner tonight. I might be able to meet you there later.”

Thadeus sensed a hint of something in the words and inflection. Relief? A meeting at church could not be considered a date and this non-date would be on her territory, surrounded by people she knew. Very safe, very contained, very godly. He smiled. “When and where?”

Chapter 6

 

St. Martin’s was situated at the intersection of Broadway and Third and triangulated back from there for a half-acre, most of which was parking. In the front, facing Broadway—which was simply an extension of Main Street, renamed as it met the highway—was a walkway leading from the road to the front door with a circular fountain in the middle. On either side of the fountain was a lawn of lush green grass completely contained and inaccessible by a two foot hedge in case anyone had thoughts of leaving the path. Since there was no street parking in front it seemed, to Thadeus, a waste to have the walkway extend down to the street. But on the other hand it did serve an aesthetic purpose and as he stepped up from the road he decided it was useful at least for him. In earlier times he might have mused that its sole purpose was meant for the day of his arrival, like the blind man in scripture born that way just so people then living would experience the miracle of his restored sight. But thoughts such as those stemmed from youthful pride and time and experience were doing their best to erase both.

He walked by the fountain, his hands reaching unconsciously for some change and came out with a handful. Without counting (he knew how much he had to the pennythe change from Harry’s) he tossed it into the water with the same silly wish/prayer he spoke every time he did the same: ‘Lord, give me wisdom with my money.’

He walked up to the front steps where a three-foot metal frame stood as the sole, silent usher. It held a white sign which spelled out in large black print:

All-U-Can Eat!

Spaghetti Dinner w/Salad

$5.00

An illustrated plate of spaghetti with sauce and large meatballs gave additional clarity, perhaps the enticement of additional hunger and a red arrow on the bottom pointed the way to fulfillment. Thadeus followed another hedged walkway around the building to the back. The parking lot was full and a small group of people had congregated near the double doors leading into the church. Two women sat behind a table near the door chatting, taking money, handing out tickets. One of the women, behind the money box, wore a proper black with white flowered dress while the other, dispensing tickets, wore a blue with white flowered dress, almost identical to the first save for a large white ribbon on her chest almost covering her chin. Both had puffy gray hair and red cheeks and red lipstick. To the nines, Thadeus thought, stepping forward when his turn came.

“…for a new sound system, of all things,” the first woman was saying. “For that kind of money we could buy new desks and supplies for the Sunday School and I told that to Father Connelly straight out.”

The other woman opened her mouth in silent gasp as the money lady smiled at Thadeus.

“Are you here for our dinner?”

“Yes,” he said, and noticed a blue sticker on her dress. ‘Hi, I’m’ was printed on top and the name marked below in black felt said: Nora. “I hear it’s the best in town.”

“That it is,” she said, opening her drawer. “And the best price in town, too.”

Thadeus smiled at the reminder and handed her the money which she quickly stashed into the drawer of a tan metal box.

“And here’s your ticket,” her companion said. Her tag said: Hi, I’m Betty. “Give that to Bob behind the big salad bowl and he’ll fill you up a plate. Now if you give me your name I’ll give you your name tag.”

“Thadeus,” he said and spelled it for her. She wrote it on a sticker, pulled off the back, half-stood and pushed it onto the left side of his chest.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen you before,” Nora said. “Are you new in town?”

“Pretty much passing through,” Thadeus said. “I might be here for a few days, or so.”

“If you’re here until Sunday, St. Martin’s always welcomes visitors.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Thadeus said as they smiled. “But I’m not Catholic.”

Nora tilted her head slightly, eyebrows tilted together oddly, waiting to be righted.

“I was told about your dinner from Mrs. Emerson.”

“Amy Emerson?” Her eyebrows hadn’t moved. “Are you friends?”

Thadeus shook his head.

“Relations?”

Thadeus forced back a smile. “No, no we just met today.” He hesitated but those eyebrows kept him in place. I get the feeling, he thought, that I’ll do a lot of explaining before I leave this town. “I’m staying at a small rooming house next to where she lives. I bumped into her…”

“Ruth Schneider’s place,” Nora said, nodding as she leveled her head and brows. “So you just met Amy today?”

“Yes. I bumped into her on the street and we got to talking.”

“Her husband died two years ago,” Nora said flatly. “She’s a widow.”

“She did mention that.”

“Hmm.”

“And you?” Betty asked.

“I’m…not married.”

“Hmm,” Nora said again.

“Andnot Catholic?”

“Well, thank you ladies,” Thadeus said politely, taking a few steps sideways before turning to walk quickly into the crowded hall.

It was full of faces, just the thing he had been avoiding all day. Faces, thoughts, lives, food. Can’t have the last without the first, he thought. He walked up to a rectangular table covered with the obligatory red and white checked tablecloth. Behind a huge bowl of salad was a big man with big glasses and a big smile and a name tag. Hi, I’m Bob T.

“This must be the place.”

The man laughed. He had whitish dark hair which was thinning, and round would have been the word Thadeus might have used to describe his body shape. Not quite spherical but he obviously hadn’t spent his life eating salad. “It’s the beginning, anyway.” Thadeus handed him his ticket and the man in turn gave Thadeus a large plate of salad. “Just go on down the line, Thadeus, and if you need another plate just let someone know. Drinks are at the end, soda and beer. Sit anywhere you like.”

“Thanks, Bob T,” Thadeus said, glad there were still a few friendly people in the world. Of course, he thought, it might just be the beer.

He took a seat at an empty table which had a centerpiece of red roses. All the tables, he noticed, had similar decorations, in baskets and tied with ribbons, baby’s breath woven within. A nice touch to make all feel welcome. He twirled his spaghetti and was just about to take a bite when a young man in a police uniform came up to him. He looked just a few years from his teens and was doing his best to distance himself with toughness.

“I’m Patrolman Rowe,” he said, extending his hand. His nameplate read: D. Rowe. It didn’t say Hi. He squeezed Thadeus’ hand hard and Thadeus strained to keep it from showing on his face.

“Glad to meet you.”

“You?”

“Pardon?”

“Your name?”

Thadeus pointed to his name tag.

“Could you read that for me?” the man said unsmilingly.

“Hi, I’m Thadeus.”

“Thadeus what?”

“Thadeus Cochran.”

“Where are you from, Mr. Cochran?”

Thadeus took his hand away and twirled his spaghetti. “Here and there. Have a seat.”

“No, thanks. What are you doing in Newbury?”

“How do you know I don’t live here?”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “I know everyone who lives in my town.” He emphasized the last two words. “So, where are you from?”

“Around. I’m just visiting.”

“Who?”

“Who what?”

“Who are you visiting?”

“The town.”

The man’s lips narrowed, matching his eyes. “So you’re just passing through?”

“I’ll be staying a little while.”

“How long?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Where are you staying? In case I need to talk to you.”

“Why would you need to talk to me?”

Rowe half-grimaced. “You never know.”

Thadeus took another bite. “At Ruth Schneider’s place, over by…”

The man was nodding vigorously. “I know where it is. How long have you been there?”

“Just got in today?”

“Have you met Andy Brewer?”

“No.”

“You will. He’s got a room there. He’s a biteccentric. The less you have to deal with him the better.”

“Then I’m doing good so far.”

“So,” he said. “What brings you to Newbury?”

“Possible business.”

“What kind?”

Thadeus sighed and pushed his plate forward. Not even the garlic bread keeps them away, he thought. “Why don’t you sit down, Officer. You look hungry.”

“I’m not hungry,” the man said, putting his right foot on a chair and leaning over. “What type of business?”

“Mr. Cochran,” a voice said pleasantly and Thadeus looked over to see Amy Emerson walking toward him. He also noticed the yellow sun dress and spaghetti straps and freckles lower than he’d seen before. She wore a big smile with her interruption. He was glad for it all.

“I thought you said you didn’t know anyone in town,” Officer Rowe said.

“I see you’re enjoying yourself,” she said. “Hello, Donny. Are you making Mr. Cochran feel at home?”

“Of course,” he said.

If home were a penitentiary, Thadeus thought.

“You know him?”

“We met this morning.”

“Where?”

“In front of my house. He was walking into town and we…”

“Walking into town? From where?”

“From…out of town. And we struck up a conversation…”

“And you never saw him before? Amy, that’s not a very safe…”

“Donny, you worry too much.”

“Somebody has to look out for things around here. Lord knows Justus won’t lift a finger to…”

“Donny, you’re just too suspicious. I’ve been telling you that for a long time.”

“And with good reason,” he said, looking hard at Thadeus. “This character just happens to show up in front of your house, then coincidentally shows up at the same place you’re having dinner. Don’t you think that’s a little suspicious?”

“I have never seen Mr. Cochran before today,” she said soothingly. Thadeus was soothed. “And as for him coming here tonight, I invited him.”

He looked at her, then back at Thadeus. “Why?”

“He asked about restaurants in town and I thought it would be nice to steer him to our spaghetti dinner.”

The man looked around as if forgetting where he was. “Well, if that’s all it was…”

“That’s all it was.”

“Well…then I guess it’s okay. I’m just concerned…for you.”

“I appreciate that,” Amy said.

“That’s my job. But I’ll keep my eye on you.” He said it to Amy but had turned his head to Thadeus before finishing the sentence. He half-grimaced again and walked off.

“I have to apologize…”

Thadeus waved a hand in the man’s direction. “He’s young.”

“That too,” she said. “Our familieshave connections. Have connected.” She shook her head in dissatisfaction. “Something like that. Anyway, let me grab a plate and I’ll join you. If you don’t mind.”

He watched her walk over to the now almost empty salad bowl. He also watched the men in the room. Not a few heads turned with her and not a few faces lightened in recognition. She did seem to make things brighter, Thadeus thought. People felt better just by seeing her coming. That’s one gift, he thought again, I’ll never have to worry about having.

He stood and held out a chair when she came back. She sighed as she sat. “It’s so nice to sit. The food must be good.”

He looked down. His plate was empty except for a small piece of bread he was using to sop up the last of the sauce. “Guess I was hungrier than I thought. I take it you finished your…what you were doing again?”

She shook her head. “I only wish. No, not done yet. A quilter is never finished. It’s one continuous loop. I did finish piecing the top, which I’m glad. But I don’t think my back could stand the basting right now. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”

“Do you?”

She laughed, beginning to eat.

“The piecing,” he continued, “is sewing together the top pattern. Basting is pinning the batting to the backing before quilting, ending with the outside border.”

She put her fork down and looked at him with a mouthful of lettuce.

“Unless you’re hand-quilting, which I assume you won’t be if you’re in a hurry to get it done. I watch a lot of movies,” he explained.

She smiled and wiped her mouth, then indicated the flower arrangements. “Do you like the decorations?”

“Very much.”

“Glad to hear it. I did them all myself.”

Thadeus nodded. “I should have known. All from your garden?”

“Of course.”

He leaned forward, reaching out and moving the basket to take a sniff. It had a darkly sweet aroma. “Smells good.”

“Good. I had hoped I’d washed off all the ant spray.”

Thadeus wiped his nose with his fingers. “Do you know the name of these?”

She made a face of mock surprise. “Naturally. Now, where’s that tag? Here it is. Fortune Teller.”

He felt two hands on his shoulders. “See you finished that salad in record time,” a voice said. Thadeus turned to see Bob T. smiling down at him. “Good to see you, Amy.”

“Bob.”

“How is everything?”

“Excellent.”

“Good, good. Glad to see you here.”

He hadn’t taken his hands off Thadeus’ shoulders. Suddenly his grip got firmer. He still had a big smile but Thadeus thought he caught the man’s gaze dart across the room and back in again in an instant.

“How is Wendy?”

“She’s good, she’s fine.” He nodded across the room. “She’s over with Catherine, of course. I’ll let you two get back to dinner. Thadeus, you won’t find a better dinner companion anywhere in town than Amy.”

And another smile and he was gone. Thadeus moved his shoulders in circles. “That’s one happy man,” he said.

Amy nodded, then stopped. “The trouble with small towns,” she said, twirling her spaghetti, “is that you get to know people too well.”

“Amy, I’m glad you could make it.”

An older man with graying hair and a clerical collar over his black shirt had come up to the table by her side. He had no name tag.

“Thank you, Father. I thought since I have to eat sometime I might as well make the most of it.”

The man laughed heartily. “You came to the right place for that. I hope you have enough.”

“More than enough, thank you.”

“If you need anything…”

“Father, have you met Mr. Cochran?” she asked.

“I don’t think we have,” Thadeus answered for the man and stood. “Thadeus Cochran.”

“Father Connelly,” the priest said, extending his hand. “Are you a friend of Amy’s?”

“I…hope so,” he said, sitting. “We’ve just met today.”

“Oh.” The man’s gazed bounced from one to the other. “Are you from Newbury?”

“No.”

“No, I didn’t think so,” he said, looking relieved. “I’ve been here for thirty-two years; I pride myself in knowing everyone who lives here. Where are you from, Mr….?”

“Cochran. Not far from here. I’m just here on business.”

“Really? What type of business?”

“Mr. Cochran is an investor,” Amy said.

“No, not really,” Thadeus said quickly.

“Oh, good, good. Are you going to be in town long?”

“I’m not sure,” he said slowly.

“Well, if you’re still here Sunday, our morning service starts at eight with another at ten.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sure Amy can vouch for St. Martin’s. She’s one of our most faithful members. I still remember when I saw you and Doug the first time. That was a long time ago. Doug was Amy’s first husband. Amy’s a widow.”

“So I hear.”

“Are you getting along well, dear.”

“Of course.”

“Are you still at the store?”

“Yes.”

“And are things still…”

Their voices took on a slow drone and Thadeus found his mind suddenly muddled. He saw shadows off to the side, on the floor. He couldn’t focus. He swayed a bit and steadied himself by holding the table.

“Hello Father, Amy,” a voice boomed from above. Thadeus squinted to focus on the figure next to him. A large figure, a large shadow, as if two were theresomeone behind

“Evening Fred.”

“Mr. Birch.”

“Everything was fantastic, Father. I had to come over and tell you. My wife and I were on our way out but I had to let you know. You’ve really out done yourself.”

“Actually, it was Lu-Ellen and the kitchen staff,” the priest said. “Where is Catherine?”

“Over there,” the man said, waving his hand. A round woman stood across the room but there was no missing her from anywhere.

“Did she enjoy the meal?”

The man snorted. “I’m sure.” He turned his attention to Thadeus.

“This is Mr….?” the priest began.

“Cochran.” Thadeus cleared his throat and stood. He grabbed the man’s hand and found it vise-like. But it didn’t bring steadiness; it felt like an inescapable vise. “Thadeus.”

“Fred Birch.”

Thadeus looked at the man’s face. His nose was big, red on the tip, a hair growing out of one pore. There were two lines on each side of his face outlining his mouth. His lips were dry, his eyes were moist, too moist. His brown hair was cut close to his head. His ears stuck out almost comically, tragically, and there was a small part of his sideburns that was crooked and too close to the skin. Thadeus scanned the man’s face like it was a puzzle and putting it all together there was that distinct look he’d seen too many times. There was the smell of garlicit doesn’t keep them away

“…folks have a good evening,” the man was suddenly saying, freeing Thadeus’ hand and walking off.

“Nice to see Fred and Catherine out and about,” the priest said, as Thadeus lost his grip on the table and fell to one knee.

“Thadeus!”

“My lord, what’s wrong?”

Thadeus took a breath, then looked up with a stupid grin. “Nothing, really. Bad meatballs.” The grin fell away. “I need to get outside. Some air.”

“Sam, Bob, come here,” the priest said and he felt his arms being lifted and men on each side helping him to his feet and outside.

 

He was outside of the building sitting on a bench near the parking lot. The night air was cool and was reviving him slowly.

“Are you alright, son?” Bob T asked.

“Should I call a doctor?”

“I don’t know, I was just…”

“Maybe we should, what with insurance and all…”

“Thadeus. Thadeus.”

The voice revived him as well. A figure coming into focus. Amy Emerson. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said, sitting straight. “I’m fine. I just needed to get some air.”

“Sure you don’t need a doctor?”

There was a small crowd around him now. He felt weak and foolish.

“No. No, see, I’m fine. I guess all that food was too much.”

There were some chuckles.

“All that beer, he means,” a woman’s voice said in the distant but he recognized it as well. “Did you hear what he said about my meatballs?” The lady at the door: Hi, I’m Nora.

“Well, you ate enough for three people,” Amy said, smiling. “Can you stand?”

“In a minute. I’m okay, really,” he said to the faces surrounding and, smiling, they drifted away. Except for Amy and the priest.

“If you’re sure…” the priest said.

Thadeus nodded. “I’m sure. Thank you, father.” The man turned and Thadeus looked up, feeling foolish. The priest had a concerned look. Insurance. Thadeus knew he should put the man at ease. “Father, would you be free sometimeto talk, perhaps.”

“Certainly. About what?”

“Let’s just say spiritual matters.”

“Conversion?”

“No, no. Just…some questions.”

“Oh, always. Always. Just call my secretary. Are you certain you’re all right?”

Thadeus nodded.

“All right,” he said, and turned tentatively away.

Thadeus smiled at Amy. “Sorry.”

“Sorry? For what?”

“All the trouble.” He nodded his head at the two ladies still at the door. “Rumors will fly.”

Amy said, “Well…maybe they’ll just crawl.”

They both laughed.

“I think I’m good,” he said, standing.

“Whatever it was, it went just as fast as it came.”

“Yeah.”

“Has that ever happened before?”

“Yeah.”

“What is it?”

“Just a reaction.”

“To what?”

“Certain people.”

“Like who?”

He took a cool breath. “The man who came to our table.”

“Bob?”

“The other one.”

“Fred Birch?”

He nodded.

“Why would you have a reaction to him?”

Thadeus stared out at nothing, thinking. Then he looked at her. Her face showed concern, worry. “He’s next.”

Chapter 7

 

Neither of them had said a word since leaving the church. The hum of the car and cool of the night were a soothing salve to Thadeus who sat with eyes closed as they drove the peaceful streets of Newbury. Amy had offered to drop Thadeus off at the rooming house, though the suggestion had brought another disapproving glance from Nora Cox, who disappeared quickly into the building as they got into the car.

Though the walk would only have been three or four blocks, he was relieved he didn’t have to travel that incredibly long distance. How old was he? Eighty, ninety? Some days, yes. Today. There was a time he looked forward to each and every step. Now—he glanced over at her through half-opened eye, smiled, closed it completely—now it was nice to sit. And the company was good. So he rode on the edge of consciousness.

“This is where I went to Kindergarten,” she was saying and he forced his eyes open. “Sorry. Are you feeling better?”

He sat straighter. “Fine. Too much food too soon, I guess.” He looked at the two-story brick building. It had six windows on top and bottom and small playground on the side and grass in back. “It’s nice.”

“My daughter went there, too.”

“I didn’t know you had children.”

She nodded. “Just one. She’s twenty-four now, living in California. Like everybody.”

“Almost everybody.”

She laughed. “I grew up here. Met my husband here, raised my daughter here. All my friends live here, or thereabouts. Not far, anyway.”

“It’s a beautiful town.”

“You?”

“Me, what?”

“Where do you come from, where did you grow up?”

He looked straight ahead. “Around here. New England.”

“That covers a big area.”

“Yup.”

“Any reason you don’t want to tell me?”

“No.”

She slowed the car. “Any reason you shouldn’t tell me?.”

He took a deep breath. “It’s been hard to…get to know people in my line of work. I go to a new place, meet new people, then it’s time to move on. Hard to make lasting friendships.”

“What about where you live?”

“I’m never there,” he said. “I don’t even know my neighbors that well.”

“That’s rare for New England,” she said and he nodded agreement. “What about another line of work? One with less travel.”

Thadeus smiled to the window and saw his reflection as they passed a streetlight. It was not a smile of joy. Change jobs, he thought. Give two weeks notice? Tell the boss you’ve been offered something better? Health benefits? More vacation? Retirement? Or talk about improvements. ‘Let’s do lunch…I think I’ve got some ideas that will help the company run more effectively.’ He turned to her with the same smile. “I’ve considered it.”

They drove past the high school, past the park, by the theater. A crowd of teens were standing in front. The movie, according to the marquee, should have ended over an hour before. But it was a time to be young and be out and be seen.

“I used to love coming here,” Amy said. “Doug and I used to come here all the time. And growing up I was here every Saturday afternoon with my friends. We’d come early and buy popcorn and ju-ju-bees and sit together and giggle at the boys we knew. And they’d try to impress us by saying funny things during the movie and we’d throw popcorn at them and tell them to be quiet. And Mr. Evans, the owner, would come down from the balcony and threaten to throw us out if we all couldn’t calm down. Sometimes,” she said, “I miss those days, when we were kids.” She looked at him as if waiting for him to say something. “Don’t you?”

“Sure. It was simpler. At least, some of it was. Some of it wasn’t very good.”

“Like what?”

“I never felt like I fit it. I didn’t have many friends. A lot of lonely times.”

“Like now?”

He nodded. “Like now.”

“I would love to go back,” Amy said. “Even if it were for just one day.”

“One day,” Thadeus said. “I’ll buy that. I’ll go back with you for one day.”

She laughed. “Will you? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? No more worries or cares. No bills. No doctor appointments. Mom and Dad took care of it all. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Thadeus nodded as they drove through the town. One day, he thought.

“Thanks for the ride,” he said as Amy pulled into her driveway.

“Not at all,” she said.

He hesitated. “I guess I wasn’t in a talkative mood.”

“You weren’t feeling well.”

He nodded, glad she hadn’t pursued the topic of Fred Birch, sorry at the same time. He wanted to tell someone and knew he shouldn’t. Besides, what was there to say? “He’s next.” What did that mean, anyway? Nothing. Not to anyone. Just words, ramblings. Even now, his mouth half-opened, everything sounded ridiculous to his mind. ‘Someone’s going to die, you see? Just because. And, well, I’m here, you see, to, uh…well, it’s a long story.’

Thadeus closed his mouth. There was little to be gained, much more to lose. And he had already lost so much.

Still, those brown eyes of hers waited so innocently. She deserved the truth. Or perhaps she deserved innocence more.

“I—“ he began, stopped.

“If you ever want to talk, I’ll listen,” she said after a moment.

He nodded and they both got out of the car.

Thadeus stood and stretched with a deep breath.

“Feeling better?”

“Much. You have a beautiful house.”

“Thank you. My husband did a lot of work on it himself. Sorry. I can’t seem to go very long without mentioning him.”

Thadeus walked around the car. “It hasn’t been that long.”

“It doesn’t seem like it was. Over two years. But it could have been two days. It feels like it.”

“If you’d like to talk sometime,” he said, reciprocating, “about your husband, or anything, I’d love to listen.”

She dropped her head as a wave of emotion came and Thadeus was relieved the focus had now changed, though the dynamics were not lost on him. When she looked up again he saw that her eyes were glistening. “I would like that. I miss him a lot.”

“I’d better get home,” Thadeus said. “Thanks again.” Then he asked her a question before he could think. Thinking, he would have thought better. One never knew what answers might come. “Do you think God speaks to us?”

Her eyes opened and her head moved slightly back. “What?”

“You knowGoddo you think he speaks to us?”

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

He laughed. “I think so.”

She studied his face. “Do you think God speaks to you?”

He smiled but it was without joy. “Are you wondering if I’m hearing voices? No, I’m fine. I just wanted an unbiased opinion.”

“I don’t know if my opinion is unbiased.” She paused. “Well, I think He does. I mean, that’s why we pray.”

“Hmm.”

“Right?”

“I guess so.”

“Is this what you wanted to talk to Father Connelly about?” Before he could respond she said: “I’m sorry, that’s really none of my business.”

“No, no, that’s okay. Yes, that was why. Something like that.”

“He’s a very wise man.”

“I could tell by the hair,” he said.

“What?”

“The hair—you know…in Proverbs it says that gray hair is, you know, a sign of wisdom.”

“Oh, really?”

“So him being wise…the hair and all. Kind of a joke.”

She nodded, still studying.

He cleared his throat. “I plan to talk to him…soon. Thanks again.” He turned and walked quickly down the sidewalk.

Good going, he thought. Chase them away before they have a chance to run. But he wasn’t upset with himself. Things were moving quickly, much quicker than they ever had before. In a few days, he thought, I’ve found a place to live, met some friends, found out who will die and met someone who might be more than friends. Or, he smiled, thinking of a purple knit beret, two people who might be more than friends.

He came to the boarding house and turned at the gate. A light shone from behind, sending his shadow large and looming against the front of the two-story building. He turned and raised his hand to shield his eyes as a police car passed slowly by, the spotlight blaring at him from the window. It moved to the next house before it turned off. He could clearly see the face of Officer Donny Rowe, making good on his promise.

And in one day, he thought as he opened the door, I’ve also made an enemy.

Chapter 8

 

Thadeus rolled over and forced his legs to the floor. His back and ribs ached, bringing angry annoyance, though there was concern as well. The concern was less with the physical recuperation, which would come, but more the ramifications of throwing up in a church parking lot. But the physical played its part.

When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.’ The Apostle Paul’s words. But at least, Thadeus thought, adding to the verse, when I was a child I could bounce like a child, or bounce back like a child, or at least depend on my body. When I became a man I put childish ways behind me. And took on aches and pains, wear and tear. Tradeoffs, he thought, standing with a groan. Innocence or disclosure. Energy or intellect. Longevity or eternity.

He walked to the window.

Love or obedience.

Maybe, he thought, looking toward her house, there was room for both.

Thoughts of Fred Birch brought a more serious tone and led him to prayer. Direction, direction, always direction. Earlier days would have found him praying for mercy for the person who’s future had been shown him but those prayers he found to be fruitless. His calling had nothing to do with staying God’s hand from one person or the other. The events leading to that had already been set in motion. It wasn’t for him to try to alter the future but to see that truth was made manifest in whatever way was shown.

So he prayed.

And he finished the prayer just a little differently than all the others. He prayed he would never have to see death on another person’s face as long as he lived.

He wasn’t hungry but he knew his body expected nourishment to fill the void left by the previous night. He walked up the street to Harry’s Place and went inside.

Something was different.

There were only a handful of people sitting at three different tables but conversation stopped and all eyes on him when he entered. Then the low hum of gossip as he took a seat at the bar.

Alba came out from the back and smiled big when she saw him. “Good morning,” she said coyly, flipping his upside down cup over. “Coffee?”

“Please. And good morning back.”

Plates appeared on the counter behind her and angry eyes peered watchfully over the steaming food. A hand hit the bell next to them once, then twice more in succession.

“Heard you the first time,” she said over her shoulder, then smiled as she poured the coffee. “Are you here for breakfast, or to tell me more lies?” She looked slowly into his eyes and they seemed to be dancing.

“Which would you prefer?”

She raised her eyebrows and smiled. “Oooh, I’m always in the mood for some nice juicy lies. But I already know why you’re here.”

“Really? Why?”

She leaned over a few inches from his face and whispered, “Sex!” With a guttural giggle she disappeared.

He couldn’t wolf it down fast enough and everything tasted great. Alba had come and gone a few times without a word but always a devilish grin. Another girl came in right before he finished; young, blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, tying her apron as she went behind the counter. Thadeus smiled when she made eye contact but she didn’t return the smile or say a word as she refilled his cup as if pained and made her way around the room.

“Had enough?” Alba asked, sitting on the stool next to his and sliding him the bill.

“It was excellent.”

“Was it?”

“Yes. Shouldn’t it have been?”

“Probably not but I’ll tell the chef just the same. Jesus!”

The boy looked out over the counter from the kitchen, frowning when he saw Alba sitting next to Thadeus. “What?”

“You have another satisfied customer.”

He scowled at her and turned away.

“He’s in a mood,” she explained.

“So I gathered. I thought his name was Jesse.”

“It’s actually Jeffrey. Jeffrey Stewart Tyner. Sometimes he goes by Jesse, sometimes JS, sometimes JT. But when he’s feeling persecuted I call him Jesus. Like today. And he hates it. But it’s better than jerk-off.”

Thadeus laughed, took out his wallet and handed her some bills. “Keep the change.”

“Thanks. You know what?” She leaned on him with both hands on his shoulder. “I could use a break.”

“Oh?”

She yelled to the kitchen: “Hey, jerk-off. I’m taking a break.”

The kid looked up. “What? Now?”

“Janey can handle the huge crowd.”

“But…” he said, looking at Thadeus. “Well, don’t take too long…”

“Right,” she said, dismissively. She twirled off the stool. “Coming?”

Thadeus spun around with a smile, which in turn spun off when he noticed that the few faces in the diner were staring at him. He hesitated, then followed her, catching and passing as he reached the door and held it open. Alba curtsied and went out and he let the door shut on the suspicious faces behind.

“It’s probably not wise to upset Jesse like that,” he said as they walked down the sidewalk.

She snorted. “He’s been a butt all day. He deserves a little shaking up.”

“Maybe, but I hate being the catalyst. He might take it out on me with tomorrow’s breakfast.”

“A little cyanide in the flapjacks, perhaps?” She laughed. “Jesse can be moody but he’s not an extremist.”

“He only dresses like one.”

She gave him a look of respected approval at his joke. “He’s not the jealous type. Unless,” she said, leering, “there’s something to be jealous about. Is there?”

Thadeus smiled. “You never know.”

She cocked her head. “You’re an evil man, Thadeus Cochran.”

Thadeus’ smile turned to a wince. If you only knew, he thought.

 

“So you’ve been here…three years?”

“Yup.”

“Planning to stay forever.”

“Nope. Maybe. Who knows? Maybe I’ll stay and marry Jesse. Maybe I’ll stay and marry someone else. Maybe I’ll leave tomorrow. Don’t you love people with a sense of purpose? Or maybe I’ll stay long enough to have an affair with a total stranger. Which do you think I should do?”

“Marry Jesse.”

“I hope you’re kidding.”

“Just a suggestion.”

“A bad suggestion.”

“Why?”

She made a face. “Because he’s a kid. Because he’s too dependent. Because he’ll never leave here.”

“He did once.”

She shook her head. “His father is the vice-something or other at the lumber mill. Part owner, I think. That’s where his future lies.”

“Would it be so bad?”

“To stay here? It would be death.”

“That’s melodramatic.”

“That’s me,” she said, hand to head, “the queen of drama.”

“What’s wrong with Newbury?”

She shrugged. “It’s okay, for now. It’s not Boston. But Boston’s not Newbury. And Newbury’s not New York. Or L.A.

“Tradeoffs,” Thadeus said. It seemed to be a theme.

“I suppose.” She stopped. “But why? Why can’t we have everything?”

“Because everything isn’t what we want.”

“You’re much too philosophical for my frivolity.” She looked at him evenly. “What do you want?”

“Same thing as everyone. Love, acceptance. Friends.”

“Well, at lease we have each other. Anyway, I can’t see living here the rest of my life. There’s so much more.”

“More of what?”

“People, places, things to do. Can you see yourself spending the rest of your life is this burg?”

Thadeus shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Not me. I want to see the rest of the world.”

“It’s always good to have a home.”

“Is that why you’re not there? By the way, where is your home?”

Thadeus smiled. “Around here.”

“And why are you here again?”

“Business.”

She flipped her head away from him. “I think honesty is the most important thing in any relationship. If we can’t be honest, we can’t be friends.”

“I have been honest.”

She stopped walking and peered at him. “You’ve been guardedly honest. ‘Around here’ is not a place. ‘Business’ is very general. If you can’t give me an honest answer to a simple question then I might as well turn around and go back to work.”

She turned away, facing Spiegelmann’s Lingerie but he caught sight of her pout in the shop window and smiled. She saw his eyes in the reflection as well but she restrained a smile. “I’m serious.”

“Ask away.”

She turned and looked him in the eyes. “Why are you in Newbury?”

He sighed. “For a funeral. And that’s all I’ll say.”

She turned. “Who died?”

“No one,” he said, and added two words he would regret later. “Not yet.”

They walked in silence for a short time. The girl would look at him occasionally, considering, studying, wondering, silent. He wished he could take back those two words, but who knew? Maybe they would help, but help what? Bind a friendship that wouldn’t last more than a few weeks? Build a union that was already undercut by two decades? He wished it were different but that never changed anything. All he could do now was try to steer events away from where they undoubtedly were headed, though it was nice not to have to be so guarded all the time.

Thadeus turned and looked at the girl, who took that moment to look at him. Maybe that’s what he liked most about her…the freedom. And that’s also what scared him the most.

“It would be awful to die here,” she said, finally.

“Why?”

“I’d feel so…alone.”

“You can be alone anywhere.”

“You know what I mean. It would make your whole life so….pointless.”

“Why?”

“It’s so…unromantic. So undramatic. Of all the places in the world, to die in a place so distant, where nobody knows you.”

“People seem to know you here,” Thadeus said.

“Too well.”

“Where do you want to live?”

“Not in this godforsaken place. I want to travel, see the world.”

“Sounds like you’ve seen a lot of it already.”

“Not enough. I want to see it all. Europe, Africa, South America. What do you think I should do first?”

“Marry Jesse.”

“If you say that again,” she said, scowling, “I’m going to sock you.”

“I won’t say it again.”

“You must have seen a lot of the world,” Alba said. “In your line of work,” she added ominously.

He ignored the tone. “Some.”

“What have you seen?”

He shrugged. “Mostly New England. New York. New Jersey. Anything with ‘new’ in it. Just about every state.”

“Which one’s the prettiest?”

“All of them.”

“You have to pick one.”

“Says who?”

“Me. Choose.”

“Here.”

“How boring.”

“I’m boring.”

“You,” she said, “are a liar. I’m going to travel. I am not going to die here.”

The topic made Thadeus uneasy. He didn’t want to think that she was preoccupied with death, or that her preoccupation had anything to do with him. Or, more importantly, that she would always associate the topic with his presence. “I’d say you have a few years.”

She looked him in the face. “How many?”

“I don’t know. How could I know?”

She hadn’t moved and was peering into his eyes. “How could you know?”

“I can’t.”

“Tell me.”

“That’s crazy,” he said, looking away. “I can’t possibly know…no one can.”

“Then why did you say what you did, before?”

“I didn’t.”

“Can you or can’t you?”

“No.”

She took a hard look at his face. “You’re waiting for someone to die, you said it yourself. Who? Me?”

“No, don’t be silly.”

“Who, then?”

“No one.”

“Is it someone who’s sick?”

“It’s no one.”

“Then why say it if you didn’t mean it? Are you just trying to be provocative?”

He laughed. “That’s the first time anyone’s accused me of that.”

“Are you?”

“Of course not. Why would I?”

“To entice me into your tangled, twisted web.” She said it without mirth. “Is that your goal?”

“Hardly.”

“Are you a fortune hunter? A lawyer?”

“No.”

“Are you trying to get into the good graces of a certain widow you’ve been keeping company with and then move in on her inheritance? Like you said, nothing’s private in a small town.”

He couldn’t tell if she was putting him on or not. “That is ridiculous. I just got here yesterday.”

She shrugged. “So you’re a fast worker. Most gigolos are. If not, what are you up to?”

“Not a thing.”

“And here you are pumping me for information.”

“Hardly,” he said again. “The pump that run off at the spout.”

“Then why are you talking to me?”

“I like you.”

She stopped with a dissatisfied expression. Then she smiled coquettishly. “What do you like about me?”

Thadeus breathed out. If nothing, she was relentless, this girl. He wasn’t sure if he viewed it as a positive trait. “You’re good company.”

“Is that all?”

“For now.”

“And later?”

“You’ll be just as exasperating, I’m sure.”

“Do you find me charming, attractive…desirable?”

Thadeus laughed. “You’re not supposed to beg for compliments.”

“From you, I have to. Do you find me desirable?”

He cleared his throat. “I suppose if I were twenty years younger…”

Someone else cleared their throat as well. He turned to find Amy Emerson looking at him with an expression of disappointment and disapproval. It was then Thadeus realized they were standing in front of Spools and Such.

“Oh, uh, Miss Emerson, Amy…this is…”

“We’ve met,” she said, unlocking the door. Then: “Don’t let me disturb you two. I believe you have a question to answer.”

She turned over the ‘Closed’ sign on the inside of the door and shut it tightly.

Alba was grinning broadly at him. He refused to look at her.

“I should be getting back to the diner,” she sing-songed, then, before walking off, she said in a low voice: “Jealousy rears its ugly head.”

Thadeus took a quick glance in the store window, then followed the girl down the sidewalk. It was only then that he noticed the police car across the street, parked, with its lone occupant, Donny Rowe, glaring at him from behind the wheel. Thadeus pretended not to notice and kept walking but the sound of the car door opening and closing was unmistakable, as were the footsteps approaching quickly from behind.

Chapter 9

 

The steps got closer and the voice that spoke was trying hard to be authoritative. “Hey, you. Hold it right there!”

Thadeus took a few more steps, sighed and turned. Sure enough, Officer Donny Rowe, Quick Draw McGraw. He seemed so lost underneath the large Trooper’s hat that he looked like a walking magic trick, similar to the old shell game. The hat would suddenly slip and cover his body and you’d lift it only to find him gone, disappeared. If only. The more his youthful face tried to be stern, the more it seemed cartoonish. But perhaps not Quick Draw. Maybe Yogi Bear and the Park Ranger. That was it, Thadeus thought, and Rowe was trying to keep him from the pick-a-nic basket. But what goodies didn’t he want him to have?

Rowe took his last few stalked steps and stopped a few feet from Thadeus. “Is there something amusing?” he asked, his face reddening.

“Many things.”

“How about the fact that you failed to stop when I called you? Is that amusing?”

“I did. I am.”

“You continued walking after I called for you to stop.”

“I could take a few steps back, if that would help.”

“Don’t get funny. Failure to obey an officer….”

“You didn’t identify yourself,” Thadeus said, still smiling. “You still haven’t. For all I know, that uniform is a rental.”

Rowe clenched his teeth. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were looking for trouble.”

“I’m not looking for anything,” Thadeus said calmly. He knew the extent of the man’s authority and wasn’t about to challenge it. But he didn’t mind tugging a little. “I’m just on my way home. You stopped me. You must be looking for something.”

“I’ll ask the questions,” Rowe said. “What is your business in Newbury?”

“No business,” he said. “Just visiting.” Like Monopoly, he thought. In Jail, or Just Visiting. A thin line, that, separated by a simple roll of the dice.

“Visiting who?”

“No one in particular.”

“Then why did you say you were?”

“I’m visiting the town.”

“Why?”

“Why not? It’s a nice place, full of friendly people.”

Rowe shot a glance at Amy Emerson’s shop. “What exactly is your business here?”

“I told you. Just visiting.”

“From where?”

“A lot of places.”

“Let’s see some ID. Fast!”

Thadeus pulled out his wallet and took out his driver’s license. Rowe looked it over, scowling as he did. “This where you live?”

“Yup.”

“I here you walked into town. That true?”

“Yup.”

“From here?”

“Yup.”

“That’s quite a ways. Why?”

“Car’s in the shop.”

He handed the license back. “You still haven’t answered why you’re here.”

“Visiting.”

“Nobody walks all that way to visit a town they’ve never been in before.”

“I never said I’ve never been here before.”

“Have you?”

“No.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I’m on vacation. Thought I’d take some time off.”

“From what?”

“I’m semi-retired.”

“From what?”

“From work.”

“What type of work are you in?”

“I’ve had all types of jobs,” Thadeus said. “Plumbing, electrical, construction. Never had one clear vocation. I guess you could say that I’m a jack of all trades.”

Rowe liked that as much as Thadeus thought he would. “Then why aren’t you working now?”

“I’m retired. Semi.”

“Newbury doesn’t have tourists,” Rowe said flatly. “And we don’t need a jack of all trades. How long are you planning on staying?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’ve paid Mrs.Schneider a month’s rent in advance,” he said as if proud of his detective work. “That doesn’t sound like someone who’s just passing through.”

“I pass slowly. Like a kidney stone.”

Rowe squinted down the sidewalk. “Who did I see you walking with earlier.”

“No one.”

“You were walking with a girl.”

“Oh, right. Alba Urbina. She works at the diner….”

“I know who she is. How long have you known her.”

“Mmm, seems like hours. I met her yesterday.”

“What’s your business with her?”

“I don’t think we discussed business,” Thadeus said. “Just a friend. Anything wrong with that?”

“Not at all,” Rowe said. “Just that your ‘friend’ has been known to dabble in drugs and the occult. I’d say that’s pretty interesting. Ever do any drugs, Mr. Cochran?”

“Not yet.”

“Planning on starting?”

“I could use an aspirin.”

“Mind if I take you back to your room and take a look around?”

“If you’ve got a warrant.”

“I think it’s pretty interesting that you show up, out of the blue, with no rhyme or reason and the first person you meet is a known drug user. You pick some interesting friends.”

Thadeus said: “She wasn’t the first person I met.”

Rowe stiffened. “Don’t think I don’t know. You don’t care how old they are, do you?”

“How old are they?”

“Just what are your intentions with Mrs. Emerson?”

“My intentions? I only met her yesterday. But I hear,” he said, leaning, “that she’s been known to dabble in roses and Catholicism.”

Rowe took a step forward and stuck a finger at Thadeus. “Listen, bud. I don’t know what you’re up to or what you’re doing here but I’m going to be watching you like a hawk. If I even suspect you’re up to something…”

He let it hang and Thadeus waited. Rowe looked around quickly and put his hand in and out of his pocket, then opening it. He held a small plastic back with white powder. “Any idea what this is?”

Thadeus bent closer, saw what it was and straightened. “Not aspirin.”

Rowe smiled. “No, not aspirin. Wouldn’t take much to find something like this in your room if I ever did get that warrant. Do I make myself clear.”

Thadeus bit his lip. “Look, I have no interest in making trouble for anyone. I’m actually here to visit a mutual acquaintance.” That was something like the truth. Something like a lie. The truth once removed, he thought. Not really a sin. A sin once removed?

“Who?”

“Father Connelly,” Thadeus said. “I know friends of his in Exeter and they told me to look him up if I was ever passing through Newbury”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

“I…I should have, I know. I apologize. As a matter of fact, I was just on my way to speak to him.”

Rowe studied him. “You said you were heading home. That’s the opposite direction.”

“Oh, right,” Thadeus said. “Thought I’d pick up my bible first.”

”I’m sure he’s got one.” Rowe smiled, slapping Thadeus on the back which made him wince. “Come on, I’ll make sure you get there.”

 

“Yes, yes, I remember you,” the priest said, shaking Thadeus’ hand. “A friend of Amy’s, yes?”

“Somewhat.” He took a seat in a squeaky leather chair in front of the large wooden desk where the man was sitting. Everything was dark wood and the shades were drawn giving the office the feeling of sleep. He felt tired just being there and knew he’d have to fight against it. “I only met her yesterday.”

“Donny mentioned a mutual acquaintance.”

“Father Bishop, in Exeter.”

“Oh, Jimmy.” The man smiled, his eyes looking beyond Thadeus. “I haven’t spoken to him in years. How is he doing?”

“He seemed well the last time I saw him,” Thadeus said, which was a half-truth. As Father Bishop had been so adamantly bidding Thadeus adieu, he still remembered the black fillings in the man’s molars and the way his glasses vibrated off his sweaty red nose. He also remembered being amazed that veins could still show through such a fat neck if given the proper motivation. The blood flow had been adequate and the man had been in good voice. “I haven’t spoken to him in over a year but he was very well.”

“Well,” the priest said, still off in the past. Presently his eyes came into focus and they settled on Thadeus. He smiled automatically. “Well.”

Thadeus cleared his throat. “I’m…not Catholic.”

The smile didn’t waver but the eyes seemed to lose focus momentarily. “Not everyone is. Were you thinking of converting?”

“No. But I did have some questions.”

The man sat back, relieved. “Of course. The search for truth begins with questions.”

“I’m not sure where to begin,” Thadeus said, which was the truth. The added truth was he didn’t want to be there. He knew what the priest would say; pretty much what they what they had to say. There would be no surprises this time either. But, he thought, at least he could get some enjoyment out of it.

“How about at the beginning? What is your spiritual history.”

This, Thadeus thought, is where truth becomes more obscure. “I don’t have much of one,” he said. “At least, not in the traditional sense. My parents were atheists so I had no religious background. Around seventeen I began to become a little rebellious and since they were atheists I rebelled against that.”

“Interesting.”

“So, in my searching for the truth, I’ve looked into every religion and belief in the world.”

“And your conclusion?”

“I found them all lacking. Except one.”

“Which led you here.”

“In a roundabout sort of way,” Thadeus said. That was all true, as well. Not the whole truth but the basics, the foundation. A foundation of truth.

“God does work in mysterious ways,” Father Connelly said. “Even if it takes years and many different paths.”

“Yes.”

“He lets us have many experiences before leading us to the truth.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because he didn’t build robots,” the man said, chuckling to himself. “He made people with free will who would come to him when we chose to, not because we had no choice.”

“I wonder if that was a mistake.”

“What?”

“Our free will hasn’t done us much good.”

“How do you mean?”

Thadeus shrugged. “The way the world is now…”

“Ah,” the man said. “But if He is truly the God of the Bible, then he knew back then what would happen today. The future holds no surprises for one who has no past or future.”

“So He knows what will happen tomorrow.”

“Yes.”

“He knows who will be born, who will die.”

“Yes.”

“Do you think He ever tells people?”

“Tells them what?”

“Who…” Thadeus began and stopped. “What will happen in the future?”

“Like a prophet? I personally believe the last prophet was John the Apostle.”

“So you believe he revealed himself to John.”

“Definitely. His Revelation is a prophecy of many things which have yet to occur.”

“Why do you think He doesn’t speak to people today?”

“Very simple,” the man said, smiling. “The Bible is complete.”

“So you think,” Thadeus said, “prophecy ended with the Bible.”

“Yes.”

“So God doesn’t speak to anyone today?”

“No.”

“What about prayer?”

“Well, yes. Through prayer, definitely. And the confessional.”

“Through a priest.”

“Perhaps.”

“Through the Pope?”

“Yes!”

“So God still speaks prophecy to His Holiness?”

“Well, I’m not sure about prophecy,” the man said, his eyes scanning his bookshelf.

“But different Popes have given different prophecy on different issues. Birth control as opposed to no birth control, for example.”

“That would be interpretation,” the man said. “Not new revelation.”

“But interpretation received from God.”

“Yes.”

“So the same.”

“No.”

“What would be the difference?”

“Again,” said the priest, “you’re confusing interpretation with revelation.”

“But wouldn’t God’s direct word on an issue be considered divine revelation?”

“Only on matters of divine nature, like the commandments of God. What you’re talking about our simple social issues which God may or may not speak to His Holiness about.”

“Apparently He does.”

“I would say so,” the priest said, but he chose his words very carefully.

“Then wouldn’t that be considered divine revelation?”

“Yes…in a way. But again, prophecy concerns future events, so getting back to your original question….what was it, again?”

Thadeus smiled. “I think I understand what you’re saying…”

“Good,” the priest said, smiling back.

“….about prophecy and interpretation. But what about prayer? The Bible says that if we pray, God will answer.”

“Yes.”

“Which in itself is a type of revelation.”

“A type.”

“What if we pray for a revelation of future events? A future job, for instance, or a potential mate? God will answer that, won’t he?”

“Sometimes.”

“What if we pray for prophecy?”

“I’m afraid the answer would likely be ‘No.’”

Thadeus sat back, nodding as if to himself, and spoke as if to himself. “So God is no longer in the business of revealing future events. Yet if we pray about a future something—whatever it might be, a job, a potential mate—he’ll give us an answer. But isn’t that revealing the future?”

“Perhaps in a very vague way. Are you considering marriage?”

“Oh, no, no,” Thadeus said, suddenly thinking of Amy. Not for weeks, at least.

“Remember,” the priest said, “that God’s ways are not our ways. And remember who is God. We can pray, and we should, but in doing so we are asking for guidance, not demanding the future.”

Thadeus nodded.

“No prayer is guaranteed a detailed answer that will always satisfy. That’s why we walk in faith…faith that He will be with us always.”

“Even to the end of the age,” Thadeus finished.

“Quite so.”

“So even though the answer might not always be what we want….”

“It will be enough,” the priest finished. “Remember the apostle Paul,” the priest said. “He prayed that his thorn in the flesh would be removed. What was his answer?”

“That the grace of God was sufficient. The thorn wasn’t removed but instead became a continual reminder of that grace.”

“Very good.”

“I’ve often wondered what that was?”

“What?” asked the priest.

“His thorn in the flesh.”

“So have many others.”

“I used to think it was his wife.”

“Well, I don’t know”

Thadeus smiled. “That was just a joke.”

“Oh, yes. I see.”

“Perhaps that’s what I have, Father. A thorn in the flesh.”

“Yes?”

“It’s more of a theoretical dilemma than a theological one.”

The priest sat back up straight.

“Suppose you believed God had revealed something to you about someone else. Something bad. Would you feel compelled to tell them?”

The man’s gaze narrowed on Thadeus. “Such as?”

“Oh, anything. That they would lose their job, that their spouse was cheating on them. Anything.”

The man spoke slowly. “I would be very careful telling anyone anything like that.”

Thadeus said: “In the context of prayer, let’s say. You were asked to pray about something, you did, and thought you might have received an answer. That is how prayer is supposed to work, isn’t it?”

“Y-yes. I suppose in that case, since it had previously been discussed. But again…”

“Exactly. And how they took it would be up to them. Free will and all.”

“I would still be very cautious…”

“Caution is always well advised,” Thadeus agreed. “But back to free will. Do you think that free will can be thwarted?”

“Thwarted?”

“Thwarted. Detoured. Re-routed. I’m going one way, you’re going another. I find out you are doing something wrong and set you straight. Did my interference thwart God’s plan, as pertains to your free will?”

The priest sat back. “I’m afraid you’ve lost me.”

Thadeus bit his lip to keep from smiling. “Suppose I know you’re going to do something unlawful. Should I interfere? And if I do, doesn’t that interfere with the free will God’s given you?”

“I would say it depends on what it is,” the priest said, looking at the clock on his desk, “and if this particular thing has already been done or simply in the thought stage. You can’t arrest someone for what they’re thinking.”

“But you can arrest someone for intent,” Thadeus said.

“Such as?” the priest asked, though his face looked immediately after as if he wished he hadn’t.

“Speaking freely: about killing a political official, perhaps. You don’t have to try to shoot the president, for instance, to be arrested for talking about it.”

“Yes, but that very thing implies planning. If someone is planning a crime and confesses that to you, then it would be your duty to tell the police.”

“What about a sin? What if someone is planning something that is not unlawful but it is definitely sinful?”

“Again,” the priest said, taking some tissues from a box on his desk and wiping his forehead, “it would depend on what it was. And again, you can’t be condemned for thinking.”

“But you can.” Thadeus smiled as the man opened his desk drawer, shut it, opened another, took out some tissue and began wiping his face. “Thinking of adultery is the same as committing it, according to scripture.”

Father Connelly blew his nose. “Not exactly.”

“But isn’t it true that—”

“Yes, yes, that to lust after a woman who is not your wife is to commit adultery in your heart. But the consequences for thinking it and actually doing it are very different.”

Thadeus nodded. “I see your point. But still…”

“Is there something,” the priest broke in, “specific you had in mind? I hate to cut you short but I do have other things to attend to. Is there a certain problem…?”

“No,” Thadeus said simply.

The priest scowled more. “Regarding free will, we are free to do all the bad things we wish to. Sometimes I wish it were different but that’s the way God set it up, for without free will there can be no true love.”

Thadeus raised his eyes. “A very insightful point, Father.”

“Now, if you know someone who you think is about to commit a crime…”

“No, nothing like that.”

“…I would certainly tell the police.”

“No one.”

“And if you sincerely believe,” the priest went on, slowly choosing his words, “that God has spoken to you on behalf of another, then I would be happy to speak to you about it.”

“No, no one,” Thadeus said.

“Or if you, yourself, are thinking of doing likewise”

“Of course not, Father.”

The priest leaned forward. “Perhaps I am understanding a little. Free will can be directed—changed, if you will—and sometimes we see in advance that we need to change our own will to do what is right, as opposed to that which is illegal.”

Thadeus frowned. “Now you’ve lost me, Father.”

“My son,” the man said, “God gave us free will and he also gave us each other as a mean’s of keeping that free will on the straight path. That’s what the church is here for. If you feel you need any help”

“No, nothing like that.”

“Our free will can also be directed for good and not evil.”

“No doubt about that.”

“So is there something you’d like to tell me?”

“Not at all.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“Because I’m here.”

Thadeus extended his hands flatly before clasping them together.

The priest clasped his own in the same manner.

“Well.”

“Well.”

They sat for a moment in silence. Thadeus got up and extended his hand. “Thank you for your time, Father.”

“I hope it was helpful,” the priest said, standing.

“Very.”

“I hope to see you again. Early service at eight am Sunday morning. The second at ten.”

“I’ll see myself out,” Thadeus said.

Once outside the thick wooden doors and into the foyer, Thadeus relaxed with a forced smile. He had enjoyed the talk with the man. It was always good to speak theologically with someone, even if that someone was stuck to the old party line. New ideas, he knew, were anathema. Yet, for it all, he didn’t feel he had quite bested the man, or even shook him up the slightest. Not that it was his intent.

Still, there was an irritating anxiety gnawing in the back of his mind and the forced smile had faded long before he walked beyond the glass doors.

 

In his office, Father Connelly sat and stared over his desk at the floor. The young man he had spoken with had left a disturbing imprint on his mind. There were questions, to be sure, but he seemed to want to unburden himself through them. Whether he did or not, the priest couldn’t tell and neither could he discern whether the conversation had been helpful to his visitor.

Prophecy, crime, voices. The conversation whirled in his mind and he kept coming back to those three things. Did the man think he was a prophet? Did the voices tell him he should do thus and so? A criminal act? Murder of a political figure? There were none in town.

Father Connelly sat down and reached for the phone. Maybe it was nothing, but then again maybe it was. One could never be too sure in this day and age. But he hesitated. The man had come to speak to him openly, trustingly. Was it a breach of “office” to discuss things said privately with a third party?

He hesitated briefly before dialing the number. His spiritual “office” might be sacrosanct but his physical office was not. It was not a confessional. And, as the man said, he was not a Catholic.

“Justus McDermitt, please.” There was a pause. “Justus, this is Father Connelly. Fine, yes. I’d like to speak to you about something…”

Chapter 10

 

As Thadeus walked out of the church and into the sun, a lethargy descended. His mind seemed to fog and each step brought a gradual slowness until he found himself standing motionless on the curb. He thought about the boy who wanted to run away from home but was unable because his mother had told him he couldn’t cross the street by himself. Now here he was, with roads to cross and no one telling him to stay.

Maybe his body was simply attuned to the lateness of the day. That morning, walking with Alba, had seen the bright sun and newness of morning. Now it was mid-afternoon heading toward evening and cold night. His body reflected the oncoming darkness.

He forced himself on.

Thadeus reached the towns commons and crossed the street to walk its perimeter. He wanted to put off the mustiness of his room for a while and perhaps find refreshment in the greenery of the park. Three school buses rumbled down the road to his right to stop at a red light. When it changed they broke off in three different directions. They were followed a few moments later by groups of walking children that followed suit, breaking off at the intersection to spill into the town. The air was suddenly full of life and laughter and the sounds of youth. A group of girls crossed over into the park and walked to the gazebo in the center. They dropped onto the cool cement and began to pull laptops and books out of backpacks amidst animated conversation. A group of boys made their way to the backstop at the far end of the park, bats and gloves appearing as if from nowhere and they began to toss baseballs, organizing a game. Other children stopped under trees or clumped together on the warm grass with friends to be with friends and watch and talk about anything at all. The end of school was near as summer approached and excitement was in the air.

Thadeus smiled at the activity but the heaviness returned. He continued on until he stopped to lean against a large granite monument. There was a bronze plaque on the other side and Thadeus didn’t need to look to know what it was. It held the names of all the people in the town that had died in past wars. A monument to death.

It didn’t help.

It only made him reflect longer on the brevity of life, for what were the children before him but names that in a very short period of time would be gone and forgotten. Playing on peaceful grass today, not knowing that oblivion waited around the corner a few tomorrow’s away. If they were lucky, he thought, they would end up on a monument in an unvisited town in an obscure part of the country where on one of those tomorrow’s a stranger might venture into the commons to lean up against that same monument and scan the words and maybe linger for a second or more on the few letters that made up your name.

And that would be your legacy.

Thadeus put his head on the warm rock, pressing his face against it and closed his eyes. He let his fingers touch the bumps of bronze on the other side, the names of all the men listed, all of them hometown heroes who at one time or another had no doubt crossed this very spot. All with hopes and dreams held dear as they rushed toward a future where great things lie just around the corner, unknowing that the monument was that corner and the bronze lettering their only future. All had died in places far away, surrounded by confusion and fear and wishing with their last breath they could see the very place Thadeus stood and wished he wasn’t, one more time.

He pushed himself away. A helplessness gripped him as he watched the children. He wanted to cry out with all his soul: ‘Stop! Don’t grow up, don’t look to tomorrow. Live today forever. It’ll never be better than now. Death is ahead, whether it comes in the form of a car too fast and a driver too drunk or a man come to town with your name on his lips. Stay here today, forsake the future, and never go home when they call.’

But no one heeded the unspoken warning. They laughed and played as they had a hundred times before and would a hundred generations to come.

That’s right, he thought angrily. Ignore me, keep growing older. You’ll see. You’ll know. And maybe one of you (he shuddered) one of you will be just like me and bring death with them wherever they go. Then you’ll really see.

He took the long way back and when he reached the house it was dark and his bones hurt. He needed a nice hot shower and hoped Mrs. Schneider had finished the day’s laundry. He pushed the front door open and threw it closed behind him. He had almost reached the stairway when a sound like the squeak of a pig made him stop and look to his left. The door was open a few inches and Thadeus squinted to see inside. A faint light from the back did its best to outline shapes. Bottles filled the room; in boxes, on shelves, on every square inch of surface and it reflected the light back in a colorless kaleidoscope. It also outlined a man standing at the door, still safe within the room, surrounded by darkness.

“So…it begins.” The voice was sad but there was a note of triumph in the words.

“What?” Thadeus asked. “What begins?”

“It begins,” he said again. There was a pause, the sound of liquid, a sigh of satisfaction for the drink taken and longing for the next. “Don’t think it hasn’t. Don’t think you’re any different. They’ll do to you what they did to me. They’ll turn on you like they did me, you’ll see, then you’ll really see…” The words choked off in the man’s throat.

Thadeus peered into the darkness. “Who are you?”

The man snorted another laugh. “Nobody, now. Not nobody. Now there’s two of us…don’t tell. They’ll banish us, you know.” He chuckled to himself, then sucked in air with a gasp. “God chooses fools…but he leaves us fools.”

Thadeus hesitated. “Do you want to talk?”

There was a pause, then a cry as the man shut the door and a chain slid into place on the other side.

“Me either,” Thadeus said to himself, starting up the stairs.

When he reached his room he heard the banging metal of a lid close and the hum of a washing machine as it swung into full cycle.

Chapter 11

 

The man’s name was Justus Publius Maximus McDermett and he was making the best of life in spite of it. His mother had given him that moniker in tribute; being an amateur historian and a specialist on the Roman Empire—and a Roman Catholic—she saw it as a way of keeping the world of Caesars and Centurions alive. He simply wished for a short life and a name change thereafter.

But Thadeus wasn’t privy to any of that information at the moment. All he knew was that someone was banging loudly on his door in the early morning and he was in no mood for whoever was behind the banging.

He opened it to find Officer Rowe standing straightly with chin raised and chest out. Behind him, looking rumpled and tired, was another Trooper. Further behind him, squinting around the two, was Ruth Schneider.

“This is him,” Rowe said, smirking, and took a step to the side.

“Thadeus Cochran?”

Thadeus nodded.

“I’m Justus McDermett. Mind if we talk?”

“Not at all.”

“Is he in some kind of trouble?” Mrs. Schneider asked. “I don’t need any trouble here.”

“No,” said McDermett. “No trouble.”

“Not yet,” Rowe added.

“Donny, why don’t you and Mrs. Schneider give Mr. Cochran and I a minute alone?”

“Why do I have to leave?” the man said in a whiny voice.

“Your assistance isn’t necessary from here on.”

Rowe glared at Thadeus as if he were the cause of his dismissal. “All right. But don’t forget to ask him about Amy Emerson. Or Alba Urbina.”

“I will, thank you.”

“Or what he’s doing here in the first place.”

“Thank you.”

Rowe, sulking, stomped down the stairs. Mrs. Schneider surveyed the scene with equal parts suspicion and compassion. “He’s all paid up for the month,” she said. “He paid full and up front.”

“Thank you.”

“In cash,” she said, then added, “Non-refundable,” before following Rowe.

“Can I come in?”

Justus McDermett walked around the room, which amounted to a dozen steps. He stopped and looked at the boxes of clothes Mrs. Schneider had left, stopped at the Gideon on the night stand, stopped to look out the window.

“I’d offer you something…” Thadeus began.

McDermett turned. His face was strained. “No, thanks. I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot, Mr. Cochran. I have a few questions I want to ask you but you’re under no obligation to answer them. You’re free to come and go and no one will think much of it.”

“Especially if I go.”

Justus winced a smile. “That’s not what I meant. Naturally if I hear things I like to check them out but we don’t make it a habit in Newbury to harass visitors.”

“That hasn’t been my experience.”

Justus waved his hand. “Donny’s a bit…over enthusiastic. It can be annoying but that’s as far as it goes. Unless you’re a criminal.”

“I’m not.”

“I’m sure.”

“What would you like to know?”

Justus smiled. “There’s probably not much you can tell me I don’t already know. You came into town Wednesday, spoke to Amy Emerson, came here and got a room, had lunch at Harry’s and spoke to Alba Urbina, ran into Amy at the fabric store, had dinner at the church, got sick and Amy took you back here. Yesterday you had breakfast, at Harry’s again, and you were seen leaving with Miss Urbina. Donny saw you on the street and offered to give you a ride to St. Martins. There you spoke with Father Connelly and afterwards walked back here.”

Thadeus was impressed. And unnerved. “You must have a great police force here.”

Justus shook his head. “Small town. I find out most things from my wife. Some from Donny. Most of my work can be done with a single phone call.”

“So what could we have to talk about? It seems you know everything.”

The man shook his head. “Not everything. I don’t know why you’re here.”

“Just passing through.”

Justus frowned. “I hear differently.”

“From who?”

“Different people. The grapevine.”

“What do the grapes say?”

“They say a lot of different things,” the man said. “And from what I’ve heard, ‘just passing through’ isn’t satisfactory.”

“Let’s say I’m on vacation.”

Justus said: “That’s even less satisfying.”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first person to vacation in Newbury.”

“No. But you might be the second,” Justus said. “As I said, you don’t have to answer any questions. Nothing I can do about it. But I might have someone keeping an eye on you, just in case.”

“Someone like Officer Rowe?”

“That’s one of his strengths.”

“I seem to be getting a lot of attention for some reason you’re not telling me.”

Justus looked strained again. “There was talk of death, a possible murder. Just words, I know but sometimes they lead places.”

Thadeus nodded. He didn’t have to ask who had brought that to the man’s attention. He had only spoken to one person about it. The sanctity of the confessional, he thought. “Ask away.”

“What really brings you here to Newbury?”

Thadeus hesitated momentarily. Not because he didn’t like or trust the man. Just the opposite. He was unassuming, friendly, easy-going, honest, as far as he knew. He was just someone going about their business, which at that moment happened to be Thadeus Cochran. Sure, there were slightly veiled threats but they were understood. Perhaps in another time they could have been friends—maybe even this time, when it was all over—but his experience with the police made him wary to expose more than was absolutely necessary. Thadeus had never found the police, in general, to be very open-minded. Donny Rowe came to the forefront of his thoughts, a guy who never strayed far from the handbook but would gladly put his or anyone else’s life on the line to deliver a traffic ticket. No-nonsense, keep ‘em moving, the world’s a better place when everyone falls into line. The type Thadeus tried to avoid. Justus seemed cut from a different mold but there would be plenty of time for future revelations.

“I’m semi-retired,” Thadeus began. “Every now and then I get the urge to travel. I have some money but not a great deal. I use it sparingly. And since I travel alone I don’t have to worry about lavish accommodations.”

“So you’re trying to convince me you’re here on vacation.”

“In a way. More like a sabbatical.”

“A what?”

“Sabbatical. Back in ancient times it was a leave of absence from work or society to pursue God.”

“Is that what you’re doing?”

Pursuing like Jonah, Thadeus thought. “No. But every now and then I like to take some time off and see different places.”

“Must be nice,” Justus said.

“You should try it.”

“Might affect the pension, not to mention the mortgage. I heard talk you were an investor of some type.”

Thadeus shook his head. “I was making a joke with someone or other.”

“I see. There are always financial scams going around, usually on he internet, usually aimed at the elderly. None are very legitimate. When I heard that you might be doing the same my ears perked up, especially since the first person you spoke to in town was a fairly new widow.”

“Amy Emerson? She just happened to be the first person I met. I have no interest in anyone’s money.”

“Glad to hear it,” Justus said. “What is your line of work?”

“I’m retired.”

“So you said. Before that?”

“Construction. Carpentry.”

“You must have been quite a carpenter if you could retire so young.”

He said nothing.

Justus looked him over, looked at the box of clothes on the floor. “You don’t strike me as someone who has a lot of money.”

“I don’t have a lot. I have enough.”

“I hear you walked into town.”

“Right.”

“Why?”

“I don’t have a car.”

“With you, or…”

“With me. I have one at home but I hardly ever drive it.”

“So that makes you either eccentric or a nut.” He looked Thadeus up and down. “I’m leaning toward ‘nut.’”

Thadeus did not disagree.

“So you walked here from…?”

“Not far.”

Justus frowned. “Can I see some ID?”

Thadeus took out his wallet and showed him his driver’s license. The man copied down the information and handed it back. His face showed strain again. “I received a call from someone yesterday, very upset, asking to remain anonymous.”

“Father Connelly.”

Justus hesitated. “Yes.” His face relaxed noticeably. “He was very upset.”

“I didn’t mean to upset him.”

“He told me you had gone to see him and said some very strange things.”

Thadeus waited.

“I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”

“I remember the conversation,” Thadeus said. “I can’t remember any of it being strange. And I’m sure you know that any private conversations I have with anyone are just that—private.”

“Not when a homicide is involved.”

“Has someone died?”

Justus shook his head. “Not yet. That’s why I’m here. The good Father seemed to think that you were planning to kill someone.”

Thadeus smiled. “And what do you think?”

Justus sighed. “They don’t pay me enough to think. If I could tell by looking at someone whether they were going to commit a crime or not I’d move to New York and lock up half the population. I just follow leads. Most of them turn into nothing. But some don’t. Which one are you?”

“I simply wanted Father Connelly’s input on some theological questions.”

“About murder?”

“That was one topic.”

“You could have asked me. I’m sure I’ve had more experience.”

“Maybe I will in the future,” Thadeus said. “It pertained to God’s will and if such an act would fall into that category.”

“I’m not sure I follow you.”

“Are you a religious man?”

He sighed again. “I suppose so. I go to mass when I can, confession when I can’t.”

“St. Martin’s?”

“Thirty years,” he said proudly. “Even before Father Connelly. I can’t force you to tell me anything but generally people with nothing to hide have nothing to hide.”

“If a murder is committed,” Thadeus said, “is that part of God’s plan or someone trying to change God’s will? That’s the type of thing I asked him.”

“Interesting. What did he say?”

“I’m still not clear.”

“That sounds like him.”

“Of course, if I had known our conversation would become public domain I wouldn’t have spoken to him at all.”

“Understandable,” Justus said. “As far as I know he only spoke to me. I, uh, also promised him I wouldn’t let anyone know he had told me.”

“You haven’t,” Thadeus said. “Technically, I guessed. As long as you don’t tell anyone else…”

“I have no intention of telling anyone what he said.”

“I appreciate that.”

“So your interest in murder….”

“Is strictly of a religious nature. We spoke of other things besides crime.”

“He was concerned.”

Thadeus shrugged.

Justus said: “Mr. Cochran, I don’t really believe you’re going to cause trouble in Newbury. Especially now. But I also believe there’s a lot you’re not telling me.”

“I’ve told you nothing but the truth. So help me God,” he added with a smile.

“I’ve no doubt. But I think you’re leaving out a lot of truth.”

Thadeus shrugged again. “Doesn’t everybody?”

Justus returned the shrug. “Okay.” He walked to the window. “This is a nice view. You can see the whole town.” He turned. “I’ve lived here in Newbury most of my life. I’ll probably never leave. I had friends in school who couldn’t wait to get out of here. A lot of ‘em came back and are still here. Others move to Florida, California. Can’t stand the cold, get out of New England. Me, I love the seasons. I’ll never leave here. This is my town, for whatever that’s worth. We all watch out for each other here.”

“Get very many people who are just passing through who decide to stay?”

He shook his head. “I can’t think of any. But I’d always welcome a new friend.”

“It’s a beautiful town.”

“That it is.” The man turned and walked over to Thadeus and extended his hand. “Thank you for your time.”

“Any time.”

Justus walked to the door and opened it and said as he turned: “I’ve known Amy Emerson since we were in grade school. Went to high school with her and her husband. Amy used to teach Sunday School and preschool and Kindergarten. Probably most everyone you’ll meet in town under thirty has been taught by her at one time or another. Including Donny Rowe.” He closed the door quietly as Thadeus sat and listened to the footsteps clomp down the staircase.

Chapter 12

 

Thadeus determined to avoid people as much as possible for the rest of the day, if only to gather his thoughts. He walked in the opposite direction of Harry’s Place and breakfasted at The Burger Pit, a fifties style restaurant on the far side of town, just past the theater and near the freeway on ramp. He feasted that morning on a greasy omelet and weak coffee served with powdered creamer. Nothing but the best at The Burger Pit. He took a long time eating, almost two hours. About half the time it would take to digest, he thought, studying ever inch of the place with seeming interest. The waitress was young and beautiful and naturally took little notice of him. He never saw the cook. Of the seven people who had eaten and gone, none had given him a first glance. It was a place for fast food and quick anonymity, where conversation began and ended with the words on the menu and any glance was met with a hurried impatience. It was his kind of place that morning.

What a pity, he thought as he paid the bill, that breakfast couldn’t last forever.

He walked out of the front door while squinting and stretching simultaneously. The sun was too bright and he was too fat, at least for the moment. He’d pay for the grease later—maybe he could walk it off—but for right now he was warm and content. He stood for a few seconds, looking left and right and straight, in no hurry. The strip mall across the street, he noticed, was fairly vacant of cars and customers and one could easily lose themselves exploring shops for a good part of the day. But the theater to the left, with its promise of a comfortable seat, might fit better with his day’s plans. How much easier to get lost in the darkness of a movie or two?

The box office window was vacant and he assumed the place closed until a placard in the window reading, conveniently, Open and under that Sign of the Times with showings below. The bill for the evening was an obviously current movie he hadn’t heard of, assuring viewers of “Fright Beyond Reason,” with the usual heroine running madly from a deformed face wielding a knife. He made a mental note to come back some night to see it. Who wouldn’t want to see what lay beyond reason? But for the afternoon, offering a cheaper rate with no listed show times, was a movie that sounded vaguely familiar. High School Hellcats. Late fifties. There was no poster, just a name and a price.

A figure came out from the side of the building, head down, muttering. A big man, who walked to the curb, took a few steps into the street, turned and frowned at the marquee. Thadeus recognized him at once; Bob T., the smiling face behind the salad at St. Martin’s. He saw Thadeus and nodded in recognition, the perturbed frown replaced by a big smile as the man raised his hand in greeting.

“Bob T.,” Thadeus said, extending his hand.

The man laughed and shook it heartily. “Tyner. Bob Tyner. And you’re Thadeus, the man who had an argument with the spaghetti dinner.”

“Thadeus Cochran. The dinner won, by the way. You must be Jesse’s father.”

The man nodded, staring at the theater.

“He’s a good kid.”

“He can be,” the man said evenly.

“He’s a good cook.”

There was a second’s silence. Thadeus joined his gaze. “Going to a movie?”

“Hmm? Oh, no. I didn’t even see what’s playing.” He squinted. “High School Hellcats.”

“It sounds interesting. Do you know when it starts?”

Bob looked at the sign and then his watch. “No.”

“Care to join me when it does?”

He laughed. “No, I’ve got work to do. This place needs a remodel and I’m working up an estimate.”

“It’s a beautiful place.”

Tyner frowned. “Used to be. I remember the day it opened. It was pristine, shiny, nice cushy seats. Age hasn’t been kind.”

“Still looks good.”

The man sighed. “On the outside. Everything looks better on the outside. Almost everything.” He stood straighter.

Thadeus nodded, thinking of The Burger Pit, swearing off anything but yogurt for the rest of his life. “So, you’re in the construction business?”

“More or less. I work with Fred Birch at Birch Lumber. We’re suppliers. Sometimes we’ll contract a job or sub it out. Depends,” he said, his voice subdued, “on what the boss wants.”

“Fred Birch is the boss?”

Bob kept his eye on the marquee. “He’s the boss.”

“How long have you been working for him?”

“Twenty-eight years.”

“Long time,” Thadeus said, then said: “You two must be pretty good friends to work together that long.”

Bob stood wordlessly for a few seconds before nodding as if bobbing in place. He turned with a sudden smile. “I see you and Amy have hit it off.”

“She’s easy to get to know. But I’ve only known her a few days.”

“I’ve known her most of my life,” Bob said, looking at Thadeus, “and she’s one of the best people in the world. A sweet, sweet lady.”

“She seems to be. Did you know her husband?”

“Somewhat. Doug was a good guy. Kind of hard, sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

Bob hesitated his lips. “Different than Amy. Tough to get to know. Tough to be around. Kept you at arms length, if you know what I mean, like he didn’t want you to know too much about him or what he was doing. I knew him over twenty years and the extent of any conversation was, ‘How are things?’ ‘Fine.’ And that would be it.”

“Some people are like that.”

“You’re not.”

Thadeus laughed. “It depends who I’m talking to.”

“Anyway,” he continued, “it always seemed funny that him and Amy got together. They were opposites. She was outgoing and friendly, always helping out at school or church. He was quiet, cold, seemed put out to be anywhere.” He shook his head. “I never understood it. No one blamed her–“ He stopped, his voice gone to wherever his thoughts had taken him.

“No one blamed her…for what?”

Bob’s expression came back slowly and when it did he looked at Thadeus and forced a laugh. “Look at us, gossiping like two old women, when we’ve both got better things to do.”

“I’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Still,” the man said, “to speak ill of the dead”

“That’s the best time. They can’t interrupt.”

Bob smiled grimly. “There was talk–well, there’s always talk–when Doug died that it was sudden, especially for a young man. He was only forty-six. You have a heart attack at forty-six and people talk.”

“That is young,” Thadeus agreed, “though it happens.”

“It happens. Still, there was no history in his family, he was in pretty good shape, didn’t smoke. Just mean.”

“Mean people die young.”

Tyner looked at him sideways. “That hasn’t been my experience.”

“Mine either. But it sounded good.”

They both laughed.

“There was talk, like I said. Not based on anything. The autopsy didn’t show anything unusual. No reason to think…but just the same, Amy seemed different after.”

“In what way?”

The man considered, thinking back. “Lighter. Happier. Different.”

“Might have been just a show, so people wouldn’t feel sorry for her.”

Bob nodded. “Could have been. That was probably it.”

“I’m just guessing,” he said. “You know her better than I.”

“Hmm,” the man said, lost in the past, then shook it off. “But like I said, there was nothing to it. What would she have to gain? House was paid off, they already had money.”

“Just talk.”

“That’s all it is. Was. Not like she had anybody waiting in the wings or started dating right off, like some do. Though,” he said, with an expectant expression, “maybe now she’s ready.”

Thadeus only smiled. “Maybe she is. Maybe she is.” Then, deliberately: “This is a nice building.”

Bob smiled, the point not lost, his gaze turning upwards with Thadeus. “Yup. It sure is. They put a lot of work into it. Look at the trim, how intricate the carvings are. And the curves of the art deco, the way it meets the pillars in the foyer.” He shook his head. “You couldn’t afford to build something like this today. So much time and love and workmanship went into it. It should be saved, don’t you think?”

“Is there a doubt it will be?”

“Depends on cost. It needs work.”

“Then I suppose it should,” Thadeus said. “If the return on the investment makes it worth the effort.”

Bob’s face hardened slightly but his gaze remained. “Of course it is. You can’t find theaters like this anymore. They need to be preserved, no matter what the cost. They need to be made landmarks and protected, so people won’t come along and tear them down and destroy all the memories. It needs to be preserved so people won’t forget all those times.” He stopped for a moment. “The new multi-plexes—” he said, shaking his head. “They have no character, no heart, no sense of the past. This–“ He chewed his lip, nodding. “This is worth the trouble and any amount of money.”

They stood staring at the building for a moment before Bob expelled a half-laugh. “Sorry to be so…”

“Passionate?” he put in and Bob nodded. “Nothing wrong with passion. It keeps us alive.”

“Yeah. I just hate to see it so run down. It used to be so young.”

“It still is,” Thadeus said. “It just needs to be revived. It should be preserved.”

“Yeah,” Bob said. “Yeah, I think you’re right. I think so too.”

They stood silently admiring it before Bob said: “Well, I’d better get back to work. And you have a movie to see.”

He took Thadeus’ hand in both of his and shook it firmly, then walked away without moving his gaze from the building.

Thadeus rapped on the window of the vacant box office window. There was no response but he was not about to be deterred from finding out exactly what a Hellcat was. He rapped on the glass again.

A short man with dark hair and in need of a shave appeared from the shadows and came up to the window and stared.

“Movie start?”

“Not yet,” he said. “Waiting.”

“For what?”

“A paying customer. Now we’ll start.”

Four bucks lighter Thadeus was seated in the back middle of the theater and immediately saw that the greasy ticket taker hadn’t been exactly honest. There was another person in the theater, three rows from the front, a head outlined against the white screen, slouched in a seat. Thadeus studied the head but the lights began to dim and Chilly Willy came onscreen in frozen animation.

He didn’t give the head another thought as Chilly Willy—always the cool hero–saved the day and the main feature began. It wasn’t long before Thadeus was lost in its genius. He was almost giddy with excitement and he laughed at every line. It was, he was convinced, the best movie that had ever been made.

The Hellcats were Bad Girls who tricked the New Girl into believing that it was appropriate to wear slacks to school, which she did the next day. Imagine her shame when, in front of the whole class, the teacher set her straight about the no-slacks policy and she had no recourse other than to grab her books and run from the school in tears. Later she became a Hellcat herself, redeeming her softness and getting very chummy with the Head Hellcat. Perhaps too chummy. During a party, when the lights suddenly went out, there was a scream and by the time the lights came back on Head Hellcat was found dead at the foot of the basement stairs. Had she fallen, or had she been pushed?

It was a hoot and Thadeus couldn’t remember enjoying himself more. When the inevitable end came it was too soon and he wondered as the credits ran if he could convince the ticket guy to run it again. He was about to go ask when the figure in the front stood and turned to walk out. It was Jesse Tyner, Alba’s boyfriend. Thadeus stood in the aisle and waited for him, glad the kid was alone.

“Hey,” Thadeus said. “Enjoy the show?”

He shrugged. “You did.”

Thadeus laughed. “I guess I was a little loud. I’d never seen it before. It was a step back in time.”

“Your time?”

“Almost. A little before.” He didn’t want Jesse to think he was too old. “Do you come to matinees often?”

“I like the dark.”

“It’s dark at night.”

“It’s my day off.”

Thadeus nodded and stared, not appreciating the evasiveness. See how he likes the silence, he thought.

Jesse shifted his feet. “I’m with my dad. He’s not here,” he added, when Thadeus looked around the theater.

“If he’s not here, how are you with him?”

“He’s out front somewhere with Mr. Squooti, the owner.”

“I think I met him.”

“If it’s a guy who looks like he’s drunk, that’s him. Probably was.”

“I didn’t notice.”

“He’s here to check out the place and give Mr. Squooti an estimate on materials. I guess after all these years things are starting to fall apart. Everything needs to be fixed. My dad’s in lumber,” he added.

“He told me,” Thadeus said. “I hope it’s nothing major. Places like this should live forever.”

Jesse looked around the place and shrugged. “Be cheaper to tear it down and build it back. Or make condos.”

“I guess,” Thadeus said, forlornly, not wanting to think about it, “We should go back out to real world.”

The sun and colors were too bright. Nothing black and white out here, he thought. There was no sign of anyone, so the two stood, neither one wanting to move.

“Gonna be in Newbury long?” the boy said with effort.

Thadeus smiled inwardly as he looked at the boy. “Maybe.”

“I hear you’re just passing through.”

“Maybe. Depends.”

“On what?”

“What happens.”

“Where? Here? Nothing happens here.”

“Things already have.”

“What? With who?”

Thadeus had to smile at that. “With no one. I don’t think, anyway.”

“How old are you?”

Thadeus frowned. “Too old.” He didn’t like hearing the words and was irritated at the boy for making them come out. “Look,” he said. “Don’t worry, I don’t have any interest in…in anyone.”

“What does that mean?”

“Just what I said. I certainly wouldn’t have any interest in someone half my age.”

The boy made a face of disgust and looked away. “I would hope not.”

Thadeus scowled, then smiled. “However,” he said nonchalantly, “I can’t guarantee how other people might feel.”

“Whatever that means,” Jesse mumbled.

“People meet, make assumptions. No one can be blamed for that.”

“Whatever.”

The boy’s eyes were now fixed in the opposite direction and Thadeus smiled to himself. “Listen, I have no designs on your girlfriend.”

“I never thought you and her—” he began, but Thadeus cut him off.

“Nor should you. There’s no reason to be jealous.”

“I’m not jealous.” He turned to Thadeus again, the look of disgust still on his face. “I sure wouldn’t be jealous of you.”

“Good. She said you might be, was why I brought it up.”

“Fat chance. You don’t know anything about her. But one thing you should know about Alba. She lies. A lot. Just for fun.”

Thadeus said, “I couldn’t keep up with her, anyway, I don’t have the energy.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” The kid was getting angry. Thadeus wondered with exhilarated fascination if he would be capable of subduing the boy, if it came to that. He did have the weight advantage and he was glad to have found a hypothetical use for it.

“Nothing,” he said, soothingly. “She’s young…like you. Full of ideas.”

“What kind of ideas?”

“Youthful, idealistic…nothing. That’s all I meant.”

“Yeah, well…” The kid looked at his watch suddenly, then at Thadeus a bit too casually. “Well, I should be going. Any reason you’re sticking around?”

“No. Guess I’ll head out.”

“Hello, fellow patrons of the arts!”

The voice made both Thadeus and Jesse turn but with expressions very different. Thadeus realized too late that he was smiling too big and knew that the kid was watching him with a glare. He shrugged to himself as Alba approached in all her black-garbed radiance. Let him be jealous, he thought, then, as she came closer: maybe there’s a reason he should be.

“Speak of the devil,” Thadeus said, “and she appears.”

Jesse looked at Thadeus, then scowled at Alba. “You’re late.”

She shrugged. “Janey didn’t get to work until a few moments ago.” She faced Thadeus. “So you were talking about me, were you?”

“Only the bad things,” Thaddeus said.

“What else is there?” she said, smiling at him. “But just to be on the safe side, what bad things?”

“I hear you’re an axe murderer.”

“Poison, only.”

“And that you’re an illegal alien.”

“Came C.O.D. No one’s paid, yet.”

“And you have a penchant for old movies.”

“On occasion.”

“And you have a fondness for imaginations. Lying,” he added at her confused look.

“That,” she said, “is the truth. Has Jesse been filling you in.”

“Only on the details,” he said. “We’ve skipped all generalities.”

“What’s he talking about?” Jesse asked.

“Ask him.”

“You missed the movie.”

“How was it?”

“Great,” Thadeus said.

“Average,” the boy said.

“One yay, one nay. Whom should I trust?”

“Trust whoever the hell you want,” Jesse said, turning away.

Thadeus waited a beat. “To tell you the truth, Jesse is probably right. It wasn’t the best movie ever. I guess it took me back to my youth.”

“Why, Mr. Cochran,” the girl said in a drawl. “Did they have movies way back then?”

“Funny,” he said as she laughed. “It was just me and Edison for a while. He ran the camera while I danced. Next time remind me to never…”

Voices approaching from the theater made him trail off and all of them turned as two men appeared from the darkness. One of them was short and gruff, the other a pale squeaking in the background. Fred Birch, followed by Mr. Squooti.

“I simply can’t afford—”

“You don’t know what you can’t afford,” Fred Birch was saying, paying little attention to Thadeus or Jesse. He turned to the man behind him. “Can you afford to close permanently? No one’s gonna buy this dump, not in this condition, I guarantee it. I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut about something this unsafe. It’s a public hazard.”

“But—”

Birch held up his hands in surrender. “It’s up to you. I can have a full load and a crew here Monday. Otherwise I’ll consider it my duty to inform the city inspectors.” Birch turned away as Squooti opened his mouth to speak.

“Where’s my dad?”

Birch ran his tongue over his teeth and picked out a piece of something. He let it drop to the ground. “Back at the yard. Apparently something came up he couldn’t handle. Something I can do for you?”

Thadeus couldn’t take his eyes off the man. He hadn’t been sure until that moment but now there was no mistake. And though he couldn’t describe what he saw in any words that would make sense, it was there just the same. The mark of death. He was transfixed.

“Birch,” he sputtered out. “Fred Birch,” he said as the man started to turn.

“Yeah? What?”

Thadeus’ mouth fell open. He felt unsteady. He was aware of everyone looking at him. Even Alba. He considered before he spoke but not nearly long enough. “I think I should…warn you.”

“What?”

“You should know,” he began again. “There’s only a short time left…”

Birch scowled at Thadeus. “A short time left? For what?”

“It could be any time…I don’t even know…I shouldn’t tell you…but it’s coming.”

“Are you threatening me? He’s threatening me, isn’t he?”

Squooti was behind Birch, almost cowering, and Jesse was watching Thadeus intently. There seemed to be a spark of joy within the interest. Either way, Birch would get help from neither.

“No, I’m not.”

“Then what are you warning me of?” the man asked, taking a step back, becoming conscious of the fact and taking two steps forward. His face was red.

“Nothing. Everything.” He looked the man in the eyes. “It’s time…to get your affairs in order.”

Now Birch took a conscious step backward. “You are threatening me. Well, damn it, no one does that without paying for it. The police will be only happy to…damn! I left my phone in the car. Squooti, go inside and call the police. Tell them there’s a crazy man here threatening to kill me. I only hope he tries to get away.”

“No, listen…” Thadeus said to Birch. “I’m only trying to help you. That will only make it worse.”

“For you, maybe. Squooti, get on the phone.”

Squooti hadn’t moved and seemed more unlikely to the more Thadeus talked.

“Jesse, you then.”

The kid looked at him expressionlessly but it said everything.

He looked at Alba but didn’t consider her long. She was studying Thadeus. “Then I’ll do it myself. Squooti…”

“Wait…” Thadeus touched the man’s arm.

Birch turned, recoiling. “I warned you.” His big arm hit Thadeus on the side of the head and he saw redness at the impact. He fell to the sidewalk on all fours. “Buddy, I don’t know who you are but you’re going to find out that I’m not someone to mess with. Watch him, Jesse. Dammit, Squooti, where’s that phone?”

There was silence as Thadeus gasped for breath. Alba knelt down and touched his head. “Are you okay?”

He nodded, gasping. Above him, he heard the sound of someone chuckling.

“I don’t think,” she began, helping him to sit, “that was very smart.”

“Probably not,” he said, wincing.

She touched his face tenderly. “Let me see.”

I wonder if she’ll kiss it better, he thought before passing out.

Chapter 13

 

No one at the police station was very happy except Donny Rowe. Fred Birch had come and gone, making no more than a conciliatory appearance to get the wheels of justice greased and spun. His complaint and its various implications made clear, he had left without a glance at the person responsible for his inconvenience, one Thadeus Cochran.

So Thadeus sat in the small office of the small station as Officer Rowe sat on top of a desk grinning over at him like a rabid Cheshire cat and Justus McDermitt sat at the desk opposite, head in one hand, phone in the other, his face and expression hidden.

“Uh-huh, right. Yes, I understand. Yes, I said. Right.” He replaced the receiver and wiped his face with his hands.

“Trouble at home?” Rowe asked with a smile.

Justus looked evenly at Thadeus. “That was Fred Birch. He was not happy.”

“I take it his happiness is very important here,” Thadeus said, staring at the floor. He had been unconscious for a brief moment at the theater before getting into the patrol car which seemed to appear remarkably fast. He had forsaken any type of medical attention; the punch, though solid, would leave no lasting physical damage and the less people involved the better. Once at the station he felt almost normal. The wooziness was fading and as long as he kept his eyes on the floor and off of Rowe the better.

“That’s an understatement,” Rowe said.

“Donny…”

“It’s only the truth,” he said, sliding off the desk and walking back to his own. “If he’s happy, everyone’s happy. If he’s not, no one is, until he is. Birch is Newbury.”

“Whether his happiness is important to us or not,” McDermett said to Thadeus, “you did threaten the man.”

“No.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider and have an attorney present? I don’t want you putting yourself in—“

“I don’t need an attorney,” Thadeus said simply. He had never needed one before. He sensed that time would run out well before lawyers could take over.

“Suit yourself. Anyhow, there were witnesses to your threat. They all said the same thing.” The man picked up some papers, skimming. “In that you approached Mr. Birch, made some threatening statements, then assaulted him.”

Thadeus wobbled his head back and forth. “It didn’t happen that way.”

He dropped the papers on the desk and spread out his palm. “All the witnesses said so.”

Thadeus looked up. “Not all of them.”

Rowe snorted. “I think we can guess why.”

McDermitt gave Rowe an exasperated look before addressing Thadeus. “Three of the four witnesses gave similar statements. Any ideas why Alba’s would be different?”

“You should ask her.”

“I did. I wanted your opinion.”

Thadeus shrugged. “Better eyesight, maybe. I don’t know the girl that well.”

“That’s not what we hear.”

Justus shot Rowe another look

Thadeus said, “Why do you assume that her statement is false and the others are true?”

“Because she’s a liar,” Rowe said.

Justus started to say something and gave up half-way.

“She’s a liar and a troublemaker.”

“Is that the official reason?” Thadeus said.

“It’s good enough,” Rowe said. “And it’s no secret. Ask anyone who’s ever talked to her.”

Thadeus looked at Justus who looked uncomfortable. “She has a reputation for stretching the truth.”

Rowe hooted.

“How do you mean?”

“I won’t get into specifics. Suffice to say we’ve had our own experiences with the girl.”

“Criminal?”

“Not exactly. Somewhat malicious. Maybe just bored.”

“She was still a witness,” Thadeus said. “You can’t pick and choose witnesses.”

Rowe laughed. “Tourists.“

“Maybe not,” Justus said. “But against the other three…”

“Especially Fred Birch?” Thadeus interrupted.

“No. Not especially Fred Birch,” Justus said. “Jesse said the same as the others. Why would he?”

Thadeus shrugged, but he could guess why.

Justus said: “Fred Birch is an old…”

“Careful, now,” Rowe said.

“He likes to throw his weight around,” Justus said, “and there’s a good reason for that.”

“Yeah, because he can,” Rowe said and laughed.

McDermett frowned at Rowe, then nodded to Thadeus. “Because he can.”

“If people let him.”

“I told you he was trouble.”

“When you can throw your weight around,” Justus said, “you don’t have to wait for someone to let you. But Fred Birch has done a lot for this town. Birch Lumber is Newbury’s biggest employer. I don’t know many people who haven’t worked there during the summers when they were kids, or even now. Hardly anyone gets turned away if they need a job and are willing to work. Fred’s donated money to the high school for the new gym, as well as lumber and labor to refurbish the library and different buildings downtown. He’s done a lot for the town.”

“And the town owes him,” Thadeus said.

“Some,” Justus admitted, getting up with effort and walking to a coffee pot on a small filing cabinet. He motioned a cup to Thadeus who nodded. Justus filled two and came back. “He might have some influence around here but not much as far as that goes. He’s just a decent, hard-working guy who’s lived here all his life and wants to make his town a little better. He may feel it his right to have things his way, but who doesn’t? He’s never harmed a soul.”

“Sounds like a saint.”

Justus laughed and Donny Rowe frowned.

“Why are we wasting our time talking to this guy?” Rowe asked. “Let’s just lock him up.”

“Talking never hurts,” Justus said, handing the cup to Thadeus. “Besides, Mr. Cochran seems harmless enough. And we’ve got the guns.”

Rowe fingered his menacingly.

“And all we’re doing is bringing up people’s good points. Different if we weren’t. So, now that you know all of Fred’s good qualities, tell me why you felt the need to threaten him.”

Thadeus shook his head. “I didn’t.”

“Three witnesses say different,” Rowe said firmly.

“Two say otherwise.”

“Two? Which two?”

“Miss Urbina and myself.”

Rowe snorted. “Yourself. Of course you’d lie.”

“Then tell me what happened.” Justus sat back in his chair, took a sip and leaned back as if he had all day.

Rowe folded his arms.

Thadeus sighed. “I had something to tell Mr. Birch, something very important. I told him. He hit me. Here I am.”

“Simple,” Rowe said sarcastically.

Justus McDermett leaned forward. He was not as amused. “What was it that was so important.”

“It was about his future.”

“And?”

Thadeus hesitated, waiting—for a sign, a word, a direction—and his eyes fell to the small holding cell down the hall. Direction. “I believe he’s going to die soon. I told him.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Rowe said, standing. “If that’s not a threat…”

Justus waved him quiet. His eyes were focused and held no emotion. Concern, perhaps. Wariness. “What makes you think so?”

“I saw it in his eyes.”

“Better and better,” Rowe said. “Shall I call Mt. Hope?”

“His eyes. What did you see in his eyes?”

Thadeus sighed. “I saw the end.”

“The end?”

“The end of his life.”

“Hoo-boy, we’ve got a live one.” Rowe was smiling.

“Donny,” Justus said. “You saw the end of his life. So, when will that be?”

“Soon. Very soon.”

“Was it supposed to have been today?”

“There’s no timetable, at least, not mine.”

“Tonight?”

“Could be tonight, could be next week. Not more than a month.”

“How do you know?”

The answer surprised even Thadeus. “I only paid Mrs. Schneider for the month.”

Justus sat back while Rowe shook his head with a silly grin on his face.

“What is this really about, Mr. Cochran?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not crazy, at least not from my limited experience with crazy people.” He glanced briefly at Rowe. “You’re not dangerous, as far as I can see. You seem to have made a few friends in town already. Mostly female, so that doesn’t sit too well. But I can tell by talking to you that you’re a likable enough guy. Yet you come into town not knowing anyone, with no belongings. Why are you here? And why Fred Birch?”

“I don’t know him.”

“Yet you came here specifically to kill him—”

“Tell him.”

“To tell him—“

“I didn’t know it would be him,” Thadeus said. “I don’t get to pick and choose. I just met him yesterday. I knew. I could feel it, sense it. Then it was there, in his eyes.”

“You saw that he was going to die soon, is that it? So you told him. Why?”

Thadeus looked down. “That was probably a mistake.”

“I’ll say,” Rowe said.

“Why was it a mistake?”

“It’s better if people don’t know. Would you want to? Or you?”

“Are you threatening me?” Donny stood, hand on his nightstick.

“Donny,” Justus said wearily.

“You heard him, right here. Maybe I’m next. Maybe we both are. Is that it?”

“He’s crazy,” Thadeus said to Justus, who didn’t disagree.

“I’m crazy,” Rowe said. “This wacko goes around hearing voices telling him to kill people…”

“I don’t hear voices.”

“Then how do you know?” Justus asked. “You some kind of psychic?”

“No.”

“Some kind of religious nut?”

Thadeus thought for a moment. “Closer.”

“Now can we lock him up?”

“God speaks to you,” Justus said, prodding.

“In a way.”

“And tells you who’s going to die?”

“Not exactly.”

McDermett looked at Rowe who held up his hands and looked away. Justus asked with a thoughtful look: “Have you had these…visions, premonitions…before?”

“Yes.”

“How often?”

“Every now and then.”

“How many have you had?”

Thadeus closed his eyes, opened them quickly when pictures started to form. “Too many. Let’s just say a few.”

“When was the last time?”

Thadeus shook his head. “It’s not important.”

“It was to the people you killed,” Rowe said from across the room.

Justus shot him a quick look. Then, quietly: “It would be important if you told us times, names, dates.”

“I understand,” Thadeus said. He looked into McDermett’s face. There was no judgment in it, only concern. “But it’s not important for me to tell you. At least, not now.”

“When will you tell us?”

“After Fred Birch is dead.”

Chapter 14

 

He’d certainly been in worse cells.

And it was warm and they brought him a meatball sandwich and coffee for lunch and there was a clean bathroom down the hall. Powdered creamer for the coffee but other than that he couldn’t complain, because he alone was responsible for where he was.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake,’ was a verse that came to mind. It brought an image of the Apostle Paul, beaten and bloodied, writing his epistles in a lonely jail. Faithful saint and martyr.

‘Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps his mouth shut.’ A paraphrase from the wisdom of Solomon but much closer to the truth.

Thadeus wondered why he had spoken to Fred Birch in the first place. It wasn’t like it was against the rules. There were no rules. But, still, he knew better. He had never done anything like it before. Why now?

He lay back on the lumpy mattress. Why now? he thought. Why pretend? he answered himself just as fast. He knew the why. And now came the fall.

 

“Mr. Cochran?”

Thadeus looked up from his bunk to see Alba standing in front of the cell door. She wore a purple dress with black trim, black lipstick, a woven black hat. Her dress hung loosely and low, showing a dangerous amount of cleavage. Her dark hair seemed fuller, brushed back and flowing down, her eyebrows dark and pointing down thinly to that same cleavage. The dress ended at mid-thigh but was picked up by black mesh stockings meandering down to black clomper shoes with Pilgrim buckles. The only puritan thing about her, Thadeus thought, rolling off the bed.

“Miss Urbina,” he said, smiling back. “What brings you here?”

“I thought you might be lonely,” she said demurely.

Thadeus looked down the hall. The office seemed empty. “Who let you in?”

“I simply passed through the door like a specter.” Her voice was light and airy.

“It’s nice of you to visit.”

“Am I the only one?”

“I hope so,” Thadeus said. “I don’t need anyone else knowing I’m here.”

She laughed. “Everyone knows,” she said. “Donny Rowe is making it his mission to tell the town. Probably makes him feel important. Somehow in his version, he stops you from attacking Fred Birch.”

“Makes little difference.”

“He also says you admitted hearing voices telling you to kill Fred Birch. True?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Oh,” she said, looking disappointed. “What, then?”

He took a breath. “It’s really nothing.”

“That’s not the story I hear. Come on, tell me.” She leaned close and whispered: “I love spiritual things.”

There was a strong scent of perfume surrounding her and as she pressed against the bars she raised her head up her mouth opened and her breasts pushed against the steel. He seemed to loom over her as she looked up at him with those beckoning dark eyes. He cleared his throat.

“I…”

“Yes.”

“Sometimes…I get impressions.”

“About what.”

“Things.”

“People?”

“Yes.”

“Like at the theater.”

“Yes.”

“With Fred Birch.”

“Yes.”

“You saw in his eyes he would die soon?”

“Yes. No. Not just then. Earlier. I’d met him…before. I knew when I met him…”

“That’s why at the theater you said…”

“Right.”

“And he thought you were threatening him.”

“Yes.”

“And that’s when he punched you.”

“Right. Thank you for telling that to the police.”

“They didn’t believe me.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Nobody ever does.”

“I do.”

“Thanks.”

“But thanks just the same.”

“Thank you for believing in me.” She was standing on her tip toes now.

“I suppose I shouldn’t have said anything to him.”

“You thought you should. It was very noble.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“How far would you go?” Her hands were on the bars now.

“What I mean is, sometimes it’s better people don’t know.”

“I won’t tell anyone.”

“About Birch.”

“He’s not dead.”

“No.”

“Is he still going to die?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“I don’t know.”

“Today?”

“I don’t know.”

“Tomorrow?”

“I don’t know.”

“When am I going to die?”

“What?”

She pushed herself higher, straining against the bars. Her breasts seemed huge. “Look in my eyes.”

“No.”

“I want to know.”

“It’s crazy.”

“I’m crazy. Tell me.”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you see?”

“Nothing.”

“Tell me.”

“A long life. Lots of kids.”

“Tell me.”

“I don’t see anything. Nothing. It was all a joke, okay? Now stop.”

Alba lowered herself flat and took a step back. The perfume wafted off and he blew out through his mouth. He coughed twice and shook his head. She looked smaller, almost dainty, except for the smirk on her face.

“No wonder they locked you up,” she said. “You must be a nut.”

“I must be.” He was breathing heavily.

“What’s it like to be crazy?” The smile was mocking.

“I was about to ask you the same thing.”

“Well, no matter what happens, I’ll wait for you. Unless it’s longer than today.”

“Don’t wait.”

“How long will you be in here?”

“Normally it doesn’t take very long,” he said. “For some reason they’re dragging their feet.”

“Have you called a lawyer?”

“Not yet.”

“You’re entitled, you know. One phone call.”

“Thank you, I know.”

“I could call the ACLU. Freedom of religion and all that. Or,” she said, face lighting up, “I could call the newspaper. Maybe some television stations.”

Thadeus winced. “You want to help? Don’t help. I’m sure it will all work out.”

“You mean God will watch over you?” She laughed. “He’s not doing very good, is He? Or is it ‘she’?” she said, turned, smiled over her shoulder and walked out.

 

“Mr. Cochran.”

Thadeus looked up from his bunk to see Justus McDermett standing in front of the small cell. He rolled off the bed and walked over to him.

“Seems we’re having trouble getting a judge and an arraignment. This doesn’t happen very often but Judge Elliot left for an early weekend and won’t be in until Monday. I’m afraid you’ll have to stay here until then.”

“Can’t you get another judge?”

Justus shook his head. “We’re short-handed today. It’s just me and Rowe and I haven’t seen him for hours.”

“Great.”

Justus studied his face. “You look like you could probably use the rest.”

“Yeah. I get worn out just talking to that girl.”

“What girl?”

“Alba Urbina. She was just here.”

Justus gave him a skeptical look. “I don’t think so.”

“I just spoke with her. She was standing right where you are not twenty minutes ago.”

The phone rang in the office. Justus looked down the hall, then back at Thadeus. “Except for a short bathroom break, I’ve been at my desk for the past hour.” The phone rang again. “Sounds like you had a dream. A bad dream.”

Thadeus sat back on the bed. Had it been a dream? A vision? He hadn’t thought so. She seemed real enough. Too real. Maybe he was losing his mind. And now, thanks to his big mouth, Newbury was being blanketed with the story that he was a lunatic who heard voices from God telling him who to kill.

“He made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant.” It was another verse which came to mind. Some days it didn’t pay to have such a good memory.

He wondered what Fred Birch was doing about now. Going about his life as if nothing had happened? Too fearful to venture outside because the number of his days winding down?

Not likely, Thadeus thought. A man like that wouldn’t give a man like him a second thought, until it was too late.

Thadeus gazed toward the far windows. He could hear people talking, cars driving by, life going by and he suddenly wished he were outside. He fought the urge, took some breaths. There was always hope for more visitors, real or imagined, and a good dinner ahead. And it was clean and not too cold. He couldn’t complain. He’d been in worse cells.

Chapter 15

 

“Sleep well?”

Thadeus opened his eyes to Donny Rowe, smiling at him from outside the cell, cheerful to have awakened him. The night had passed uneventfully and Thadeus had slept badly. A blank-faced kid had come in for the night and listened to the radio at loud volume, a conspiracy call-in show, which did not add calm to the atmosphere. And there were dreams of women.

“Mmmm,” he said in answer, rubbing his face.

“I hate to interrupt any more visions from the cosmos but I thought you might like some breakfast. Eggs, toast and coffee. Either that or nothing.”

Thadeus said: “That,” and Donny Rowe went whistling off, leaving Thadeus glad that at least someone was in a good mood.

The air held the cool crispness of early morning and by craning his neck he could see a clock in the office. Just about 6:30. Time to wake up, apparently, in Podunk. But breakfast was coming.

Unfortunately it never came.

Officer Justus McDermett walked in the door a few minutes later, mumbling greetings to Rowe who smiled back from his desk.

“Morning. Anything unusual going on?”

“Hmm?” The man had not yet arrived mentally and was dropping things in different piles on his desk. He looked at Rowe. “Unusual?”

“You know,” he said, indicating Thadeus. “Fred Birch still kickin’?”

“Mmm,” was the grumbled reply as McDermett went back to his piles.

“Bad news for the faithful,” Rowe said, chuckling at his remark. “I’m getting ready to order up some breakfast. Want anything?”

“From where?”

“Harry’s.”

Justus winced, absently put a hand to his stomach, measuring. “Sure. Two eggs, over easy…and tell ‘em easy on the grease.” And he mumbled to himself: “If that’s possible.”

“Quinn?”

The young man who had worked through the night had come into the room carrying a jacket and a newspaper. “No thanks. I’m outta here.”

Rowe put his hand on the phone and it suddenly rang. He took it away quickly, surprised, put it back, hesitating. He looked confused, unsure and looked slowly at McDermett as it rang a second time.

Justus turned around and raised his eyebrows as it rang a third. “Well?”

Rowe picked it up. “Newbury Police. Yeah, what’s up, Kenny? What?” He bolted upright. “You’re kidding. Yeah, yeah…what? Sorry, I just…okay, right. Yeah, that is terrible, especially for his wife. Right, widow. Okay, we’ll be right over. Thanks.”

He put down the phone and stared into space.

“Well?”

“Kenny Weiler, you know, the doctor.”

“I know who Kenny Weiler is,” Justus said. “What happened?”

Rowe looked as if he’d forgotten how to speak. With effort he said: “Somebody died.”

Thadeus got up and walked as close as he could.

The man groaned. “Don’t tell me. Fred Birch?”

“No, no. Bob Tyner. Fred’s partner.”

“Oh, my God! How?”

“Heart attack, apparently. Died in his sleep.”

“Apparently?”

“Doc’s not sure.”

Justus McDermett nodded, both men silent for a moment, maybe out of respect, maybe shock, maybe both.

“We should go make sure,” Justus said, finally and began stuffing things into his pockets. “Quinn.”

The officer had been standing by, watching, then dropped his belongings on a desk. “I guess I’m staying.”

Rowe got up as he finished, both headed for the door and both, once there, took a quick glance back at the man in the cell.

If there ever was a time for questions this was it but Thadeus didn’t want to think about them. Not yet. He just wanted to pretend he was somewhere else, someone else. Pretend he could actually go to a town he had never been and meet people and blend in and make friends and maybe fall in love. A place where, miraculously, no one would die upon his arrival or very soon after. But he hadn’t found that place. Maybe the next.

But for now, he thought, something had changed. Someone had died, it was true, but it was all wrong.

He grinned morbidly to himself. Someone dies and I think it’s wrong. Wrong for me? Or wrong for them and their family and everyone they knew and loved?

Even now, he marveled, all I can think about is myself.

So he thought of others. He thought of Jesse, the young boy who the day before at least had some security amidst the angst. He had the typical teenage anger at the world for whatever injustices were perceived. Bitterness towards school, teachers, parents; for rules, imagined slights, the unfairness of life. Now, in the speed of a heartbeat, he had lost his father and there would be a reason for the anger. A swooping of an angel and a taking of a life, with no reason given, no mercy, no answer but faith in the will of God.

Or, rejecting the spiritual, evolutionary annihilation. Either way, the result was the same. A life was gone and a void was left, one that might well be filled by a shaking of a fist at the face of a God, believed in or not, as a way of releasing anger. Or perhaps venting emotion by acting it out in some other, more destructive way. Or, he thought, third option, maybe that void would be the place to bury that anger forever.

He thought of Alba and wondered what she was thinking at that moment. Was she thinking of him? Was she consoling Jesse? Was she wondering about the brevity of life? Did she see spiritual connections in the events playing out before her? Would they lead to stronger feelings she might have for him? Was she even awake?

He thought of Justus McDermett and Donny Rowe and wondered what they might be discussing in the car. Actually, he didn’t give much thought to Rowe; he knew Rowe’s part in all this. But he did care about Justus. He was a simple man, who would live and die in Newburg and not yearn for more. There was no condemnation in the contentment found in simplicity, even the simplicity of dealings of death and crime. There was the peace of family and friends that Thadeus couldn’t help but envy. But underneath that simplicity was a complex man. Maybe this morning he wasn’t seeing beyond the death and loss of a good friend but it wouldn’t be long before he did and then turn his attentions to bigger issues.

He thought of Ruth Schneider and hoped that, on hearing the news of his arrest, she hadn’t given his room away, boxing up his belongings for the next traveler.

He thought of Amy Emerson for the first time in what seemed like weeks. He wondered if the news had traveled down her side of the street and how she would react. In fear? No. Concern, some wariness, a slight closing of the spirit. He could almost feel it taking place, if not now then in the near future and he could take blame for that as well. Being in jail did not have isolated repercussions. He had broken faith with more than just one and it vibrated like ripples from a stone thrown in water, emanating outward and touching those closest the hardest, those furthest the least, but touching all nonetheless.

But all these wonderings were more than simple distraction. They served to put off more important issues, but now having now exhausted his creativity in procrastination, he gave those thoughts full reign.

What was going on?

It had unmistakably been Fred Birch. He knew that he knew that he knew he was right. But a different man had died. So had he been wrong and misread the signs? Had he mistaken one man for the other due to the closeness of their relationship? Had he not heard correctly? Was God not speaking to him anymore? Did the devil make him do it?

As if I needed help, he thought sourly.

He knew better than to limit God. If a series of steps or actions brought about a certain conclusion, it could never be assumed that following the same pattern would bring the same results. There was a place for experience but within that experience you had to be flexible enough to learn on the fly. Still, everything he had done had been done before but with all the experience he had in the past, this was new. Maybe, just maybe, he thought, I got it wrong.

He began to wonder if he were even in the right town.

At least in here, he thought, looking at the bars and grateful for them, I can’t do any more harm.

They came back a little before noon. McDermett walked in first and slowly, dropping his belongs onto a chair beside his desk in a heap before sitting down at his desk and staring at it’s empty top. Quinn, who had been sitting reading a magazine, said, “Can I–?” and never finished as Justus waved him away without looking and the man disappeared.

Rowe came in with a slight whistle under his breath. He looked around the room, sat on the side of his desk, flipped through some papers, dropped them as quickly, looked over at McDermett.

“How ‘bout some breakfast? We never did eat.”

McDermett sat unmoving for a moment: “I don’t know.”

“Eggs, toast, some good coffee for a change. Maybe pancakes.”

Justus sighed. “Okay.”

“Great,” Rowe said, sliding off the desk and making his way to the door.

“Don’t forget.”

Rowe turned.

Justus jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“Huh? Oh, right.” Rowe frowned. “Be back in an hour.”

The door closed. Justus snorted. “An hour. How long does it take to cross the street?”

He sat for a long time without moving, then he sighed and spun toward the computer on his desk. The screen came on and he hit a few keys until more things appeared in front of him. He inputted some thing, moving down line by line, then turned away in disgust. He stood and walked out. Thadeus could hear the sound of the bathroom door open and shut. Some coughing. A pause. More coughing. The toilet flushed and water ran. Presently, Justus came out wiping his mouth. He stopped, took a break, then walked back to Thadeus.

“How’re you doing in there?”

“Okay,” Thadeus said. “How are you doing out there?”

“Been better.”

Thadeus nodded.

“Bob Tyner died last night.”

“I’m sorry to hear it. He seemed like a nice man.”

Justus nodded. “He was. I knew him since second grade.”

“You must have been close.”

Justus shrugged. “It’s been a while. You lose touch.” He thought about what he said and gave a short laugh. “Funny, even in a town this size, it’s so easy to lose touch.”

“We all have our lives.”

“I guess. Yeah, I guess that’s it. You forget what’s important. Friends, family.”

“How is his family taking it?”

“Good as can be expected,” Justus said, exhaling. “Wendy—his wife—is very upset.”

“What about Jesse?”

"Him? Quiet. He was off--" he made a pushing motion with his hand-- "to the side the whole time we were there."

“Alone?”

“What? Yes, alone,” Justus said, narrowing his eyes.

“So Bob Tyner just died in his sleep.”

“Heart attack, apparently.”

“How old was he?”

Justus exhaled again, a puff of air. “My age. Fifty-six. That doesn’t seem old. It didn’t yesterday.”

“Did he have a heart condition?”

“That’s the hell of it, he didn’t. Overweight, though. Fifty-six,” he said again. “Maybe that’s a heart condition.”

“You said he was a good friend once,” Thadeus said to get off the morbid subject.

“Yes.”

“What happened?”

Justus looked thoughtful, sifting through the years. “He got busy. I guess after he became partner at the mill. Yeah, around that time. Must be at least twenty years now, maybe more. I remember when it happened because…” he smiled, remembering, reliving, “…he was on cloud nine. More money, new house. That’s when he bought those ten acres from Fred Birch—it adjoined his own place—and built his house.”

“Big place?”

Justus nodded. “He built a barn and had chickens and some horses. Wendy liked to ride…still does, I guess. She’s in good shape from something.”

Thadeus caught something in the last sentence but he wasn’t sure if it was bitterness or desire. “So right after he became partner—” he said, waiting.

“He withdrew more after that,” Justus said, picking it up. “Seemed more distant, almost like he avoided people. But that’s just the way things seem sometimes, with a new job and baby on the way. You get involved, start to look inward. New house, new bills. And working with Fred probably didn’t help.”

“Why?”

“You know Fred,” Justus said, automatically. “Well, maybe you didn’t. He didn’t get to be where he is by being overly nice. He’s a businessman.”

“But Bob was his partner.”

“Well, yeah, I see your point. But it seemed to me he was more a silent partner. I think that caused a few problems in his marriage.”

“Why?”

“Wendy wanted him to strike out on his own, at least in the beginning. She wanted to move away. Not far away but out of reach. I think they might have, too, but right about that time Fred offered to sell them that land they’re on. Too good to pass up. So they stayed. Can’t say I’m not glad. I don’t know if they would have said the same.”

“We’re always wiser in hindsight.”

Justus looked over to the cell. “Are you?”

Rowe came in the door. “Ooo-eee! Hope you’re hungry.” He was holding three Styrofoam containers in one hand, three Styrofoam cups in the other and under his chin.

“That was fast,” Justus said.

Rowe shook his head in amazement. “They had them all ready, isn’t that something? Something about an order no one picked up.” The door shut behind him as he set them slowly on his desk. “Three orders of eggs, toast and pancakes, with syrup and everythin’,” he said with an accent. He set his aside, opened it and shoveled in a forkful. “Mmm-mmm,” he said, eyes closed, then to Justus: “You should try some, when you’re finished consorting with the enemy.”

Justus shook his head. “He has a way about him, don’t he?”

It seemed as if the whole world had slowed to a tired, aching crawl. There was a pervasive dullness of thought and action in the air, blowing through the office and into Thadeus’ cell. The day warmed, bringing lazy comfort to cover the sharp crispness of the cool morning. It was, to Thadeus, a sad reminder of the seasonal change ahead, a reminder that time was already moving on. The seasons had short memories and while spring was bringing warmth and newness of life, summer would soon bake itself out to make way for autumn and the beginning of death, opening the door for cold winter once again. It was God’s way of putting life and time into perspective. Memorials and memories would struggle for lasting implantation but the sun would rise and set, happily oblivious to the cares of man. A closing of the eyes and a nodding of the head and all would be gone and forgotten.

Breakfast had been over for an hour.

Thadeus supposed he should be doing more out of respect for Bob Tyner than thinking of food but his stomach was relentless. What had breakfast been, anyway? Some type of tasteless pancake and cottage-cheesy eggs with watery toast and coffee that seemed more cough syrup than caffeination. A sleepy elixir disguised as Columbian roast. No wonder a nap seemed a more fitting tribute to the dear departed. All the food had been drugged to numb the mind and tongue. Perhaps for lunch he could order something filling, like meat.

He stared at the ceiling and thought of eternity.

Man born of woman is of few days, and those full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and then withers. He is like a fleeing shadow and continues not.

Cheery inspiration from Job, no stranger to hardship. I should write a book, Thadeus thought, yawning. Happy Thoughts For a Happy Life, or something like that. A compilation of all the verses in the Bible that talk about the brevity of life and length of eternity. You needed that balance, he knew. He smiled, half-sitting. A cheery book for prison inmates. I could call it: Happily Sentenced to Eternity.

He frowned. Needed work.

Donny Rowe came into the office, stopped to turn on a radio and shoot a look of disgust at Thadeus, then walked out. The phone rang and was answered, mumbled voices in the background. Rowe came back and mumbled more words in conversation as Thadeus nodded off.

He awoke hungry. There were sounds of movement in the room. Papers being shuffled. The hum of computers. Phones rang.

Thadeus sat, squinting around the room for time. 2:42. He groaned. Not even close to dinner. He didn’t know why he was so hungry. He hadn’t done anything physically exerting. But there was something about waiting and the boredom involved which triggered the stomach. The body had to have some activity, after all, and if not sleeping, then eating. But there was more to it than that.

It had to do with the anxiety and adrenaline of the moment. The moment of—the whole experience of—Newbury and Birch and now Tyner. The dynamic of death. The dynamic of revelation. It was almost as if seeing another person’s death took something out of him. This was far from the first time it had happened but maybe the first time he’d ever put the thoughts to logical form. He hadn’t worked it out to completion but the theory was certainly historically accurate.

In times past, only he had been privy to the events which were to follow but now that he had taken an active role in the revelation of those events, it as if part of his own life was removed in the removal of another’s.

Or maybe he was just hungry.

He was considering both options when someone came into the office and all activity stopped. Even the radio station took a break. Thadeus looked up to see Fred Birch standing like a dining room patron waiting to be seated.

“Mr. Birch,” Rowe said, standing and stumbling over to the man. “What can…?”

“I want to talk to him.” Birch didn’t say who or even look in Thadeus’ direction. But he said enough.

“I…suppose that would be…though McDermitt said…”

“I don’t think I need to explain myself, Donny.”

“No, sir.”

“And I want to speak to him alone.”

Rowe nodded, nodded to the other man in the room and they both quickly vanished without a look back.

Birch walked to Thadeus’ cell slowly, his shoes clicking hard on the floor and he stood, facing sideways, hands in pockets and head tilted slightly upward. He was purposely ignoring Thadeus, pretending he hadn’t come to see him but to simply examine the structure of the walls or texture of the ceiling tiles. But Thadeus knew better. It was a power play, an intimidation play, a game in which Thadeus and Birch were the two contestants and the advantage went to the one who moved last. It was a psychological game and might have had some power if Thadeus cared. But he didn’t know the man well enough to be intimidated and as for power, he was already in jail. Maybe Birch had more power in terms of money and influence but Thadeus had more time. Since power carried its own natural impatience, Thadeus simply sat. Time, the great equalizer, would always win in the end for it had no end.

He supposed it was also a matter of pride. He had tried to be neutral about the man but truth was he didn’t like Birch. No sense kidding himself about it. And the feeling was not proactive, being based on the circumstances he found himself in now. He hadn’t liked Birch from the beginning. Thadeus’ present location, he knew, had little to do with the man, though he had been the catalyst. It was punishment for opening his big mouth and Birch’s response was to see that if it couldn’t be closed, the message would be removed from other ears.

While waiting for Birch’s resolve to peak, he studied him as if it were the first time. His nose seemed tremendous at profile, his lips terse, thin, his jaw set squarely but not enough to hide the jowl of his chin hanging loose. His cheeks were moving with the syncopation of a gum-chewer. His red plaid shirt and blue jeans looked stiff and boxy as if brand new and seemed to be wearing him as opposed to the reverse. Here was a man, Thadeus thought, who had probably spent a great many years on a job wearing plain white t-shirts and dirty blue jeans. Age, money, civic responsibility all called for a different facade, a cleaner image. Thadeus surveyed his own clothes, taken from the box left in his room by a drifter and wondered what image he presented.

Birch’s skin had the taint of too much sun for too many years, his eyes the unfocused dead glaze of a man who’d gotten his way too many times, his posture that of someone who really didn’t care how any of it played out anymore. Here was a man who had lived too angrily for too long and not one person in the world would ever have any real effect on him for the rest of his life.

Thadeus wondered what he had been like as a child. He decided he wouldn’t have liked him then, either.

Birch took a breath and spoke without turning. “So I finally get to meet the great man.”

“We’ve already met, a few times.”

“What?” Birch was startled momentarily. Not enough to change his viewpoint.

“At Harry’s, at St. Martin’s and before, at the theater….”

“When you hit me.”

“I didn’t hit you.”

Birch finally turned, slowly, until he faced the cell. “You did.”

“You know that’s a lie.”

Birch laughed. “A lie? I remember it all very clearly. And when it goes before a judge, my memory will serve me much better than your truth will serve you. People have been jealous of me my whole life,” Birch went on. “They’ve hated me because of my success, because of my money, because I never back down from anything or anyone.” He studied Thadeus briefly. “Why do you hate me?”

Thadeus raised his eyebrows involuntarily. Of all the things he expected the man to say, that wasn’t it. “I don’t hate you. I don’t particularly like you but I don’t—”

“Did I do something to your family? Did I buy land from them and you think it wasn’t enough money? Did I fire someone who worked for me that was a good friend or close relative? Did I sleep with your wife? Did I outbid a job from your company? I’ve heard it all. Many people have hated me for many reasons. Why do you hate me?”

“I don’t even know you.”

Birch snorted. “You don’t have to know someone to hate them. I’ve hated people I never met, people I never saw. I’ve hated people who died long before I was born. I’ve hated people who thought they were good friends. People have hated me for less. For things I said, for things I didn’t say. People have hated me for a few words I might have said in passing, or as a joke. I could write a book about how to make people hate you forever with one sentence. I could call it: One Sentence for Eternity. How do you like that title?”

“Not much,” Thadeus mumbled, glancing around the cell and hoping it contained a hidden microphone.

Birch smiled at him, hands on his hips. “I bet you’re a little surprised to see me today. A little disappointed, maybe? From what I hear, I’m the one who was supposed to have died. What happened? Get your signals crossed? God get confused, did He, or did you? Maybe it was Bob Tyner who was supposed to die all the time and you just heard wrong. Or maybe you didn’t hear anything at all.”

“Was he a good friend?”

“What? Who, Bob? Yeah. Yeah, we were good friends. He was my partner, after all. What do you care?”

“He died.”

“Too bad for you.”

“It doesn’t matter at all to me. It should to you.”

“Well, sure. Of course. I’ve known him since high school. He was a great guy. He’ll be missed.” He said it all quickly.

Thadeus made a noise in agreement.

“You must be proud of yourself, getting all these gullible people worked up, stirring up trouble.”

“It wasn’t my intention.”

“Of course it was. That was your whole purpose. Start talking crazy about God and the weak people of the world come out of the woodwork. Doesn’t take much to stir up a small town. Not much excitement here anyway, and when God’s messenger shows up, boy, howdy! Talk spreads like wildfire. Now you’ve got a few people convinced you’re some kind of religious nut. ‘Course, most people think you’re just a nut, period.”

“Is that what you think?”

Birch looked him over. “No.”

“What do you think I am?”

“An enemy. Somebody sent you here but I guarantee it wasn’t God. Somebody sent you here to cause trouble. Maybe even to kill me. Wouldn’t that be something? A religious fanatic rolls into town, tells people who’s next on God’s To Do List, and then makes sure his words come true.”

“Interesting theory. Too many holes.”

Birch laughed. “Friend, I’ve been in too many courtrooms to know that it’s not what you say but who believes it that counts. For all I know, Bob Tyner sent you here himself to kill me. Things didn’t work out as planned. Happens. And here you sit and here I stand. And God is in His Heavens.”

“I thought you two were you friends?”

“Who?”

“You and Bob Tyner.”

“Oh, yeah. Of course. I’ve known him for years. Knew him,” he corrected. “He’s always looked up to me like a little brother. He was my partner for over twenty years.”

“Yet you think he might have wanted you dead.”

“What? Oh, that…that was just talk. There are always jealousies but we were good friends.”

“It must have been a shock.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Sure.”

“Was he in bad health?”

“Who over fifty is in good health? He wasn’t sick; the usual aches and pains. I guess it was just his time to go. Isn’t that what you should be telling me?”

“If you want me to.”

“The great comforting words of religion. When you don’t have an explanation, those words will get you an out. Well, it may have been his time but it’s not mine.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m here.” He laughed hoarsely. “Sorry to disappoint you but I’m still here. The Birches are a long-lived family.”

Or it just seems that way to others, Thadeus thought.

“If God himself came down to tell me different, I’d have a few words for him. I’ve got too much to do to leave now.”

“I’m sure your partner thought the same thing.”

Birch snorted. “Bob was never much of a worker. Work was a necessary evil to him. He had wanted to retire for the past ten years and would have if Wendy would have let him. Funny thing about women is they get used to that money coming in every week.”

“Sounds like you didn’t think much of him.”

“Sure I did. But he’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. His parents both died young; his mother in her sixties, his dad was late fifties. That alone sealed his fate. We should have all seen it coming.”

“So you weren’t surprised.”

“It was a great shock,” Birch said without emotion. “But in retrospect, no. We should have seen the signs. But we didn’t and he’s gone. May he rest in peace.”

“Where do you think he is now?”

“Are you trying to be funny?”

“No. Where do you think he is right now?”

Birch grinned. “I know where he is. Evans Mortuary. They’re fixing him up good for the service tomorrow afternoon. I’m saying the eulogy.”

“What are you going to say?”

“What difference does it make? You didn’t know him.”

“Maybe I was wrong,” Thadeus said. “Maybe he was the one. I’d like to know something about him.”

Birch shrugged, but there was now a calm to his tone. “Guess it wouldn’t do any harm. I’m going to tell them what I knew about Bob. He was a good friend for a lot of years. He was a good father. A good husband.” He stopped. “A man of faith, elder in the church he attended his whole life. Good worker. A good man.”

“Anything else.”

Birch stood looking at nothing, frowning. “No. I guess that’s it. Not much else to say. The usual stuff. Loved his community, his country. Liked to fish, when he was younger. He always talked about going to Hawaii but it’s hard to get away from work for more than a week. He had a nice house. I sold him some of my land way back and he built a beautiful house for his wife there. Our properties butt up against each other. But I rarely saw him outside of work.”

“Was he very happy?”

“Happy? I don’t know. No reason he shouldn’t have been.”

Thadeus said nothing as Birch stood in silence. Outside the window trees bent with the breeze and clouds could be seen in the distance.

“That’s not much, is it?” Birch said after a moment. “A man’s whole life come down to a few sentences said by somebody who doesn’t even know him. I used to be his best friend. We’d do things occasionally, his family and mine, but that was years ago. It’s funny how you can see someone every day and still not know much about them.”

“Where do you think he is now?”

“Why do you keep asking that? Because you’re safe in there?”

“Why do you keep not answering?”

“Heaven. Is that the right answer.”

“Is it?”

“Who knows! Bob was a good guy, a good father, a good man.”

“Good enough?”

“If he wasn’t, nobody is.”

“Maybe nobody is.”

“You tell me, you’re the one with all the answers. Who’s good enough?”

“Nobody.”

“Bullshit. Bob did a lot of good things for this town. We both did. We gave money to the Lion’s Club, we gave out thousands of dollars for college scholarships and camp scholarships and baseball scholarships. Hell, I practically built the high school stadium single-handedly. If it wasn’t for me there wouldn’t be a gymnasium. And let me tell you something, after it was over they wanted to name it after me and I said, No, let it be called the Newbury Gymnasium. But they insisted so I said, all right, and that’s why it’s Birch Hall. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in meetings, trying to get the idiots in this town to build the rec center or the houses out by the lake, try to make this town into something instead of an occasional rest stop off the highway. Trying to keep vagrants off the streets and keep this town clean. How much money I’ve put toward the 4th of July parade and floats and fireworks and the circus on Labor Day and the Memorial Day Parade and the Halloween Costume Contest at the school. And on and on. That barely scratches the surface of all the things I’ve done for this town. Are you trying to tell me that a lifetime of work and sacrifice isn’t enough?”

Thadeus said nothing.

“Well?”

“No, it’s not enough.”

“No man can do everything and I’m only one man. What does God expect, anyway, Mr. Religion? What more can I do? I’ve done it all. Don’t all those things count for anything? They have to.”

Thadeus was silent.

Birch looked at him, his eyes set but unsure. But it was momentary and they clamped shut again. “I must be crazy expecting answers from you. Life’s just one big crap shoot, anyway. What difference does it make what you do, as long as it turns out good in the end? After that you’re dead and who cares? Somebody you never liked will read a eulogy of lies and they’ll stick you in a hole in the ground while everyone else goes back to your house for dessert. As for the rest of it, whatever happens, happens. Except for you,” he said to Thadeus. “For you, whatever I say will happen, will happen. If I want you to get out of here tomorrow or if I want you to stay and rot in here for a few weeks, it’s all up to me. And right now you’re staying. But I’ve wasted enough time with you. I’ve got a eulogy to write.”

He turned and walked out of the room with a purposed steady gait.

The rest of the afternoon was quiet and no one did much, Thadeus included. They gave him some magazines to read but none held much depth or had any good jokes. He needed one or the other. Justus and Rowe occupied themselves without much interaction, an occasional word or two, a getting up and walking around. Mostly it was the peaceful sounds of the town outside and the hum of computers.

Only once did the phone ring and it brought about a short conference between the two men. Rowe had answered and given it over to Justus, who pushed away from the computer to talk. A short conversation.

“Yes? Hello, how are…yes, terrible, we know. Yes. Really? Are you sure? If you say so. No, right, not until Monday…yes, I understand. Thanks.”

And then a short conference between Justus and Rowe which brought a look of disgust on the younger man’s face, then a shrug of a shoulder. Then nothing more for another hour when Rowe happened to glance out the window and then walk to the door and open it.

“Storm coming.”

“You know what they say about New England weather,” Justus said, still hitting keys. Rowe tried to nod him shut but was unseen and Justus repeated the oft-heard axiom anyway.

Toward seven, Quinn, the night shift, came in. He dropped a soggy backpack on the floor and began brushing his wet blonde hair with his fingers. “Whew! Gonna be a wet one.”

Rowe said: “How’s life in the real world?”

“Unreal. Big storm coming…saw some good lightning on the way here. Anything going on?”

Rowe shook his head, jerked it to the side. “Same nut in lock-up.”

“Dinner?”

“Done.”

“Glad I brought a book.”

McDermett began telling Quinn a few other things that he might do to occupy his time. Rowe walked over to Thadeus.

“Well, hot-shot, looks like you were slightly off.”

“What do you mean?”

“You got the partner but not the man. Fred Birch is alive and kicking. How come?”

Thadeus said nothing, simply shaking his head slightly.

Rowe joined him, shaking his own head. “Well, God’s not as young as he used to be, he’s bound to miss a few. Or maybe you’re not hearing him right.”

Thadeus looked blankly back at him.

Rowe laughed. “I hope all this nonsense was worth a weekend in jail.” He turned and walked back as McDermitt said his goodbyes and left. As he gathered a few things, Rowe looked over at Thadeus. “I can’t wait to hear what you’ll come up with by Monday.”

He laughed and waved his goodbye to Quinn while opening the door to let in a boom of thunder and a handful of rain before walking out into the wet night.

Quinn walked over to the radio and flipped it on. Quick staccato of rap music blared through the room.

Thadeus winced. The perfect end to a perfect day. He laid down, put a pillow over his head and tried to drown out the thunder and lightning and the music and his doubts.

The next day all were gone; the music was off, the storm had blown threw and Fred Birch had been found dead.

Chapter 16

 

It was in the morning that the call came, waking both Thadeus and Quinn, asleep in the cell and at the desk respectively.

The kid had rubbed his face, cursed, looked at the clock, and picked up the phone.

“Newbury Police, this is Quinn, how can I help? What?” He sat up. “Right. Did you call for an ambulance? Yeah, I’ll call him. Yes. Right now.”

He pushed a button to clear the line, then quickly dialed another number. “Hello, this is Quinn. Officer Quinn. I work with your daddy. Is he there? Could you wake him? I know, but it’s important. No, I need to talk to him now…don’t put down the…damn! Oh, sorry, Lieutenant. I hate to bother you but I just got a call from Jesse Tyner. Right. You’re not going to believe this…he found a body on their property. A dead body. You’re not going to believe who it is…Fred Birch. I’m not kidding. Yeah, dead, he’s sure. It’s on its way. Right. No, I didn’t think to ask where…no, no idea. No. No. No. No. I didn’t think…I’m sure they’ll show you…all right. I’ll see you—”

He took the phone away from his ear, frowned at it and dropped the receiver. “Grumpy bastard.”

Thadeus began to shake as one thought ran through his mind, over and over, with a pounding intensity he couldn’t silence.

Oh ye of little faith.

 

Lieutenant McDermett and Officer Rowe came into the office well after noon to relieve Quinn, who had been muttering for the better part of an hour. Again, there were piles to put on desks and coats to shake and hang. Rowe and Quinn had exchanged a few pleasantries but Justus had only said one thing to the man.

“I suppose he was here all night.”

Quinn had nodded and Justus had given Thadeus a look which Thadeus couldn’t quite discern. Puzzlement, with a touch of frustration. He sighed and sat down.

“Make sure to keep them out,” he said to Rowe, gesturing in the direction of the door. Rowe nodded and they both made a point of not looking at Thadeus.

So he sat, again, realizing with each minute how much he needed a shower.

The phone rang a half hour later and Justus spoke into it.

“Yeah, Todd, I know. No, no comment. No. No. No comment. Not until we know for sure. Right. It won’t do you any good. Okay, there’s people here now. Not until he’s released. Soon. I’m sure you’ll know—” he said, looking at Rowe whose back was turned, “—before I do.”

He hung up and sighed and got up and walked over to Thadeus.

“I suppose you heard. About Fred…” He stopped as if not wanting to say the words.

“I heard.”

“We need to talk.” He unlocked the door and came into the cell and sat in a chair in the corner. Thadeus sat back on the bunk. McDermett bent over with his hands touching as if in prayer. After a long moment he looked up. “What is this all about?”

Thadeus shook his slightly, his expression confused.

“You know what I mean. You had a purpose for coming here. What was it?”

“To find a murderer.”

“Whose?”

“I wasn’t sure until a few days ago. Now I know.”

Now Justus waited but the expectancy came with a tired sigh. “Go on.”

“You might say it’s my job. Or my calling.”

“You some kind of priest?”

“No,” Thadeus said. “You don’t have to be clergy to have a calling. Everyone has one. Whether it’s to the ministry or to become a policeman or doctor. Something we feel we should do with our lives. I do this.”

“What, exactly?”

“I’m led to a certain town. I go. Somebody dies…eventually.”

“You make sure of that?”

“Did I this time?”

Justus scowled. “Go on. Somebody dies…”

“…and I find out why.”

“You a doctor?”

Thadeus shook his head.

“A cop? A private investigator? A coroner? A lunatic?”

“I don’t have any credentials,” he said. “But lunatic sounds good.”

“This isn’t funny, Mr. Cochran,” Justus said. “A man is dead. A man you told to his face would die soon. Then a few days later he turns up dead. You expect me to believe this story of yours?”

“It doesn’t really matter if you do or not,” Thadeus said. “I’m here and he’s dead. Now I have to find out why.”

Justus narrowed his gaze. “We know why,” he said. “Heart attack. Plain and simple.”

“No sign of foul play?”

“None. Kind of puts a different light on your being here.”

Thadeus said nothing, thinking of the facts. Fred Birch wasn’t murdered. No sign of foul play. Yet the cell was evidence enough that he had needed to come to Newbury. Then he had another thought which took away his assumptions: What if it wasn’t Birch? What if it was Bob Tyner? Or was there another to come?

“I have a theory,” Justus said. “It’s not as spiritual as yours but it makes sense. A man comes into town. A man of mystery, claiming to hear from God and claiming God tells him who will die next. But that story is just a cover. In reality he’s here for a specific reason…to kill Fred Birch. He tells a few people along the way to solidify his story. He makes a point of bumping into Birch and causing a disturbance. Now everyone knows his mission…at least the one he wants them to think is his mission. What he really wants is revenge.”

“Revenge?”

“What else? Fred had a way of making enemies simply by being Fred. I’m sure some careful checking will show that this wasn’t the first time you ran up against him. Did you work for him at one time and he fired you? Did he insult you a some party in the past. Was he the one who picked on you thirty years ago in the schoolyard when you were kids?”

Thadeus almost smiled. Birch himself had said much the same only hours before. “I never met him until a few days ago.”

“Now the stage is set,” Justus went on. “All you have to do is wait for an opportune time. Unfortunately for you, he ruined your plans by having a heart attack before you had a chance to kill him. Fortunately for me, you’re still in jail. Any reason I shouldn’t keep you there.”

Thadeus looked at the man with new admiration. “Sometimes the dead have the best testimony. What did Birch say about me?”

Justus frowned. “Said he never saw you before in his life. That doesn’t mean you never saw him.”

“But you don’t believe that.”

“Makes more sense than your story.”

Thadeus took a cleansing breath. “One phone call.”

“You’re still entitled.”

“You make it.”

“Me? Who would I call? I don’t know any lawyers.”

“Eddie Briggs.”

“Captain Briggs up in Willoughby? You know him?”

He nodded.

“How?”

“Same way you know me.”

“What does that mean?”

“Call.”

Justus called. It appeared from the few words Thadeus heard that the two men held no fondness for each other but once that was out of the way Justus did a lot of nodding and looking back at Thadeus. He didn’t look happy at any time during the call, even upon ending it. He walked back to the cell.

“Seems you and he had a run-in about six months back. A Mrs. Ruth Padillio was found dead in her car after her son had slid off a snowy road and then gone for help. When they returned the found she had froze to death. Everyone assumed it was a tragic accident. You appear and suddenly her son is behind bars for murder. Something about the will.”

Thadeus nodded. “He needed money. She was old and had Alzheimer’s but apparently wasn’t dying fast enough for him or his new wife. He took her for a drive and drove off the road and behind some bushes. Then he left her there to get help. Somehow he became disoriented for six hours and in that time she froze to death. The police called it an accident, plain and simple. And her being eighty-four…no one figured on murder.”

“What told you differently?”

“She left me a clue?”

“The woman?”

“Yes.”

“What was it?” Justus asked.

“A picture she was carrying. A picture of her son on his wedding day.”

“That’s not so unusual.”

“If you saw the picture you might have thought differently. It was of her, her son and his new wife right after his wedding but their expression were interesting, if only for the contrast. The new bride was smiling, the son was almost grimacing and the old woman looked nervous and worried.”

“There’s a lot to worry about on a wedding day.”

“True. But there are also a lot of photos taken during a wedding. Why would someone choose to carry one that made her appear frightened?”

“I don’t know. But that’s hardly evidence of anything.”

“No. But it seemed to me she was trying to convey a message. After some checking we found her son had two cell phones. One he conveniently dropped in the snow after the crash but the second he used to call his wife not long after. She picked him up a few miles down the road and witnesses placed them later at a restaurant half-way between there and New York. They were arrested and tried for conspiracy to commit murder.”

“All because of a picture.”

“That’s where it started.”

Justus had a look of respect. “That’s good police work.”

“I had nothing to do with it,” Thadeus said, looking at him evenly, “Detective Briggs figured it all out. He put the couple behind bars. I was never involved.”

Justus looked back at Thadeus and nodded. “That’s how it is.”

“That’s how it’s got to be. My name can’t be mentioned.”

“It’s being mentioned today around Newbury.”

Thadeus winced. “That was my fault.” And I’ll pay for it later, he thought.

“All right, Mr. Cochran,” Justus said. “You’re free to go.”

“What?”

He motioned to the open door. “You’re free to go. Funny thing is, Fred Birch called me late yesterday. He told me he’d been thinking it over and his run-in with you was really no big deal. But if I kept you here until Monday—to teach you a lesson, was how he put it—then he would drop all charges. In a way, Fred became your unwitting alibi. Good thing for you, wasn’t it.”

“It was,” Thadeus said, still sitting. “Am I free to help with the investigation?”

“You’re free to do whatever you want,” McDermitt said, “as long as you don’t interfere with police business. As far as the investigation, there probably won’t be much. Unofficially, the medical examiner said that Birch died of a heart attack.”

“What about an autopsy?”

“Probably won’t have one, unless Catherine insists. Fred had a history of heart trouble; he even had a pacemaker. So for him to have a heart attack while he was out walking…”

“Is that how it happened?”

“Apparently. He died walking around his property.”

“In the rain?”

“Well, that was a bit peculiar,” McDermitt said, looking uncomfortable. “But nothing there points to murder. I guess you’re out of luck.”

“Can I see where he died?”

“The exact spot is private property. You’d have to ask Wendy Tyner.”

“Wendy Tyner? Why?”

Justus winced a bit. “He died on the Tyner property. Do me a favor and wait a few days before you speak to her.”

Thadeus nodded, then stood and stretched. “I hope I still have a place to stay.”

“You mean your room? I spoke to Mrs. Schneider this morning. It’s still there.”

“Thank you.”

“I have to warn you,” Justus said as Thadeus headed for the door. “There’s a crowd of people outside.”

Thadeus grimaced.

“And a reporter.”

“I understand.”

“I hope I’m not making a mistake,” Justus said. “Eddie Briggs said something before hanging up that didn’t encourage me. He said, ‘I’m glad you’ve got him now.’ What do you think he meant?”

Thadeus hesitated. “He didn’t appreciate my help. Until I left town. I hope it will be different here.”

“If you do what I say, it will,” the man said. “You really think Birch was murdered?”

“Of course.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“I’m here,” he said simply and walked out of the station.

 

“Are you crazy?” Rowe said after Thadeus went out.

“Careful, Donny.”

“Just letting him walk out of here?”

“How could we hold him? Birch dropped the charges. Told me himself.”

“Didn’t he say he wanted him here until Monday?”

“Doesn’t make much difference what Fred Birch said now, does it?”

“You can’t believe that lunatic”

“I don’t believe anybody,” Justus said. “We’ll still keep an eye on him. But I also know Eddie Briggs and he wouldn’t do or say anything to help me if his life depended on it. I know Briggs was telling the truth. This guy,” he said, flicking his head, “has a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time. Whether I believe him or not, I want him in sight as much as possible until he leaves. And since he’s at Ruth Schneider’s, I know someone who could keep an eye on him for us.”

He sat down at his desk and went back to his papers and computer.

Rowe looked long and hard at the man’s back before walking to his desk.

Chapter 17

 

They were waiting.

They watched as he shut the door behind him. There must have been two dozen or more. He took a few steps. An older couple standing on the walkway took one step backwards as if they’d practiced. He stopped as others on the sidewalk stopped and people leaned to one another to whisper. He took two more steps. There was a lady with black hair and dark eyes, looking pale and nervous and next to her was a little girl of four or so holding her hand. The girl had the sniffles, it seemed, and was wearing a matching dress and jacket and hat as if she’d come from church, or worse, thinking this was substitute. The lady looked at him as he came near and stepped in front of him.

“Sir…my little girl’s sick…can you just touch her for me?”

She thrust the girl in front of him and she shrunk back against her mother.

“Really, I can’t—”

“Please…”

She was right in front of him now. He couldn’t simply walk around and walk away. He put his hand on her head…

…and suddenly he felt nauseous . He swayed, then stumbled around them and walked blindly down the sidewalk. He could feel his stomach churning, the acids boiling, moving their way slowly upwards. The greasy eggs, the watered coffee, the sound of burnt toast between his teeth. He squinted through the crowd, praying with each unseeing step.

“Mr. Cochran, Todd Torkelson, Newbury News. Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“It’s the guy who killed Fred Birch!” A young voice which sounded familiar.

“No, no….he knows. He sees the future.”

“Hey buddy, what stocks should I invest in?”

“Who will be the next to die?”

“Is it true you predicted Fred Birch’s death,” the journalist went on as Thadeus made his way to the sidewalk. He scanned the street hopefully. “How long had you known him? How did you know he was going to die? Does God really speak to you? Is it an audible voice? Where do you go to hear him?”

“Who will be the next to die?”

“How will the Sox do this year?” a boy yelled.

“Depends on the pitching,” Thadeus mumbled and a few people laughed.

“To hell with that, who’s going to win the Super Bowl?” another kid added and more people laughed.

“Lotto numbers,” came a voice in the back.

“Who will die next, Mr. Cochran?”

Thadeus turned to find the voice and saw only faces, some laughing, some wary, all following.

“She’s still sick,” the mother said. “Touch her again.”

“My father has cancer, can you come by my house,” said a young boy. “Please?”

“My sister has lung problems. Can you help?”

“My mother’s been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She’s at Reese Hospital, room 410!”

“They say Birch was hit by lightning,” a voice said. “Is that true? Was it God’s punishment for his sins?”

He stumbled in the direction of the rooming house. His fuzzy gaze showed it to be a long way off. Five blocks and a dozen minutes.

“Where’s he going?”

“What did he say?”

“Can you help my dad?”

“Why doesn’t he say anything?”

“Just a few questions, a few minutes of your time.”

“He’s a fraud, just like I told you.”

“Touch my child.”

“I’ve got a boil on my butt, can you kiss it for me?”

“Shut up, Jake.”

It was in his throat now, rising. He made it to the curb and bent over.

“Who will die next, Mr. Cochran?”

And with a lurch he vomited into the street.

“Cool!”

“Maybe he’ll be the next to die.”

“Touch the magic barf and be healed!”

“Shut up, Jake!”

“…help my dad!”

“…answer a few questions…”

“…touch my child…”

“…what about the lightning…?”

“God, you look awful!”

There was a syncopated sound of mechanical burbling in the air and he looked up to the most wonderful sight in the world. Alba had pulled to the curb in a faded grey Mercedes and reached over and opened the door. “Need a lift?”

He nodded, falling into the car, closing his eyes as he sat back and she leaned over to close the door. A hand held it firmly open.

“I just want to ask you a few questions, Mr. Cochran,” Todd Torkelson said in a low voice. “If you won’t answer them, I can always make something up. Your choice.”

“Ah, the integrity of the press,” Alba said, closing the door. “Mr. Cochran isn’t feeling up to answering your stupid questions. Besides, who wants to be in that rag, anyway?”

“And you are?” he asked.

“A friend of the needy,” Alba said, then hit the gas and drove off laughing.

Chapter 18

 

“So how was jail?”

She was humming and they drove and when Thadeus opened his eyes he found they were far beyond Newbury.

“Not bad,” he said after a moment. “I wouldn’t recommend it. Where are we going?”

“Nowhere. Away. Was my visit the high point of your incarceration?”

So it hadn’t been a dream. Not that he ever doubted it. “It’s between you and the runny-egg breakfast.”

“Flatterer. A brief encounter, though memorable.”

“For me or you?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Anyway, it looks like jail did you a world of good.”

“Is this thing going to get us where we’re going?” he said, tapping the dashboard.

“Hey, don’t abuse my girl. She’s gotten me in and out of many places.”

“Your girl?”

“Sure. All cars have a gender. Do you know why she’s a girl?”

“Because she’s never sure if she’s going out or not?”

“No. Because she’s reliable.”

“That was my next guess.”

“Her name’s Alison. Ally, for short.”

“Because that’s where she’ll probably break down?”

She gave him a slight smack on the arm. “That’s for blasphemy.”

He rubbed the area. “What made you come by?”

“I was just out for a drive. Thought I’d get away from it all. Then I saw you puking into the gutter and thought, There’s a guy I’ve got to get to know. Call it fate, or better–“ she looked at him wickedly, “–God’s will.”

He could only imagine the headlines: Psychic Saved by Grieving Boy’s Girlfriend. Something like that. Another bolster to his reputation.

“Or, if you want the truth,” Alba said, “I found out from Donny Rowe when they’d be letting you out.”

“I didn’t know you two were friends.”

“Jealous, I hope? He’s an ass but God didn’t give me big boobs for nothing. She knew what she was doing,” she said, leaning and leering. “A little cleavage can get you into, and out of, many sticky situations. Or should I say tight situations. And they’re great for getting information.”

“I’ll remember that.”

“I suppose you’re immune to such devious devices.”

He frowned, shaking his head. “I’m not immune to anything.”

She smiled and batted her eyes. “I’ll remember that.”

“How’s Jesse holding up?”

“Surprisingly well.”

“Must have been a shock,” Thadeus said, working the last bits of vomit from his mouth. The headache would take longer. “His father dying so suddenly.”

She sighed, either out of despair or to keep it away. “Yeah. A shock for some of us,” she said. “Not for you, I gather.”

“I didn’t think he would die.”

“Neither did he, I’ll bet.”

“Seriously, how is the family doing?”

“I was over there all morning. I think they’ll be okay. There’s always the initial shock. Then there’s the stuff to go through. Thank God for paperwork.”

“Jesse, though?”

She looked at him. “You sure seem concerned about him.”

“Aren’t you?”

She shrugged. “Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet. I don’t want to talk about it.” He couldn’t tell if she were holding back tears or laughter. “Besides, I’m still on a high from Fred Birch’s death.”

“That’s a pretty hard attitude.”

“I’m sure you’ll find that I’m not the only one in town with that outlook. Nobody liked Fred Birch. People may not be celebrating outwardly but he is one son of a bitch who won’t be missed.”

Thadeus noticed all levity had gone from her face. Her lips were thin and tight. “That sounds almost personal.”

“A little.” She glanced over. “God, don’t look so serious,” she said, forcing a smile. “It’s not like anybody died.” She sighed. “Fred Birch and I had a few run-ins now and then. Being around Jesse’s family naturally put me into contact with him, usually in passing. In passing, he was a big jerk.”

“How?”

She scrunched her face. “He would make remarks about my clothes, where I found them. He told me once I looked like a refugee from Guatemala, which he meant as an insult though I didn’t take it that way. I also took it as a reference to my skin color, which I didn’t appreciate. Didn’t like the darkies, I guess. Just a big jerk. Though I could tell he wouldn’t have minded getting closer to my skin color given the chance, if you know what I mean.”

Thadeus looked out the window.

“Do you know what I mean?”

“I’ve seen a few movies.”

“Do you like my skin?”

“It seems to do the job.”

She laughed. “Try to get a compliment out of you. So there you have it, the whole sordid tale. How does someone justify not liking you, yet wanting to grab your boobs?”

“Men and boys, the size of their toys, and all that.”

“True,” she said, looking down at her chest. “The all-purpose toys. That reminds me, he did grab my boobs once. True,” she added, as Thadeus looked over. “In passing, just reached out and grabbed this one here. It’s still bruised, I think.”

“What did you do?” Thadeus asked, fidgeting.

“Nothing. It happened so fast and I was so surprised he walked away before I could act. Of course, no one else was around to see it, so it would have been his word against mine. I just made sure never to be in the same house with him if I could help it.” She paused. “I didn’t tell Jesse about it, either.”

“He won’t hear it from me.”

“Wouldn’t matter now,” she said, “though if I had told him before, there’s no telling what he would have done.”

“What else can you tell me about Fred Birch?”

“Not much,” she said, then paused. “Founding father, town icon, owns half the town. Owned half the town,” she corrected. “Bully, always got his way. If he wanted something, he got it, legally or illegally.”

“What would the illegal part involve?”

“Maybe not illegally,” Alba said. “Unethically might be a better word. Hard-nosed when it came to business.”

“Nothing unethical in that.”

“No. Maybe more pushy than unethical, putting pressure on people to do what he wanted, being very abrasive along the way. I heard things from Jesse who heard them from his father, about how Fred Birch would give deals to people he liked, blackballing contractors he didn’t, making sure they never worked on the big jobs his company had contracts for.”

Thadeus thought back to Birch’s words to Squooti at the theatre, veiled threats of having the place condemned. “Sounds like business.”

“Bad business. You’ve probably heard that Birch Lumber was good at hiring kids from the town, giving them jobs for the summer or longer, if they wanted them.”

“Yeah, I heard that.” From the horses mouth.

“What you didn’t hear is that he would give certain kids jobs but then he would hang those jobs over the head of their parents.”

“How’s that again?”

She gave her head a quick shake. “Nikki Foster, for instance, got a job at Birch Lumber the summer after graduation to pay for college and then worked weekends and such when school started. Mr. Foster is a contractor and as the story goes it was made clear that if he didn’t buy his supplies and hire the sub-contractors Birch recommended, then Nikki would be out of a job. She needed the money and he kept buying his supplies there to grease the wheels of education.”

“How do you know any of that’s true?”

She looked at him in mild amusement. “I live here.”

“It sounds like a rumor. You know how rumors are.”

“Mostly true.”

“Still, hard to believe.”

“Then don’t,” she said, shrugging. “But here’s something interesting; Justus McDermitt’s daughter has worked for Birch Lumber for five years.”

“So?”

“So nothing, if you’re not interested. I just thought you might want to know.”

“What about Birch’s family life?” Thadeus asked.

“What about it?”

“Any kids?”

“Nope. No little birches running around. I don’t know about any big birches.”

“What about his wife?”

“Catherine?” She gave him a furrowed look. “Have you met her?”

Thadeus shook his head. “I’ve seen her once, from across the room.”

“How romantic. Catherine is big. Very, very big. One big Birch.” Alba laughed.

“That I already knew.”

“That’s the first thing everyone notices. Maybe the only thing.”

“I didn’t speak to her. I’m sure,” he added evenly, “she’s going through a tough time.”

Alba didn’t notice his tone. “Maybe. Maybe it’s a hard time, maybe it’s not. Maybe her life won’t even change that much.”

“Why do you say that?”

She shrugged. “Nobody ever got close to Fred Birch, as far as I know. Why would you want to? Not even his wife.”

“How would you know that?”

She smiled deviously. “You hear things. Being on the inside does have its advantages. And Jesse is more inside than I am, though not recently.”

“So he told you their marriage was–”

“I wouldn’t rely on him,” she said. “I did have occasion to speak to Mrs. Birch a few times.”

“She told you she was having trouble in her marriage?” he asked, his tone skeptical.

“Maybe indirectly. Mostly indirectly. Mostly it was her expression.” Alba turned to him with her lips tightly together and eyes slightly narrowed. “This was her basic look whenever I saw them together, like she was at the dentist and didn’t want to open for the drill. Probably described their sex life, too.”

“Just around him, or all the time?”

“Seemed to me,” she said, coming up to the freeway, “all the time. Care for a quick drive to New York.”

Thadeus shook his head. “No thanks. Too late in the day for a long drive.”

“Who says we have to come back today? We could get a room somewhere, spend a day at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Or just get a room somewhere.”

He squirmed again. “Keep your eye on the road.”

“Kill joy.”

“They must have been married a while. At least—“

“Twenty-six years of bliss. Rumor has it Mr. Birch had slept with quite a few married women in town. Gotta keep that spark alive.”

“You know how rumors are,” Thadeus said again, trying to keep his tone calm as he thought of Amy Emerson.

“Yeah,” she said, repeating: “Mostly true.”

“What about her?”

“Catherine?” Alba shook her head. “I love her to deathsorry, bad choice of wordsbut she finds her escape with Ben and Jerry’s. Chunky Monkey.”

“Any violence in the home?”

“Rumor has itno. Not physical, anyway. Good old Fred would belittle his not-so-little wife in not-so-little ways. Don’t you like how that sounds?”

“How would he do that?”

“Oh, the usual hints. ‘You’re fat, don’t eat so much, you need exercise.’ Basically make her feel like a big nothing. Sorry, another bad choice of words. And he’d usually make sure they were in public when he did so. I don’t know why she stayed with him for so long.”

“Nice house. Nice things. Plenty of money.”

Alba frowned at the road. “Yeah. Plenty of everything.” Her tone was surly, then she hit the gas suddenly as they flew up and over a small hump on the road and she yelped in joy.

 

“What about Mrs. Tyner?” Thadeus asked after a long silence. “How is she doing?” As much as Alba rambled, it was disquieting to not hear her voice, like the comforting hum of a car engine, giving reassurance that everything is right with the world.

“Wendy? Fine. Well, that’s not quite true. She seemed like she was in shock.”

“I would think so,” he said. “I can’t imagine waking up next to your husband and find they had died in the night.”

“Pretty creepy when you put it that way,” Alba said. “Though, for accuracy, they had separate bedrooms.”

“Snoring?”

Alba made a face. “I’m not sure. According to Jesse, it just started one night, years ago and never stopped.”

“How is he doing? Really?” he added. “I know I already asked but I don’t think you answered.”

“He’s surviving,” she said offhandedly.

“He did just lose his father.”

She nodded. “They weren’t close.”

“Still,” he said, “even when you’re not very close to someone—maybe especially when you’re not close to them—when they’re gone it’s like losing a part of yourself.”

“I suppose.” She bit her lip. “I liked Mr. Tyner. He was always good to me, treated me like one of the family. Always give me a hug when he saw me. Just a big teddy bear.”

“That’s the impression I got,” Thadeus said. “A very likeable guy.”

“You’d think so. Except for the separate bedrooms. That had been going on for years. I guess in every marriage there’s always something.”

“It’s a mystery.”

“What is?”

“What goes within a marriage. It’s a verse in the bible.”

“Really?” she said, with a smile. “Does it have to be in a marriage, or any relationship.”

“Marriage.”

“It can’t be a man and two women, then? That would be a mystery. Or maybe more of a puzzle, depending on how the pieces are arranged.”

“Anyway,” Thadeus said, “the point is that nobody really knows what goes on in a marriage, except the people themselves.”

“And even then. So, do you know a lot about the Bible?”

“Some. Why?”

“I’ve read a little,” she said. “Maybe we could talk about it sometime, have an intellectual discussion. Have you ever read Shaw?”

Thadeus knew where she was going already; he’d heard it all before. “George, Irwin or Rick?”

She gave him a slow look of exasperation, then said: “Ho-ho-ho. George Bernard.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, “we can talk about it. Another day.”

“It’s a date.”

He looked out at the Connecticut countryside, the endless woods, the manicured lawns and immaculately painted trim. There were people outside, enjoying the day, enjoying their families, enjoying the sun.

“Do me a favor?”

“Anything.”

“Go easy on Jesse. He’s having a rough time.”

“He’ll be touched you care. I always go easy on him…except in bed. Don’t worry, he’ll be okay.”

“He may act as if it is but things will be different from now on.”

“How so?”

“A part of life has been cut off. A part of childhood is gone that you can’t get back. Your perspective changes, the world changes. It’s like being forced to grow up before you’re ready and knowing too soon you can’t go home again.”

“That’s pretty dramatic. He can stay at home as long as he wants.”

“I mean figuratively. Emotionally.”

“I’m lost.”

Thadeus scanned the road, glad she didn’t mean directionally. “Home is where hope resides. It’s where expectations live. It’s the place to prove ourselves to those who know us best. Everyone wants their parents to be proud of them. When that’s gone, all that’s left are the ‘what-might-have-been’s.”

He turned to find her staring and her expression made him uneasy. It was respect. “You know, you’re pretty deep,” she said finally, “for a jailbird. But there’s no need to worry. Jesse will be fine.”

“Still, maybe you can help keep him busy for a while, take his mind off things.”

Alba turned a wide-eyed glance to him. “Do you think I’m capable of taking someone’s mind off their troubles?”

“Capable, yes. Willing is another story. Why weren’t they close, Jesse and his father, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Alba said shortly, then was momentarily thoughtful. “I guess it was like you said, about expectations. Maybe it had something to do with his job. I think that was part of it.”

“His job?”

“Jesse’s job,” Alba said. “His career choice. His father did not approve. He wanted Jesse to be part of the lumber yard but Jesse didn’t want anything to do with the rat race, as he called it. So he became a cook.”

Thadeus smiled.

She met his smile. “Is that funny?”

“In a few years,” he said, “he might find it ironic. But it’s understandable, wanting to go off on your own. You can only do that when you’re young.”

“You seem to be doing okay.”

“Thanks a lot,” he said, catching the unintentional meaning.

“Anyway, his father wanted him to go to college, have a career, aim higher. The more he suggested the more Jesse pulled away. I think he blamed me for being a bad influence.”

“I don’t believe that,” Thadeus said.

“Why, aren’t you the charmer?” the girl said in a southern accent. “I do believe prison has done you a world of good.”

“It usually does.”

“Mr. Cochran,” Alba said with mock surprise. “Are you telling me you’re a repeat offender? Well, I don’t know if I feel safe being in the same vee-hick-ul with you. On the other hand, I always did go for the bad boy.”

Thadeus snorted. “Hardly.”

“Well, are you gonna tell me about it?”

“What?”

“The other times?”

He snorted again. “Hardly.”

“Then I don’t think we having anything else to discuss. If we can’t be honest–“

”Okay, okay,” he said. “Some time I will tell you all about it.”

“Now?”

“Not now.”

“Soon?”

“In the future.”

“Goody,” she said in mock excitement. “In the future. It’s such a promising place, the future. No one ever dies there.”

Alba made a slow u-turn in the middle of the street to which Thadeus was extremely grateful. He was getting tired and needed rest and the surroundings were beginning to look too familiar.

The last thing I need, he thought, looking at the girl whose red lips jutted out from under he dark wool hat, is to cross too many intersections.

He closed his eyes as she hit the gas and the car jerked forward and they headed for what the future held for the both of them back in Newbury.

Chapter 19

 

He awoke with a start to find himself still in the car with Alba behind the wheel and the radio playing grating Ska music. There seemed to be no escaping it.

“Finally awake, are you?” She reached over and turned the radio down.

Thadeus sat upright and wiped saliva from the corner of his mouth while turning his head, hoping the girl hadn’t seen it. ‘There’s Grandpa, dribbling all over himself. We take him out once a week for a soft vanilla cone, without the cone.’

“Where are we?”

“Almost home.”

“How long was I–?“

”Half an hour, or thereabout. You were snoring while I was in mid-sentence. I didn’t know I was such good company.”

He yawned in response. He shook his head and opened his eyes wide. “Sorry. Is it still Sunday?”

“Still.”

Thadeus sat up. “Tell me about Mrs. Tyner,” he said and was instantly sorry he had.

Alba laughed. “Call her Wendy, please. Aren’t you tired of hearing me babble? Doesn’t matter. Let’s see, Wendy Tyner. Not a lot of dirt to tell.

“I’m not looking for dirt. Just truth.”

“Truth, dirt…I’ve been in enough churches to know that dirt is truth.” She laughed. “Wouldn’t that make a great t-shirt?”

Thadeus forced a smile as she started to talk but it was like trying to decipher the drone of a plane. He raised his hand before she passed the point of no return. “On second thought, I think I just need to rest.”

“Did I wear you out?”

He nodded, closing his eyes. She would have to accept him for his snoring and drooling, he thought, though he did turn his head away from her.

“I’ll let you know when we’re there.”

 

So he slept…

…and dreamt of being on a bus traveling on a bumpy road with a crowd of strangers that talked incessantly and incoherently and a bus driver with dreadlocks who only turned to mouth rhyming inanities while hitting a tin drum while other passengers constantly grabbed at his arm to ask for the time, which was ridiculous because he never wore a watch…

…and one girl in particular sitting across the aisle, very young, very annoying, wearing a very dirty shirt and holding a handful of tissues in one hand while she reached out with the other and pushed on his shoulder, saying, “Hey, hey, hey, hey…” to the same beat until he wanted to punch her in the nose.

“Hey, hey, wake up. Thadeus.”

He managed to open one eye slowly, adding to the pounding in his head. “Mmm?”

Alba was looking ahead, frowning. “We’re here.” She jerked her head. “Company.”

In front of Mrs. Schneider’s rooming house was a small crowd of people, milling about and as the car pulled to the curb they approached, tentatively. He recognized Todd Torkelson, the reporter from the Newbury News. There were a few kids on bikes, resting over their handlebars and some parents holding the hands of young children. He also saw two people holding camcorders, already recording, a man with a smart phone doing the same.

“Great,” he said, sitting up straight.

“Once around the block?”

The people had just begun to take notice of the car, motioning, talking, pointing. Thadeus scrunched back down in his seat. “Sure.”

Alba flipped off the people on the sidewalk with a smile as she pulled away and hit the gas.

 

She turned right at the next street and right at the street after that, driving for a moment before coming to a stop. “If you walk straight through there,” she said, pointing through the dense woods, “you’ll get to the back yard of Mrs. Schneider’s house.”

He looked into the thick brush before him. “Are you sure?”

She laughed. “Trust me. Don’t you trust me?”

“Hmm. Thanks for the ride,” he said, getting out slowly and awkwardly.

“Aren’t you going to thank me for not asking you?”

He didn’t need clarification. “Thanks for not asking.” He shut the door.

“A temporary reprieve. Au revoir, mon amour,” she said with a wave, and drove off.”

Thadeus took a few tentative steps into the woods, and after a few minutes of struggling through brush and briars he came to a four-foot metal fence with a strand of barbed wire skirting the top. Stepping over while holding down the wire, he managed to rip the bottom of his left pant leg and, in the process of freeing himself, his left sleeve. As there was still half a box of mostly unused clothes waiting for him in his room, he didn’t take much notice or even slow down as he trudged through some wild rose bushes as tiny branches sought to encircle his ankle.

There was a small clearing ahead and the few beer bottles on the ground told him it was a place for boys or bums to drink and urinate unseen. There was a piece of fabric sticking out from under a few fallen leaves and moving them with his foot he uncovered some white panties outlined in red thread. There had obviously been more than drinking going on at one point, he thought and pondered Alba’s familiarity with the area.

The brush thickened and became like a wall in front of him but about chest high there was a small hole, like a window. It was big enough for his head to fit through, maybe a shoulder. He bent down and looked through it. Alba had been right, it was the backyard of the rooming house. And true to form, Ruth Schneider was hanging up clothes.

She seems to have a lot of laundry for one person, he thought suspiciously, though the type of clothing she was pinning up could have been worn by no one else. Thadeus reached into the opening with both hands, pushing it wider, but the rubbery branches sprung back and it closed to its original size when he took his hands away. He squatted, considering for a moment, then dove through the hole, hands first, before his mind could talk sense into him.

He hit the ground hard, on his side, with his left arm breaking the fall. The plan had been to dive through in somersault and then flip to his feet but subconscious remembrances of neck and back problems ended such gymnastic ambitions. He pushed himself over and rose with a grimace, examining his arm and testing its flexibility. Then he brushed himself off and took stock of his clothing before looking at the woman. She hadn’t stopped pinning the clothes and her face did not have a sign of welcome.

“I don’t want no trouble here. I don’t need it.”

Thadeus half-smiled. “You won’t get it from me.”

She motioned with her head. “Those people, the ones in front…they’re here for you. When will they leave?”

He swiveled his head to the house and back. “Soon.”

She looked at him skeptically, then motioned to him. “Your face is bleeding.”

Thadeus touched the side she indicated and came away with blood. Something had scratched him in the brush. A sign. A reminder? The mark of Cain?

 

He walked slowly down the hall, making sure there was no one inside, and before making the turn to the stairs shot a glance upward. There was no one waiting. He turned up the staircase, keeping his eye on the front door until he was on the second step.

“They’ll do the same to you like they did to me.”

Thadeus turned, looking at the door at the bottom. It was open a little more than before, enough to see a face, a body, a man hiding in the shadows and maybe wanting to come.

“You said that before.”

“Did I?”

“Yes.” Thadeus squinted. He could see he was wearing a white t-shirt and had curly black hair and a stubble growth of beard.

The man gave a low chuckle. “So you heard already. Now you’ve heard again.” He said it lightly, almost in a sing-song way but underneath the tone was the sound of too many drinks drowning out too many memories, too many still remaining. “They’ll act like you’re the greatest thing in the world. But there was only one, wasn’t there, and look what they did to him?”

Thadeus leaned closer. “What did they do to you?”

He jerked his head and spat on the floor, then wiped his chin and face with his forearm. “That. That’s what they did. They’ll do you the same. Just wait. Just watch. Time will fail and plants will plan and tomorrow will bring no answers. No answers.” He continued muttering as he moved inside and closed the door with a click.

Tomorrow, Thadeus thought, pulling himself the rest of the way up the stairs, turning, opening the door. If tomorrow won’t bring any answers, he thought, closing the door and then falling onto the bed, then maybe I’ll just skip it.

Chapter 20

 

He was conscious the next day for almost two minutes; once when the sun was hot and shining through the window and he could hear voices on the sidewalk which made him hold his pillow tightly over his head and once again at night when the moon was up and shining through the window and the piercing sound of crickets made him hold his pillow tightly over his head. If he had any dreams they were not memorable or lasting.

Like life, he thought as he lay under the covers and immediately regretted it. It wasn’t that life wasn’t memorable or long-lasting; sometimes too much of both. It was the relentless parade of days that kept at you with no perceptible reason or purpose while you moved blindly hither and yon. Today was simply another one and everything hurt. Thadeus opened his eyes while pulling the covers off cautiously and found himself surrounded by a crown of thorns. Grape-vine wallpaper encased the room, looking oppressive and sickeningly purple. He didn’t remember seeing it before and wondered for a crazy second if someone had come into his room while he slept and hastily pasted it up in a satanic attempt to make him run screaming from the town.

It might just work, he thought, shutting his eyes while rolling onto his stomach with a groan. He hugged the pillow and took inventory. Head hurt, joints hurt, back, neck. The usual checklist. His moved his closed eyes against closed lids and it felt like scraping sandpaper.

‘Do your teeth itch?’

A silly question he used to ask and be asked, back in the days when it was more than just him and it brought a smile along with the inevitable answer: ‘Well, now that you mention it…’

He moved slowly from the comfort of the covers to the edge of the bed where he sat for a while rubbing his face and counting his nose. Still one, out of joint. He stood, tottering, seeing foolishly that he was still fully dressed. He had managed to kick off his shoes at some point and he picked one up off the floor, finding the other under the covers, then he let them fall on the bed with a bounce. He needed a shower. But he couldn’t walk through the house naked, or shoeless. He grabbed them again and began gathering clothes.

He passed Ruth Schneider in the hall and she had been cordial and less suspicious, which was a good sign. The water had been hot, another blessing. No movement from the bottom apartment either time he passed, almost heaven. But he was hungry and that meant leaving the house. A look from the window gave him assurance there were no people waiting for him outside the front door.

He squinted at the brightness as he took his first steps, then made his way to the sidewalk and stopped. No hurry to get to town, he thought, looking in that direction. More questions with no answers he could give. He turned and walked away from Newbury.

She was in the yard, her back to him as she squatted, attacking the dirt below with a spade and tossing weeds into a fairly good sized pile which lay in the middle of a square of burlap. Thadeus waited at the fence, wondering if he should yell out or keep walking or simply stand and wait. He was never fond of yelling so he simply watched. She would turn, eventually, and he was anxious to see what her reaction would be.

Surprisingly, when she finally did stop to stretch her back and gather her weeds at the corners and turn to see him, she waved with gloved hands.

He waved back.

She gathered the four corners of the burlap and tied them together, dragging them a few feet before letting the sack drop. She walked over, blowing her hair from her eyes. She had dirt streaks on her cheeks and sweat beading at her lip.

“Working hard?” he asked stupidly.

She nodded, taking off her gloves, then asked lightly: “How was jail?”

He winced. That had been Alba’s first question and he didn’t need the reminder of the young girl’s pseudo-innocent face. “Good, as far as jails go.”

She narrowed her eyes but there was a slight curl at the corner of her lips. “Been in many?”

Again, another Alba question. “A few. I was just heading out for some breakfast.”

Again, the smile. “Then you’re going the wrong way, unless you’re headed out of town.”

He wondered if the last words held any meaning. “No. Not yet.”

“And it’s closer to lunch than breakfast.”

He looked up at the sun overhead. “I just woke up.” She was simply looking at him, not moving, the fence a nice barrier between them. “Well,” he said. “I guess…”

“Why don’t you come sit down?” Amy motioned with a look to a white table on the back patio which had a large blue umbrella in the center and four chairs around. “I could whip up something.”

“I don’t want you to go to any trouble,” he said out of polite reflex but she was already walking away and he was already through the gate.

“I’ve got some pancake batter in the frig. Just take a second. Besides, I was looking for an excuse to stop.”

She went into the house and he took a seat at the table. There was a plastic garden tool carrier on top with a few small bags of seeds sitting on a scattering of dirt. He picked it up and brushed off the dirt, then set it on the ground.

A window slid open above a blue and white tiled outside counter. “These are regular buttermilk pancakes, I hope that’s all right. And I use real maple syrup. I hope that’s all right, too.”

“I didn’t know I could change the order.”

She laughed and a moment later he could hear the sizzle of batter and the smell of pancakes cooking. Thadeus sat back and looked over the yard, with its array of roses and shrubs and peaceful green grass, tall woods bordering and protecting the yard, the sun lighting it all to serene perfection.

Could I spend the rest of my life here? Thadeus wondered for what seemed the hundredth time. Why not? Her husband had. He lived there, died there, and in-between had built a good life. And here I am ready to move in, he thought with irony. It reminded him of a verse about how a man will work all his life all so he can die to let another man take his place and his money and possessions. The scripture didn’t mention the man’s wife but perhaps it was implied. Was a wife a possession? In some cultures, at various times. Wasn’t possession nine-tenths of the law?

He chuckled inwardly at the randomness of thought. He certainly had no desire to possess Amy or her house or anything within. He was simply enjoying the benefits of another man’s toil, for good or bad. The endless painting of the house and mowing of the lawn and digging up of weeds and shoveling of snow and disposal of trash. And on and on through the long weeks and short weekends as the jobs were done to be replaced by others until one day you woke up dead while some other man walked into town to take over where you left off.

“Could you put these on the table for me?”

Amy had slid the container of syrup and crystal butter dish along the counter and Thadeus got up and put them onto the table. “These too,” she said before he could sit down and handed him two plates and two glasses with silverware wrapped in napkins.

“I do all the work,” he said, in mock grumble.

“And these,” she added, handing him a blue vase of roses.

“Do these have a name?” he asked, setting them down.

“Maiden’s Blush,” she said before going back to the kitchen.

He arranged the table neatly before sitting, man of the house doing the manly chores. He wondered why she had invited him in. It wouldn’t bode well for the gossip mill. ‘New widow taking company with a crazed spiritualist.’ Or maybe it would. ‘Newly single woman in secret rendezvous with man of mystery.’ It was all in how you spun the image and how that image made you react. Some would react with fear and trepidation. Others might find that the idea of a man of mystery, with no past and recently imprisoned who’s suddenly come into your life, frighteningly alluring. Hormones that have lain dormant for years would suddenly awaken. Women, he knew, loved the myth. The loner who just needed the love of a good woman to help him change, the outcast who needed understanding, the Bad Boy living on the edge of trouble. That was the attraction, living on that uncontrollable edge.

Push someone over the edge with a dose of reality and the attraction might wane. He thought of a few career criminals he’d come across over the years, the true Bad Boys who would kill anyone for a handful of change or pimp their women for drug money. Substitute one of them for their celluloid counterpart and a few slaps in the face would erase the fantasy. But, of course, the world of those men was a long way from Newbury.

And now here was Amy Emerson, a woman–a widow–whose days of exciting danger were seemingly long past. Suddenly a frenetic tension enters and the adrenal rush peaks the senses like the onslaught of puberty. Thadeus was sure, from watching her body, her movements, her expressions, that, if he wanted to, he could have Amy Emerson sexually. Even today.

She came out carrying a large plate of pancakes and set them on the table. He noticed that when she smiled she crinkled her nose ever so slightly, making the freckles on her nose dance. She also had a small dimple on her left cheek which gave the illusion of innocence. He also noticed that the top two buttons of her shirt were invitingly undone.

Even today, Thadeus thought again as he watched her pour the orange juice.

 

“How did you get that scratch on your face?”

Breakfast–or brunch by her clock—had been warm and filling and they had been sitting in comfortable silence sipping coffee and watching the world chirp by.

Thadeus brought his hand to his cheek reflexively. He had forgotten all about it. “Vines. I was…walking through the woods and they reached out and got me.”

“I didn’t know they grew so tall.” She extended both arms and turned them over, exposing small scratches. “It comes with the territory.”

“Everything looks beautiful,” he said, indicating the yard with a nod.

“My husband did all of the hard work. He planned it all, dug it all up, amended the soil. He built the raised beds and trellises and did all initial planting. The most I do is weeding and watering.”

“I think he’d be happy with the results. What did he do? For work, I mean.”

“Doug worked for the post office.”

“How long?”

“Twenty-five years.”

“A long time.”

“It went fast.”

“How did he die? Or should I not ask?”

She smiled. “I don’t mind. I think about him every day, I might as well talk about him. He had a heart attack. It came on suddenly. And just like that, he was gone.”

She had said it evenly but there was a slight tremor as she spoke the last few words. She took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

She shook here head. “Why not? There’s nothing wrong with feeling loss and pain over someone who you loved so much. That’s part of the price of life.”

“Did his family have a history of heart conditions? High blood pressure?”

She shook her head. “That was the strange thing about it. His parent’s are still alive. His brother is two years older and lives in Phoenix. He was only forty-six.”

Forty-six, he thought. Too young to die. He wondered how old Amy was. “Tell me about him. How did you meet?”

She laughed as she wiped her eyes. “There’s really not that much to tell,” she said and Thadeus leaned back.

Twenty minutes later she was winding down to the present, after their daughter had moved away and they were trying to reconnect without the distractions of homework or missed curfews or degenerate boy friends (as were they all, according to Doug), or any of the volleyball or softball or basketball practices and games which had taken up so much of their free time. Then it had been just the two of them, trying to become friends and recreate that which had drawn them together so long before. And now it was just her, alone, with only memories to remind her of that life. And even some of those, she feared, were fading.

“I didn’t mean to unload on you,” she said, crumpling another tissue and adding it to the pile. “But it felt good to talk. Besides, it’s good therapy. It takes my mind off of other things.”

“Like what?”

She stared at him. “Two people I know have died this past week.”

“Oh, right.” Thadeus hadn’t completely forgotten but perhaps subconsciously wished that aspect of his being in Newbury would simply disappear. “I suppose you knew them both pretty well.”

“I knew Bob fairly well, Wendy somewhat. Everyone knew Fred Birch. I never really got along with Catherine.”

He observed her facial movements and intonations at the mention of each name. Warmth. Coolness. Annoyance. Indifference. “Why not?”

“Catherine?” She shook her head. “I don’t know. I had nothing against her. She was just…aloof. I think she saw herself and Fred as the town’s royalty.” She laughed. “Maybe they were. They had enough money, a big house, the lumber mill, the hardware store. Maybe they were the Newbury royalty, as if that means anything.”

“Were they well liked?”

“It depends on who you were.”

“Meaning?”

“To some, Fred Birch was as close to the second coming as we’ll see in our lifetime. He gave people jobs, gave lots of money to the church, served on all kinds of different boards of some such or other.”

“That’s not a bad thing.”

“There are some people…” she stopped. “I don’t want to speak ill of the dead. Let’s just say Fred had a way about him and if you didn’t go along with what he wanted…well, you’d just better go along with what he wanted.”

“What could he possibly do?”

“Oh, I don’t know. He could be very brusque. If he wanted something, he got it. He didn’t care who got in the way. I heard him talk about Bob when he wasn’t there and if you didn’t know any better, you’d have thought if it wasn’t for Fred, Bob would have been nothing. He just talked about all the things he did for Bob, making him partner, selling him land next to his house, making sure his finances were set up right. Basically saying that Bob couldn’t do anything for himself, he had to be involved in every facet of his life. There are some people who get involved in everything but not because they really care. It’s that they can’t not get involved. They need to be seen. They need to have their voice heard. And they need to make sure that everything goes their way. I know there’s a word for that type of thing.”

“Controlling?”

“Yes. They want to be in control of everything. They can’t stand the thought of things being done without them. Fred was like that. If there was something going on in town he had to have his hands in it.” Amy stopped and looked embarrassed. “I guess that’s pretty gossipy.”

“You’ve known them all a long time.”

“A very long time,” she agreed. “Our kids grew up together. They played on teams together. And it’s hard to avoid people in a small town. You see them at games, at the store, the post office, restaurants.”

“Church?”

“Church. Catherine, anyway. Fred would come on holidays.”

“The hardware store?”

She frowned. “We never went there. Doug…if we ever needed something we’d go out of town.”

“He and Fred didn’t get along?”

“N-no,” she said hesitantly. “Doug just didn’t like being around him. Like I said, Fred was a hard person to like. You should know.”

Thadeus nodded, shrugged. “He didn’t bother me.”

“He had you thrown in jail.”

He smiled. “It sounds worse than it was. Part of that was my fault, though. I shouldn’t have said anything to him. But other than a sock in the jaw, I didn’t know him long enough to like him or not like him.” He took a sip of juice. “But I didn’t like him.”

Amy laughed.

“So I gather you weren’t friends with Catherine.”

“No, not really. Different circles. Have you met her?”

“No. I saw her, briefly, at the spaghetti dinner.”

“You probably noticed she was a little overweight. Well, Fred never let her forget it, or anybody else. Seems like that’s all he talked about when it came to her, her weight. I don’t know why she didn’t leave him a long time ago.”

“The devil you do know–“ Thadeus said.

Amy nodded. “I guess that’s part of it. I just felt bad for her.”

“For being with Fred?”

“And her weight. And her personality. She’s never been obese but as long as I’ve known her she’s never been able to get it under control. Not that she wasn’t pretty. I always thought her and Bob would have made a better couple.”

“Because of their weight?”

“I suppose so. Do you think that’s a bad thing to say?”

He shook his head. “The family that eats together. It’s good to have at least one thing in common.”

Amy giggled and Thadeus was glad for the light moment. “But I do agree with you that Bob Tyner was an odd partner for Fred. They seemed to be opposite personality types.”

“That’s for sure. Bob was so—“

”Outgoing?”

“No…well, in a way. He was an usher in church. A greeter. You couldn’t have picked a better person for that job. Always smiling, always happy. Just a big teddy bear. Friendly. Always glad to see you, always caring how you were.”

“And Wendy?”

She bit her bottom lip. “Somewhat Not as much. Certainly not as much as Bob. She always seemed so…quiet. Unhappy. Not unhappy, really,” she said quickly. “Just…not happy. I guess that’s the same thing.”

“Out of sorts?”

“Something like that.”

“Why do you think that was?”

Amy shook her head. “No reason I could see. She had a nice house, a good husband. She was—she is—very beautiful. Maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe she felt like she settled. There was definite tension between her and Bob, you could feel it when they were together. I got the feeling she didn’t think he was doing enough.”

“Enough of what?”

Amy hesitated. “Well, not really enough of anything in particular. I think she wanted to get out of Newbury but because of Bob’s position at the Lumber Mill she knew they never would.”

“So you think she wanted to move.”

She nodded. “Get away, make a new start.”

“Get away from what?”

“Small town life can be a bit much for some people. You’re always under the microscope. Everyone knows everybody else’s business. There are no malls here. You can get lost in the city. Not even your neighbors would know who you were.”

“And her neighbors were the Birches.”

“That’s another thing,” Amy said. “I think she wanted to get away from Fred Birch.”

“What do you mean?”

“His influence. His presence. His involvement in their lives.”

“Because of Bob’s position at the mill and the land he sold them.”

“All of that.”

“And more?”

“I don’t know,” she said, surprised. “Is there any more?”

“I’m asking you.”

She thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. But I think that would be enough. When you’re surrounded by someone twenty-four hours a day it gets to be a bit much. You need your own space.”

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

“Exactly. Maybe Wendy wanted the fence to be a state or two wide.” Amy sat back and breathed out. “Whew! I’m exhausted. Is this what you do all the time?”

“What do you mean?”

“Finding out about people and their lives.”

“Is that what I do?”

She nodded, then got up and began gathering the dishes. He stood to help. “And I haven’t even asked you anything about yourself.”

“Ask away.”

They walked to the tiled counter and Amy stacked the dishes by the window before turning and peering into his eyes with an almost hopeful expectancy.

“Why are you in Newbury, Mr. Cochran?”

Chapter 21

 

As Thadeus helped Amy clear the dishes, he thought of Saul on the road to Damascus and felt a certain kinship with him. He wondered if the man, lying blind in the dirt and about to have his life transformed—along with his name—had felt the same way Thadeus did at present, now that he had also been knocked from his high horse. One minute you’re on a journey with a destination at hand and everything under control, the next minute a few words sets you off on a different path. And that different path, Thadeus knew, though full of the unknown future, also put an end to the path you were on, full of a future of its own now never to be realized.

‘Why are you in Newbury?’ Amy had asked. She was still waiting for the answer.

“That’s a good question,” he said after they had sat back at the table.

“Does that mean you’re not going to tell me?”

“It means,” Thadeus said, wiping his lips with thumb and forefinger, “that I’ll tell you and you’ll wish you never asked.”

“I doubt that,” she said, but something in the way she looked at him changed. There was a distance, very slight, but he had learned to see the subtleties.

“Did you ever have something you needed to do,” he began, “but you put it off because you didn’t want to do it, yet it was always in the back of your mind?”

“Dozens of things.”

“Such as?”

She moved her eyes and they set on the burlap bag, still sitting in the middle of the yard. “Weeding.”

“Why do you put it off, if it needs to be done? What don’t you like about it?”

“Everything. It hurts my back, my hands, it’s not…productive. It’s necessary but it’s not creative. It doesn’t add color, it doesn’t add design. It’s like erasing a mistake in a painting rather than adding detail.”

“What happens if you don’t do it?”

She made a face of mild concern. “They’ll take over your yard. You can’t not do it. It’s part of having a garden. So…how does this answer my question?”

“I came to Newbury because I needed to. Things would happen if I hadn’t come but I needed to come anyway.”

“You’re talking about Fred Birch.”

“Yes.”

“You knew he would die.”

“I knew someone would. I didn’t know it would be him. I didn’t know he existed until I came to Newbury.”

“And now he doesn’t.”

The words caught Thadeus short. Without an answer, he just nodded.

“What about Bob Tyner?”

Another good question. “I don’t know. I guess he just died. I could be wrong about that.”

“And Fred didn’t?”

Thadeus sighed. “He was murdered.”

He hadn’t said if for effect but it had one. Amy drew in a breath and leaned back, then forward. “How do you know? The police haven’t said that. No one has.”

How did he know? “I don’t know how I know. I could be wrong. Maybe I came here and thought he’d die and he did and it’s all coincidence.” Her face was unconvinced. “It might be better if you thought so,” he said.

“I want to know the truth.”

Thadeus sat back. What is truth? A question from long ago. “Maybe it’s not the truth. Maybe it’s just my opinion.”

“What?”

“The reason I’m in Newbury. The truth and what I think…they might not coincide.”

She hesitated. “I want to know either way,” she said after a moment. “I can decide whether it’s the truth or opinion or…”

“Or I’m a nut,” he said suddenly.

She looked up, surprised. “Maybe. You don’t need to protect me.”

“Okay. I came to Newbury because I knew someone would be murdered. I didn’t know who or how it would happen but I knew just the same.”

“How did you know?”

“Do you want the short answer or the long answer?” The words quivered in his throat, idling, waiting. “It’s like getting up in the morning and knowing who you are and where you live and the little things you’re going to do that day. It’s knowing all the details of your home and the things inside and why it gives you comfort and safety. It’s recognizing faces you’ve known for years and feeling that closeness with some and distance with others and knowing the reasons for both. It’s knowing your own history and knowing that the memories in your mind are yours and yours alone and that no matter what happens in life they will remain with you forever. It’s knowing where you came from and where you’ve been and who’s been with you during your life. It’s the experience of all the days you’ve lived and people you’ve known and mistakes you’ve made. It’s looking back with regret and joy and sadness and hurt for the things you’ve been through in your life and wishing things had been different or wishing the things that had been good had remained just a little while longer. It’s a knowledge too deep for words because it’s etched in your soul and no matter what people say or how much they doubt or how you wish you could talk yourself out of believing that it’s true, it’s more a part of you than the lines on your hands or face. And when you look in the mirror, the person staring back is the only one who truly understands, for no one else possibly could, which is why you’ll always be alone.”

It had come out in a rush and now, breathing heavily with eyes slightly unfocused, he knew he not only sounded crazed but must have looked the part as well. But the words and impressions and philosophy he had never dared speak aloud had finally been given an opening and burst forth in a spray through the small window of opportunity. Thadeus exhaled, feeling a lifting of spirit with the breath and focused his eyes back on Amy with a reassuring smile, which quickly faded with her words.

Her face held nothing but skepticism and confusion. “You knew someone would die because…you know who you are?”

Thadeus shook his head too quickly, stopped, tried to reapply the smile he’d lost but found he hadn’t the heart. “More because it is who I am.”

She bit her bottom lip.

“It’s what I do. No, it’s more than that. It’s…” he stopped, opened his mouth, closed it. “It’s the only thing that makes sense,” he said finally and looked away.

“Is it like a picture in your head, or a thought?” she asked.

He kept his head turned to hide his irritation. He knew it was unfair but why didn’t she understand? “No. No, nothing like that. More like an impression.”

“Like a sixth sense?”

“More like…more like an impression,” he repeated, annoyed for having to explain. But the comparison to telepathy or psychic phenomenon was not one he would let stand. “It’s like cabin fever. If you don’t act, if you don’t get out and do something, you’ll go out of your mind.”

“Are you out of your mind?” It was asked seriously, with concern.

“No.”

“Do you hear voices?”

He smiled reassuringly, wishing he could take back the conversation and visit and breakfast. “Just yours. Do I sound crazy?”

“No. I just don’t think people around here will be too accepting of this type of thing.”

“Well,” he said, considering politeness. “It doesn’t matter if they do or not, does it?”

“Why?”

“Fred Birch is dead.”

He said it simply enough because it was simple to him but he knew the extra punch he put in the words were meant to…what? Hurt her? Shake her up? Wake her up? He was tired of pussy-footing around the issue and now that he had explained, revealing himself, as naked before anyone as he’d ever been, he was angry she didn’t understand. Besides, you could spend your whole life on the spiritual and intellectual ramifications of the concept, as he had, but what difference would it make? If a roulette wheel kept hitting fourteen red, sooner or later you’d have to put your chips down on that number whether you liked the odds or not.

Thadeus got to his feet, brushing imaginary crumbs from his pants.

“Would he have died if you hadn’t come to Newbury?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?”

“Do you know the answer?”

“No.”

“Haven’t you ever thought–?” she was saying.

“Yeah,” he said abruptly. “I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it and thought about it and thought about it, and I’ll tell you honestly: I don’t know.”

She hesitated. “Has this type of thing happened before?”

He looked at her, realizing the weight of the answer and realizing he no longer cared. “Yes.”

“A lot?”

“I’ve lost track,” he lied. “A few times,” he lied again.

“Do you…do you think it will happen again?” She seemed almost pleading.

Thadeus turned and looked slowly over the lawn and the house and the roses and her face. And her freckles.

“Yes,” he said, rising. “It will happen again.”

Chapter 22

 

Thadeus turned at the end of Amy Emerson’s walkway and headed back to the heart of Newbury. His steps were quick and hard, almost masochistically so and he gritted his teeth as his shoes hit the concrete.

The first time he had passed this way had been under different and more lighter circumstances. He had just met the beautiful woman in the rose-bordered white house and there had been a spark of hope, a chemical attraction fueled by loneliness and the unknown. But the hope of the present had met head on with the unchanging past was sent spinning away into the abyss of dreams.

He should have known. It had come too fast to be sustainable. Like a stock, he thought, his mind wandering to the safe world of investments. A nice, slow rise in price meant sustainability requiring little attention. A fast and furious incline meant too much excitement, too much momentum, and that meant keeping a wary eye as a huge drop was anticipated. Same with relationships. Too fast, too soon.

The hope for the future that both of them shared, no matter how repressed or unspoken, was ended by her last question.

“Will it happen again?”

And the answer, which resonated still:

Yes, it will happen again. And again and again and again.

He went back to his room to change and use the bathroom. The syrup had dripped onto his shirt and there was that annoying stickiness on his hands. The butter had left a greasy residue on his fingertips and he could feel it on the pores of his nose. He thought of a shower but that would be putting off the inevitable. So he washed and changed and went down the stairs and knocked on the door below.

He heard a clink, a curse, a shuffling, a chain and the door opened. Andy Brewer stood squinting out at him, unshaven, hair tousled, with white t-shirt and black cords and bare feet.

“Yeah?”

“I think we should meet.”

“Who are you?”

Thadeus narrowed his eyes in annoyance. “I live upstairs.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to talk to you.”

He studied Thadeus through bloodshot eyes. “About what?”

“The past. The future.”

Brewer scowled at him, then nodded before opening the door wider. “It’s about time.”

The room was much cleaner than it had been the first time Thadeus had seen inside. The boxes along the walls were gone. The shades were open and the room was lit. There was a sour murkiness in the air, the lingering aroma of alcohol, though not very strong. A window was open.

Andy Brewer had gone into the kitchenette to make coffee and when he came back he handed a cup to Thadeus and indicated a hard wooden chair before plopping down in a big recliner. Thadeus sat, taking in the place. There was a small bedroom toward the back, a bathroom in the hall before that. Brewer sipped the coffee with both hands, immersing himself in the effort. Thadeus took a tentative sip. Weak, instant. There were undissolved granules floating on top. He grimaced and held it on his lap with both hands in case he had the urge to take another sip.

“So, you’re Thadeus Cochran.”

He nodded. “How do you know me?”

Brewer chuckled. “Intuition, perhaps. Maybe God told me. Or I’m psychic.” The dark eyes which looked at him under the unbrushed black hair hanging over his head gave the man the slight appearance of mental unbalance, which Thadeus knew he was aware of and playing to the hilt. But those same eyes, he noticed, were alert. “It’s a small town. I think Mrs. Schneider mentioned it, when I was in a somewhat foggy state of mind.”

“You’ve cleaned up.”

He grunted. “When the place starts looking like a distillery I figure it’s time to clean house. There’s always someone looking to make a few bucks recycling, even if they have to enter a crazy man’s home to get them.”

“Are you crazy?”

“What do you think?”

Thadeus shook his head. “Just a drunk.”

Brewer laughed. “I love honesty. It’s so cruel.”

“I hope you’re not offended.”

“Not at all. But don’t give up trying.”

“We’ve already spoken a few times,” Thadeus said. “Do you remember?”

“Vaguely.”

“You told me something like, ‘They’ll do to you what they did to me.’”

“That doesn’t sound like me.”

“What do you think you meant?”

Brewer shook his head. “What does any drunk mean when they’re drunk? I don’t think I’ve ever said anything profound when I’ve been drinking. I rarely say anything profound when I’m sober.”

Thadeus noticed the scarcity of books and magazines. The only indication of diversion was a small television balanced on a metal tray. “How long have you lived here?”

“In Newbury? Or in this dump?”

“Both.”

“Nine years in Newbury. Four here.”

“Why did you come here?”

“To Newbury?” he asked, raising the cup to his mouth. “Or this dump?” He took a long gulp before exhaling in satisfaction. He was enjoying the game.

“To Newbury,” Thadeus said.

“Same reason you did.”

“And what’s that?”

He threw back his head and finished the coffee dramatically. “God told me to.” He got a refill and came back, swirling it with a spoon before plopping down again.

“What makes you think God told me to come here?” Thadeus asked.

“It’s a small town,” he said again. “I hear things. Word gets out. And every now and then so do I. Not far but I do get out.”

“Why do you think God told you to come here?”

Brewer took a long sip, keeping his eyes on Thadeus, then stopped and chuckled deep in his throat. Some of the coffee spilled from his mouth and dribbled down his shirt. “I don’t think He did, I know. He stood right in front of me and asked me to come to Newbury. No, that’s wrong, He didn’t ask. He told me clear as day, just like I’m talking to you now. God himself. But He came in the form of a man.”

Thadeus leaned forward. “What man?”

“Fred Birch.”

“Why would Fred Birch want you to come to Newbury?” Thadeus asked.

“To lead a church. Don’t believe me?” he said with amusement, then, feigning pride: “I was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Willoughby. An actual, real-life pastor, with a nice church, a good-sized congregation, a choir and a house next door. Then Birch showed up and my life went to hell.”

“How?”

“He asked me to come to Newbury to pastor Newbury Baptist.”

“I thought Birch was Catholic.”

“He was.”

“Then why–“

”That’s the interesting part,” he said. “Birch didn’t even go to the church he wanted me to lead. But there he was, standing in my office and telling me what a great opportunity it would be. He had heard great things about me–though don’t ask me from where–and the pastor at the Newbury Baptist had left and the people were like ‘a flock without a shepherd.’” He waved his hand dismissively. “He really knew how to pour on the bullshit. Birch was a pretty good salesman, I’ll give him that. He could actually be somewhat likeable when he wanted to be.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I’d think about it, which I had no intention of doing. He said, no problem, take your time, that he’d give me time to think about it and call me back the next day. That was Birch for you, everything on his schedule.”

“What changed your mind?”

Brewer took a sip, nodding. “I hadn’t even considered it. But after Birch left, I started thinking about it. I had been wanting to take the church in a different direction. It seemed all we did was play church. I wanted to do more, to see things done, not just lip service. Something more spiritual. Call it the Holy Spirit, call it boredom, but I felt drawn to that vision. It was then I realized that in the back of my mind I’d been thinking about leaving for a while but had never put the idea into words.”

“Why didn’t you implement the changes you wanted to see at your own church, instead of leaving?”

Brewer laughed, taking a long and satisfying drink. “You’ve never been a pastor, I assume. You wouldn’t like it. People, problems, and no pay. Once you’re established in a church it’s almost impossible to make any changes. I knew the town, I knew the people and worse, they knew me. I couldn’t simply show up one Sunday and say, ‘Today we’re going to try something new.’ Hell, they told me what I was going to do. The elders had been there before I was born. I couldn’t change my wardrobe without their approval. They weren’t about to let me do anything.”

“Did you ask?”

“I hinted,” he said. “Little things, at first. Small steps, eh? I suggested we take the offering after the service and that instead of passing the plate we have a box in the back for people to drop money in on the way out. They didn’t even discuss it. I suggested a few more contemporary songs, less emphasis on the old hymns. That was a big no. I thought we could do an outreach to the community, have a picnic, hand out flyers. They looked at me like I was crazy. Why on earth would anyone want to grow a church?” He shook his head. “After that I had resigned myself to the status quo. Then Birch comes into my office with this offer and I got to thinking maybe it was Providential.”

“God’s will.”

Andy nodded, then laughed. “God in the form of Fred Birch. I thought maybe a new town, a new group of people, might be what I needed. So we talked it over and made the decision.”

“We?”

“My wife and I.”

“You have a wife?”

Brewer scowled. “Are you trying to be funny? I had a wife. She–“ Brewer stopped. “I met her right after college. Her name was Donna.”

“Was?”

“Was, is. After a divorce, what’s the difference? She might as well be dead.”

“Where is she now?”

“Who cares?” he said, then smiled. “Spoken like a true ex-husband. She moved down to Miami Beach, where all people go after a divorce or during a divorce or to find a reason for a divorce.”

“What did she think about the idea of moving here?”

“She was against it, of course. To women,” he said, raising his glass. “They were made to complete a man, not finish him off. Too bad they never got the memo.”

“You must have worked that into a few sermons.”

“A few too many. It’s good to work a few jokes into the repertoire,” Andy said. “It takes your mind off the fact that you don’t believe anything you’re saying.”

“She was against it at first,” Thadeus repeated as Brewer stared over his cup, lost in the past. “Your wife.”

“Yeah, right. Women are like that. Bring up anything new and they’re automatically against it. It’s God’s way of keeping a man out of trouble. Of course, they’re never against the idea of getting married. That would have kept me out of a lot of trouble.” He grinned. “I didn’t work that line into many sermons. Maybe I should have worked it into a few weddings. Anyway, Donna was against the idea of moving, of course. It’s always a lot of work and if you’re not sure where you’re going it takes a lot of faith. But we go on faith, don’t we?” he said. “We walk in faith. If God says go, we go, no matter if we’re walking into hell itself.”

“Newbury is far from hell.”

Brewer snorted. “Hell can be right in the middle of paradise, if you’re alone. You think Adam wasn’t in hell before Eve? Little did he know.” He shook his head slowly, discarding memories. “It wasn’t long after I’d brought it up that she came to me and said she thought it might be a good idea to move on, start fresh somewhere else where people didn’t know us.”

“Were you having trouble in Willoughby?”

“No. Sounds like it, doesn’t it, the way she put it, the way I put it. I think we were just both ready for a new beginning. I was so amazed she was supportive of anything I said I didn’t think much of it. Looking back, I think she had already made up her mind to leave me, and a new town where nobody knew us might have seemed an easier route to take.”

“How did the congregation react?”

“Here or there?”

“Both.”

He stood up. “More coffee?”

Thadeus shook his head and Andy went into the kitchenette. “In Willoughby, they were surprised, naturally. But before we’d gone they already had a new pastor. Guess who found him?”

“No,” Thadeus said, anticipating.

“Yup. Fred Birch.”

“He seemed to get around.”

“Yeah, whether you wanted him to or not. His little way of helping. Some people,” Andy said, coming back and sitting, “help because there’s a need. Others because it feeds their ego. I’m sure if you asked people in Willoughby what they thought of him they’d say he was the greatest guy in the world. But to others he was a meddling son of a bitch who never thought of anybody but himself.”

“How did you see him?”

Brewer laughed. “A meddling, helpful, egocentric bastard who didn’t give a crap about anyone beyond what they could do for him. That is his legacy.” He took a long sip of his coffee with eyes closed. “Ash. Nothing like good coffee.”

Thadeus remembered the punch line to that joke, finding it apt.

“You don’t seem to be enjoying yours,” Brewer said.

“I’ve had worse,” he lied.

“The blood of Christ,” he said, raising it. “Maybe you don’t have enough faith.” He leaned forward and handed his cup to Thadeus, who took it reluctantly. “Try it.”

He raised it to his nose and sniffed. He took a tentative sip, then winced and handed it back with a cough as Brewer laughed.

“What is that?”

“A little rum. Gives it that extra kick in the morning. If you want, I could rum yours up a bit.”

“No, thanks.” The only thing that can help a bad cup of coffee, Thadeus knew, was a good cup of coffee.

“Suit yourself. To slavery, in all forms.” He took a long sip, watching Thadeus. “And to faith.” He took another. “Some people are born with it, some attain it, and some have it thrust upon them.”

“What about the man who was here before you?”

He lowered the cup, his eyes darting. “What man? There was no man here before?”

“The previous pastor of the church,” Thadeus said.

“Oh, him.” Brewer relaxed. “I didn’t know him.”

“Why did he leave?”

“I don’t know.”

‘They didn’t tell you?”

He shook his head.

“Was he unstable?”

“Unstable? What do you mean?”

“Birch told you the people were ready for some stability. That implies things were unstable.”

“Oh, right, right,” he said, smiling. “Now I remember. That’s right, there was some talk about the previous pastor getting into some type of…let’s say, trouble. I never did get the whole story.”

“That seems a pretty important thing to forget,” Thadeus said blankly and he saw Brewer’s eyes close slightly but his tone was unchanged.

“That was a lot of years ago. A lot of beers ago.” He laughed. “I didn’t care. That was in the past. The church needed a new start and so did I. And when Fred recommended me to the board of elders, they were ready to have someone take over.”

“A ship without a rudder.”

“Something like that. I would bring them the stability they needed, while at the same time I could move in a direction I’d always wanted to go.”

“Beneficial for everyone. So what happened?”

Brewer’s face noticeably darkened. “Nothing, for a while. I spent the better part of the first year getting to know everyone, getting a feel for the town, getting comfortable. The people seemed to like me and I liked most of them.”

“Most?”

“There’s always a few in every church who revel in the attention. Either the perpetually needy, or the perpetually unhappy. Other than that, things were going so well I thought I’d try to do something I’d always wanted to do. A community outreach.”

“Meaning?”

“The First Annual Newbury Baptist Barbecue. We had it at the park and ten people from church showed up. Some townsfolk showed up out of curiosity, others just to eat. I even gave a sermon in the park, just like Whitfield and Scofield and Ballfield. Good old Jimmy Ballfield.” His tone was self-mocking but there was pride as well.

“Sounds like a good beginning.”

“It was, so I started having them once a month in the summer. Then I took the next step, opening the congregation up for prayer. Out loud. During the service.” He shuddered. “You don’t know what fear is until you do that. For the first three weeks no one said a word. Except me. But then, little by little, people began to pray. There were rumblings, of course, which I expected. But no one left the church. So I thought I’d take the next step. Praying for sick people after the service.”

“Let me guess,” said Thadeus. “No one showed up.”

“For three months. It got to be a damn joke. Now people started talking and the board of elders were beginning to give me some pressure. It was making people uncomfortable, they said, and people don’t go to church to be uncomfortable. I still thought I was called to do it but nothing was happening. Then, finally, something happened. It was the best thing in the world and the worst thing in the world, all on the same day.”

“What was it?”

Brewer drank the last of his coffee, made a look of distaste, then tossed the cup onto the floor. It spun sideways until it reached the separation between living room and kitchen, hitting the small metal divider to pop up and land on its mouth.

“Somebody got healed.

You want to mess up a church?” Brewer continued. “Pray for somebody who actually gets healed. I guarantee a fifty percent decrease in attendance.”

Thadeus nodded sympathetically.

“A lady came up after the service. She had to be seventy if she was a day. She was bent over a little, not to the extreme but enough where it was noticeable and obviously painful. Me and two other guys gathered around her and said a few prayers. Nothing heaven-shaking, just simple, generic ‘Lord, touch this woman’ type prayers. We should have kept our mouths shut.”

“And?”

“She stood up. Straight. And then she thanked us and left. Simple. And we just stood with our mouths open. The beginning of the end.”

“It doesn’t sound too bad.”

“Maybe not to you but we knew and so did everyone in the church. She got healed.”

“Maybe it was just a muscle cramp.”

“Then it was the longest one in history. She’d been in the same condition since I’d been there and years before that. That was the problem. Everybody knew her. Then all of a sudden it’s gone, like that.” He snapped his fingers. “We couldn’t talk ourselves out of it, no matter how hard we tried. And believe me, we tried.”

“Why would you want to?”

Brewer gave him a look of scorn. “I think you know. Going to church and singing songs and passing the plate and hearing a sermon is all fine and good. Suddenly God shows up. Nobody expects that, not even me. Things change.”

“Like what?”

“For starters, the lady who got healed never came back. She’d been going to that church most of her life. That day was her last. After that it just seemed to snowball. There was a mixture of elation and outrage and fear in the next few weeks. I wasn’t sure what to think. I was excited, my wife was skeptical, the congregation was wary. I didn’t know which direction to go. I wanted to pray for everyone and see revival. But people were pissed. Some of the elders were furious, demanding I resign right then. People who had been staunch members left, swearing they’d never come back. It was like a wave of irrational emotion sweeping over everyone. Even Birch came to see me that week, telling me that if something like that happened again he’d have me arrested!”

Thadeus laughed. “Arrested for what?”

“Giving people false hope. Playing on the emotions of the elderly for financial gain. Some such nonsense. But that was just the beginning of the crazy. The next few weeks were a whirlwind of anger and fear. The only thing I could think to do was leave and I wasn’t going to do that. So we did the worst thing possible.”

“What?”

“We went on like nothing had happened. We all agreed without saying a word to pretend that it had been a dream and we went on with our lives and played church as if the clock had been turned back. Most of those who left came back, eventually, and we went back to normal. Or as close to what we thought normal had been.”

Andy’s face was dark and his gaze drifted. “But it was never the same. Things had changed.”

“What changed?”

His gaze fell upon his cup and he raised it and took a long sip. He looked at Thadeus. “Some other time I’ll give you all the sordid details. Now, maybe you can tell me a few things.”

“Sure. What?”

“Why did you come to Newbury?”

“You already know.”

“I only know,” he said, picking up some folded pages and tossing it to Thadeus, “what I read in the newspaper.

Thadeus unfolded it to find he was holding a copy of the Newbury News. The headline read:

 

Man Held in Assault on Birch

 

A man who had only been in Newbury less than a week was being held in the Newbury jail for assaulting one of Newbury’s most prominent citizens, Fred Birch, according to Officer Donny Rowe. Thadeus Cochran, a visitor staying at Ruth Schneider’s Rooming House, had met up with Birch at the Newbury Theater and accosted him on the sidewalk, according to witnesses. Sources say that the two men had exchanged words earlier in the week and the confrontation leading to the assault had stemmed from that incident. Cochran, an investor from New York, declined to comment on the matter. Arraignment is set for Monday.

 

“Not very accurate,” Thadeus said, handing the paper back. “Or well written.”

“Gotta fill space.”

“Witnesses and sources,” Thadeus said. “Sounds like he’s looking to move up to a tabloid.”

“You can’t fault a guy for trying to sell papers. There’s just under ten thousand people in town. When something finally happens around here he’s got to capitalize. I’m sure the next issue,” Brewer said, “will be less flattering. I can see the headline now: Deranged Psychic Has Assault Charge Dropped Due to Death of Victim.”

“I’m not a psychic.”

Brewer waved his hand. “Whither goest facts in the publishing world? So, why are you in Newbury, again?”

“To find out who killed Fred Birch?”

Brewer nodded, smiling. “That’s what I heard. I just wanted you to say it. Though I’m told he died of a heart attack.”

“You sure get a lot of information for someone who never steps out his front door.”

“Who says I don’t?” he said. “In the past month I’ve made it all the way to the back door. Twice. And I have visitors. I get the Times daily and the Newbury News every week. The liquor store on the corner delivers and a kid comes once a month and takes the bottles for the Boy Scouts.” He motioned vaguely with his hand. “And I have a satellite dish.”

“No internet?”

“Alas, I am the last hold-out in the computer age. And as I get older I am convinced that the increase of information is directly related to the decrease of intelligence.”

“That’s an interesting theory. You should have a blog.”

Brewer looked momentarily thoughtful as if considering.

“Thanks for the coffee,” Thadeus said, standing. “I’m glad we finally met. I’m sure we’ll talk again.”

“Anytime, unless the door is closed and the shades are drawn and the lights are off.”

Thadeus walked to the door. Brewer made no move to move.

“Where do you go from here?”

”To see Justus McDermitt.”

“The law,” Brewer said ominously. “Why?”

“To find out the cause of death. See if there’ll be an autopsy. Examine the scene of the crime.”

“Still think he was murdered?”

“Yup.”

“The stubbornness of the faithful,” Brewer said. “I’d admire you, if I didn’t know better.”

“If I’m here,” Thadeus said, “then Fred Birch was murdered.”

He closed the door on the smirking face of Andy Brewer.

Chapter 23

 

Justus McDermitt was on the phone as Thadeus entered the police station, so he scanned the walls, involving himself in the Town Minutes and the Most Wanted list, glad to not be mentioned on either. Little League sign-ups were in progress and they were looking for coaches. A meeting of the historical society loomed. Someone had lost a retriever, ironically.

The voice coming out of the phone was high-pitched and could be heard in any corner of the room. McDermitt was doing his best to console the woman who apparently hadn’t called for that purpose. From the conversation, Thadeus gathered there was a Peeping Tom in her neighborhood who she spotted as she was showering. Amazing, he thought, how many women shower with shades up and curtain open.

Thadeus caught the eye of the Lieutenant and gave him a slight smile and nod that wasn’t returned. He didn’t know if he should be overhearing the conversation or if Justus would rather he didn’t but it was a public building. Anyone else who happened to be there would be hearing the same and if Justus wanted him to leave he’d say so.

After he hung up, Justus rubbed his hands over his face. Thadeus turned and smiled at him. “It’s not me, if that helps.”

Justus looked though his fingers. “What isn’t?”

“The person she was calling about. On the phone. The Peeping Tom. It’s not me.”

Justus stared, comprehension coming slowly. “Oh, that. No, I know. No, it’s…” He stopped, mentally editing. “She calls often,” he ended up saying. “What can I do for you, Mr. Cochran?”

“You can call me Thadeus,” he said. “I hear Fred Birch’s funeral is this Friday.”

“Yes.” His eyes narrowed slightly. “You’re not planning on attending, I hope.”

Thadeus shook his head. “But I did want to ask what the coroner deemed the official cause of death.”

“Heart attack.”

“Any doubt?”

“Not to me.”

“Was there an autopsy?”

“No,” Justus said. “Catherine didn’t feel it was necessary.”

“What about for Bob Tyner?”

“Same. Heart attack, no autopsy.”

“Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

“Not for two men with heart conditions. Unfortunately, those are all too common.” He paused. “Does that bother you?”

Thadeus heard the words as Justus spoke them but his mind was elsewhere. Faith. Trust, Hope. Mistakes. “No,” he answered finally, thinking, Though it does make things more complicated.

“It shouldn’t,” Justus said. “And it shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Bob had two stents put in two years ago. And Fred had a history of high blood pressure and had a pacemaker implanted about ten years ago. This heart attack wasn’t his first.” He was going to say something more but caught himself. Thaddeus could guess. ‘It wasn’t his first but it was his last.’

“I heard he was found on the Tyner property.”

Justus hesitated. “They’re adjoining properties.”

“Was he examined there?”

“Yes.”

“By the coroner?”

“Yes.”

“Did you witness it?”

“Are you saying I’m lying?” The words seemed to contain a warning.

“No, nothing like that,” Thaddeus said with a smile. “I just want to be accurate and make sure that what I think people are saying is in line with what they actually mean.”

“He was examined twice. Once at the scene. Then he was taken to Morton’s Funeral Home where Charlie Morton looked him over. There was a pathologist there as well. They saw nothing to contradict it.”

“I’d like to talk to them.”

The man curled his lips in an exasperated manner. “Mr. Cochran, we’ve had a busy week here. First you show up, then Bob Tyner dies, then Fred Birch. Maybe I’m getting old but I’m not as fond of surprises as I once was. I like the warm routine. I like every day the same as the next same as the last. I don’t particularly like people moving into town and I hate it even more when they leave. I really don’t like it when they die. If nothing had changed in the last twenty years I’d be happy as a clam. So you can see why this hasn’t been my favorite week. Both Bob and Fred died of heart attacks and there’s nothing much else to say about it. If you want to pursue the matter, I’ll give you the information you need. But that’s as far as it goes. And it’s as far as I go.”

Thadeus nodded, appreciating for the first time not only McDermitt’s predicament but everyone in the town, as well.

“Do you mind if I look at the scene of Fred Birch’s death?”

The man frowned. “It’s private property. It has nothing to do with me. You’ll have to get permission from Wendy Tyner.”

“Would you care if I spoke to either of the women?”

“Of course I care.” His voice rose slightly when he said it, then calmed. “They’ve been through a lot in a very short period of time. But legally there’s nothing I can do to stop you. I could make it difficult, though I’d rather you just used good judgment.”

Thadeus nodded. “It’s odd Birch was found dead on the Tyner property.”

McDermitt said nothing and there was a brief moment of tension. Then the phone rang and Justus let it ring twice more before he picked it up.

 

As Thadeus walked outside he wondered how the man had ever stayed in such a profession. For a man who craved consistency, every call to the station was a reminder that life was rarely so generous.

Besides dealing with crime, which always held the possibility of being life-changing, there was the continual planting and uprooting of people. It was difficult to invest time in relationships only to have them torn out of your life. Most people, he knew, had a small circle of friends, even in a town as small as Newbury. You could know hundreds of people but the inner circle was only a handful. For Justus McDermitt, the whole town was his inner circle. He didn’t dislike newcomers because they were potential trouble; he disliked them as potential friends who would leave one day, perhaps without goodbyes, damaging those roots once again. Or who would die one day, leaving a bigger void that could never be replaced.

And the two people Thadeus needed to speak with now, Catherine Birch and Wendy Tyner, were dealing with much larger issues and tender emotions that had to be respected and treated carefully. Examining the scene of the crime–or the scene of the death, the official label–was certainly cliché and would probably lead to nothing tangible but one never knew. As Birch had died on Tyner land, close to where the two properties met, he wouldn’t need bother Newbury’s newest widow, Catherine Birch. But he had yet to meet Wendy Tyner and was not on Jesse’s short list of friends. He needed to get on the property with someone who could smooth the way.

He walked across the street to Harry’s Place.

 

“Isn’t this exciting?” Alba was saying as they drove away from town.

She had been fifteen minutes from ending her shift at the diner when Thadeus entered. He had sat at a corner table, trying to explain his intentions in short spurts while she passed; taking orders, carrying plates, and seemingly without interest.

“These seats are for customers,” was her only reply as she tossed down a menu.

He ordered two eggs, raw; hash browns, greasy; toast, black; coffee, cold. He added he would like it served into the nearest dumpster. She had scribbled it down, added it up and handed back his bill—with twenty percent tip—almost without breaking stride.

“Pay when ready,” she had said and after doing so he sat there rearranging the condiments until her shift was over.

 

“Exciting’s not the word,” Thadeus answered in response. “Are you sure it’ll be okay?”

“Of course,” she said. “I’m like family. They won’t care.”

“I just don’t want to upset Mrs. Tyner.”

“Can’t make a omelet…or solve a murder.”

“Where was Jesse today?”

“He was there,” she said, “in the kitchen. In the morning, anyway. He left right before you arrived. There’s a lot of things to be taken care of.”

“How was the funeral?”

“Somber. Father Connelly did the service and he was more than a bit confused. He kept mixing up Bill Tyner and Fred Birch’s names, calling one by the other and vice versa. Hard to keep track of who’s dying in Newbury nowadays.”

“Birch was supposed to do the eulogy,” Thadeus said.

Alba smiled. “Then it all worked out for the best.”

They drove north, where houses were more spread out. A Newbury Real Estate sign in front of a huge fenced-in property echoed that fact, for an agent had added words: Less Town, More Ground! “How is Mrs. Tyner doing?”

She shrugged. “How well does anyone do with death?”

“Not well.”

“Not well,” she repeated.

“Jesse?”

“Coping.” Alba slowed and made a turn onto a narrow dirt road that was barely wide enough for one car. The woods loomed large of either side and it was almost like entering a tunnel. Tunnel of Love, Thadeus thought stupidly, glancing at the girl. He noticed he could see a good ways down her shirt from that angle, the top button undone and her breasts pushing hard against the fabric. He purposed to keep his eyes front-ward from that point on.

“Anyone know we’re coming?”

“And give people time to cover the evidence?”

“I don’t want to make waves.”

“Then you’re in the wrong business.”

More sunlight was coming through the trees and Thadeus noticed fields beyond, lining the road where before it had been thick woods. The road widened as a house appeared on the left side of the street. It was a two-story dark Tudor sitting on a small hill a few feet above the road. Across the street was a matching barn set in another thirty feet from the road. It looked older and more worn than the house. An old rusted tractor sat in front, a few rakes and shovels leaning against the wall. A trough full of dirt with a few yellow flowers drooping in the shade was the sum of the décor, save for two bags of grain slumped together like workers on a break. Alba parked in front of the barn and they got out. Thadeus could hear clucking from inside and took a breath for confirmation. Chickens. There was a small pond up the road a bit and some ducks were floating on top, others walking its small coastline.

“So, this is the place.”

“This is it. Tyner Ranchero.”

“Aren’t you going to tell anyone we’re here?”

She laughed. “You worry too much. Besides,” she said, indicating the empty area around the car, “there’s no one to tell.”

They walked the length of the barn and around. Out of the shade, the sun was glaring and hot and Thadeus felt a slight throb on the side of his head as he squinted. The field to their right was fenced and a white mare stood eating grass.

There was a shed up ahead and as they walked by Thadeus looked in the window to see it stuffed with gardening tools. Not far beyond that found them walking on a worn path, ankle-high grass bordering with taller grass beyond. They seemed to be kicking up flies with each step which Thadeus swatted from his face. Alba seemed not to notice.

“How come they don’t bother you?” he asked her.

“Must be my spicy blood.”

“Where are we going?”

“This is their back property,” she said. “It butts up against the Birch property. He was found back here.”

Thadeus wiped his forehead. “How far is it?”

She looked at him with bemusement. “Not far. We could run, if you’re in a hurry.”

“No thanks.”

“Not long after I started dating Jesse,” she said, “he would invite me over for breakfast on Saturdays. The first thing we had to do was take a bucket and go out here and pick blueberries for pancakes.” She pointed to a clump of bushes to the left.

Thadeus stopped. “No berries.”

She stooped to look closer. “Some small ones. Not ripe yet. When they are…” She licked her lips. “They get nice and big,” she said, raising her eyebrows, “just the way I like ‘em.”

“Do you ever say anything that doesn’t have a sexual connotation?”

“Only during sex. Then I talk about baseball.”

After a few minutes it was just as hot and the flies just as annoying. “Are we almost there?”

“I thought you were used to walking. You did want to see where he died, didn’t you?”

Thadeus made a noise, halfway between a groan and an affirmation. At least Sherlock Holmes, he thought, had the advantage of being in cool, foggy London. Here the grass was still damp at the roots, the bugs were out and he hadn’t had a drink for hours. He thought of strawberry-lime tea. “I want to see where the properties meet, first,” he said. “Then you can show me where Birch’s body was found.”

“Too late,” she said, stopping. “This is where Fred Birch died.”

It didn’t seem to be much different than the surrounding area, Thadeus noticed, except for some broken weeds.

“Well, let’s come back to this. How far to the property line?”

She pointed. “See the fence?”

He squinted. “No.”

A few more minutes found them standing next to a barbed wire fence, three stands worth; mid-calf, waist and chest high, held by metal posts spaced at ten foot intervals. Thadeus tested the tensile strength and found it wobbly.

“Pretty loose fence.”

“You know what they say. Good fences make good neighbors, loose fences make loose neighbors.”

“What does that mean?”

She looked at him blankly. “What do you think it means?”

He looked beyond the fence. “How far to Birch’s house?”

She shrugged. “I’ve only been to the front of their house. I never walked the grounds. But probably not much further than those trees.”

The field was a good three acres in length, perhaps three times that in width. “Do they have animals?”

“Used to graze cows,” Alba said. “Still might. There’s a few over there.” She pointed. Thadeus could only see black dots off in the distance.

“So for Birch to have been found where he was, he had to come through the fence here.”

“Somewhere around here.”

“Is there a gate? Any broken wires?”

“I don’t know about the gate. I doubt any part of the fence is broken. Fred Birch was pretty anal about details.”

“Fence is loose,” Thadeus said again.

“True. But it’s only to keep cows in.”

Thadeus nodded. “Maybe that’s why he was out surveying the property. I hear he did that often.”

“Mmm.”

Thadeus walked slowly along the fence examining the three wires. He stopped once and pulled something off a barb.

“What is it?”

“Fabric.” He clenched his fist around it and kept walking. He stopped again, a few feet away. “More fabric. Different color.” He retraced his steps, repeating the process and stopped twice more, adding more to his pile.

“So we know Birch came through here,” Alba said. “Probably lifted up the barb wire to step through and it caught his shirt.”

“We know somebody came through here,’ Thadeus said. “We don’t know who. Or why. Or when.”

“At least we know where,” Alba added wryly. “Are you going to have the fabric tested?”

“For what?”

“To see if they match any of Birch’s clothes.”

“Why?”

Her expression held exasperation. “Then you’ll know they came from Birch’s clothes and no one else’s.”

Thadeus considered. “I’ll just assume they were his.”

“What kind of detective are you?”

“I suppose I could…” he trailed off. “But what would it prove? That Birch came through here often? I already suspected as much. Or that someone else went through the other way? I already thought so. So did you.”

“Whatever do you mean?” She said it with a southern drawl and a sly smile.

“Show me again where he was found.”

They walked back to the area.

Thadeus squatted, as did the girl next to him. The broken stalks and dandelions were the equivalent of a city’s chalk outline, he thought.

“It’s hard to believe someone died here,” Alba said. “In the middle of all this. It would be awful to die out here alone.”

“There are worse places,” Thadeus said, remembering.

“What’s the worst?”

“Any place where you’re alone and unloved.”

“Fortunately,” she said with a wicked smile, “you and I will never be in that predicament.”

Thadeus stared at the ground nearby, then further off. Tall grass, plenty of flies. What did that tell him? That it was time to mow.

“Getting any readings?” Alba asked. “Emanations? Vibrations? Voices from beyond?”

He made a face.

“You’re the psychic. What disturbing sights do you see in the spirit world?”

He looked back from where they came. “I see a man taking a late night walk in the rain.”

“That’s not disturbing.”

“No. But it’s unusual.”

“What’s so unusual about it?”

“Have you ever walked in the rain?” he asked.

“Of course. Haven’t you?”

“Not on purpose.”

“Some find it romantic. Don’t you?”

“No, I find it wet. And cold. And uncomfortable. And a man Birch’s age—a man my age,” he added, hoping it gave her pause, “—doesn’t go out of his way to increase his chances of pneumonia.”

“I’m sure,” she said very suggestively, “he had his reasons.”

Thadeus turned to her. “Why don’t you just say what you’re thinking?”

She put her hand to her chest innocently. “Moi? I haven’t a thought in my little ole head.”

He scowled, scanning the earth again. Besides the indentations, there wasn’t much sign of a man having died in that spot in the last few days. There were footprints all around, on the path, mostly, where mud had been more prevalent that night. And the tracks from all the people who had been through in the past few days: Police, family, killer.

“Still think he was murdered?” Alba said and Thadeus grunted at the intrusion of his thoughts.

“Yes,” he said after a moment.

“How do you know?”

He frowned. “When I know that, I’ll go home.”

How, indeed? No signs of trauma on the body, according to Justus, and no signs of foul play. No bullet hole leading to a bullet casing leading to a gun leading to a shooter. A body found dead in a field. Cause: heart attack. How does one manage that and call it murder?

He stared for another moment, then his eyes strayed to a clump of dandelions. He pulled out a handful and held them to his nose. The musky sweetness brought memories.

“A clue?”

“No,” he said. “My grandmother used to make dandelion soup on her farm.”

“How did it taste?”

“Like soupy grass.” He plucked the ends of a few, thinking to keep them as a reminder. He handed one to Alba. “For you. A souvenir.”

She took it with a smile. “How sweet. You do like me.” She took a step closer, then began plucking them, sing-singing familiar words. “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me…” When she got to the last she held it up. “This flower says you love me. Is it telling the truth?”

 

He heard a noise behind him and turned to find a rifle barrel in his face and at the other end, Jesse Tyner. “I believe you have a question to answer,” the boy said, his voice even and eyes dead. His finger quivered.

“Jesse, quit making an ass of yourself. And put the gun down. Now!”

A frown came to his mouth but the gun didn’t move. “Don’t you know you’re trespassing? People have been shot for that.”

“I don’t think,” Thadeus said, standing slowly and a bit shakily, “that you want to be found with another dead body.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’re the one who found Fred Birch.”

Jesse lowered the gun. “So?”

“Finding two dead bodies in a week is way above average. And suspicious.”

“Screw you.”

“Jesse,” Alba said firmly but it didn’t change the boy’s demeanor.

“Is this where you found Fred Birch?”

He glared at Thadeus, saying nothing.

“Jesse,” Alba said again, this time softer.

“Yeah. Here.” He pointed the rifle at the spot, then let it fall loosely at his side.

“Face up? Face down?”

“Face down. Here. Legs here. Arms here. What’s the difference?”

Thadeus shrugged. “What time was that?”

Jesse shrugged with him. “Early. Seven, seven-thirty.”

“Sunday morning, right?”

“Yeah. While you were in jail, remember?”

Thadeus smiled. “Just making sure. The memory’s the first thing to go.”

“And you forget what’s second,” Alba said, finishing the joke. “Let’s hope the sex drive is the last,” she added.

“How did you happen to find him?”

“What do you mean?”

“What led you out here so early?”

Jesse hesitated. “I live here.”

“Oh, brother,” Alba said, rolling her eyes. “Just answer the question.”

“I was hunting.” He lifted the rifle slightly, almost pointing again. “I like to see things die.”

“Don’t listen to him,” the girl said. “Jesse only target practices. He never shoots anything living. At least,” she said, leaning into his eyes, “he’d better not, if he knows what’s good for him. And if he doesn’t know what’s good for him, he won’t be getting any more of what’s good for him.”

“The eco-system won’t be hurt if I shoot a rat or two. Or a squirrel.”

“They have every much of a right to live as we do. They were here before us. And they’re God’s creation, isn’t that right, Mr. Cochran?”

“I have no intention of getting in the middle of any pre-marital squabbles.” He moved away from the girl when he said it, for safety sake, the same reason he made the remark. She responded by taking the boy’s face in her hands and kissing him on the cheek.

“Anything else?” Alba asked, not looking at him.

“One more thing. What do you think Fred Birch was doing over here?”

Jesse stiffened slightly, almost pushing Alba away. “How would I know?”

“The property line is a good fifty yards from here,” Thadeus said. “There’s no way of getting through barbed wire unless you purpose to. Would he have been coming to visit?”

“No,” the kid said firmly.

“So the question remains.”

“I don’t know. Maybe he saw something.”

“Aliens.” Alba said. “Bigfoot. Aliens making crop circles. Bigfoot making crop footprints.”

“A man doesn’t walk through an empty field in the midst of a storm without a good reason.”

“Maybe he thought it was a passing storm. You know what they say about the weather in New England.”

And she told him, most likely for spite.

“Let’s go eat,” Alba said, kissing Jesse again. “I’m suddenly ravenous.”

“I’m going to stay out here for a while longer,” Thadeus said but they’d already turned and started back to the house. He scanned the area in all directions. Not a bad place to die, he decided. Nice trees, lots of birds, an occasional rabbit hopping by. Of course, Birch might have had a different opinion.

He walked slowly back to the barbed wire fence. Just a few days prior a man had walked the same path one last time. The last mile, he thought ominously. Or quarter-mile, to be accurate. What had brought him to go out in the night’s rain? Perhaps Thadeus’ own words to the man that day had something to do with it. Thadeus didn’t know the exact time of death but it must not have been too much later than when Birch had spoken to him in jail. A few hours after that, perhaps. Maybe something he had said had got Birch to thinking about life and death and redemption. Maybe those thoughts then drove him to solitude, to reassess his life’s path and its direction and in so doing had sent him onto another path wherein waited his killer.

Maybe it was simple restlessness. Or, as Alba suggested, an obsessive need to survey all he was master of. Or maybe the need to survey all he had given away. Once it had all been Birch land. Maybe his nighttime venture was one driven not by regret but with the possibility of attainment. It was unused, for the most part and even if somehow deemed necessary by Wendy Tyner and family, money had a way of making people change their minds about what was important. With Bob Tyner gone and a widow grieving, negotiations could go smooth.

Or, he thought, reaching the fence again, none of those things. It was his experience that the motives of men had more to do with the baser instincts. Hunger, sleep, sex.

Thadeus started back with deliberate slow steps. He was feeling some of those baser instincts himself, mainly hunger, but decided some self-restraint would do him good. Retracing Birch’s last steps might give him insight into motivation.

He pictured Birch cold, hunched over, rain in his face, shivering and he began walking with that posture. Then he stopped and straightened. No, he thought. Not Birch. Birch would be standing tall, fighting the elements, challenging God to strike him dead on the spot. He would take long, forceful steps. He wouldn’t let any man or woman or God stand in his…

Thadeus stopped. And stooped. Lying on the ground, off the path and near the weeds, was a flower. It was a long-stemmed rose and it lay by a thistle bush. He picked it up, feeling the thorns with his fingers. The bloom had been flattened by the rain but it still smelled fresh. It was dark, blood red and when fresh the full bloom would have measured almost six inches across. The stem itself was three times that length.

Thadeus broke off the bloom, then broke the rest of the stem in half and put all the pieces into his pocket. He found a twig that was close to two feet in length and pushed it into the ground to mark the spot where he had found the rose.

He walked to where Birch’s body had been found and it took him eighteen steps. With some quick figuring he estimated it to be a little under thirty feet, give or take, using his own stride for measure. He walked back to where he’d found the rose, turned and looked over the ground again. There was nothing unusual.

Just the rose.

Obviously someone had dropped it. It wasn’t from a garden. It looked more like it was bought at a florist shop. They were the only ones, as far as he knew, who carried long-stemmed roses. Did anyone grow them?

They must, he thought stupidly. They exist. But were they grown other than commercially? He didn’t know. He’d have to ask Amy later.

So, someone dropped the rose on the ground, he thought. And from the side of the path where he’d found it, it was someone who was right-handed. And six-foot two, brown hair, blue eyes, drank cognac, played Parcheesi and enjoyed long walks on the beach. He frowned, unhappy with the analysis.

Obviously, Birch had been carrying the rose. And why was he carrying it? Thadeus asked himself, already suspecting. For the same reason he made his occasional trips that led him beyond his property.

Alba was right, he thought. He wasn’t much of a detective. Too many assumptions. He also assumed that by lunch his theory would be proven correct.

“So,” Thadeus said aloud, which he often did to organize scattered thoughts. “Birch came through the fence, walked to this spot, dropped the rose, walked thirty more feet, then died. I just have to figure out why. Simple.”

Of course, Thadeus thought, Birch might have gotten to this point, felt the beginnings of a heart attack, dropped the rose, then staggered on ahead in the hopes of reaching the Tyner’s house to get help before succumbing to the attack.

“That makes sense,” Thadeus said to himself, then surveyed the scene, unconvinced.

There were only weeds and small plants in the immediate vicinity. The closest tree was a good hundred feet to his left, about twice that distance to his right. He turned and began walking perpendicular to the path in a straight line, not knowing why. He scanned the ground for anything unusual and found nothing by the time he got to the trees. He headed back to the path, repeating the process. When he was about thirty feet away he came across a perfectly round hole in the ground about three inches in diameter. He put his hand in it and found it deeper than he could reach. He looked around for a stick or twig to use as probe, found nothing, then remembered the stems in his pocket. He took one out and inserted it into the ground. It went all the way in and a bit more before he could feel the bottom.

He took it out, examining. “Almost a foot,” he said, then stood and walked back to the path, counting footsteps. When he got to the path he walked the same distance in the opposite direction and stopped, then frowned, then pounced. There was another hole, like the first and he measured that, as well. Nearly the same depth.

“Okay,” he said, standing and starting to walk. “Now, what does any of it mean?”

He walked up the stone steps to the house and as he reached the door he selfishly hoped food would be waiting. Although he had eaten pancakes for breakfast, he couldn’t get the thought of another huge stack sitting on a table, butter melting on top, a warm tin of Vermont maple syrup nearby. And coffee, he thought, ringing the bell, don’t forget the coffee.

The door opened and he saw nothing but large brown eyes looking straight into his soul. They were moist with tears, red with strain and his heart beckoned to be close to them and bring them warmth.

It was Wendy Tyner.

Her lips were puffy, her face smooth and lineless, her eyebrows full, her lashes long and alluring, with shoulder-length wavy brown hair framing all that beauty as if just for him.

“Yes?”

She wore a white blouse, the top button open, perhaps by force as her breasts pushed against it. Her jeans clung tightly to her curves. The top of her head came up to his chin but even from that angle he wished he had the time to just look at her for a few minutes, or hours, more.

“Good morning,” he said, feeling awkward, smiling too big. “I was, uh, looking for…”

She wiped her eyes. “Mr. Cochran? Alba said you’d be along. Come in.”

He followed, thinking that if she had been his neighbor, he might have been tempted to take some walks in the dark himself.

Chapter 24

 

As he sat at the counter Thadeus noticed there was no food cooking, no plates or cups out, no one cooking at the stove or waitress waiting to take his order. Just a grieving widow, scanning the shelves of the refrigerator. Even as much as he enjoyed the view, his stomach rumbled.

“Would you like something?” she asked. “Milk, juice?”

He considered. He couldn’t ask her to make coffee, of course, though he was teetering on the brink of incivility.

She turned at his hesitation. “Coffee?”

“If it’s no trouble.”

She smiled, shut the door and walked to the coffee maker and flipped it on. “No trouble. It’s always ready.”

“Where are the…uh, kids?”

She hesitated again. “Upstairs.”

“Oh.”

“Alba’s a good girl.” She paused. “Jesse’s lucky to have her.”

And to be having her, he thought, wondering if there was jealousy at the thought. Probably. Jealousy, envy. Envious of sin? Of activity? Not a good time to let those thoughts fester, for in the presence of the woman he could feel himself on the edge of arousal.

“Here you go.” She set a large mug in front of him, then went back to the refrigerator and took out a porcelain pitcher of cream and a matching one of sugar from the adjacent counter, putting those on the counter.

“Thank you.”

“I hope you like it,” she said, then stood watching to make sure he approved as if it were the most important thing in the world.

Activity, Thadeus knew, rationalizing the thoughts he was suppressing, was a way of getting through the tough moments in life. Any activity, even the simple ones. Making coffee, cleaning the house, washing dishes, having sex. He took a sip and nodded. “Perfect.”

She smiled and turned to tidy up the counter.

He took another sip. Maybe perfect had been an overstatement. Adequate. Enough to keep down the craving. Like sex, he thought. Sex, food. They seemed to be on his mind a lot lately, he noticed. But if you had an adequate supply of both, he reasoned, you would never think of either. Take away food for a day and it became very important. Remove it for a few days and it became the most important thing in the world. Take it away a week and things you’d never have envisioned yourself doing would become commonplace. Sex was different concerning the timeline but the progression held parallels. Take it away for a few months, well, you could get along. Take it away for a year or so and it was time to make a decision. It would either become a lifestyle, or you’d have to do something about it. But, like coffee, Thadeus thought, one sip and the craving is gone, leaving behind the irritating aftertaste which made you wonder why you thought it was so important in the first place. On the other hand, he thought, watching her, a good cook increased the appetite.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” He had debated bringing it up but knew it had to be discussed sooner or later. And it was good to change focus.

“Thank you.”

“I only met your husband a couple times but I liked him right away.”

She nodded. “Everyone did. Bob was easy to like.”

“Where did you two meet?”

She looked up and took a breath. “God, it’s been so long.”

“We don’t have to talk about it.”

“It’s alright.” She looked at the floor, moving through the years. “We met in high school, right here in town. The building is different; they built a new high school and the old one is now the elementary school. But we met right here. Bob grew up here; he’s third generation. My family moved here from Virginia. It was my freshman year and all the friends I’d had throughout school I left back home. I met Bob my first day at school. He was very friendly and introduced me to his friends, all the people he’d grown up with.”

“I had the same experience, the first time I met him.”

“When was that?”

“At the spaghetti dinner last…Wednesday? He made me feel right at home.”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said. “You’re the one who threw up in the parking lot.”

Thadeus laughed. “My reputation proceeds me.”

“And your dinner.”

They both laughed and Wendy wiped her nose with the back of her hand, then dabbed her eyes with her hands. “It’s good to laugh.”

“Bob seemed pretty jovial.”

She nodded. “He was. He was…fun. Fun-loving. Easy to get to know. A nice change from where I grew up.”

“How so?”

She bit her lip. “My parents divorced when I was seventeen. That’s why we moved, my mother and I. She had an uncle who worked nearby and he found us a house to rent, down by the old post office.”

Thadeus nodded, unknowing.

“And your dad stayed in Virginia?”

Her expression hardened. “He met someone. That’s why they divorced.”

“That’s a hard age to be without a dad.”

“As is any.” She suddenly smiled at a memory. “My dad liked the song ‘Red River Valley.’ I can remember him singing it ever since I was young. When he left, I would sing it to myself when I felt alone, just so I could feel him close to me.” She wiped her eyes. “But by the time we moved I was older and too angry at what he did to want to be part of his life in any way. But now and then I’d think about it and be sad, because it reminded me of all the friends and the life I left back home.”

She let out a breath with a laugh, as if dismissing the silliness of it.

Thadeus took a breath of his own. “From this valley they say you are going,” he began, singing softly and she looked up with a stifled laugh of surprise that brought more tears. “We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile. For they say you are taking the sunshine, that has brightened our path for a while.” He stopped. “I’m afraid that’s all I remember.” He waited and presently she took a composed breath before singing, each verse quaking as she sang.

 

“Come and sit by my side if you love me.

Do not hasten to bid me adieu.

But remember the Red River Valley,

and the cowboy who loved you so true.”

 

She kept her composure until the last line, where the last words stuck in her throat. She brought her face to her hands. Thadeus took a handful of paper napkins from the counter and held them out to her. She took them and wiped her eyes with an embarrassed laugh.

“What’s going on in here?”

Alba was standing by the counter, Jesse behind her. She walked abruptly into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “We just came down to get something to eat. We worked up quite an appetite.”

“We heard singing,” Jesse said, scowling at him.

“Not a lot, I hope,” Thadeus said.

“Every note,” Alba said from within the box.

“I was so off-key,” Wendy said.

“It sounded great.”

“You two would make a wonderful duet,” Alba said, taking out a Coke and popping the can’s lid without looking up.

Wendy and Thadeus exchanged an uneasy smile before she turned away.

Alba took a sip and said, lips still on the can, “I’m sure with practice you two could make beautiful music together.”

Thadeus’ smile became a look of annoyance he aimed her way. “Don’t you have somewhere to go? Work, or jail?”

“You should talk,” she said, sitting a stool away. “Besides, I’m your ride. When I go, you go.”

Thadeus looked at Wendy. “And you actually like this kid?”

Wendy smiled. “She has her moments.”

“I’m like the daughter she never had. Or,” she said, looking at Jesse, “the daughter-in-law she might have.”

Jesse frowned and walked to the refrigerator.

“Are you two hungry? I could make some sandwiches for you and Mr. Cochran–“

”Thadeus, please,” said Alba. “And Thadeus, please, prefers blueberry pancakes.”

“For lunch?”

“Every meal, if I’m not mistaken,” Alba said.

“Anything will be fine,” Thadeus said. “Or nothing. Don’t go to any trouble.”

“Nonsense,” Alba said. “Go to the trouble.”

“I could make pancakes,” Wendy said. “But there are no fresh blueberries.”

“Thadeus could pick some get some.”

“It’s not the season.”

“He could run to the store.”

Wendy stopped rummaging through the freezer. “I’ll just make plain.”

“Will that satisfy you, Mr. Cochran?” Alba asked.

She had been leaning her head on her hand and looking at him with a big smile through the whole exchange.

“Anything would be fine.”

Wendy turned to the sink while Alba said in a half-voice, “That’s not what I hear.”

“Are we just going to sit here all day,” Jesse said, still standing.

“Of course not,” she said. “After pancakes we’ll take Mr. Cochran…oh, sorry…Thadeus please, Cochran…back to his flop house. Then you’ll have the rest of the day to sulk.”

Wendy measured out some flour as they all watched, then added milk and started cracking eggs.

“How long will it be?” Jesse asked.

“Five minutes. Maybe ten.”

“That long?”

“You could help, if you’re in a hurry,” Alba said.

“This is my day off.”

She leaned closer. “I know what we can do.”

“Oh,” he moaned, then looked at Thadeus briefly. “Okay.”

They went up the stairs, hand in hand.

Wendy turned after a moment. “Did they go…?”

“They took a walk.”

“Upstairs?”

“Yup.”

She sighed. “Kids.”

“I wish I had their energy,” Thadeus said, then regretted it. But Wendy seemed not to have heard. He was glad they were gone and glad to have her attention all to himself.

“Those were the days, weren’t they?”

“I suppose,” Thadeus said evasively.

She smiled, pouring the batter, then looked at him with a more serious expression. “I hear you think Fred was murdered.”

“Who told you that?”

“Word gets around. Jesse said something about it.”

“Maybe.”

“That would be horrible.”

“I agree.”

“Who could do that? Who would?”

“Anybody,” he answered. “I hear he had enemies.”

“Fred? Fred didn’t have enemies. Not real ones.”

“Fake ones? They can be just as real.”

She flipped over the pancakes. “Business enemies, maybe. He would bid for a job, as would others and if he got it…well, I could see how that might make someone unhappy. But enemies?”

“You never know. Resentments build over the years. When’s the last time you saw him?”

Her eyes darted up, then down onto the stove. “I don’t know.” She looked up with a half-smile. “Am I a suspect?”

“There was no crime committed,” Thadeus said. “At least, no officially.”

“Saturday. The day Bob—”

“What time was he here?”

She looked at the ceiling, searching. “That was such a confusing day. The whole week. Everything’s still a blur. Afternoon, I guess. You could ask Jesse, he was here. I couldn’t tell you times.”

“He came to pay his respects?”

She nodded, removing the pancakes and putting them on his plate, pouring in more batter. “I…don’t remember much about that, either.”

Thadeus spread butter and syrup on the pancakes, cutting them up quickly, filling his mouth with a bite too big.

“Good?”

He nodded, eyes closed, chewed and asked himself a familiar question. Could I spend the rest of my life here and be happy? He took another bite. Why not? He thought. I’d be 300 pounds but I’d be happy.

 

“It must have been quite a shock that morning…” he said, letting the words linger.

Wendy was cleaning, scrubbing a spot on the counter extra hard. “It was. Actually, Jesse was the one who found him.” From the side it looked as it she were blushing. “Bob slept in the attic room. He snored,” she added. “Jesse came in and woke me. He said his dad didn’t look good and he couldn’t wake him.”

“It was sudden.”

“Yes.”

“Did he have heart problems?”

“Somewhat.”

“On medication?”

She gave him a look. “No.”

“Did he have high blood pressure?”

“He had high blood pressure but he wasn’t on any medication.”

“Did it run in his family?”

“They were all…big. But his parents were both in their late seventies when they died. Why? Do you think–?” She looked at him questioningly.

“No. It just seemed an odd coincidence.”

She folded the cleaning rag neatly and put it in the cupboard under the sink. “I hear you were in jail?”

“Briefly.”

“Because you hit Fred?”

“That’s the official story.”

“I know a lot of people wanted to but I never thought anyone would actually do it.” Her expression held admiration.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t really hit him. He hit me.”

“That’s not what he said.”

“He spoke to you about that?”

Wendy froze for a second, her mouth and eyes open as if caught in a lie. Her eyes moved slightly, then, as if her conscience or memories cleared her: “Yes, he was here that night. Friday night, wasn’t it? Or afternoon?

“I don’t know when he was here.”

“Yes, right after dinner he stopped by.”

“Why?”

She hesitated, then gave up any restraint. “To gloat. He said he’d been attacked at the movie theater by some lunatic who was out to kill him. I guess he meant you.”

Thadeus nodded, eating.

“He didn’t say much about it, just that he was going to see you thrown into prison for the rest of your life.”

“Small talk.”

“And he went on about never letting anyone stand in his way, that type of thing.”

“Stand in his way?”

“You had to know Fred,” she said. “He liked to get on his high horse and when he got on a roll he could go on for hours railing about whatever injustice was impeding his progress.”

“What type of progress?”

She laughed. “Building permits, mainly. The great injustice in the world. He thought there was too much…what was it…regulation, that’s the word.”

“Probably true.”

“I guess you were just one more speed bump to be smoothed over.”

“What did Jesse say about the incident?”

“Where?”

“At the theater?”

“Nothing. Why?”

“He was there. He must have mentioned it.”

“No.” She glanced at the stairway as if for explanation. “Not a word.”

Thadeus said, “Huh.” Realizing there was still syrup on his plate and knowing it would appear gauche if he licked it off, he handed her the plate. “Thank you again. That was the best breakfast I’ve had today.”

Wendy returned the smile. “That’s quite the compliment.”

“Do you need any help?”

She looked around. “Everything can wait. And the kids haven’t eaten, though I think they’d prefer sandwiches.”

Thadeus stood up and patted his stomach. “In that case, I think I’ll walk around outside. I need to work off this breakfast and it looks like it might be awhile before Alba…before she comes down.”

“Be my guest. Just don’t go in the chicken coop.”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Chicken poop. I don’t think it’s been cleaned in a few days.”

“Oh, okay.” He turned, then as an afterthought asked: “Do you like roses?”

“Yes.” She said it tentatively.

He took the rose out of his pocket and brushed it gently, trying to make it presentable. “I know it doesn’t look like much but maybe you can nurse it back to health.”

She took it with a confused expression, then brought it to her nose. “It still has a nice smell.”

“I think it was bought recently.” He turned abruptly and walked toward the door, speaking without looking back. “I found it out behind the barn, near the fence, right where Jesse found Fred Birch. Tell Alba I’ll be outside when she’s finished.”

Chapter 25

 

“There you are.” Alba was coming down the hill as Thadeus squatted by the edge of the pond. Ducks were standing far off, considering his movements as he skimmed stones off the water’s surface. “I see you’ve found your intellectual equals.”

“They haven’t spoken,” he said, “so I don’t know how smart they are. Or perhaps they’re imploring the old adage about keeping one’s bill closed.”

“What’s that?”

“Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool. Or bill, in this case.”

“Better that Bill keeps his mouth closed?”

He made a face at her smirk. “Ready?” She nodded and he stood slowly with a groan.

“You okay, there, grandpa?” She waited for him, and they started back to the car. “You and Gwendolyn seemed to hit it off.”

“Gwendolyn? I thought her name was Wendy.”

“Gwendolyn. Gwendolyn Rose. If that were your name, wouldn’t you go by Wendy?”

Another rose, Thadeus thought. “We got along okay.”

“More than okay?”

“She’s easy to talk to.”

“Maybe easy in other areas, too.”

He gave her a look he hoped conveyed patient disapproval “Her husband just died.”

“So she needs comforting. And here you are, the comforter.”

“Sometimes you really act your age.”

“Meaning?” she asked as they got in the car.

All the words that came to mind, he decided, quickly editing, sounded like a father lecturing his daughter. “You’ll know in about twenty years.”

As they backed out to the road, Wendy Tyner came out to the front porch and waved, smiling. Thadeus waved and smiled back, wishing Alba wasn’t there watching.

“See, she likes you.”

The feeling is more than mutual, he thought. “What’s Jesse doing?”

She gave a deep, satisfied sigh. “Recovering.”

Loud, grating music yelled from the speakers as she hit the gas and she yelled along with it as Thadeus grimaced. Unnoticing his reaction, she suddenly turned it off.

“We never did have our talk,” the girl said.

“About what?”

“George Bernard Shaw.”

Thadeus groaned.

“Not in the mood?”

“No, go ahead.”

“Have you read any of his writings?”

“I saw ‘My Fair Lady’ a few times.”

“What about his plays?”

“Most plays don’t read very well,” he said, “unless they’re based on a movie.”

“His do.”

“I can never get a clear picture of what’s happening in a play by reading it. I have to see it. And even then I’m not sure.”

“So you need visual stimulation?” she asked suggestively.

“At least.”

”What about his essays?” she asked. “His perceptions about God and if the bible were true then God must be some type of horrible, jealous monster who needs us to worship him or he’ll wipe us off the face of the earth?”

“He didn’t originate the thought.”

“So?”

“He was entitled to his opinion.”

“It wasn’t his opinion. It was what was written in the bible.”

“Then he’s entitled to his limited interpretation.”

“Why do you say it’s limited?”

Thadeus sighed. “He does what so many ‘great thinkers’ do,” he said, quoting by inflection. “He takes a passage of text, determines what it means without context, then makes his conclusions based on the limitations he set apart from the actual meaning. You can certainly do that and you might even be rewarded by the like-minded but you can’t consider yourself a scholar.

“For instance,” he went on when Alba opened her mouth, “Shaw mentions examples of genocide and determines that God is, as you say, a horrible monster for letting it happen, completely disregarding the people who actually committed the murders. That’s a very convenient philosophy for determining there was no sin involved, i.e., God didn’t stop me so therefore it was okay. A common argument is the story of Saul and the Amelkites. After the victory, God commands him to kill all of the men, women, children and livestock. Shaw comes to the pedestrian conclusion that God is simply acting like a vindictive child and wants to wipe them off the face of the Earth simply because they didn’t worship him.”

“Sounds right.”

“He further argues that those passages have allowed other people to justify their hatred for other races, enslaving or exterminating them.”

“Hitler, for one.”

“But he misses the point.”

“Hitler?”

“Shaw.”

“Which is?”

“There were many peoples who didn’t worship God. Why didn’t God order the Israelites to kill them all?”

“Maybe he was getting to them.”

“The reason was that sin had so pervaded the cultures of those surrounding Israel, they were either unredeemable or it was a lesson for the Jews, and us, of how letting even a little sin come into your life brings greater destruction.”

“Being God, couldn’t He have redeemed them another way?”

“If He did, you’d be arguing about that. The argument isn’t about method.”

“Of course it is.”

“Not ultimately. Ultimately it’s about existence. Does God exist? If you can prove He doesn’t, if even in your own mind, then you are free from consequence of action.” Her expression seemed perplexed, so Thadeus said: “But at times He did redeem people another way. The story of Jonah, for instance.”

“The guy in the whale with Jiminy Cricket.”

“God told Jonah to tell the Ninevites that unless they repented, He would destroy them. Jonah, being a holy man, ran the other way.” Smart man, Thadeus thought.

“Maybe he cared about them more than God did.”

“Fortunately, an explanation is given so there is no need for speculation. Jonah didn’t run because he cared about the people. He ran because he was afraid that they would kill him, as so many other prophets had been killed. And he didn’t want them to have a chance to repent. They were a culture entrenched in sin and he wanted them to experience justice. But after a short detour he fulfilled his mission, they repented and God spared their lives.”

“So sometimes God is merciful and sometimes He isn’t. That’s a great lesson.”

“The lesson,” Thadeus said, “is that we are all responsible for our own actions. They were doomed to destruction because of their free will, yet ultimately saved because of it. They had free will to sin and free will to repent.”

“What about the children? They can’t be held responsible for their sin, yet God killed them as well. I thought he hated abortion.”

“It rains on the just and unjust.”

“That’s no answer.”

“It is, in part. It shows how destructive sin is and how its influence pervades an entire family and city and culture. No one’s actions are isolated unto themselves. That’s why at times when a family member was found to be in sin, the entire family, belongings and livestock would be destroyed.”

“How would a cow be at fault?”

“It was to make a point. Our actions, no matter how insignificant to us, affect those around us.”

“It doesn’t show God as merciful, especially to the animals.”

“Since He can only be just, His judgment is perfect. Besides, is it merciful to kill every cancer cell but one so it can infect the whole body?”

“It depends on the doctor.”

“I’d much rather take the diagnosis of the Creator over the created.”

“Do you know what Shaw said about Christianity?”

“No,” he said off-handedly. “What?”

“That it would be a great idea if it were ever tried.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

“Do you agree?”

“Are you asking me to take spiritual counsel from someone who despised my beliefs and those who shared them?”

“He was one of the greatest minds of the last century.”

“He would agree with you wholeheartedly.”

“He was a genius.”

“The people we consider geniuses generally have a great deal of knowledge in an extremely small area of expertise. And even in that, they’re ignorant, compared to the vast information they don’t know. Shaw had some success as a writer.”

“He said it was reading the bible that turned him into an atheist.”

“That makes a good story,” he said, “but if you research a bit you’ll find Shaw wasn’t a man to change his mind about anything. He was an atheist his whole life. Not now, I’m guessing,” he added.

“So now he’s found the truth?” she asked sarcastically.

“Death is truth.”

“That would make a good t-shirt.”

“He missed a simpler truth.”

“Which was?” she asked, when he didn’t continue.

“What most people miss. Christianity isn’t performance based. I don’t gain eternity because of anything I will ever do. It’s because of what someone else did and my belief in that.”

“But you can’t have a relationship with someone you don’t believe exists.”

“True. Somewhere in life, you have to take that step of faith.”

She snorted. “Shaw was too smart for that.”

“There are many great thinkers who won’t be found in heaven.”

She shot him a glance. “So you’re saying he’s in hell.”

Thadeus blew out in exasperation. “I don’t really care.”

Her surprise was genuine, he could tell, for she tried to cover it with a smile. “You don’t care?”

“No. Wherever he is, he is. Why should I care?”

“I thought that was the whole point of church. The big inducement. Give us your money and you’ll get into heaven.”

“Once someone’s dead the point is moot. You should be glad.”

“Why?”

“God gives us free will and He won’t impose Himself on us. He won’t do it here and He won’t do it in eternity. He respects our free will so much He made a place—not originally meant for people, remember—where those who have rejected Him can spend eternity without His presence.”

“Where they’ll be tormented for their decision.”

“A place without His presence is torment.”

She frowned. “I don’t think you care about people at all.”

“That’s the trouble with people today,” Thadeus said, looking out the window. “They believe their every thought needs to be shared.”

“It’s not very Christian of you.”

“What?”

“Not caring where someone spends eternity.”

Thadeus laughed. “I didn’t know it was up to me. But at least your hypocrisy’s intact.”

“What hypocrisy?”

“You’re trying to tell me how to act in accordance with a belief system you don’t accept or even understand. You and Shaw have a lot in common. Let’s hope you never meet.”

“Because he’s in hell?”

“Like I said: don’t know, don’t care. But if I had to guess—yes.”

“For questioning God?”

“No. For thinking he was God.”

“I don’t think he’s in hell,” she said. “I don’t think there is a hell. It’s just a made-up place to scare people into giving the church money.”

“Again, people and their opinions.”

“There are Christians who don’t believe in hell.”

“It’s a temporary condition.”

“They read the same bible you do.”

“There will always be those more interested in popularity than truth. That’s a temporary condition, also.”

“You could be wrong.”

“I often am,” he said. “Which is why in these areas I rely on the words of one more intelligent. Maybe that was Shaw’s problem. He couldn’t admit that anyone could possibly be more intelligent than he was.

Look,” Thadeus said after they had driven for a while in silence, “maybe I am wrong and we’ll all see the great GBS in heaven. But I think if he were here, sitting with us, he’d be disappointed we were even discussing the possibility.”

She made a noise that was half-grunt, half-assent. “What about Birch? Where is he?”

“What do you think?”

The muscles in her mouth moved. “If there’s any justice, he wasn’t really dead when he was buried.”

The dense trees became ordered woods became town shops and before long they were idling in front of the rooming house.

“So how did you become interested in Shaw?” he asked. “That’s two generations removed.”

She hesitated, the muscles in her mouth still moving. “One of my mother’s boyfriends. He was Irish. Very Irish. He talked incessantly about the Battle of the Boyne, as if it had happened yesterday. He hated the English. He gave me a book on Shaw.”

“Books,” Thadeus said, “have been the downfall of many.”

“I slept with him once.” She looked at him, waiting. When he made no comment she said: “It was a mistake.”

“That it happened?” She said nothing. “That it ended?” She was silent. “That your mother found out?”

She nodded. “All three.”

A few minutes later she rolled the car to a stop in front of the rooming house.

“Thanks for the ride.”

“What’s next in the investigation?” Alba asked in a monotone, still looking ahead.

“I don’t know.” He opened the door and got out.

“When you do, you know where to find me.”

He moved his hand away quickly as she sped from the curb, the door flailing open before the force of a turn caused it to close.

Chapter 26

 

Thadeus noticed through the closed screen that the door to Andy Brewer’s room was open. As he entered, Brewer appeared at its entrance, wiping his face with a dish towel. Thadeus nodded his acknowledgment which Brewer did not return. The man looked mostly sober, his dark hair sitting puffy on his head. There was the smell of cologne which Thadeus assumed was used to cover the smell of alcohol. Or maybe he had a date, hence the dish towel.

“Solve the case?” Brewer asked.

“Not yet.”

“Did you go out to Tyner’s place?”

“Yup.”

“Did you search the scene of the crime? Examine footprints? Find any cigarette ash from Morocco?”

“All I found was horse manure,” Thadeus answered, “from which I drew my own conclusions.”

“No other clues?”

“Should there have been?”

Brewer draped the towel over his shoulder and put his hands deep in his pockets. “God always leaves clues. Or maybe he doesn’t.”

“So you think this was God’s hand?”

“Providence is what we call it around these parts,” he said in a deep voice, leaning against the jam. Thadeus wondered if that had been his sermon voice. “‘God’ suggests a deity who is watching our every move and is personally involved in our lives. Providence…that could be the wind, couldn’t it? Or fate. Or chance. Nobody answers to providence.”

“What do you think it was?”

His lips moved into a thin line. “As a pastor, I’d say it was God’s plan. But as a pastor I’d say everything was God’s plan. As a layman, I’d call it providence, or, in layman’s terms, who gives a shit? As a drunk, being closer to the flesh, I’d say his ticker gave out and now he sleeps with the maggots.”

“Let me speak to the pastor for a second,” Thadeus said. “Why would he call it God’s plan?”

“Isn’t everything? Even my being a drunk, isn’t that part of his plan?”

“Back to Birch.”

“Birch,” he said with disdain. “As a pastor, I would say Birch’s death was God’s judgment.”

“For what?”

The man’s look was skeptical annoyance. “What the hell do you think Birch was doing that night?”

“I think he was going to meet Wendy Tyner.”

“Give that man a congregation,” Brewer said. “Of course that’s what he was doing. They’d been having an affair before Bob and Wendy moved next to Birch. Why do you think he sold them the land in the first place?”

“Really.”

“Bob had considered moving away from Newbury some years back, as a way of breaking it off, gaining distance.”

“So he knew about it.”

“Of course. He would have had to have been blind not to, though I think he feigned blindness, if you know what I mean.”

“But they didn’t move,” Thadeus said.

“They would have. But Birch made a nice offer, almost giving them the land. Even so, Wendy still wanted to leave. But Bob, he was shrewd. He took the land. Money talks, fidelity walks. The rest is history.”

“How long had it been going on?”

“Ten years. Maybe more.”

“How do you know?”

“I live here. I hear things.”

“You said you never get out.”

“I never said that.” He smiled. “Even though I don’t. I hear things, I have my sources. I know more than people think.”

“Who else knew?”

“Everybody. Anybody who cared.”

“And Bob knew about it the whole time?”

“What do you think?”

“From the beginning?”

“You ever been married?” Andy asked.

“Yes.”

“Now?”

“She died.”

“Wouldn’t you have known?”

Thadeus thought for a moment. “I trusted her.”

“But there are signs,” Brewer said. “Believe me, there are signs.”

“Is that experience talking?”

Andy’s jaws clenched together. “Yeah. Experience. More of God’s plan.”

Thadeus took a small step back before speaking. “With Birch?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“So I assume you’re not sorry he’s dead.”

“Nobody’s sorry.”

“And the day he showed up to ask you to come to Newbury, I’m assuming that was no accident, either.”

Brewer’s face went blank with surprise. “Maybe God speaks to you, after all. Though I suppose if you ask enough stupid questions you’ll hit on the truth eventually.”

“Amen to that,” Thadeus said.

“Yeah, right. Amen. He had met my wife a few months earlier, though I didn’t know it. His offer to me was simply a way of moving her closer. We wouldn’t want to inconvenience him while he’s destroying someone’s life now, would we?”

“When did you find out?”

“Did I say there were signs?” He let out a breath in disgust. “I didn’t see them myself. After they kicked me out of the church I got a clue. The day after, as a matter of fact. My wife came and told me all about it and how she was leaving. How’s that for God’s perfect plan? I lose my church and wife and reputation in two days. Job’s got nothing on me.”

“Why did she leave? Not for Birch.”

“No, no. Of course not. Birch meant nothing, she said, but I knew better. Women don’t have affairs for sex and they don’t leave their husbands for it. They do both because they need somebody to respect. She didn’t have that.”

“Wasn’t being pastor of a church respect-worthy enough?”

“You’d think,” Brewer said. “But a husband is without honor in his own family.”

“Why did the church ask you to leave?”

Brewer looked at him with a wry smile. “I already told you but I guess you didn’t make the connection. Remember I told you about the woman who got healed and never came back.”

“Yes.”

“They suggested I follow her.” Brewer’s eyes darted to the front door and as he did his face tightened and he took a step into his room. Thadeus turned to see Todd Torkelson knock twice on the screen before opening it and stepping in.

“Andy,” he said in greeting, looking at Brewer who said nothing. He extended his hand to Thadeus. “Thadeus Cochran?”

Thadeus took it warily. “That’d be me.”

“I’d like to ask you a few questions. Do you have time?”

Thadeus looked at Brewer, then back at Torkelson. “I guess it’s inevitable. I’ll talk to you later, Andy.”

“I wouldn’t mind talking to the both of you,” the reporter said.

Brewer snorted and closed the door.

Thadeus started up the stairs. “Let’s go.”

He slid the chair out for Torkelson and sat on the end of the bed. Torkelson looked around. “I’ve never been in this building before,” he said, his expression reflecting disapproval. He sat down, opening a notebook and taking out a pen and pencil as well as a small digital recorder he put on the floor. “Do you mind if we record this?”

“Yes.”

He looked up. “Why?”

“Because I don’t want it recorded.”

“It’ll be more accurate.”

“I don’t look to the press for accuracy.”

Torkelson sat up, thoughtful. “I don’t know if I can do this without recording it.”

“Then don’t do it.”

He made a face, considering, then bent over to fidget with the device. “I guess I’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.” He sat up and opened the notebook, wiggling a pen in his fingers.

“You left the recorder on.”

“What? Oh, yes. So I did. Simple oversight.”

“What is it you want?” Thadeus asked.

Torkelson sat back, legs folded and adjusted his glasses. “What does any reporter want? The truth.”

Thadeus’ expression was skeptical.

“Okay, a story. A story that will sell papers.”

“I don’t think I have one.”

Torkelson waved his hand. “You don’t have to. I’ll make one, if there’s enough material. And you’ll get your name in the paper.”

“I don’t want my name in the paper.”

“Everyone wants recognition.”

“Publicity and recognition are two different things.”

“Don’t you want your fifteen minutes?”

“You take ‘em. That’ll give you a half hour.”

“You want to be a nobody all your life?”

Thadeus sat amazed at how praise and insult could flow so easily from someone’s mouth with no real thought to the person they were speaking to. “A few lines in a newspaper won’t make a difference in my life, unless it’s my obituary. You know that.”

Torkelson smiled. “Sure. But you’d be surprised how many people don’t.”

“What do you want to know?”

“How you knew Fred Birch would die.”

“I didn’t.”

“People say you did. Birch thought so, didn’t he?”

“I’m not an expert on what people think.”

“He had you arrested. He must have thought you were threatening in some way.”

“People have different reasons for things they do. He dropped the charges.”

“That was strange,” Torkelson admitted. “Did you wonder why?”

Thadeus shrugged. “Change of conscience.”

Torkelson laughed and scribbled. “That’s good, I may use that. Why did you come to Newbury?”

“Vacation. See the sights.”

“Mr. Cochran, I’ve lived here for ten years. There are no sights.”

“I needed to get away, see something new. Change of scenery does you good now and then.”

Torkelson had a slight leer on his lips. “You know Alba Urbina.”

“Yup.”

“Are you two good friends.”

“I’ve just met her, really.”

“She seems taken with you.”

“She has good taste.”

“She’s been seen driving you all around town.”

“By who?”

“By me, for one. That’s how I knew you were here. I saw you two driving through town, or I should say I heard you driving through town. That rust bucket she drives has a way of announcing itself.”

“She’s given me a few rides.”

“As have others.”

“Yes.”

“Amy Emerson?”

“Once.”

“Must be nice having an in with the ladies. Back to Birch. When did you meet him?”

“At St. Martin’s. They were having a spaghetti dinner.”

“They have one every Wednesday.”

“Right.”

“And not long after that he had you arrested.”

“Yes.”

“For assault.”

“The charges were dropped.”

“What happened?”

“We talked about the future. He hit me.” He felt his jaw. “Still hurts. He had a good punch.”

“What did you talk about?”

“It was private.”

“You told him he was going to die soon.”

“Who said that?”

“A source. A private source. Is it true?”

Thadeus considered the truth. Set you free, he thought. Maybe set somebody free. And he’d already been in jail. “More or less.”

“How did you know?”

“Just a feeling.”

“I think it was more than that.”

“Then you tell me.”

Torkelson frowned. “It’s pointless for me to speculate when you’re sitting right here. What was it?”

“Premeditation.”

“Psychic vision?”

“If it fits.”

“Fits what?”

“Into your story. If that’s the angle, use it.”

“I want the truth.”

“If you say that often enough, I’ll bet someday, somebody will believe it. It won’t be today, though.”

“You’re not giving me much to go on.”

“I’m not here to do your job. I’m here to do mine.”

“Which is?”

“Find out who killed Fred Birch.”

“The autopsy says heart attack.”

“I hope it’s right.”

“But you don’t think so.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“Experience.”

“Who do you think killed him? You?”

“I was in jail.”

“Maybe you had an accomplice.”

“Now that would make a good story. I can’t wait to read it.”

“Who, then?”

Thadeus shook his head. “Any number of people.”

“Name some.”

“Would you print a list of suspects if I did? No, because you’d be up to your neck in litigation. So it doesn’t matter who I think killed him, or wanted to. And, honestly, I really don’t know, so there’s that.”

“But somebody did.”

“Somebody did.”

“Even in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.”

“If we all trusted science we’d still believe the Sun revolved around the Earth or that we came from monkeys.”

“What do you put your faith in?”

Thadeus reached over and got the Gideon, tossing it to Torkelson who caught it awkwardly.

“Oh, so you’re a religious nut.”

“If you prefer.”

Torkelson looked down at the book for a few moments, tapping it with his pencil. “I think I have enough to go on. Yeah, I can make this work.”

“What’s the angle?”

Torkelson smiled. “God.”

“God?”

“God. God’s will.”

“How will that play?”

“God struck him down. For his sins, perhaps.”

“Which sins were those?”

Torkelson looked at him studiously. “You know why Birch was found at the Tyner property, right?”

“I have an idea.”

“If they’re concerning Wendy Tyner, you’re right.”

“Got any proof of that?”

“Just the combined knowledge of the town of Newbury. Everyone knew about it.”

“What everybody knows won’t stand up in court.”

“Court?”

“Someone might find it offensive and sue. Wendy Tyner, for one.”

“I know her a little,” Todd said thoughtfully. “I don’t think she’d sue.” His voice sounded unsure.

“What about Catherine Birch?”

His eyes opened with more than concern. “Maybe I can work around it.”

“You still have the coroner problem. He said Birch died of a heart attack.”

“I had an idea,” he said, pride in his voice. “Call it a flash of inspiration. There was a lot of lightning that night. Let’s say he was hit by lightning.”

“The odds against it are astronomical,” Thadeus said. “Besides, the burn wounds would be evident.”

“I still think it’s a good angle,” he said with a defensive tone. “A lightning bolt that was God’s judgment.”

“Sounds pretty far-fetched to me.”

“Sounds to me like thousands of papers being bought.”

“Or the sound of a lawsuit.”

Todd had a sly smile. “I can only be sued for what I say. But if I’m quoting someone else—”

Thadeus scowled. “Who would be dumb enough to be quoted saying such a thing?”

Torkelson nodded. “Exactly.”

“I could sue you.”

“But you won’t.”

“No,” Thadeus said. “I won’t.”

Torkelson scribbled some notes. “Like I said before, every story needs an angle. This will make a good one.”

“You could decide to skip it all together.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Change of conscience.”

Torkelson scoffed. “I just report the news. Conscience has nothing to do with it.”

“Shouldn’t it?”

“Freedom of the press,” he said. “It’s a fundamental right.”

“So is privacy.”

“Then you shouldn’t act in public. Don’t worry, I’ll get the facts straight.” Torkelson began gathering the few things he’d brought, flashing the recorder briefly. “It was a waste of time bringing this. So,” he said, fumbling around, “not even a hint of who you think did it?”

“You accidentally turned the recorder on.”

“Oh, yeah.” He clicked it off. “No hints?”

“Maybe. How well did you know Fred Birch?”

The man laughed. “Me? Am I a suspect? You should have been a reporter.”

“Well?”

“Not well. Talked to him a few times, usually in passing. Every now and then he’d call about some project he was involved in. Or some money he had given which he wanted to remain anonymous.” Torkelson said the last word while making quotation marks with his fingers. “Other than that, not much. But when someone puts a half-page ad in the paper every week for—well, forever—you don’t bad-mouth them.”

“That must have been nice steady money.”

“Sure. I’d charge anyone else twice the money I charged Birch but I gave him a discount because, like you said, it was good, steady money.”

“I guess that’s over now.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Isn’t it?”

“No. As a matter of fact, Catherine called me the other day with a few additions and emailed me some art work.”

“I thought she might sell the business.”

“Sell it? Nah. She’s the real brains behind the business. Fred would get the jobs, Catherine would handle the accounting. Two sides of a coin, I guess. A very fat coin. But I don’t think Fred would have been as successful without her.” He got up and headed for the door, pausing to ask: “Have you talked to her?”

“Mrs. Birch? Not yet.”

“Going to?”

“Probably.”

He stared at Thadeus but his eyes were unfocused. The wheels were turning. “Well, thanks for your time.”

The man headed out and to the stairs, stopping at the top to rearrange his papers until he had the small recorder in his hand. He began speaking into it as he started down the stairs.

Chapter 27

 

Birch Lumber was like many hardware stores Thadeus had been in throughout his life and upon entering he had a feeling similar to those in childhood when running into a toy store. So many smells that brought back memories. The sweet smell of wood, stacked and stored in the back. The tangy, sometimes bitter and repellant odor of paints and thinners. Fertilizers and peat, manure and mulch, even the oddly dry and dusty smell of water dripping from freshly watered plants and flats outside onto the dirty cement underneath.

And there were the sights that brought back other memories. Premixed drywall goop, a reminder of the endless hours spent taping and mudding a room extension that he, for some ungodly reason, had thought within his scope of talent. Bags of concrete, testifying to the uneven footings of a deck he had spent two months of weekends attempting before hiring someone to correct his mistakes. Instruments of paint application, a testament to the two weeks his wife and he had spent painting their bedroom with five coats, all applied with sponge as per instruction of an article she had read about the ‘Tuscany’ look.

Those experiences, he knew, were why he walked the aisles of such stores with awe and respect, making sure to touch nothing lest he get the unreasonable urge to tackle similar projects in the future.

 

In the five minutes since he had entered the store, Thadeus had been asked twice if he needed help, both by men about his own age (and with hopefully more experience) and wearing red shirts declaring Birch Lumber in white letters under a white birch tree. He declined. “Just looking.” And they smiled and moved on. He scanned the shelves, trying to appear interested until reaching the end of the aisle at the back of the building. Restrooms were on the opposite side and to the left of them another door indicating Office, the entrance to a long room which had two windows facing the store with lowered blinds within. He moved to the next aisle and saw shapes moving between the unevenly closed slats. Presently the door opened and a heavy-set woman emerged followed by an old and very thin man. Both carried clipboards, the woman walking quickly, the man less so.

“I don’t want to hear anymore excuses from him,” she was saying. “His account is on hold until this last check clears and he’s caught up on what he owes.”

“He brings in a lot of business.”

She didn’t break stride. “Business that doesn’t pay is worse than no business.”

The man nodded, following her into the lumber yard.

Catherine Birch, of course. The last and only time Thadeus had seen her had been at the spaghetti dinner and then from across the room. He couldn’t remember her attire that night but didn’t think it had been a dress and certainly not the clothes of today, the basic uniform: red Birch Lumber shirt and blue jeans. The jeans were particularly noticeable as the way she ambled made it appear they were at least a size too small. Her body was widest at her hips and seemed to taper down to her feet, giving the impression of a wooden top that was walking its own string tightrope as it moved.

Thadeus still had the image in mind as she returned and watching her brought a smile to his face he tried to suppress. She looked up from her clipboard as she reached her office and looked at him, stopping with her hand on the knob as he smiled with a nod. Then she opened the door and went inside, coming out almost as quickly and taking two steps toward him.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Just looking.”

Her eyes were unwavering as she repeated: “Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Cochran?”

His eyebrows raised. “I’d like to talk to you.”

“About?”

“Fred.”

“Why should I talk to you about my husband?”

“It might give me a different perspective about him.”

“Why would I care about your perspective?” She hesitated for a moment, considering. “Come in.”

He sat down in a hard padded chair while she squeezed around a large desk to make herself comfortable in a more cushioned one.

“I wasn’t sure that you’d be in today, what with the funeral…”

“Business doesn’t stop,” she said. “Somebody’s got to be here to keep an eye on things.”

“Still, out of respect…”

“Telling me how I should act is the quickest way I can think of to end this conversation.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I assumed an established business such as this could pretty much run itself.”

“You must have never run a business.”

“No,” he admitted. “I’m sorry about your husband.”

She said: “I am fully aware of how much Fred was loved by anyone in this town, let alone strangers, if you indeed were a stranger to him.”

“I never met him before last week.”

“Then why did you find it prudent to threaten someone you didn’t know?”

“I didn’t threaten him. I was attempting to warn him.”

“About what?”

“The future.”

“His future’s gone.”

“It wasn’t when I arrived.”

She sat back. “I brought you in here because I thought talking to you would be easier than avoiding you. I’m having second thoughts.”

“I came to Newbury because I thought someone was going to die. Then I met your husband and knew it was him. I made the mistake of saying so.” He rubbed his jaw absently. “He took it hard.”

“I’ve heard you’re some type of religious nut.”

“I’ve heard that myself,” Thadeus said. “What do you think?”

“My husband’s dead. I don’t know what to think.”

“I think he was murdered.”

Her expression changed in an almost imperceptible way and as slight an appearance of surprise as he had ever seen. “That’s ridiculous.”

“I have no doubt.”

“Where’s your proof.”

“I have no proof.”

“The doctor says he died of a heart attack.”

“What did the coroner say?”

“Same thing as the doctor. Heart attack. Does that satisfy you?”

“No.”

“Do you have a medical degree? Do you think you know more than the coroner?”

“No,” he said. “But your husband was murdered. I’d stake my life on it.”

She looked him over. “What do you have to gain through all this?”

“Nothing.”

“Then why try to make people believe all sorts of things that aren’t true? When people lie they usually have a reason. What’s your reason?”

“I’m not lying.”

“Are you looking for money? Are you looking to sue Birch Lumber because my husband struck you?”

“Do you think he hit me?”

She smiled. “Of course he did. He told me so. He laughed about it.”

“Did you believe him?”

“Of course.”

He hesitated. “Did you think it was amusing?”

She frowned. “Possible lawsuits are never amusing.”

“I have no intention of suing anyone.”

“Not that I believe you,” she said, “but if you changed your mind in the future, I’d deny we even had this conversation.”

“Can I ask you a few questions?”

“Ask. I might answer.”

“Did your husband have any enemies? Anybody hold a grudge for years? Anybody threaten his life?”

“Yes, to all three.”

“Really.”

“I told you I have no illusions concerning my husband. He was not well-liked.”

“Not even by Bob ?”

“What an odd question.”

“Just curious,” he said. “I’ve eliminated him as a suspect.”

“He tolerated Fred. They’d known each other since elementary school. I guess they were used to each other.” She leaned forward. “Have you eliminated me as a suspect?”

“I don’t know yet.”

She smiled slightly. “Maybe you’re not as unperceptive as I thought. Ask me if I ever wanted to kill him; I might incriminate myself.”

“Ever want to kill him?”

“Daily,” she said. “Fred was exasperating but we worked well together. He brought in a lot of business and we built a good life. I’ll miss him.” Her eyebrows raised, perceptibly this time, the words seeming to come as a surprise.

“Can I ask what you were doing the night he died?”

“I was home, in my office, doing paperwork.”

“Did it seem strange to you that Fred would be out walking in the rain.”

She paused. “Some people don’t know any better.”

“Still—”

“He had a habit of taking long walks at night.”

“Did you wonder why?”

“No,” she said evenly. “I didn’t have to wonder.”

“Still—”

She puckered her lips. “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you are as unperceptive as I thought. I believe I’ve spent enough time away from work, so—”

He nodded and stood. “Thank you for your time,” he said, extending his hand.

Catherine Birch made no move to take it. “For the record, this will be our first and last meeting. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” he said, smiling as reassuringly as he knew how. But by the time he was through the door the smile had gone, pushed out by the thought that no matter what one might wish, the future always held plans of its own.

Chapter 28

 

He started across the street, a slow jog which turned quickly into a sprint as the grill of a delivery truck approached from down the street with no signs of slowing. He reached the sidewalk with a bound as the truck passed and he shot a look back at the driver. But the stern face behind the wheel stared straight ahead without acknowledgement or recognition.

Just a man doing his job, Thadeus thought. Behind schedule and too rushed to see a pedestrian. But the idea that the man had noticed him and drove on in spite of it—or because of it—remained. Had it been a warning. If so, a warning of what?

He shook off the paranoia and walked down the sidewalk, pulling open a door that jingled at his touch. Letting it close, he heard a voice say, “Be with you in a minute.” It was Amy Emerson, sounding a bit muffled and as he walked to the back he found her on all fours, face to the floor and staring into a small black crack between two shelving units of fabric. She had a flashlight in her hand and was peering into the dark.

“Lose something?”

She turned her head. “Oh, Mr. Cochran. You’ve caught me in an awkward position.”

Thadeus smiled at the different replies that came to mind, none of which he thought prudent to say. “What did you drop?”

“Nothing.” She straightened to her knees. “I almost hate to say. We’ve had a mouse problem for a while and I put a trap back there last week and I think it’s…full.”

Thadeus knelt beside her. “Let me see.”

She moved back and he peered in, reaching for the flashlight. “I don’t know if my hands are small enough–“ He turned to maneuver his hand inside, grimacing comically, then pulling his hand out. He stopped. “You don’t want to see this.”

“Why? What is it?”

“You might have an ant problem, too. They stripped the fur off the mouse.”

Amy made a face. “Ewww.”

“I’ll get rid of it.” He stood and walked to the door. “You might want to vacuum. Or spray. Or both.”

After disposing of the rodent, Thadeus came back to find Amy trying to push a small and very loud portable vacuum’s armed attachment between the shelves. “Need some help?” he asked loudly. He grabbed one end of the shelf and pulled it away from the other which gave her enough space to clean the carpet.

“Smells awful,” she yelled, then turned the machine off as Thadeus placed the shelf gently back on the floor.

“You should probably empty that, too. Unless you want ants in your vacuum.”

She handed it to him and he gave an exaggerated sigh and took it outside. Coming back he found her spraying the same area. He made a face as he came close and she did the same.

“Smells awful,” she said again.

“Do you have any room freshener?”

She went behind the counter and rummaged around, coming back with another can. She shook it as she walked back. “This should do the trick.” She sprayed in and around the same spot, then stood back. Slowly, another expression of disgust crossed her face.

“I think you made it worse.”

“It was your idea.”

They looked at the area, then at each other.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Well, I think we work well together, don’t you?”

She was locking the front door and they stood on the sidewalk.

“At this rate, the store will be out of business by Friday.”

“Did you have any plans for the day?”

“Working.”

“I mean now,” he said. “Now that you’re not working.”

“Go home, I guess.”

“Feel like a drive?”

She looked at him with amusement. “Did you buy a car?”

“No.”

“So, are you asking me out for a drive so I can drive?”

“Something like that.”

“Where?”

“Just a pleasant drive in the country. To the city. To see the coroner.”

 

“I don’t know why I agreed to this,” Amy said as they turned onto the highway and away from Newbury.

“To what?”

“All this…” she hesitated, “…secrecy. Deviousness. It’s almost like spying on people’s private lives.”

“We’re not doing anything illegal. And so far we haven’t done anything. Just a nice drive in the country to have lunch with a friend.”

Her expression held a hint of wryness. “Is that how you justify it? That you’re not doing anything until the moment it’s acted upon?”

“We’re not doing anything.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Not really.”

“We’re out to find out what really happened–“ she stopped. “What really happened to Fred Birch.”

“Right. So?”

“It’s so…so clandestine.”

Thadeus laughed. “Why? Because we didn’t tell anybody else? Because no one else knows?”

“Well?”

“It’s nobody’s business.”

“Catherine should know.”

“I already spoke to her.”

“Really?” Her tone was surprise mixed with skepticism. “What did she say?”

“She gave me the impression it was none of my business.”

“Don’t you think you should respect her wishes?”

“I do respect them. But they don’t take precedence.”

“Shouldn’t they?”

“No,” he said simply.

“But don’t you care that—” She broke off quickly, her face concerned.

Thadeus could see that the subject went deeper than their conversation. “I care how she feels. I appreciate the situation. I know there’s a lifetime of pain and regret she’s dealing with, or not dealing with.”

“But it doesn’t matter,” she said, almost accusingly.

“Not to the extent that I’m willing to let a murderer go free.”

“What if you’re wrong?”

“Then I’ve upset a lot of people for nothing,” he said. “I can live with that. The other, I won’t.”

 

Bradley Fox looked less like a coroner and more like the annoying uncle who wouldn’t leave any family gathering without getting drunk and making passes at underage relations. He was finishing off his second beer while giving the leering eye to Amy Emerson and approving nod to Thadeus.

“Back to my question” Thadeus said.

“Right.” Fox raised the bottle, swigging the last drops, then put it down hard on the with a satisfied growl. He picked up the next. “What was it?”

“What are the circumstances for an autopsy and why is one done in some cases and not in others?” He looked at Amy. “Are you okay?”

She nodded. “I’m Fine.”

“Why wouldn’t she be?” Fox asked.

“Amy lost her husband a few years back. A heart attack. He was young.”

“To youth,” Fox said, taking a gulp. “Many reasons. If a ninety-year-old man dies in his sleep, there usually won’t be an autopsy, unless there’s money and a will involved. Car accidents, other type of accidents. Accidental electrocution. If criminal activity is involved there has to be. The family can always request one if they want to pay for it.” He tipped the bottle to Thadeus and winked. “So can I.”

“Could I order one?”

“For someone else? Not unless you have evidence on something illegal. But no one ever does.”

“Ever?”

He shook his head. “Too many damn TV shows, now everyone thinks they’re an expert. Cutting up cadavers isn’t half as exciting as they make it out to be,” he said, addressing Amy. “That’s why I drink, it makes everything look better. Sure I can’t get you something?”

“Would you do it as a favor?”

Fox looked confused. “A favor for you?” he asked, then pointed the bottle at Amy. “Or her?”

“What’s the difference?”

He winked. “Method of payment.”

Amy excused herself a moment later and Fox watched her walk off admiringly. “Not bad, not bad. You tappin’ that?”

Thadeus said nothing.

“I know, I know. Man o’ God and all that. Still, it’s the finest of his creations. Might as well ride it.”

“She just lost her husband.”

“So you said. Sorry if I don’t grieve but I deal with lost husbands every day. And their innards.”

“You might remember him. Douglas Emerson. About two, three years ago.”

“Oh, yeah, the dead guy,” Fox said. “How could I forget? That’s a lot of bodies ago for me, mi amigo. What was special? And why the interest?”

“He died of a heart attack, at forty-six.”

“Oh, I get it. You’re not here to pump me about this old fart that kicked off in a field. You want the low-down on your lady friend here. Think she helped said ex-husband out of his painful existence on this planet?”

“Maybe.”

“Very wise to find out before you get too involved and she does the same to you.”

I’m already involved, Thadeus thought. “Just exploring the angles.”

“Nothing wrong with that. Think she had something to do with her husband’s death?”

Thadeus sat back. “Not really. But I’ve seen too much not to suspect everybody.”

“I like your attitude. Trust no one, except your friendly neighborhood coroner. What did you say the guy’s name was?”

“Douglas Emerson. Forty-six. Two to three years ago. Died of a heart attack. Postal worker,” he added.

Fox snapped his fingers. “Yeah. I remember him. He was sent postage due. I’m kidding. I’d have to look through my files to make sure—which I’m not going to do—but I remember. He was still in his uniform, oddly enough. Guess he died en route. No, it must have been afterwards, because it was in the evening. I was working nights—that’s right—and I was thinking about this steak I was going to have from Theo’s a few blocks over and how good their fries were and I still had plenty of time because they stop taking To Go orders at 8:30. And then this bastard comes in and the only thing I had to eat that night was a PayDay bar. What a lousy night.”

“Wasn’t that great for him, either.”

“And less memorable.” Fox sipped. “I don’t recall a wife but then we rarely see family. One of the many blessings of the job. I did a quick look-see, then dove in. Nothing unusual, as I remember. Ticker just gave out.”

“Pretty young.”

“I heard you the first time,” he said. “I don’t miss anything, Cochran, and that’s the first thing I would have noticed. But nothing, like I said. No drugs, no alcohol. Just died. Maybe she wore him out.”

Shades of Alba, Thadeus thought.

“Don’t look so serious,” Fox said. “There are worse ways to go than playing post office.”

“Did you check that?”

“What?”

“If they had been having sex?”

Fox looked shocked and it was plain from the expression sat on his face that it didn’t happen often for it did not sit well. “What do you think I am, some kind of perv? I don’t immediately slap the dingle of every guy who flops in.”

“Not immediately, anyway.”

“I check the vitals, first.”

“I’m surprised you don’t think that the penis is a vital.”

“To me, it is,” Fox said. “To every guy the same, except you, probably. But I’ve never had the cause of death for any guy being a spent dingle.”

“Just wondering.”

“Preoccupied, or projecting? She’s not a virgin, you know. And I doubt she’s that good in the sack. Her lips are too thin.”

“What does that mean?”

“Girls with big mouths and thick lips are the ones who are the best in bed. Go ahead, laugh, you ass, but it’s a proven fact.”

“Proven by whom?” Thadeus asked as Amy appeared.

“I’m working on it, man. I’m working on it.”

 

“Can a heart attack be induced?”

Bradley sat with eyes closed, chewing his steak. “Mmm, that’s good. There’s nothing like a well-cooked bodily organ.”

Thadeus gave Amy a glance but she was studying Fox as if he were a new type of plant life.

“Induced heart attack? Didn’t we talk about that already?”

“I don’t mean by sex.” Thadeus turned to Amy and said in an embarrassed tone: “It came up in the conversation.”

“Next time I won’t be gone so long.”

Thadeus gave a pained smile, then, to Fox: “Well?”

“I guess a shot of adrenaline to the heart would do it. Or a shot of any number of medications. Or poisons. I killed my guinea pig accidentally by feeding him nightshade when I was a kid. I thought it was a weed. When I got home from school I found him in his cage, stiff as a board, still clutching it in his little paws. I vowed to make it up to him and chose being a medical examiner as my penance.”

“Any of that true?” Amy asked.

Fox smiled in surprise, turning to Thadeus. “I like her.” He turned back to Amy. “Some of it. Most of it. None of it. Whatever you choose. Perception is reality. Does that answer your question?”

“No. How could someone do it in a more external way?”

“Come again?”

“Without needles, without poison. Maybe an overdose of medications?”

“Sounds like you’re reaching. Maybe the guy just died.”

“Maybe,” Thadeus said. “But I was right last time.”

“Hmm,” Fox said, suddenly thoughtful. “I’m not a doctor. I’m trained to examine organs and find the reasons why they failed. I’m not up on my combinations of medications and what might damage what if they’re mixed. To the extent of bringing on a heart attack,” he added. “there’s always the overdose of potassium standby, but beyond that–“ He stopped. “I could ask around, see if anyone has any ideas. After all, you did help me once.”

“I’m glad you said it. Finally. And it was more than once.”

“But what’s in it for me?” Fox looked at Thadeus, darted his eyes quickly at Amy, then back, raising his eyebrows inquiringly.

“Next time, I’ll buy dinner.”

Fox looked at Amy Emerson, then frowned and stabbed a piece of steak. “I guess that will have to do. For now.”

Chapter 29

 

Amy hadn’t said a word in the twenty minutes they’d been in the car. She had put in a CD of the Greatest Love Songs Ever Made and the song playing was too loud, which did little to hide its mediocrity.

“I hope that wasn’t too uncomfortable for you,” Thadeus said, his voice rising to compete with the music.

She shook her head, giving a slight smile as she gripped the steering wheel tightly.

Thadeus hesitated, then reached forward and turned the music lower. “He can be a little insensitive.”

She glanced at the radio, then at him. “Insensitive, like turning down someone’s music?”

“Exactly,” Thadeus replied. “A complete ass.”

Her expression was blank, then, with a touch of wryness: “He was just being himself. Does the music bother you?”

“Just the volume. I thought we could talk.”

She pushed a button on the player and it faded to off. “Okay.”

“I appreciate you coming. I’m glad you did.” She said nothing. “Are you?”

“I suppose.”

“I hope the topic wasn’t too graphic.”

“No, it was interesting.”

“I mean, in light of the circumstances of your husband.”

Her lips drew tight. “I don’t know why you think you have to treat me so delicately. I’m not frail, I’m not fragile. You don’t know what I’ve gone through.”

“No, I don’t.”

“I’m not some flower that will break if you’re too rough.”

“I’m sorry if I’ve–“

”And you don’t have to apologize to me all the time.” Her tone was sharp.

Thadeus watched the muscles working in her jaw. “Then I won’t. I wondered if the topic might have brought up bad memories of your husband’s death.”

Her face was still set. “I always have bad memories of that every day. Talking about it won’t change anything.”

“Then can we talk about it?”

“Why?”

“It might do you some good.”

“Isn’t that for me to decide?”

“Yes,” he said. Then, in a clipped tone: “So decide.”

Amy’s face hardened, then she hit the steering wheel once. And again.

“You’ll kill us both if you keep doing that.”

Amy blew out a long breath. “It feels good to hit something.”

“As long as it’s not me, or another car.”

She laughed. “No. I’m sorry. Geez, now I’m apologizing. Why should we have to apologize for what we feel, for who we are?”

“Don’t.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You don’t live here. You don’t–“ She cut herself short.

”No,” he agreed, keeping the silences minimal. “I don’t. I come and go as I please. I have no connections in Newbury. Whatever I see and hear I take with me, never to be shared.”

“You’re lucky.” She breathed out. “There was talk after Doug died. Gossip.” She stopped.

“He was young.”

“He was young,” she repeated. “And I…I wasn’t the grieving widow people wanted me to be. What did they expect? That I’d spend every day wearing black and crying every time I stepped out the door? I cried more than I ever thought possible. I cried so much I thought my lungs would burst.” She wiped her cheek, though to Thadeus it looked dry. “But there’s a time you have to move on and get out and get on with it or you’ll die. I couldn’t stay cooped up in the house all the time. I had to get out.”

“Sounds normal.”

“Not to some people. They want you to grieve publicly so they can give you their blessing, or something. Well, to hell with them. I don’t need their acceptance.”

“Maybe they just wanted you to know they cared.”

“Yeah, well…not many cared before.”

“Before he died?”

“Yes.”

“People are busy. They have their own lives.”

“I know, I know.” She had calmed quickly and now chewed on her bottom lip thoughtfully. “That’s not what I mean. Well, it is, but not in that way. I’m making no sense.”

“Sometimes it takes a tragedy for people to show how much they care.”

She nodded. “But that’s not it. It’s not what I meant. It was Doug. He was hard to get to know.”

“The quiet type?”

Her laugh came out in a burst. “Real quiet. So quiet you didn’t know he was there, half the time.”

“But there was that other half,” Thadeus said.

“It wasn’t much better.”

“I take it the two of you didn’t talk much.”

“At all. Well, that’s not true. In the beginning…no, I guess we really didn’t talk then, either. He was so damn quiet!”

“Some people are just like that.”

“You’re not.”

“You haven’t seen me after a bad night’s sleep,” he said. “He kept things to himself.”

“It wasn’t that. I didn’t mind if he wanted to unwind after a long day.”

“He was a mailman, right?”

“Yes. He loved being outside.”

“You’re alone most of the time in a job like that.”

“I suppose. Though he would tell me from time to time about who he would meet during the day, who he talked to. And people would always tell me how friendly he was, how helpful. I wish he would have brought some of that home.”

“It’s different with that type of job,” Thadeus said. “Even if you’re not generally friendly, you can be friendly fast if you know the conversation is only going to last a few seconds. And during the day most people are at work, so how many conversations could there be?”

“I never thought of it that way,” Amy said. “But you’re right. We could go out to a friend’s house or to a show and he’d be Mister Personality. But at home…”

“He was distant.”

“Not just that,” she said. “He’d sit and watch TV or read the paper or do things around the house. He was there. Oh, I don’t know what I’m trying to say.”

Thadeus reached over and put his arm on hers. Amy stiffened and he removed it. Her eyes glistened.

“I’m sorry.”

She wiped her face. “It’s just been—Do you know how long it’s been since someone’s touched me? I mean, just touched me? God, this sounds pathetic.”

“I understand,” Thadeus said. Too well, he thought.

She sniffled. “I used to lie awake in bed and listen to him sleeping next to me and I’d stare into the darkness and feel so alone and wonder if anyone would ever hold me again. And I’d wish–“

”Mmm?”

“Some times,” she said, “I actually wished he would die so I would have a few years left of my life for someone to love me. For the first time, someone to actually love me, before it was too late.”

She was quiet for a minute and that made its way into a few more. Thadeus knew there was no need to prod as whatever lay beneath the surface would rise of its own accord.

“Does that make me a terrible person?”

“No,” Thadeus said. “It just means you were normal. And lonely. Which makes you even more normal.

“Do you get lonely?”

“Of course. Not as often as before.”

“You were married,” she said, glancing at his left hand.

“Yes.”

“Divorced?”

“She died. In an accident. I was driving.”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have–“

”Why not? I do.”

“Do you ever think about remarrying?”

“Almost every day.”

She seemed taken aback. “Don’t you think that it’s a bit—” she searched for the word, “—disrespectful?”

“No.” He said it without hesitation. “I treasure every moment we spent together. Well, almost every moment. I treasure the good moments. It took a long time to even consider sharing my life with someone else. But that doesn’t diminish the time we shared. I have the memories, but the past is gone.”

She drew in a breath. “That seems so final.”

“It’s as final as yesterday,” he said.

They drove for a while, saying nothing.

“It really sucks,” Amy said finally. “I wish I could go back and do it over, do it right.” Her expression was pensive, thoughtful and a bit anxious.

“It wouldn’t make any difference, because it wasn’t your fault.”

“What wasn’t?”

“You husband not loving you.”

Her eyes opened in surprise, narrowed in anger, then became defensive. “He loved me.”

“He did,” Thadeus agreed. “He just couldn’t show it in the way you wanted him to. But you thought that somehow it was your fault and someday you would stumble onto the key that would change him into the husband you wished he was. So you bought new clothes, you exercised so you could wear them, you cooked food he actually liked, then sat with him on the couch watching TV while you wished you could shut it off and talk. You took an interest in his interest, gardening. You kept the house clean and neat, the way he liked. And you made sure you were there to welcome him when he walked through the door at night.

“But you realized that none of those things made him more affectionate, more loving, or more happy. He was still the same and as the years went by he became even less of the person you wished for. No affection, no signs of love, barely signs of life. Even a hug seemed to bring him pain. Consequently, sex became like a memory from someone else’s life.”

The emotion seemed to have washed from her face, leaving it colorless. “How do you know?”

Thadeus turned the music up a little, a soothing background. “It’s not always the husband who’s like that.

“It’s like living with an alcoholic or someone physically abusive,” he continued. “You blame yourself for the way the other person behaves and then you create endless scenarios you think will change them. If we moved to a different house, a different city, a different climate. If we made more money he’d be more relaxed and loving. But nothing works, nothing changes and despite everything you’ve done, things just get worse.”

“Why?” she asked. “Why do they?”

“Because people don’t change. They just get older, more comfortable, less energetic, less motivated. The only thing that changes is the amount of resentment we have.”

“That’s pretty accurate.”

“Yup,” he said. “Pretty accurate. And pretty common. But as distant and unloving as your husband seemed, you’ve got to know it was the best he could do.”

She murmured agreement. “I know. I know in my mind it wasn’t me, it was him. He didn’t have it inside him to be different. He was as loving as he knew how. He was a good father, a good provider, a good man. But it still hurts. I feel like I’ve wasted so many years.”

“But you had so many together and you’ve got so many ahead.”

“Do I?”

“Yes. But if you don’t let go of those years you’ll carry them with you and the next time it will be the same. I know it’s hard.”

She bit her lip. “It’s impossible.”

“Trying so desperately to please someone else is like living a play, where you spend all your time changing the scenery of the room the other person is about to enter. And when they do you hope they’ll be happy with what you’ve done. But they never are. So you rush to the next room and do the same thing, hoping. And after some time you realize you can’t stop because that’s what you’ve become and you’ve lost the person you were in the beginning. Then, when the stage goes dark and you’re alone, you see that nothing you did made any difference.

“Even today, if you went home and Doug was standing in the living room and you ran and threw your arms around him, he’d still stiffen like a board.”

She nodded, lips tight, words bitter. “Was that ever true. And whenever I did he’d push me away and tell me not to bother him because he was right in the middle of something. Even if the only thing he was in the middle of was the living room.”

Thadeus laughed. “See, there is a touch of ironic humor in it all.”

“I suppose,” she said and sighed. “I just thought that someday it would get better.” She turned the car onto the main street of Newbury and when she spoke Thadeus noticed a harder edge to her tone. “Maybe now it will.”

Chapter 30

 

Andy Brewer was standing in the front doorway, one foot on the stoop, precariously close to the outside world. He raised a bottle to his mouth and took a long drink of beer as Thadeus walked up, stopping at the porch and leaning against a rail.

“You’ve had a busy couple weeks, haven’t you, Mr. Cochran?”

“I guess.”

“Where do you get the energy?”

“Clean livin’.”

Brewer chuckled. “Clean livin’. I haven’t put those words together in a long time. But I guess it’s possible. Though some people who don’t live so clean use other methods for their energy.”

Thadeus studied Andy’s face, knowing he was sparring with him a bit. Andy wasn’t the recluse he made himself out to be. He saw the world of Newbury very clearly, even while drunk. Perhaps he was also lonely, the verbal sparring his cautious way of seeking friendship. Maybe the death of a man who had betrayed him had awakened his long buried spiritual side. After all, Thadeus had claimed from the beginning that not only would someone in Newbury soon die but that the cause of death would be murder. Further, he had claimed that the only reason he came to Newbury was to solve that murder which had yet to occur.

No matter what the man believed about any of it, it was obvious he couldn’t stay away.

“What might those other methods be?”

Brewer said: “I’m not one to spread gossip, or speak ill of the dead.”

“They won’t mind.”

The man took another drink. “We all know those other methods. There’s no need to pretend.”

“Drugs?”

“Perhaps.”

“Sex?”

“Perhaps.”

“Speaking of yourself?”

“Me? I find all exterior activities to be more draining than energizing. The only thing I do is tap into the Cosmic Is. Or the Cosmic Was. Or even the Cosmic What-Will-Be.”

Thadeus grunted, shivering slightly. “Getting a bit chilly.”

“There are methods to ward away that, too.” He finished the bottle, then held it with one finger inside the neck. “Are you done for the day?”

He nodded. “I was thinking about dinner but all I’ve been doing since I got here is eat. I’ll probably gain ten pounds by the time I leave.”

“Will that be soon?”

Thadeus shrugged.

“It’s in God’s hands,” Andy intoned.

“Birch’s funeral is tomorrow.”

“Oh, right,” Brewer said as if it were news.

“Are you going?”

He laughed. “I don’t think I’d be welcome. And I certainly couldn’t stomach the endless accolades. Besides,” he said, lifting the bottle, “I can celebrate from here.”

“It’s said that a sure sign of getting older is when you find yourself attending more funerals than weddings.”

“Been to many weddings lately?”

Thadeus shook his head. “Not for a while. You?”

“Just my own, which was a prelude to a funeral; the death of my marriage.” He suddenly popped his finger out and raised the empty bottle. “Till death due us part.” He took a phantom sip and lowered it with a look of disgust. “Actually, that’s not true. The last wedding I went to was one I performed myself.”

“When was that?”

Andy waved the bottle. “Five, ten years ago. Twenty. Who remembers?”

“Performed here?”

“Nah. Willoughby.”

“Are they still together?”

“God, I hope not.” He snorted. “But wouldn’t it be perfect if the one thing I did that lasted was someone else’s wedding?”

They stood silent for a time, listening to the quiet as the town began to close down for the day.

“Well, guess I’d better get in before I freeze,” Thadeus said, taking a step.

Brewer didn’t move, lost in thought. “That would be ironic. The one thing that stood the test of time.” He got up with a groan. “But I guess there’s still time to accomplish something great. Or is there?” he asked with a sly look and walked inside before Thadeus could answer.

Chapter 31

 

The streets were quiet the next morning as Thadeus walked to Harry’s. A Fed Ex driver was peering with cupped hands into the window of Newbury Games & Toys, ignoring the Closed sign. He frowned, glanced at the small box in his hand, then reached into his pocket and placed a yellow sticker on the door. He scribbled a message before leaving the package in the doorway and jogging back to his truck, taking off in a puff of exhaust.

Thadeus walked through the smoke, waving it away while opening the door to Harry’s. It was empty. Janey, the blonde who took no notice of him the first or any other time he had seen her, continued that habit as he sat at the counter while she stood nearby texting on her phone. He turned over his coffee cup and slid it toward her, then after a moment began tinking it on its side with his spoon. She grabbed a pot and filled the cup mechanically, setting it down and almost looking at him as he ordered the lemon poppy seed muffin. She left and came back ten seconds later with a small plate which was oversized for the shriveled and cold muffin with the hard pat of butter on top.

Thadeus poked it with a knife, cut it in half, slid the butter over it and took a bite. A few chews found him sipping the burnt-smelling coffee with a grimace to remove the stale taste and dislodge the remaining remnants from his throat. Should have had the breakfast, he thought, trying to dislodge seeds from his teeth with his tongue. He pushed the plate away and motioned to the girl–wordlessly–for a refill. She obliged, along with dropping the bill in front of him at the same time. Thadeus took a few sips, grimacing again as he added more cream and sugar, wondering how it could have gotten so burnt so early. Maybe it was yesterday’s. He took another sip before giving up and setting it down. He wiped his tongue with a napkin, dropped a five on the counter and left.

 

Mrs. Schneider was sweeping the walkway as he approached and glanced up only when his shadow appeared at her feet and she found she couldn’t sweep it away.

“Morning,” he said.

She continued working, moving a bit to let him pass.

“Town’s pretty quiet,” Thadeus said. “I guess everyone’s at the funeral.”

She moved back to the center of the walk when she saw he hadn’t moved.

“Not everyone, of course,” he said. “Not us. Did you know Fred Birch?”

She stopped sweeping and scowled at him, the interruption. “No.”

“Then I guess you’re the only one in town who didn’t,” he said, forcing a laugh.

“I knew him as well as I wanted to.”

“Oh?” He waited. So didn’t respond. “I guess he could be a little…gruff.” Still no response. “Was he that way to you?”

Her thin lips drew tight. “There’s no sense speakin’ ill of the dead. He’s gone and the world’s a better place.”

“Why do you say that?”

Her expression changed to one less serious, as if an amusing thought came to mind and he saw a vestige of the young girl she once was alight momentarily before fluttering off. “Why do I say what?”

“That the world is a better place?”

The hardness came back and gave added meaning to the words. “I don’t like people meddlin’ in the affairs of others.”

“You mean like what I do?”

She considered. “You stick your nose in where it’s not wanted.” She said it as a fact. “But at least you don’t–“

”Don’t what?”

“At least you don’t get involved in people’s affairs. You don’t man-ip-u-late–“ she pronounced the word the word as if it had ten syllables “–events. You see what happened, or what is about to happen—I don’t know, or care—but you don’t try to make them happen. You don’t try to control people.”

“Fred did that?”

She pushed herself up from the broomstick until straight. “You already know.”

“How could I?”

“You’ve talked to people. To Andy.”

“You’re right,” he said. “Fred did seem to man-ip-u-late—” Thadeus mimicked her pronunciation “—people for his own ends. But you could also say people let him do it. Maybe they wanted him to.”

“Nobody wants to be forced to do something. Do you?”

“No. But sometimes people won’t move unless outside forces act for them. What type of things did Fred–“

”No sense digging it all up,” she said, sweeping her path as she headed for the door. “Be a better world if we all minded our own business.”

Before she reached the door Thadeus spoke and his was tone was purposefully grating. “I think you’re blinded by your own prejudices.”

She turned. “You think I’m lying?”

Now he changed his tone and the words spoken were light and blasé. “No. You have your perceptions. But you said yourself you didn’t know him well. Maybe you’re just relying on town gossip.”

Her grip on the broom tightened. “I knew him better than you think.”

“Maybe.”

“I heard him talking ‘bout things all the time.”

“All the time? How?”

“How? I got ears.”

“You heard him all the time? How was that possible if you barely knew him?”

She lunged forward and Thadeus backed up reflexively. ”When he was here.”

Thadeus studied her with a puzzled expression. “Here?” He pointed to the house. “Here?”

“Yes. Here.”

“When did he ever come here?”

“All the time,” she said. “At least once a week, for years.”

“But–“ Thadeus stopped. “Why? Why would he come here?”

“To talk, like I said. How else would I have heard him?”

“Wait a minute. Fred Birch would come here at least once a week to talk to you?”

Her look confused him even more, for it was one that gazed upon another thought crazy or dangerous and the conviction in her face made him consider both. “Me? Why would Fred Birch want to talk to me? Why would I want to talk to him? He came to talk to Andy.”

Thadeus looked at the house and back. “Andy? Brewer?”

She shook her head. “Christ all-mighty. For being some type of prophet, you sure are dense.” She went up the steps, turning to give them an obligatory sweep before going inside.

Thadeus’ head pounded long before the door swung shut. If she had hit him over the head with her broom it would have had less impact. Birch had come here? Weekly? For years? To talk to Andy?

He looked into the bottom window and for a split second imagined he saw a face smiling back at him Cheshire-cat like from the thick dark.

Chapter 32

 

Donny Rowe was staring at his computer screen when Thadeus entered and he moved the mouse quickly, clicking the screen blank before turning his chair toward Thadeus.

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to speak to Justus.”

“He’s at the funeral.”

“Oh. How come you’re not?”

He took a flustered breath and stood. “That’s none of your business, is it?”

“Just making conversation,” Thadeus said, turning his attention to the bulletin board. There was nothing of interest; a departmental brochure concerning safety procedures, another on molds and toxins. A sheet of crime statistics for the year. Rapes were down significantly, as were all crime statewide. People have just given up trying, he thought.

“This must be a red letter day for you.”

“Oh?” He kept his eyes on the board.

“Birch being dead and all.”

“He’s been dead before. For a few days, I mean.”

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?”

“Not really,” he said, turning. “But life can be.”

Rowe stood glaring, his lips closed but moving as if words were forming and getting ready to be said. But none came before the front door opened and Justus McDermitt walked in.

He grunted at Rowe and walked to his desk without seeing Thadeus. He slipped his jacket off and onto the back of the chair, happened to look over to him, frowned and walked over to the coffee machine. “I’m not going to say I’m happy to see you.”

“I can’t say the same.”

Justus grunted again, pouring sugar. “I wonder if you realize,” he began, “just how much trouble you’ve stirred up here.” A spoon clinked in his cup which he set down.

“I don’t think I’ve stirred up any.”

“A lot of people aren’t real happy with you.”

Thadeus smiled. “It’s nothing I’ve done, I’m sure. And I’m sure that, like me, you don’t let popular opinion stop you from doing what you need to do.”

“And what is it you need to do?”

“Find out who killed Fred Birch.”

Rowe laughed. “I told you he’d keep at it. He’s crazy.”

Justus took a breath, looking at Rowe, at Thadeus. “Donny may have a point.”

“Like I said,” Thadeus repeated, “neither of us worry about people’s opinions.”

“Meaning?”

“I’ll keep scratching the itch.”

Justus looked at him, considering. “I’d rather you drop the whole thing and we can all go on with our own lives.”

“I understand,” he said. “But in this case, I think even Fred Birch would have sided with me.”

“Fred Birch died of a heart attack,” the man said. “That’s what the coroner said, that’s what it looked like and that’s what it was. Now I’m telling you–“ He took a breath. “I’m asking you, man to man, let it go.”

Both men had their attention on Thadeus; Justus somewhat forlorn, Rowe with a hopeful smirk.

“How was the funeral?”

Rowe blew out a disgusted sound before walking down the hall while Justus wiped his hands over his face. “It wasn’t the best morning I’ve ever had. I left after the service. I decided to miss the burial and wake.”

“Big crowd?”

“Yeah,” Justus said after a moment.

“You sound surprised.”

The man hesitated. “Let’s not kid each other. Fred Birch wasn’t the most beloved person in Newbury. But it was nice to see so many people overlook all that. Hell, if the number of people who come to our funeral depends on how good we were…” He let it trail off, perhaps not wanting to think about the future in such detail.

“How was Mrs. Birch?”

“Wife or mother?” His tone was borderline hostile.

“Catherine.”

“Better than his mother. Catherine seemed composed. I’m sure she appreciated the support of the community.” He said the words carefully. “She’s always been sturdy. Steady,” he corrected, annoyed at the mistake.

“Was Wendy Tyner present?” Justus glared but nodded. “How did she seem?”

Justus gave him a steely look but his words were calm. “She was fine.”

“Hmm.”

“This is what I’m talking about,” Justus said. “About wanting things to go back to the way they were, with no one poking around digging up the past. What’s done is done. It’s time to let the healing process begin.”

“That might be for the best,” Thadeus said agreeably. It seemed to appease Justus.

“As far as Fred Birch is concerned, it’s over and done. Let the dead rest.”

“I understand.” But it’s not the dead I’m concerned with, he thought. “Well, I guess I’ll be going.” He started toward the door.

“You were mentioned,” Justus said. “During the service.”

“Really?”

“Not by name. Father Connelly performed the service–“

”Of course.”

“And in the course of giving the eulogy he made reference to the fact—in respect to our lives—how all our days are numbered.”

“I believe that.”

“And that,” he continued, “in spite of anyone saying differently, only God knows what that span of time will be.”

“I believe that, as well.”

“Well,” Justus said, “it brought quite a murmur from the crowd. There was no mistaking who he was talking about.”

Thadeus nodded non-commitedly. “I’m glad to hear that Father Connelly and I have no spiritual disagreement.”

“All the same, it brought a little glitch to the service.”

“People put too much emphasis on the wrong things.”

“It wasn’t appreciated.”

“I’m sure you brought your concerns to Father Connelly.”

“I’m bringing them to you.”

Thadeus nodded understanding. “I’ll give them the consideration they deserve.”

 

As he stood at the ATM, thumbing through his wallet, Thadeus had a tinge of unease. Not about the remaining balance in his account, which was ample, but by relying on his own provision. Of course, it was all God’s provision and that was a good justification. What difference did it make if he waited for money to come through other means or if he simply took it from a place that God had already blessed? Was it not all from God’s hand? If someone was hungry and they decided to eat at a restaurant, did it matter which one they chose without waiting for a heavenly word? Was there sin involved in such choice?

No, he thought. Provision came in many forms. But he decided as a compromise to at least make the amount he had already purposed to withdraw last until it was time to leave Newbury. That’s when Alba walked by.

“Getting cash? Get some for me.”

“What’s the hurry?” he asked after her.

“Got to get to work. Janey had to leave early and–“ she stopped. “You want to make some quick money?”

“You’re a little too young for me.”

“Ho-ho-ho,” she said. “You wish. And I wouldn’t be the one paying, believe me. Want to bus tables for a few hours?”

“At Harry’s”

“No, here on the street. Yes, at Harry’s.”

“I was just there an hour ago.”

“How was it?”

“Bad food, bad service.”

“Good, I won’t have to train you. Ten bucks an hour,” she added as inducement.

The proposition, Thadeus thought in more depth later, put the theological dilemma in a different light and gave way for two old sayings, which would have brought resolve had he followed them: He who hesitates is lost, and, Take the money and run. But at that moment he simply shrugged in assent, gave a half-thanks for the mixed blessing and put his wallet back in his pocket as he hurried after the girl.

The diner wasn’t overly crowded as they came in but it gave the appearance of such. There were tables open but a family of four waited by the door. A man stood by the register with his bill, ready to pay if someone were there to take his money. And dishes still waiting for removal on two other tables.

Thadeus squeezed by the frowning father and made his way to the counter where three patrons sat. A young couple on the end, lost in their own world and immune to the human concept of time and an annoying man about Thadeus’ age tapping a spoon noisily against and obviously empty coffee cup.

Alba was already in the back putting on an apron when he walked up to the counter and she waved him around.

“What do I do?”

Jesse was in the kitchen, up to his eyebrows in busy. “Where have you been? And what’s he doing here?”

“My shift doesn’t start for another hour,” she said. “Where’s Janey?”

“I don’t know. She had something to do.”

“I found Thadeus on the street and he begged me for a job,” Alba said.

“How’s that again?”

“We’re both here to work.”

“Well…” Jesse said, assessing the situation, “good, because I’m up to my ass.”

“But what an ass,” Alba said, making the boy smile, then frown, then smile at the compliment.

“What do I do?” Thadeus asked, as someone hit a bell out front.

“Be right there! Okay, the most important thing first,” she said, leading him to the back. “Clock in. Just use a blank time card, we’ll put your name in later. Now, battle stations.”

When they got everyone situated and seated things went smoother. And once he got the hang of it, Thadeus found it wasn’t so bad. Simple, even. People left and you gathered their plates. Then you would set the table again for the next group. After a while he advanced to bringing and refilling water and even found the boldness to ask if such and such a person was finished and may he clear their plate, though he found that people who ate at a slower pace did not appreciate such efficiency.

It began to be almost fun, a game and he found himself subconsciously affecting an English accent and the mannerisms of a butler. He managed to appease the family who had been waiting by amusing the children with a small magic trick; making a cup disappear through a table. A simple thing but which had left the boy and girl mystified and the parents relieved of their attention for a few moments. The crackers he left to relieve their hunger didn’t hurt.

Even Jesse seemed to be in good sprits, better than he had ever seen the boy and after a half hour they were working as a well-oiled machine.

“Two specials, one t-bone medium,” Alba was saying. “Jesse!”

“Yeah, I hear you,” he yelled back. “I’m only one man.”

“But what a man,” she said and he looked up with a big smile before spinning the order carousel. After a moment whistling could be heard from the kitchen.

Before he knew it, it was time for a break, a short break, and he stood in the back by the time clock drinking a Coke.

“Have you caught the bussing bug?” Alba asked.

He shrugged. “Maybe. It was fun.”

“Fun,” she said with a scoff. “Do it every day for a week and we’ll see if your enthusiasm wanes. Uh-oh. So much for a rest. Back to work.”

A large group had come in and were forming near the front, more waiting behind to follow. They were an older group, dressed in black and the few who weren’t were attempting formality with dress shirts over their blue jeans. They had obviously come from Fred Birch’s funeral and were there to unwind, reconnect, reminisce.

Alba set them seated as Thadeus moved to the first table with water. The first group, five women, were murmuring as he set down the glasses. He recognized two of them from the spaghetti dinner but couldn’t remember their names.

“Ladies,” he said cordially but their expressions didn’t change.

“Mister….Cochran, wasn’t it?” a woman asked. Nora, from St. Martin’s.

He nodded, smiling. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“I didn’t expect to see you working here.”

“I’m helping out a friend.”

A little smirk, a side-glance at Alba and a “Mmm-huh,” was said by two or more of the woman. Thadeus took their drink orders and met Alba at the counter.

“Natives are restless,” she said, indicating the men at her table.

“Mine are just insinuatory, if that’s a word.”

“I hope the beer mellows them out,” she said, gathering bottles, “or I won’t be getting a tip.”

That’s the least of my worries, he thought, assembling his own order. He took the tray back to the table and began setting the drinks down. He moved to the side, near the other table, when one of the chairs moved out and Thadeus had to step quickly to the side to avoid it. The man in the chair stood in front of Thadeus. He had bushy eyebrows, wavy blonde hair and a face lined with years of dealing with trouble, real or perceived.

“I need to pass.”

“I’ll be out of your way in a moment, sir,” Thadeus said, reaching over.

The muscles in the man’s face moved. “I need to pass now.”

Thadeus handed out the last glass and then stood deliberately in front of the man, looking into his eyes with a smile. “Yes, sir.” Then turned and walked casually back to the counter as the man made his way to the restroom.

More people had come in and settled down, the conversational hum around the restaurant punctured now and then by whistling from the kitchen. Unlimited to the boundaries of tables, stories and laughter overlapped each other as people shared memories of yesterday, concerns of today, wonderings of tomorrow; people coping with the business of death as they had for centuries: with the business of living. Today, Thadeus knew, would always trump Yesterday or Tomorrow in importance. The ones who were gone would be missed but the people assembled were like those who have survived a catastrophe and now sat thinking about those who were not so fortunate. Sorry for the loss but happy to be alive. Survival triumphed all.

“Jesse seems happy,” Thadeus said to Alba. “And people have noticed.”

She looked up from her order and scanned the room. “Well, let ‘em. As long as they pay, they can notice whatever they like. Or whoever,” she said, winking and moving off with coffee pot in hand.

Thadeus filled the ice water and followed suit, looking for empty glasses. Seniors, he knew, licking his lips, seemed always to be in a constant state of dryness.

He was getting close to the man who had almost knocked into him before, so he decided to make an effort to be even more innocuous.

“Water? Sir? Anyone?”

The conversation, which had been minimal, came to a stop and six faces stared at him. The man with the lined face spoke, perhaps for the rest of them.

“Why are you still here?”

“I thought you might like some water.”

“Here, in Newbury.”

Thadeus stood, purposing to keep the mood light. “Because the people are so nice and friendly.”

“Are you saying I’m not?”

“No, sir,” he said. “You’re saying you’re not.”

He stood, the chair scraping the floor, the restaurant going silent as he did. “You’re not welcome here.”

Thadeus took a step back. He remembered the punch from Birch and wasn’t going to let it happen again, at least not off balance. But he wasn’t backing down.

“I appreciate your opinion. But I have a job to do and I’m not leaving until it’s finished. Water?”

The man’s face went red, the knuckles on his clenched fists white. He bent at the waist, pulled his chair close to sit and edged up to the table. He picked up his glass with his left hand and held it out. “I’ll take some water now.”

Thadeus hesitated, then moved slowly forward, tipping the pitcher as he touched the glass. That’s when the man grabbed it with his right hand and moved forward to shove it in Thadeus’ face. But he anticipated the move and had already moved to the side, angling the water away from himself. But in so doing, the pitcher twisted with his wrist toward the adjoining table, emptying its contents on the top of Nora.

Everyone seemed to jump up at once, the woman gasping at the cold shower, people holding the man who had pushed the pitcher back as Thadeus retreated.

“Nora, are you all right?”

“Look what he did!”

“Damn son of a bitch.”

“I’ll see you in jail, you no good–“

A hand clasped his arm and he jerked to his right but it was only Alba, pulling him back. “Come on!”

She led him away as voices followed.

“I knew he was a no-good bum.”

“I’m freezing. Freezing!”

“Let’s a woman fight his battles.”

“He ruined the whole day.”

They turned into the kitchen where Jesse stood, butcher knife in hand.

“What are you doing with that?” Alba asked, exasperated and pushed past him. They turned by the back door, Thadeus expecting a mob to storm the kitchen with a rope.

“Well, thanks for helping out,” Alba said.

“I wasn’t finished.”

“Oh, yes you are,” she said, then, to Jesse who was still holding the knife: “What exactly were you going to do with that?”

“In case…” he said, stopping. “In case someone tried to…grab you or something, I don’t know.”

She smiled. “My hero. You’d better go,” she said to Thadeus.

“Yeah, I guess so. Hey, when will I get paid for–“ he began, but she was already walking over to Jesse and the last thing he saw was the two of them embrace and Jesse holding the knife to her back.

As Thadeus walked through the alley on his way back to his room, he wondered if he shouldn’t just forgo that destination and simply head home. It had been a wearying few weeks and the thought of restful seclusion away from the draining drama of emotion was enticing. Besides, no one in town would miss him; certainly not Alba, or even Amy. He had seemed to have worn out his welcome even with the congenial Justus McDermitt and it was his words that rang through Thadeus’ ears with a sense of truthful finality.

People wanted to forget and move on, to find hope in the future without the weight of the past. It seemed to Thadeus the opportunity for resolve was gone and for the people of Newbury justice was as unwanted as his presence.

 

As he came around the building toward Main Street, he found the sidewalks deserted, the park empty and no sign of movement from any part of the town. It was as if all the elements of nature had gotten together and swept the place clean, removing all obstruction from his path out of town. It was an omen, he decided and if nothing else impeded his journey he would continue on past Mrs. Schneider’s house, beyond Amy’s and back the way he had come, not stopping until he reached the warm comfort of his front door. Even if it took until the early morning, it would be worth it to sleep in his own bed.

It was then the door of the Newbury News opened and Todd Torkelson came out, locking the door behind him. He carried some papers under his arm and seemed in a hurry. When he saw Thadeus, he smiled.

“Hey, am I glad to see you.”

Thadeus stopped. “Why?”

“Because you are going to keep me in business. At least until the end of the month.”

“How?”

Todd slapped the papers with his free hand. “I finished the article and it’s being printed right now.”

“Great.”

“As a matter of fact,” he said, thumbing through the papers, “I’m going to do something I’ve never done before. I’ll give you an advance copy.” He handed Thadeus two pages of an article. “This was the original I just printed out. But you know, this is the first time I’ve written a piece I didn’t have to rewrite. It kind of wrote itself.”

He glanced at it. Psychic Proven Right by Birch Lightning Strike.

“I doubt I’m going to like this.”

“You’ll love it. Tell me tomorrow how much. I’m going to pick up my papers and get them all delivered tonight. I ordered an extra five-thousand copies. This is going to be a good week.”

He opened the door of a dark Camry and dumped the papers onto the passenger seat, then went around the other side and got in. Barry Manilow began singing about miracles as Torkelson drove off.

Thadeus started back toward the direction of his room. I guess, he thought, scanning the page, I’ll be staying for a while longer.

 

God’s Will Seen by Psychic in Local Death

Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, a prediction by a local psychic proved true when Fred Birch was found dead in a field near his residence…

Chapter 33

 

God’s Will Seen by Psychic in Local Death

Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, a prediction by a local psychic proved true when Fred Birch was found dead in a field near his residence two weeks ago. Thadeus Cochran, a visitor staying at Ruth Schneider’s Boarding House, told his prediction to a few people before confronting Birch himself the Friday preceding Birch’s death. This led to an altercation which sent said psychic, Cochran, to spend the weekend in jail, an event perhaps hidden from his own powers. Cochran was in jail when Birch was discovered on the property owned by Bob and Wendy Tyner, which is adjacent to his own. Coincidentally, and, according to Cochran, unrelated, Bob Tyner passed away the day before.

According to Cochran, Birch’s death was the will of God and a direct result of some of Birch’s activities which were deemed unsuitable by the Almighty. The specifics of these Cochran refused to divulge. It was also told to this reporter that a lightning strike from our last storm was the impetus for Birch’s death, though the coroner’s office has ruled his death the result of a heart attack brought on by natural means. Birch, who had no history of lightning strikes, had a long history of heart trouble and wore a pacemaker to correct an irregular heartbeat.

Though not a Newbury resident, Thadeus Cochran has had a colorful history himself of such predictions; from Presidential races to sporting events, though his claims of predicting New England weather seem to be beyond his reach.

Our Resident Trooper Justus McDermit has stated that any such claims fly in the face of logic and should be given no credence. He stands by the coroner’s report.

Members of Birch’s immediate family had no comment.

Chapter 34

 

As promised, the paper was out and all over town the next morning. Reviews, Thadeus heard later, were mixed. People couldn’t decide whether he should be lynched immediately or thrown in jail to be lynched later.

Fortunately for Thadeus, he was met at the landing that morning by Andy Brewer, who stood with paper open and a smile on his face.

“Well, well, the great man cometh.”

Thadeus grimaced. “I’ve already seen it.”

“Psychics are akin to seers, which are akin to witchcraft,” Andy said lightly. “The bible advocates stoning.”

“Thankfully, I’m neither,” he said, studying the paper, “not to mention being under grace if I were.” Not only was the story on the front page, it was the lead story, headline in large print with an accompanying photo of Fred and Catherine Birch looking like the happily married pillars of society they were. Thadeus was just glad they hadn’t found a photo of him.

Mrs. Schneider came from the back, heading outside, looking sour as usual.

“You’re just in time,” Andy said to her and she stopped impatiently. “Seems our friend here has made the papers.”

He turned it to her and she scanned it with a scowl, looking up a few seconds later. “I don’t need no trouble.”

“It’s just a story,” Thadeus said, which meant nothing.

“I don’t need a lot of empty-headed fools hanging around like before.”

“I’ll….uh….I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Even after she’d gone her frown seemed to linger.

“At least you have one fan,” Andy said. “Correction. Two.”

Thadeus turned to where he indicated, as Alba sauntered up the walk, passing Ruth Schneider who gave her a disapproving glance back.

“I was going to ask how this would affect the mission,” Andy said with a lascivious smile, “but I think I can guess.”

He went into his room and shut the door as Alba walked in. She wore a dark t-shirt over a red plaid skirt, two black wristbands and held the latest copy of the Newbury News.

“If I didn’t know better,” she said cheerfully, “I’d say you were waiting for me.”

“What brings you here?”

“I brought you the paper.” She said the words like a little girl, coquettish and innocent.

“Thank you. I’ve read it.”

“All of it?” She held it to her chest. “Even the part in front?”

“Especially that part.”

There was a muffled sound from Andy’s room, a thump as something hit the door, a curse.

“Maybe we can go somewhere a little more private.” She looked upstairs.

“I doubt that’s a good idea.”

“Don’t trust yourself?”

Thadeus caught site of Ruth Schneider on the sidewalk coming back. “How about the back yard?”

He took her arm and led her outside and over to the small gazebo. She sat down on the bench, Thadeus taking a seat at one across, which made Alba hop up and sit next to him. She leaned against him and crossed her legs, which were much longer and firmer than he’d remembered.

“This is quite the article,” she said.

“Don’t believe everything you read.”

“I don’t,” she said, batting her eyes. “Only everything you say.”

“What did you want to talk about?” he asked, forcefully taking his eyes from hers and keeping them on the paper.

“I wanted to apologize for last night.”

“You didn’t do anything.”

“For the way people acted.”

“That had nothing to do with you.”

“I could have done something.”

“Like what?”

“I could have thrown them out.”

He laughed. “I would have loved to have seen that.”

“Don’t think I couldn’t have?”

“No.”

“Feel these.” She flexed her arms and he reached over reluctantly to feel her biceps. “Pretty hard, huh?”

“Hmm.” He took his hands away, frowning.

“I’ve been known to hold grown men down on the ground until they were helpless. Of course,” she said, pressing against him, “none of them struggled much.”

Thadeus squirmed. “How did things go after I left?”

“Better,” she said. “People quieted down. But once you were gone, the life went out of the party. Everybody drifted away.”

“What did you do?”

“Me? You’re asking about me? Well, aren’t you thoughtful. I went home,” she added simply.

“You and Jesse didn’t…”

“No, we didn’t. He went home. Are you concerned with my chastity?”

“No.”

“It’s still intact. I swear.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Want to see?” She pulled her skirt up an inch.

“Stop that,” he said, standing up.

She stood with him. “Am I making you uncomfortable.”

“Very. As you know.”

“The article mentioned a lightning bolt being the cause of Fred Birch’s death.”

“I never said that.”

“Do you think it’s possible?”

“Unlikely.”

“Do you think God would strike us dead if we…you know…?”

He pulled away, taking a step down into the sunlight. “Doesn’t matter, because that won’t happen.”

Alba walked over and stood in front of him. “Are you sure?”

He nodded, keeping his eyes on hers. Today, I’m sure. “Yes.”

“Well,” she said after a moment, her tone and expression showing disappointment, “I still have hope. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go.” She put her hand on his chest and moved him to the side. “You don’t have to see me out.”

He watched her walk through the yard, considering the cruelties of life and the tortuous thought of what she was wearing underneath the skirt crossed his mind. He didn’t have to wonder long, for when the girl reached the concrete landing of the back door she stopped, hesitated, then gave her skirt a deliberate flip before going inside.

The image, even more torturous, would remain much longer than it took his mind to capture, for she wore nothing underneath.

A few minutes later, assured she was long gone, Thadeus followed her steps, stopping at the back door. He heard voices and squinting through the window could see a man with a suit and briefcase speaking to Mrs. Schneider. Assuming he was the subject being discussed and in no mood to join the conversation, Thadeus retraced his steps and stood in the yard, considering options. The sharp thorns beyond the wire fence in the back were not inviting and the six-foot wooden fence which enclosed the yard on either side seemed higher the longer he stood. Unthinking, he ran to his right and jumped, grabbing the top of the fence and pedaling his feet for traction. Pained muscles found him working his way upward. At the top, straddling with his body, the fence teetered slightly and he fell on his side into the adjoining yard.

Rising with a grimace, he bent low, surveying the scene. There didn’t seem to be anyone home. He ran in a crouch across the yard as if he were a spy.

The next fence was not as high as the one previous and he made it over easily. The one after that was a split rail which he stepped over. But the next was much like the first and he approached as he had the other; running, jumping, pedaling, straddling, falling. He spun slightly in the air and landed on his backside and stood rubbing the area until he looked up and found himself in the presence of a startled, yet amused, Amy Emerson.

 

“…and that’s how I happened to come here,” he was saying, relieved she asked no follow-up questions as everything he had told her was a lie. Well, not completely. Only the details, yet it had seemed more palatable to say his sudden appearance was due to an attempt to avoid a very young and beautiful (though he found it more expedient to describe her as being sixty-five and plain) and obviously infatuated panty-less (the last detail too unimportant to bear mention, especially at the woman’s now-edited age) girl than his running from possible legal entanglements. And the idea that he sought sanctuary with her rather than another female gave his unexpected presence an air of nobility that the truth did not contain.

“Did you happen to see today’s paper?” she asked.

“The paper? The Newbury paper? Why, what’s in it?”

She raised a finger, intimating he should wait and got up. Thadeus watched her walk to the house and though she was wearing a blue and white sun dress which hung to her knees, he didn’t expect a replay of what had happened a few minutes before with Alba. But when she suddenly stopped a few feet from the door he sat up in surprise but she had only done so to take a clip from her hair so she could shake it loose before entering the house.

She returned with the paper and two glasses of orange juice, setting them all down as Thadeus pretended to read the article afresh. He made sure to make the appropriate expressions as he did so—surprise, confusion, anger, disappointment–before folding it up and taking a sip.

“What do you think?”

“Most of it’s not true,” he said, handing it back.

“But,” she said, opening it again, “some of it’s true. Your prediction, being in jail, Fred dying. His heart trouble, the pacemaker.”

“You knew he had a pacemaker?”

“No, but the article says so.”

“Hmm,” he said, trying to appear serious. Then, equally as dismissive: “I would just forget the whole thing.”

She stared at him. “Why?”

“Because, ultimately, what does it mean?”’

She looked at the paper. “Well, I guess it could mean that God…” She stopped. “I don’t know what it means. I went to the funeral yesterday.”

“How was it?”

She looked at him, unsure. “It was fine, I guess.”

“I heard I was mentioned.”

“Really?”

“Wasn’t I?”

“When?”

“By Father Connelly.”

“I didn’t hear your name.”

“Alluded to.”

“Oh,” she said. “Maybe. I wasn’t listening during most of it,” she admitted. “Father Connelly has that monotone…but the whole thing got me to thinking… about life, and Doug.”

“Uh-huh.”

“And that, to God, there are no surprises.”

“True.”

“So Doug’s death was no surprise.”

“Right.”

“Is that true?”

“I think if we can surprise God then we might as well worship a stick.”

“So his death was God’s will.”

“In a sense.”

“And Fred Birch.”

“Yes.”

“No matter how it came about.”

“You mean naturally or not?”

“Yes.”

“I think if I can thwart God’s plan, you might as well worship me, which would be like worshiping a stick.”

She smiled pensively. “So our days are numbered.”

“I think so.”

“So we should live each day like it’s our last.”

“Or our first.”

She nodded and got up quickly, decisively. “Have you had breakfast?”

“No. I was on my way out when I saw this and thought I should avoid town.”

“I’ll make some eggs. Scrambled?”

“Poached.”

She turned, then turned again. “I thought you said you hadn’t seen the article until I showed it to you.”

Thadeus ran his mind quickly back through the conversation, then shrugged. “I lied.”

Amy’s face seemed to light up and she giggled. “That’s all right. I’ve lied a few times.”

 

“They call you a psychic in the paper.”

“Yeah.”

“Are you?”

“No.”

“Can’t you sue them for that?”

“Maybe.”

“Will you?”

“No.”

She looked disappointed. “You’re not going to fight?”

“What would I gain?”

“Your reputation, for one.”

“I still have it.”

“I’d think you’d want to go in there and–and–“

”And?”

“And raise hell!”

Thadeus laughed. “How?”

“Kick some ass.”

“Amy Emerson,” he laughed out, half-shocked. “And you, a teacher.”

“Doesn’t it make you mad when somebody says something about you that isn’t true?”

“It depends on what they say.”

“This.”

“No. Most people won’t even read it. Besides, I don’t want to spend time being upset about what I can’t control. And other people are usually out of my control.”

“You could make the editor print a retraction, or rewrite it.”

“He won’t. I’ve already spoken to him.”

“When?”

Thadeus looked sheepish. “Todd let me read an advance copy of the article last night.”

Her mouth opened. “So you not only saw the article before I showed it to you, you saw it last night. Another lie.” She shook her head but was smiling. “Do you ever tell the truth?”

“When it suits me.”

“Does it suit you now?”

“Yes.”

She slid her chair closer, scraping on the concrete. “Then tell me, truthfully, honestly.” She leaned very close now, so close he could almost taste her freckles and it took great effort not to lean over and kiss her on the mouth. “Did God kill Fred Birch?”

He squinched his face. “In a way.”

“With a lightning bolt?”

“No.”

“How?”

“I’m not sure.”

“But you knew it would be him.”

“I—yeah, I knew. I knew something.”

Her shoulders went up like a shiver ran through her body. She stood, putting her hand on his shoulder for support. “Don’t go anywhere,” she said and went inside.

What is the attraction, he wondered, gathering dishes, the women in this town have with death?

Chapter 35

 

Amy had her eyes fastened on him as he sipped his coffee. Though he was generally flattered to be the object of a beautiful woman’s undivided attention, this was one of those rare times he was not.

“I want to ask you a question,” she said.

“Go ahead.”

“I’m a little afraid of what the answer might be.”

“It’ll just be words.”

She took a breath, then straightened as if preparing for bad news. “How did you know Fred Birch would die?”

“I’m not sure how I knew. I just knew.”

“Do you know who will be next?”

He moved the cup from his lips, then moved it back and took a sip. “Next?”

“Yes. Who will die next?”

“I don’t know.”

“You must have some idea. Is it somebody we know? Someone you’ve met? Will it be me?”

He put the cup gently on the table and saw her hands were trembling slightly. He smiled as reassuringly as he knew how. “That’s not how it works.”

“But you’re told.”

“Not really.”

“But you know.”

“At times.”

“Then how?”

He drained the cup and put it down. “I don’t know in any way you can feel with your hands. It’s not tangible. It’s not verbal. It doesn’t come in a dream. The best I can say is, I don’t know until I know.”

She waited.

“It starts with a feeling,” he continued. “I get restless, then I get irritable, then I feel like punching walls. After a few days of that I know I need to go. I don’t know where I’m going, I just know I have to get out the door. So I do. Then I take a step. Then another, and maybe a thousand more, and a thousand more after that. And that day or the next or the one after, I know I’m where I should be. So I start looking at faces. When I’ve found the right one, I stop. And then they die. Then I look for their killer. When I find them, I go home.”

She shivered. “That’s spooky.”

He forced a smile. “Only if it’s true.”

“What if they weren’t murdered? What if they just died?”

“Then I wouldn’t be here.”

She looked thoughtful. “So you have no idea who will die next?”

“I really don’t care.”

“You don’t care? How can you say that?”

“Do you know how many people die every day? I looked it up. A hundred and fifty thousand, give or take. That’s about one-hundred people every minute. How can anyone care?

I’m only involved if they’re murdered and even then, only if I’m there.”

She sat back and huddled around her cup. “I could never be involved in something like that.”

The deeper implication of her words brought bitterness he suppressed. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“I don’t understand,” Amy said, “why God allows people to be killed, at all.”

“Because He loves us.”

She looked puzzled. “I don’t understand.”

“What you’re really asking is why God allows evil to exist. What you should be asking is why does God let people exist.”

“I’m talking about people that harm other people.”

“I know. When we think about evil, it always concerns someone else. God’s view is that anything not perfect is evil, therefore everyone is. There are obviously worse evils than others, which is why there were different penalties employed for different behavior but what it comes down to is God allows evil to exist because He loves us.”

“That still doesn’t explain why he doesn’t stop people from killing each other.”

“He gave us the free will to do whatever we wished. We can either do good, or not.”

She frowned. “Maybe He shouldn’t have.”

“You’re not the first to have that idea.”

“Is there a reason?”

“There’s a reason for everything. Except mosquitoes.”

“What is it?”

“Without free will, love doesn’t exist. If I’m forced to love you, is that love? No. Only if I give my love freely.”

She squirmed uncomfortably. “I’ve been thinking about something else. If God has a plan for our lives, did whoever kill Fred—if he was killed—interfere with God’s plan for his life? Would he have died anyway? And if it was part of the plan, what difference would it make if his killer was found or not?”

Thadeus was impressed that she had thought so deeply on the subject, and amazed at how little he had thought of her ability to do so. He was also patently aware that she had moved quickly away from the very dangerous topic of love back to the much safer topic of murder. “Honestly, I’m not sure.”

“You don’t know the answer.”

“No. I do have my own opinion. I think there is no Plan B.”

“Meaning?”

“Live is only lived forward. There are no other options.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“You may have wondered at some point in your life what it would have been like if you hadn’t married Doug and had married someone else.”

“Y-yes.”

“We all do that type of re-examination of our lives,” he said. “That’s natural. But once you married him, that was no longer an option. It may be interesting to ruminate on possible futures if you had made different decisions but it’s ultimately pointless.”

“Yes. I see that. But what did you mean there’s no Plan B?”

“I have a theory, but it’s just a theory. Don’t take it as the gospel. I think life is already over.”

“Over? How can it be over?”

“If God created time, He isn’t bound to it. Knowing everything, He has already seen the ending. If He’s seen the ending, how can it ever be changed? Follow?”

She shook her head.

“Think of a movie. Casablanca, for instance. I assume you’ve seen it.”

She nodded.

“If you watch it again, you don’t have to guess what’s going to happen. You already know. And if you’ve seen it enough, you’re not surprised by how they act or what they say. It never changes. It’s finished.”

“But somebody wrote those lines. They could have written it differently, with a different ending.”

“The point is, they didn’t. And in life, we can’t. What we’ll do is what we’ll do. We don’t get a Plan B. Every day is Plan A.”

She said, almost absently, “That rhymes.”

“I should make bumper stickers. Anyway, in keeping with my theory—and remember, it’s just a theory—God sees the whole movie of our lives, from beginning to end. So, if during the movie of our lives someone kills someone else, was that part of the plan or someone stepping outside the bounds of what should have happened but didn’t? I don’t know. But since it did happen, it becomes part of what has already been completed.”

“So what I do doesn’t matter.”

“I never said that. I said that, in essence, it’s already been done. But you still have to do it.”

“So Fred’s death was pre-ordained.”

“Only as much as any death. It was known before it happened. Now I have to find out why.”

“Which God already knows.”

“Right.”

“Why doesn’t He just tell you?”

“He will, through other people. They’ll tell me, in different ways, even if they don’t mean to.”

She was thoughtful, then suddenly looked at him in surprise. “People like me, you mean. Is that why you’re here, to find out what I know?”

“Partly,” he said. “I do like your company. But you do know everyone in town.”

Her face became somber, along with her tone. “Not everyone.”

“A lot of people. You know a lot about them. It’s been helpful.”

“So you’re just using me, for information and occasional transportation.”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

“What would you say?”

He got up and walked around her, gently putting his hands on her shoulder. She flinched, then relaxed. “I like you. I like being with you. I’d like to see you after all this is over.” He began rubbing her shoulders and she sighed, rolling her head loosely.

Suddenly she stiffened and he pulled back and away as she rose.

“Amy, I didn’t mean anything–“

She moved from the table, picking up her cup, putting it down, taking a few steps before turning without looking. “It’s too soon. I can’t.”

She walked quickly to the house, opening and closing the sliding screen door, clicking it locked before sliding the heavy glass door shut, locking it as well and disappearing into the confines of the house.

Chapter 36

 

It was a sullen walk back to his room. He couldn’t get the sticky sweet taste of breakfast off his tongue. Everything he had eaten left an acidic feel in his stomach and throat. Since coming to Newbury his diet had been anything but healthy, not that it had leaned in that direction before but he felt tired and bloated and fat. He took consolation that there might be some forced exercise in the near future, coming in the form of a long walk home.

There was a scattering of people up ahead, spread out in front of the Schneider place. Most of them he had never seen before; the miscellaneous background folk who might have crossed his path and seemed intent on continuing with that action. They turned as he approached and he raised his head and set his jaw.

There was no parting of the crowd as he turned onto the walkway, as those standing were on the grass or further off. Nearer the door a tall man with dark hair stood out from the rest, not only in height but quality of clothes. Though dressed casually, the beige pants and black short sleeve shirt over his thin frame gave the impression of a catalogue model on a break. The word that immediately came to mind was polished. Even his short, wavy and unbrushed hair fit the look to a tee.

He raised his cell phone as Thadeus approached, eyes focused into it and then over as he recorded. “Thadeus Cochran?”

He nodded.

“Kevin Cabbot, The Screaming Weasel.”

“That’s a strange nickname.”

“That’s my blog. The Screaming Weasel. Can we have a word?”

“Are you taping this?”

The kid smiled. “I’m recording it. There is no tape involved.”

Thadeus grimaced back, wishing he could rewind his recorded words.

“I assume you’ve seen the paper.” Cabbot held it at arms length so the headline would show in the camera beside Thadeus’ face.

“Yes.”

“Any comments?”

“About what?”

“It says you’re a psychic who predicted the death of man who then died.”

“That’s correct.”

“So it’s true?”

“No. It’s correct that that’s what it says.”

“Is it accurate?”

“Is anything in the newspaper—or online—ever accurate?”

“That’s what I want to find out.”

“I don’t predict deaths,” Thadeus said.

“But you did.”

“Inasmuch as anyone can. Are you from Newbury?”

“Nah. Windsor, home of the Wild Weeds. North of Hartford.”

“News travels fast. The paper just came out.”

“Todd emails me a copy a day early,” Cabbot said. “We send each other everything. Print media’s dead. There’s nothing in here,” he said, glancing at the paper, “I didn’t know last week.”

“If print is dead, why is Todd helping you? Aren’t you the competition?”

“No. We’re the future. He sees the writing on the virtual wall. It’s only a matter of time before his profit margin is in the negative. So the more friends he makes online, the more people download his paper.”

“But those are free downloads.”

“Right.”

“So where’s the money in that?”

“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Right now it’s still advertising and referrals. If I knew how to make real money doing this, I’d keep it to myself.”

“How did you know I lived here?”

“Todd sent me your address.”

Thadeus grunted. “Are you the only blogger Todd sends things to?”

“Not if he’s smart,” Cabbot said.

“Then where is everyone else?” he asked, looking around.

“They’re all over the country. They don’t have to be here physically. They can check my site and repost what I publish.”

“Does that happen a lot?”

“Hundreds of times,” Cabbot said. “Sometimes a national site will run a piece of mine and I’ll gain another few thousand friends.”

“But no money.”

“Not initially. But they have to go to my website to read it. And to read this interview. Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

“Is that thing necessary?” he asked, indicating the phone. Though the camera itself was almost imperceptible, Thadeus knew it could do as much damage as if he had been besieged by a news crew.

“It’s all visual, man. If people can’t put a picture to it, they won’t read it.”

Thadeus nodded his assent.

“So you never answered the question,” Kevin said. “Are you a psychic? Do you get visions? Dreams of the future?”

“No.”

“It says you predicted his death, is that true?”

“I may have mentioned something about it.”

“What did you say, exactly?”

“I don’t remember the exact words,” he said, slightly annoyed. The kid’s tone was blasé and unenthused. It irritated him. “But I don’t think it matters. A man is dead. And I think he was murdered.”

“The coroner says he died of a heart attack.”

“That’s correct.”

“But you don’t believe that.”

“No.”

“Is it some type of conspiracy?” he asked. “A police cover-up?”

“No.”

“Then what is it? I don’t understand what you’re trying to prove.”

“I’m trying to prove he was murdered.”

“What evidence do you have?”

“None.”

“So it’s just a guess.”

“You can call it that but it was a pretty good one, wasn’t it?” Thadeus said, raising his voice so those around could hear the words and implications.

“Where do you go from here?”

“I stay here until I find the truth.”

“Which is that—?”

“—Fred Birch was murdered,” Thadeus said. “I would stake your life on it. I’d stake my life on it. I staked his life on it.” He looked at the people standing around, none of whom seemed the least bit interested in anything but standing around. “Okay, I’ve had enough.”

Thadeus started away from the house.

“Excuse me, can I ask your opinion?”

Thadeus turned, ready with an angry retort but immediately realized Cabbot hadn’t been addressing him. He was addressing an older man, one of the crowd.

“What are your thoughts?”

“Well, I don’t know why anybody would listen to this man,” he began in a low, gravelly voice. “This nut comes into town, tells a lot of people they’re going to die and when somebody does people think he’s some type of Nostradamus. I could do that.”

The crowd seemed to gravitate slowly around Cabbot. Thadeus walked out of the yard and down the sidewalk.

Suddenly he felt something hit him in the back while a few crab apples bounced ahead of him on the sidewalk. He spun and saw two boys giggling, a larger man behind them looking at him defiantly.

“Prophecy! Who hit you?” a voice said loudly.

Thadeus followed it to its point of origin. Andy Brewer stood by the front door, hands cupped to his mouth. He lowered them to reveal a big smile, then began a low laughter that seemed to follow Thadeus into town.

Chapter 37

 

Maybe it was paranoia or an overblown sense of importance but Thadeus took a circuitous route away from the crowd, looking back now and then to see if anyone was following. Though he saw no evidence of it, he still decided to forego the more visible locations in Newbury and headed to Birch Hardware to hide himself in the aisles.

This time the people at the hardware store were not so friendly, save for a pretty blonde girl at the front register who smiled and said “Good morning” in such a way it gave Thadeus the fleeting impression the words held some underlying meaning. The men in the red shirts were polite, he gave them that but there was a definite coolness in both word and manner. Obviously the article in the paper had been seen by some. He made his way warily to the back office.

Voices inside made him hesitate, then he took a breath and knocked loudly to shake off the nerves. There was a brief silence, more rumblings, then the door opened quickly and standing there with a look of angry annoyance was Catherine Birch.

“I could sue you,” she said without hesitation.

“We should talk.”

She moved slightly and Thadeus squeezed past her. There was a balding man with glasses sitting and sweating in the same seat Thadeus had occupied the last time he’d been in the room and he walked over and extended his hand, introducing himself. The man seemed unsure, looking to Mrs. Birch before extending his own.

“He knows who you are,” she said, walking back to her desk as the door shut and Thadeus pulled a wooden chair by the wall closer to the desk. “This is my lawyer, Winfield Perkins.”

He nodded at the man and then turned to Mrs. Birch who was arranging herself in her chair. “I’m sorry to interrupt. I just came to apologize. It wasn’t my intention to become such a visible nuisance.”

Her face was unmoved. “I think that was exactly your intention.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “it just comes with the territory.”

She motioned to Perkins who opened his briefcase and took out a newspaper, handing it to Mrs. Birch who handed it to Thadeus. “Have you seen this?”

It was the Newbury News. “Yes.”

“You’ve read it?”

“Yes.”

“You admit those are your words?”

Thadeus read through it again, then looked up. “Which ones?”

Catherine’s mouth tightened. “The ones attributed to you.”

“No.”

“They’re not?”

He shook his head. “There are no quotes from me in it.”

“I noticed that. That doesn’t mean you didn’t say it.”

“Or that I did. It’s a common journalism ploy, is you can call it journalism. It saves people from lawsuits.”

“You didn’t say my husband’s death was due to God striking him dead by lightning in some type of judgment of his…activities?”

“No, because I don’t believe it,” he said, handing the paper back to her. She made no motion to take it so he let it drop onto the desk.

She sat back. “Of course you’d deny it. I could still sue.”

“For what?”

“Libel. Slander.”

Thadeus considered. “For offering an opinion on how someone died?” He turned to the lawyer. “What do you think?”

Perkins opened his mouth, looking at Mrs. Birch for words.

“Do you deny speaking to Mr. Torkelson?” she asked.

“I’ve spoken to him several times.”

“And that one of the topics you spoke of was my husband.”

“One of ‘em.”

She leaned back. “He says the story is completely accurate.”

“I would imagine he would.”

“You agree?”

“I agree he may have said so. I have only your word that he did.”

Her face muscles clenched. “You don’t seem to realize how much trouble I could make for you.”

Thadeus leaned forward. “Your husband said pretty much the same thing before he died.”

Her body visibly jerked, face reddening. “Are you threatening me?”

“No more than I threatened him.”

“Fred said you threatened him.”

“Really? In what way?”

She hesitated. “The private conversations I had with my husband are none of your business, as is anything else.”

“That’s not an attitude that will go far in court.”

“What does that mean?”

“You want to sue someone under the condition of not revealing the evidence you have. If you indeed have any.”

“Now you’re questioning my word?”

“Oh, no,” thadeus said. “Not just now.”

She glowered at him. The lawyer coughed nervously, readjusting his position.

“As a matter of fact,” she said finally, somewhat stiffly, “Fred didn’t mention you at all.”

“Not a word?”

“I found out about–“ she waved her hand, “–after.”

“Then I’d say our interaction wasn’t very important to him.”

“I guess we’ll never know.”

“No.”

“But it’s important to me,” she said. “And I don’t appreciate people meddling in my life.”

“Nobody does.”

“This article,” she said, indicating the paper, “is meddling.”

“You should sue the paper.”

She glowered at Perkins. “I’ve considered it. Why did you say these things about Fred? What did he ever do to you?”

“First of all, these are not my words. And secondly, I didn’t know Fred until two weeks ago.”

“I think you’re lying.”

He smiled. “No, you don’t.”

Whatever she had expected him to say, it wasn’t that. Her mouth opened without sound and she forced a laugh through it. “You think I trust you?”

“You trust me more than you’ve trusted anyone in your life,” he said, the surprise in the room extending even to himself. “Even more than you could trust your husband.”

“You don’t know anything about what I thought of my husband,” she said. “Why would I trust you?”

“Because I want nothing from you. Because I have nothing to gain. Because I don’t care if he was having an affair with Wendy Tyner.”

She stood with a growling sound, slamming the table with both hands. “Perkins, get out!”

The man fumbled with his things, red-faced but relieved and made his escape out the door.

Catherine Birch stood, eyes closed, grasping the desk and breathing heavily. She looked less angry now than sick.

“Would you like some water?” he asked.

She took a few more deep breaths, sighed, then opened her eyes briefly. “So now you care how I feel?” She said down, rubbing her temples. “You don’t know anything about me, Mr. Cochran.”

“Not much.”

“You…the whole town…think Fred and Wendy—” She pressed her fingers her temples. “That’s been over a long time.” She opened her eyes to check on his expression. “Do you believe me?”

“You knew him better than I did.”

She made a dismissive noise. “Are you married?”

“I was.”

“Then you know. You know all the machinations we go through, especially in the beginning, to show the other person who we are and to hide who we’re not. It’s harder for women, because we see through all that. Men live in a fantasy, trying to project to the world who they think they are, or who they want to be. That’s why men have affairs. They get sick and tired of seeing who they really are reflected in their wife’s eyes and they go looking for someone to confirm the fantasy.”

“That sounds right.”

“You ever cheat on your wife?”

“No.”

“Tempted?”

“Slightly. And maybe for the reasons you just stated. I could never fool her. But it would have been nice if she had pretended to be. Of course, a fantasy gets tiring after a while, too.”

Catherine studied him. “Maybe you’re not the person I thought you were.” She seemed to relax as she spoke the words. “You told me you thought someone killed Fred.”

“Yes.”

“Do you still think so?”

“Yes.”

She took a breath. “So do I.”

Thadeus sat up straighter. “Who do you think killed him?”

Her tone was even. “I did.”

Chapter 38

 

“Well?” she said after a few moments.

“Interesting.”

“Is that all you have to say? I’ve just confessed to a murder.”

“I know,” he said. “But it doesn’t keep you from being a suspect.”

Her eyes opened wide in surprise and sitting back she nodded appreciatively. “Very good, Mr. Cochran. I knew I was starting to like you but I wasn’t sure why. Now I’m sure.”

“Likewise,” he said. “I assume you’re speaking metaphorically.”

“Don’t you think I have it in me to kill someone?”

“No. That takes a certain detachment from reality which you could never possess. Besides, I’m not convinced you think he was killed.”

“I’m not,” she admitted.

“Then it would follow that you didn’t kill him.”

“No,” she said. “I didn’t. Indirectly, maybe, though directly he deserved it, many times over.”

“So how indirectly?”

“By refusing to believe the fantasy.” Her eyes set on the paper and she grabbed it, twisting it and dropping it into the metal receptacle behind her and it resonated with a metal clang. “I don’t care what the papers say. I almost wish it were true.”

“What?”

“That my husband’s death was God’s will. God’s punishment for all the things he put me through, all the things I had to put up with. But that’s not likely.”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s not how God works, is it? Eight years of Catholic school taught me that. It rains on the just and the unjust, though the unjust seem to have bigger umbrellas.”

“What about Fred?”

She looked at him wistfully. “You already know. He was a man who got things done. And in the course of that, I’m sure he acted in ways that touched the border of ethics.”

“In business?”

“Nothing illegal. An underbid here, an overcharge there. People come to expect it with contractors, especially in commercial ventures.”

“How about with employees?”

“He was fair, though impatient. But an employee can always quit.”

“And with Bob?”

“Bob? Fred treated him fine. If it wasn’t for Fred, he would have stayed doing what he was doing. He would never have been a partner in the business.”

“What did he do before?”

“He was a contractor.”

“That’s like running a business.”

“A very small business,” she said. “That’s where he should have stayed. He did better with people one on one than in dealing with large accounts.”

“So he became the silent partner.”

“Yes, but that’s the way Bob preferred it. It takes a certain personality to deal with customers, to bid on jobs and to take a hard line with workers. Bob never had the spine.”

“People are different.”

“Well, you don’t get things done sitting passively while the competition runs you over.”

“He must have had some positive attributes.”

She paused. “Peacemaker. After Fred would go in and alienate everyone, Bob would come in and smooth things over. I understand what you’re saying,” she said. “Too many Fred’s and nothing gets done.”

“It’s reassuring to find that God can use anyone, even if those who aren’t Type A personalities.”

“Mmm.”

“Do you think Bob knew about Wendy and—?”

“If he didn’t, he was the only one. But people have the wrong idea about that.”

“How do you mean?”

“People think they were having an affair but that had been over long ago.”

“So the night he died—”

“He was going over to see her, make no mistake about that,” she said. “But not for sex.”

“How do you know?”

She looked at him evenly. “I’m sure. Believe me, I’m sure. If there’s one thing in life I’m sure about, it’s my husband’s a-bil-i-ties.” She drew out the word.

“Oh.”

“Oh,” she affirmed.

“Then why—?” he asked, letting it sit.

Catherine turned her chair and walked it to a small refrigerator behind her, opening it. “Would you like something to drink? I’ve got orange juice, cranberry juice, diet Coke, water.”

“Water’s fine.”

She turned back with a bottle of water and one of cranberry juice, handing him the former and opening the juice. “I hate the taste of this stuff but it’s supposed to be good for you. I take it you’ve never been overweight.”

“I walk a lot,” he said.

“I was Miss Newbury once?” She took a sip and made a face. “Ugh. Can you believe it?”

“Sure.”

“Maybe within these jowls,” she said, pushing the bottom of her chin with the top of her hand, “there’s still a remnant of that face.”

“I can see it.”

“Don’t patronize me, Mr. Cochran. I’m just beginning to respect you. I’m well aware of how I look. And how I looked. The problem with small towns is there’s no place to hide, either from who you are or who you were. Or who you’ve become.”

“People don’t think in those terms.”

“Maybe not the people you know.”

“Any people. They’re too busy in there own lives to put that much energy into others’.”

“I wish that were true,” she said. “But there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so why worry?”

“Did it matter to Fred?”

“Of course,” she said. “But only in terms of how people saw him. A successful man with a fat wife—and please don’t tell me I’m not fat—is seen as less successful. You want the trophy wife, not the wife that could hang on the wall as a trophy, Maybe they even blame him. She eats to compensate for a lack of something she’s not getting at home.”

“Is that true?”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “Maybe I gained weight because Fred couldn’t show love or his vulnerability and therefore we were never close and I sought other avenues of acceptance. I’ve read all the books but knowing doesn’t make one thinner. And it doesn’t mean it was true. I was never looking for any of that. I was looking for a partner. Fred was a good one.”

“Where did you two meet?”

“Right out of college. Fred was working at what was then Clark Hardware and I got a job there one summer. He already had plans of buying the Clark’s out, he knew the business better than they did. I knew he was going places, so I stayed close. Once he became owner, it was love at first sight. Does that shock you?”

“Not yet.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard the expression that it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man than a poor one? Well, that’s not true. It’s much easier to fall in love with a rich man. I knew Fred would be rich one day and I wanted to be with a man who could take care of me the way I wanted. My parents had struggled all their lives and I knew I didn’t want to live that way. Does that make me a bad person?”

“No. It just means you knew what you wanted and didn’t want.”

“I didn’t marry for love.”

“Did Fred?”

“No. I knew the business. He hated the paperwork.”

“When did Bob come into the picture?”

“Ah, that.” She took a long sip, forgetting the taste. “Like I said, Bob was a contractor who would come into the store often, usually with big orders. He didn’t like to negotiate but he had a knack for getting big jobs. People liked him and more importantly, they trusted him. Fred thought that would be useful for our business and offered Bob a partnership.”

“Sounds like an excessive offer.”

She paused. “You’ve met Wendy?”

“Yes.”

“You should have seen her back then.”

“She’s very beautiful.”

“Yes,” Catherine said. “But more than that. There’s a sensuality about her. Whatever it is, men can’t seem to stay away for very long.”

“So Fred hired Bob to be near Wendy? That seems extreme.”

“You didn’t know Fred. He wanted to win, no matter what that entailed at the time. At that time it meant having Wendy around, which meant having Bob around.”

“What did you say about it?”

“That it was a mistake, that we didn’t need to give up half our business because of possible accounts. Accounts come and go. Once your business equity is gone, that’s it. There was no dissuading Fred.”

“That’s when the affair started?”

“After. And it killed the business.”

“How so?”

“Because Bob knew and he quit.”

“He quit the business?”

“He quit trying. It was like all the air was sucked out of him. He just stopped living, it seemed. He was never a fighter to begin with; the accounts he acquired were more out of congeniality than competence. I shouldn’t say that, he could swing a hammer. But there were a thousand contractors around just as good, if not better. But that was his gift.”

“Why didn’t he quit for real?”

“He was going to. About ten years ago he had decided to sell his house and the business and move to Florida. Start over. Then Fred offered him ten acres of our land, which they turned down but then he offered them terms so generous he practically gave it away. It was too good to pass up.”

“What did you say about it?”

She sighed. “You can’t talk to Fred. You couldn’t talk to Fred,” she corrected. “Whereas Bob let life come to him, Fred ran after it with a stick and beat it to death.”

“Did Fred ever mention divorce?”

“Why?”

“To be with—”

She was shaking her head. “The affair was over pretty much after it began. He was attracted to Wendy because he couldn’t have her. But once he did he didn’t want her anymore.”

“So why would he still go out to meet her on a regular basis and in such a clandestine way?”

“To prove that he still could. To prove he still had some power over her. And to rub it in Bob’s face, show him he was still the boss. Even if they hadn’t had sex for years, it was important for Fred to know that he still had control over another man’s wife.”

“Emasculation.”

“At least.”

“What did you think about all that?”

Her face was stone. “Like I said, I didn’t marry for love.”

Thadeus studied the woman in front of him, wondering how much of the stoniness was real, how much an act and how much real pain lie underneath.

“Is this the reason you didn’t ask for an autopsy?”

“Of course not,” she said. “Fred had heart trouble, he had been on medicine for his high blood pressure and heart attacks ran in his family. His father died of one. I certainly never thought anything different than what the medical examiner said.”

“And you still don’t.”

“No.”

“Even if I insist he was murdered.”

“Why would that change anything?”

Thadeus smiled. “Can I ask you one more question? How long ago did Fred get his pacemaker and what type of medication was he taking?”

“That’s two questions. A few years ago, and I couldn’t begin to tell you what he was taking. He had quite an assortment of bottles on his bathroom sink.”

“Could you find out and let me know?”

She stood, shaking her head. She began walking to the door. “If I ever think it’s important,” she said, opening it, “I might. At the moment, I do not.”

Chapter 39

 

He was proud of the fact he had managed to stay awake through the entire service, though the sermon had been a challenge. His late dinner at The Burger Pit was surprisingly filling, tasty and trouble-free, and the fact that there were no people waiting when he returned home brought even more contentment. He had slept deep, waking refreshed, though Father Connelly’s monotone was testing the limits of endurance.

St. Martin’s was not as ornate as he had thought, so there was a slight sense of disappointment and irritation at expectations unmet. But the pageantry remained. His wife had loved every part of the ceremony. Though he had never shared her enthusiasm, over the years he had come to see through her eyes and appreciate some of the nuances.

It was almost like a puzzle. The standing, the sitting, the repetition of phrases and singing of ancient hymns. It was almost as if God was hiding amongst the peripherals, waiting to be found by those who truly sought. There were pieces to be discovered within each aspect of the mass. Even in the sermon and if one approached with eyes to see and ears to hear there would come a whisper of His voice at even the most inopportune times.

Perhaps in the very decision to attend at all.

He knew it had been over five years since he’d been in a Catholic church and if he cared to calculate with calendar in hand could narrow it down to seven or eight. His wife, like Catherine Birch, had grown up a product of Catholic school. For her, the regulated school clothing and discipline and study, along with the structure of the mass down to its tiniest detail, gave comfort where others might find tedium. Such unmovable structure brought divine security to the changeless light of God and the scriptures.

Still, there was relief when it ended and freedom when time came to stand for the last time and merge into the line to shake the Priest’s hand.

Catherine Birch, he noted, was not present but there were familiar faces, the most familiar being that of Amy Emerson. He purposed to wait for her in the foyer afterwards. No one took note of him as they shuffled on, for which he was in turns grateful and annoyed and annoyed at his annoyance.

As he approached the priest the man extended his hand, saying “Thank you for coming,” for the dozenth time as Thadeus extended his own.

“I enjoyed your sermon, Father,” he said.

“Fine,” the man said, his eyes already focusing on the next person in line.

“We spoke two weeks back, if you remember.”

“Hmm? Yes, good.”

“Do you remember?”

“Uhh…”

“We spoke in your office for an hour.”

“Of course,” he said, shaking hands with the man moving around Thadeus.

“And I wanted to…” Thadeus ducked, “….apologize.”

“Oh?”

“…some of the things I said…”

“About a wedding, if I remember…”

Thadeus took a step in front of the man. “No. It wasn’t about a wedding.”

Now the line had stopped and the Priest, flustered, took a step sideways and began moving in that direction. “I’m sorry, I see so many people during the week…”

“I’ll remind you,” Thadeus said, following. “It was about God’s will….”

“Yes…thank you for coming. Thank you for….”

“And if God was still speaking…”

“Right. Thank you for…”

“…if God would…” He dodged an elbow, then saw Amy in line watching him. He raised his voice. “If God would reveal that someone was going to be murdered.”

The priest stood still. The line stopped, as well, everyone within earshot staring at the two men.

“Perhaps you remember now? You might also remember that right after we spoke, Fred Birch died.”

The Priest had no expression but his tone was hard. “Yes. I remember.”

“I thought you might.”

“Is there a problem, Father?” A huge man suddenly appeared from the side, young, muscular, wearing an usher’s badge and a smile that held no welcome.

“No, Jimmy, I’m fine.”

Are you sure?” He kept his eyes on Thadeus.

“Certain.”

The man moved off as if he’d never been.

“What do you want?”

There was silence as the men stood, neither speaking. Then Thadeus smiled. “I just wanted to thank you.”

“For?”

“Helping clarify a few things. And helping me to know what to look for. And who to look for.”

“Well…” the man said. “I’m glad…I could help. If you need…anything else…”

“I’ll call your secretary,” Thadeus finished for him.

“I would appreciate that.”

Thadeus turned away as the priest resumed his duties.

 

“What was that all about?”

Thadeus stood on the sidewalk across the street from St. Martin’s with his hands on his hips, breathing deeply. Though he had never smoked a day in his life, he never needed one more than at that moment. Amy stood waiting for his answer, her question being the first time she’d spoken since following him out of the church. It was in turn accusatory and angry, with equal hints of curiosity and disgust, though the disgust was less well hidden.

“I just get so tired of it.”

“What?”

He looked back at the church, his face reflective of her disgust. “The pretense.”

“Who’s pretending?”

Thadeus snorted. “Who isn’t?”

She paused. “Am I?”

He waved his hand once, erasing the air. “Let’s not get into that. But the good Father…he’d certainly like to pretend that Fred Birch wasn’t dead and that someone hadn’t predicted that very thing.”

“So would a lot of people.”

“You?”

She paused again. “Maybe.”

“That’s the pretense then, isn’t it? ‘Let’s pretend it didn’t happen.’ But it did happen. People will convince themselves it didn’t, over time, but there’s no going back.”

He kept his eyes intentionally away from hers as he scanned the town.

“You’re angry.”

“I’m tired. And angry.” He forced the last two words through clenched teeth. “They may try to forget what happened, but dammit, they’re not going to forget I was here.”

“Is that important to you?” she asked after a moment. “To be remembered?”

Thadeus breathed out. “Only so they won’t forget.”

“How could they?”

“It’s easy. All it takes is time. I’m sure you know what I mean.”

She gave him a confused look. “No.”

“How long has your husband been gone?”

The confusion became surprise. “Doug?”

“At least you remember his name.”

“Why are you being mean?”

“What do you remember?”

She shook her head as if to throw off unwanted thoughts and feelings. “Everything.”

“His hopes, his dreams?”

“Yes.”

“What he liked for breakfast? Dinner? His favorite dessert?”

“Of course.”

“What type of movies? His favorite actor?”

“He hated movies.”

“His favorite music?”

“Folk.”

“His favorite shirt? Shoes?”

“Why are you—?”

“Do you?”

“Yes.”

“Remember how he would hold you? Kiss you?”

“He…he didn’t like to…”

“How he would touch you, undress you?”

“Stop!”

“The type of sex he liked? Positions?”

“That’s too…intimate.”

“And he didn’t like intimacy, did he? Or was it you?”

“That’s enough!”

“Did he like it rough? Dirty? Did you?”

“Stop it,” she said, tears in her eyes.

He grabbed her arm. “Did you kill him?”

“What?”

“Did you kill him?”

“That’s crazy.”

“He died too young, too sudden. That doesn’t happen.”

“No. I didn’t do anything. That’s crazy.”

“You don’t seem to miss him much.”

“Of course I do.”

“He’s dead in your memory.”

She pulled away. “You don’t know. How can you be so mean?”

“Is it mean to speak the truth? Won’t it set you free? Or will the memory show you what you’ve become?”

“Stop!”

A siren went off sharply, making her jump. A patrol car was pulling up to the curb. It was Rowe, looking out from the driver’s seat.

“Our hero,” Thadeus said sarcastically.

“Everything all right, Amy?”

She nodded, wiping her eyes, moving away from Thadeus.

Rowe’s face tightened and he flipped on the top lights and got out. Before he hit the sidewalk, people had stopped to look; from the park, from the shops, from the church. It was a break in the daily routine and the hopeful possibility of more.

“What’s going on here?”

Thadeus sneered. “We’re talking.”

“Nobody asked you. Amy?”

She wiped her eyes again, looking at Thadeus, at Rowe, confused. “Just talking,” she said finally.

“What about?”

“It was a private conversation.”

Rowe ignored him. “What about?” he asked Amy.

“It’s none of your business.”

Rowe turned toward Thadeus and pointed his finger. “When I want you to talk, I’ll tell you. Now…Amy…”

“I’d rather not say.”

“If he’s been bothering you in any way…”

“No.”

“…I’ll cuff him and put him in the back of the patrol car…”

“You don’t have to…there’s no need to…”

“You say the word and I’ll throw him back in jail.”

Her eyes opened. “If I say so?”

“If he’s been bothering you, harassing you…keeping you from leaving,” he added.

She gazed at Thadeus, her face showing no emotion, her eyes narrowing. “So if I just say the words…”

“If you swear out a complaint.”

“If I say so, he’ll go to jail.” Her voice was stronger.

“Yes.”

“But…why would I want to do that?” There was no mistaking the underlying lightness in her tone.

“It’s been done before,” Thadeus said, looking at Rowe.

“If he’s been bothering you,” Rowe said. “Even just a little.”

“It seems my fate is in your words,” Thadeus said.

“Amy?” Rowe prodded.

Thadeus almost snarled the question. “Why are you even here? There’s no crime being committed.”

Rowe stood straight. “Are you looking for trouble?”

“No,” he said. “I’m looking for a place where people don’t pretend. They don’t pretend they’re innocent when they’re not. They don’t pretend they’re fragile when they’re strong. They don’t pretend they miss someone when they don’t.” He turned to Rowe. “And they don’t pretend to be tough when they’re small.”

“That’s it.” Rowe reached around for his cuffs.

“Donny.” Amy put her hand on his arm. “I just…I just want to go home. Can you take me home?”

Rowe glared at Thadeus, the muscles in his jaws moving furiously. Then he looked at Amy. “If that’s what you want.”

“It is.”

“Because I could easily…”

“No. I just want to go home.”

Rowe took her by the arm and led her to the car, opening the door and making sure she was well inside before shutting it and turning to give Thadeus one more menacing look before getting in the vehicle.

Amy was staring straight ahead, expression like stone. She smiled suddenly and turned to Rowe, grabbing his arm with both hands as they spend off.

Thadeus stared after them as he walked. If nothing else, he thought, they’ll remember I was here.

Chapter 40

 

He pushed through the diner, bumping a man standing by the register as he stomped to the counter and sat down. He grabbed a menu, opened it, closed it, let it fall from his fingers, grabbed an overturned coffee cup and began tapping it with his spoon.

Alba appeared from the back and grabbed a pot from the burner without breaking stride.

“Well, well, Mr. Cochran,” she said, grabbing the cup from his hands. “That’s a sure way to have me pour this over your head.”

“They way the coffee usually tastes it would be an improvement.”

She gave him a large, insincere smile. “Here, let me put in my own special ingredient.” She turned and made the sounds of spitting, then turned back and filled his cup. “A little extra flavor should fix your attitude.”

He added cream, spilled some, doing the same with the sugar. He stirred noisily, took a sip and made a face.

“I see it’s to your liking,” she said. “I’ll make sure to prepare your food the same way. Do you know what you want?”

He sighed. “Just something not burnt, not chewy, not fatty, not fattening. Anything that resembles food.”

She raised her middle finger. “This is like food. Can’t eat it but you can shove it.”

He smiled in spite of himself. “Burger. Fries.”

She wrote it down, turned and clipped it to the wheel and sent it spinning, then turned back. “How come you’re in such a pissy mood.”

He shook his head. “Just tired.”

“Old and tired,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said, resting his head on his hands. “I’ll remember that when it’s time for your tip.”

“I hear your tip is small. So, what’s the trouble? Women?”

“They’re always trouble,” he agreed. “Nope.”

“The investigation?”

He made a grumbled sound.

“Has the trail gone cold?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Ooh, I hit a nerve. No leads?”

“There are always leads, too many leads. Too many leads leading nowhere.”

“Come to a dead end?”

He shook his head. “Just the end.”

“You’ve given up?”

He took another sip, putting it down with a gasp. “That is awful.” He poured more cream.

“Well?”

“You don’t always come to the end because you give up,” he said. “Sometimes you give up because you’re done.”

“Then…” Her eyes and mouth opened comically. “You know who did it?”

“Of course,” he said. “That part’s over. I just wish the rest was.”

“Then who was it?” she asked. “Who killed Birch?”

Thadeus winced, looking around. No one seemed to have heard. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

She put her hands on her hips. “You have to.”

He considered. “Maybe when it’s over.”

“You said it was.”

“I said I knew,” he said. “That’s a long way from proving anything. And maybe I don’t know. I have an idea. Maybe I’m wrong.”

She straightened. “You know, you don’t, you do, you don’t. What kind of detective are you?”

He sighed. “Tired.”

“Old and tired,” she repeated, walking off to make the rounds before he could say something he knew he wouldn’t regret.

 

He couldn’t shake it off. Everything irritated. He felt jumpy, as if he’d taken someone else’s prescription medication. He could feel a headache coming, the pounding at the base of his spine becoming louder with each step. His back hurt. His kidneys ached. His neck, always. Moving his head in a circle was like grinding himself shorter, an anatomical mortar and pestle.

He stared at the burger. It oozed grease, mini droplets coagulating to form a small lake of lard. His stomach was battling, waging a war between its empty hunger and its future queasiness. He knew hunger would win, though he might pay for it later. With a grimace he took a bite, washing it down with two quick gulps of coffee.

“So.” Alba said. “Are you going to tell me?”

He was wiping his tongue with a napkin. He held it out. “Do you want the grease back?”

“Stop stalling,” she said, then spoke three words with distinct pauses between. “Who. Done. It?”

Thadeus looked at her. Gaze steady, face mirthless, lips unamused. Maybe, he thought, someone does take me seriously.

“When I have proof, I’ll tell you.”

“That’s crap.”

“Okay. You killed him.”

“That’s crap.”

He stood, reaching into a pocket. “What’s the damage?”

“If you won’t tell me, you don’t get a bill.”

“Fine. That way I can pay you what it was really worth.”

“You walk, I call the cops.”

The cops, he thought, tossing a twenty on the counter, are busy.

 

Andy Brewer was sitting on a plastic chair on the front lawn. He was wearing a blue t-shirt, had recently shaved, had brushed his hair and was smiling.

“The great man returns,” he said. “I thought you’d be long gone out of town, by now.”

“Soon, maybe.”

“Really?” he asked, slowly. There was a pause. “Should I guess what that implies?”

“Go ahead.”

“You’ve either solved the murder, given up solving the murder, decided Birch wasn’t murdered, or renounced your faith.”

“One of the above.”

“I can only hope you’ve come to your senses and renounced your faith, which would precipitate the rest falling in line. Let me get a chair and we can celebrate your new found apostasy.” But he made no movement.

“I prefer to stand.”

“All the better. You’ll be closer when the lightning bolt hits.”

“I’ve renounced nothing but patience. And if the case isn’t solved, it is at least resolved.”

Andy sat back. “Very good. Resolved,” he repeated. “So God has spoken. What’s his voice sound like these days? It’s been so long since I’ve heard it.”

“A lot like mine.”

“Oh, we are treading a fine line, aren’t we?”

“Doesn’t God use people to get his work done?”

“Indeed.”

“And people have voices.”

“Indeed, again.”

“So why wouldn’t he use mine?”

“Very good, very good,” Brewer said, nodding. “I like it. I like it a lot. I just wish I could use it in a sermon. So tell me, in God’s voice or your own, have you found the truth?”

He hesitated. “I’ve found a truth.”

“A truth?” Andy asked. “Isn’t truth the same for all?”

“One truth is.”

“Yes, the eternal truth.”

“Others change with perception.”

“Very good,” Andy said. “Very deep. It must be deep because I don’t know what you mean. How can the truth change with our perceptions?”

“A father might discipline his child because he loves him. The child might think he does it because he’s angry and doesn’t love him. They both believe their perception is the truth. Who’s right?”

“The father.”

“Why?”

“Only he knows the intent of the actions.”

“What if the father takes pleasure in the discipline, perhaps employing it to the point of making it last longer than necessary?”

“I see. Then the perception would change and the children would be right.”

“How are we to ever know?”

“In that case, we never will.” Brewer paused. “What has this have to do with anything?”

“Fred Birch,” Thadeus said.

“Right, the dearly departed. How soon we forget, and rightly so.”

“How did he die?”

“I only know what I read in the Newbury News,” Brewer said. “It was God’s will.”

“And if God doesn’t exist?”

“Then he went the way of all flesh. His ticker wore out, as did his welcome.”

“But my truth says he was murdered.”

“So truth would say you’re crazy.”

“Unless I prove it. But what if I can’t? Does that mean it’s not the truth?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“In a court of law.”

“What about another court?”

“Ah, in that eternal courtroom,” Andy said. “I guess we’ll only know when we get there. If we get there.”

“What if I find proof that can’t be proven?”

“Then it’s open-ended, with no solution.”

“But if I’m satisfied with the solution and resolution?”

“Legally, nothing has changed. But,” Andy said, his eyes twinkling, “since you are the only one asserting the postulate that Birch was murdered, if you are satisfied, you are like the father spanking the child—I assume we are the children being spanked in this example—and it is your own perception that will define, and find, the truth. But not in anyone elses.”

“Very good,” Thadeus said. “There would be another who shared my truth.”

“Who?”

“The person that killed Birch.”

“Oh, yes. I had forgotten about that.” There was a silence that Andy broke after a moment. “So if you find your proof you’ll be moving on?”

“No. I’ll be moving on even if I don’t.”

Andy’s face showed momentary surprise that he quickly covered with a smirk. “But I thought this was your holy mission, your calling; to right the wrongs and set justice back on track. How can a man of God abandon the task before it’s finished?”

“You tell me.”

Andy paused, confused, then nodded. “Touche.”

“If it’s not finished in the eyes of the law, it will still be finished.”

“How?”

“What were the last words Jesus spoke on the cross?”

“A test,” Andy said, rubbing his palms gleefully. “Let me see if I can remember from the hundreds of sermons I gave. Ah, yes. He said, ‘It is done.’”

“Meaning?”

“That his mission on Earth was finished. He had completed the work he had set out to do.”

“Right. But it had two meanings. His mission was complete but another work was about to begin.”

“So are you done, or are you beginning?”

Thadeus attempted a smile but it slid off just as fast. “I’m not sure.”

Chapter 41

 

He found himself standing in front of the Newbury Theater and wondering why. He had been too restless to remain in his room and it wasn’t long before he was skulking quietly down the stairs. Finding the foyer empty, he walked out and away, each step a reminder of his avoidance of that which lay behind and the hope of finding what he did not have—answers to the deeper questions of life. In the past, during similar times of discontent, there had been the temptation to find distraction in the baser things of life. But he knew that whatever form they took—food, drink, sex—they were a poor substitute. One sought the former because they were much easier to attain.

But he had discovered a bit of that comfort, oddly, in the presence of the old theater.

The front entrance was boarded with plywood, as was the box office. Scaffolding had begun on one side, pieces of fascia in the process of removal. The marquee was empty of letters.

How quickly, he thought, can something brimming with life become a useless, empty shell.

A door on the side opened and Squooti came out, locking it behind him. He barely gave Thadeus a glance as he began walking the opposite direction.

“When will it be finished?” he asked, then again, louder, until the man looked back. He squinted, then raised his hand in recognition.

“A week from never, at this rate,” he said.

“But it will still be done.”

“Y-yes,” he said hesitantly. “What have you heard?”

“I mean, since Fred Birch died. Nothing’s changed.”

He blew out. “Are you kidding? It’s worse now, with his wife in charge.”

“Why?”

“After Fred died, I thought, Now I can make the minor repairs I wanted to make in the first place and skip all the other stuff.” He formed his mouth as if to whistle as he shook his head. “Catherine had other ideas. She said if I didn’t honor the contract with Birch Lumber, she’d have no choice but to call the city about safety issues. Safety issues! This has stood here for almost sixty years with no problems. I get involved with the Birches and suddenly everything’s falling apart.”

“Why don’t you sell?”

He raised his hands to the structure as if pointing. “Who’d buy it now?”

Thadeus shrugged. “Someone who wanted the land, or with an eye for a landmark.”

“This is hardly a landmark.”

“You never know,” Thadeus said. “If it met certain criteria it might be.”

Squooti considered. “You mean like an historical building?”

“It’s worth a try. You might even get a government grant.”

“I doubt it. Probably be better to bulldoze it down and put up an apartment building. Then I could just sit back and collect rents without the headache.”

“Or different headaches.”

“You got that right,” he said. “No matter what you do in life, especially in business, there’s always a headache. Or someone to give you one.”

He gave Thadeus a two-fingered salute and walked off, eyes on the ground, disappearing around the corner.

Thadeus ran his hand over the rough stucco, walking in the opposite direction and around the opposite corner. The parking lot needed repaint and repair, he noticed, the spaces being too small and not all uniform in size. Potholes in different degrees of depth were scattered throughout. There did seem to be a lot of work to be done for a project unlikely to recue the investment.

He heard the familiar sound of a tape measure rolling itself back into its casing and followed its origin to the back of the building. Jesse was squatting, tape in hand, tool belt around his waist, scribbling on a notepad.

Thadeus walked over to him. “What are you doing?”

He looked up and seemed immediately irritated and when he stood he seemed as if weighing whether or not to respond. “This was my father’s last project,” he said with effort. “I thought I’d see if it were worth my time to finish.”

“I didn’t know you did construction.”

“Mmm.”

“This is a pretty big job. Do you have a crew?”

“I can get one.”

“Have you talked to Squooti?”

“No,” Jesse said.

“Maybe you should.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business.”

Thadeus laughed. “That would put me out of a job. This building was pretty important to your dad. The last time I talked to him was about saving it.”

“I was there.”

“Oh, right,” he said. He hadn’t remembered Jesse being around for that conversation, only during the ensuing punch. Perhaps he had been lurking in the shadows. “I can understand your wanting to work on it. It would have meant a lot to him.”

“Maybe.”

“Definitely,” Thadeus said. “He was very passionate about the theater and its history and artistic value. I guess it held a very personal place in his life. He didn’t want it to be forgotten.”

“I don’t know how hard he tried.”

“He did what he could.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“That’s why I brought up talking to Squooti,” Thadeus said. “I just spoke to him before I saw you and he said Birch Lumber still has the contract.” Jesse’s face was set, his eyes taut. “He said Catherine was adamant about finishing the work they began.”

Jesse shook his head and said, low and tremulously, “No effin way. I’ll torch the place before that happens.” He began breathing heavily and moving without lifting his feet, like a boxer psyching himself before a match. “I’m not gonna let her do it.”

“Work with her.”

The boy stopped as if hit. “Work with Birch Lumber?”

“No, with Catherine. She’s not a bad person, once you get through the tough exterior.”

“She’s a Birch.” He almost spit out the words.

“In name only.”

“There’s no way I’d ever do that.”

“Well…then don’t,” Thadeus said off-handedly. “Like you said, it’s none of my business.”

“You’re right, it’s not.”

“It just might be,” he said, cautiously, “your only way of finishing the job your dad started.”

The boy glared before stomping off, mouthing words that were mostly inaudible, though the few he heard clearly were ones he had never heard before.

Chapter 42

 

When Justus McDermett drove into the theater’s parking lot moments after Jesse had gone, Thadeus was anything but surprised. It seemed the natural progression of things, like the animals coming to Noah before the flood, though perhaps their subsequent departure afterwards was closer to the reality of the day. The rain had long gone, the waters receded, though Thadeus could see that certain patches of land were still unstable.

The patrolman swung his car in a wide arc, parking across three faintly painted spaces. Leave it to a cop, Thadeus thought, as the man got out and began walking over, to disobey even the most insignificant of rules, just because he can.

“Mr. Cochran.”

“No one ever calls me Thadeus,” Thadeus said. “I’ve often wondered why.”

“It’s an unusual name.”

“I guess we have that in common. What brings you by?”

“I saw you here, thought you might want to talk.” He said it casually, pleasantly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Really.”

“I also saw the article in the paper.”

“What did you think of it?”

“It didn’t make me happy.”

“I doubt that was its purpose.”

“Any of it accurate?”

“In terms of what happened, or what I actually said?”

“Either. Both.”

“No. To both. Just a newspaperman trying to increase circulation.”

“It’s given me some headaches.”

“Mmm.”

Calls, mostly. People wanting Fred’s death looked into, an autopsy done. A few saying it was God’s will. The latter were anonymous.”

“I didn’t know people could remain anonymous in Newbury.”

Justus looked annoyed. “I don’t think any of this is funny.”

Thadeus suddenly realized he was smiling. “No, I guess you wouldn’t.”

“Do you?”

“I find it somewhat ironic.”

“A man is dead. You find that ironic?”

“Two men are dead,” Thadeus corrected, his tone clipped. “But it’s not the number, it’s the names.”

“Who it was shouldn’t make a difference.”

“Of course it does,” Thadeus said. “You know it does. People die every day. If it’s an old lady in a nursing home, who really cares, besides the management and maybe the family? But after time even they forget.”

“If given the chance,” Justus said. “But usually someone’s death isn’t a topic in the paper for weeks.”

“No, it’s usually a little more anonymous—” he drew out the word, “—than that. But, let’s face it, there’s not a whole lot going on in Newbury. If someone can make a few bucks off of Fred’s death, let ‘em.”

“That’s a pretty cold attitude.”

“Maybe I should have been a cop.”

“Is that how we are?”

“You have to be,” Thadeus said. “If you weren’t, you’d go crazy. I don’t know if it’s a personality trait that draws people to the job or if it’s acquired over the years. Maybe they teach it at the academy. It’s seeing life with a very distorted, distrustful and even dishonest way. It’s learning to pretend, living the big lie.”

Justus’ eyes had narrowed as if suddenly seeing him differently. But he only said: “Go on.”

Thadeus’ sense of caution was heightened by the man’s expression. There was more than idle conversation taking place and he knew Justus could afford to listen and maybe be offended and not say a word, for he had nothing to lose and much to gain. He was first and foremost a cop and the ears were trained to hear any type of admission of guilt, even if no crime had been committed.

“It’s the pretense of friendship, the pretense of interest, the pretense of congeniality. Even the pretense of stupidity.”

“You think we’re stupid?”

Thadeus chose his next words carefully, though not too carefully. “In a very deliberate way. Deliberately ignorant, would be a better way of defining it.”

“How do you mean?”

“Your sudden presence now is an example. You said you stopped because you thought I might want to talk.”

“Nothing wrong with that.”

“If you were anyone else it would be completely natural. But I’ve never had a policeman stop me on the street because they suddenly needed my opinion. They wanted to know others things, like what I was up to, where I was going, where I was from. It’s the mind-set that sees everyone as a possible suspect needing to be interviewed.”

“Maybe that is how we think at times,” Justus admitted. “But I’ve found people with nothing to hide have nothing to hide.”

“Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Maybe they just don’t want to be bothered. They might think that what they’re doing—or have just done—is none of your business.”

“It’s part of the job.”

“That’s as good a justification for invading someone’s privacy as I’ve heard.”

“What would you have us do?”

“As little as possible.”

“That’s not always an option.”

“It should be, and more often. There will always be a small window of uncertainty about anyone’s activities. So what? Let it be uncertain. That’s called freedom.”

Justus made a humming noise which Thadeus interpreted as dissatisfaction.

“What does this have to do with anything?”

“You wanted to talk,” Thadeus said, aware that Andy Brewer had asked a similar question. “I’m talking. Maybe I’m just a little angry, too. I’ll stop if you’d like.”

“No, go ahead,” he said, the tone again calm and comfortable, but Thadeus could see the inner workings. Like a spider, waiting in the web.

“The police have a hard job,” Thadeus said, “and it would be a worse place without them but generally I’m not a big fan. In a small town I guess they can be more than a casual acquaintance. I’ve heard it’s possible. But if there’s a crime involved, you can be sure of one thing: the police are not your friends. They might smile and offer you some coffee and ask about your health, the wife and kids. But if they smell your scent attached to a crime, something happens inside. Something shuts down. The smile remains but it’s like drawing a face on a rifle scope. Every time you see it you’re in the crosshairs.

“You asked if I thought cops were stupid. Not all of them. But I don’t think cops are particularly intelligent, either. They’re smart enough but it’s a narrowly-focused intelligence. It’s the intelligence of the bloodhound who only has to be smart enough to hunt down its prey. When you have a suspect, every word they say is taken as another proof of their guilt, because at that point you’re no longer thinking objectively, you’re building a case. And, statistics being what they are, most of the time you have a suspect they are found to be guilty. But that has less to do with intelligence than the simplicity of crimes and criminals.”

“That’s usually how the system works,” Justus said. “There are never a roomful of suspects to pick through.”

“Right. There’s usually one. But if you are that one, or not, the best anyone can do in that situation is to say as little as possible. You’re in a land of suspects and the police are looking to crown you king. At that point there’s only one thing to do: shut up and get a lawyer.”

“You didn’t.”

“I’m never guilty,” Thadeus said. “Therefore I don’t fear jail. It’s inconvenient but so is murder. So I just do what I do and watch the cops play the same games over and over and in the midst of it all I’m just waiting for someone to be human.”

There was silence between them for a time, and it was neither tense nor confrontive. It was the silence of dissipating emotion.

“You sound bitter,” Justus said.

“Maybe. But I come by it honestly. Don’t look so serious.”

Justus straightened as if caught, then forced his own smile that didn’t stick.

“These are only my opinions,” Thadeus said. “I’m sure yours are more accurate than mine, especially from your perspective.”

Justus studied him. “I think you have the insight to be a pretty good cop.”

Thadeus shook his head slightly. “I can’t stand the sight of blood. I don’t like being in the midst of chaos. And I find interfering in other people’s lives distasteful.”

Justus laughed. “That’s all you’ve been doing since you got here.”

“True. But if people didn’t kill each other, I’d stay home.”

“About that,” Justus said. “Are you about done with your investigation?”

Thadeus could hear the masked hope in his voice. “Are you telling me to move along, there’s nothing to see here?”

Justus shrugged, nodding as he did. “You may not be a fan of the police but the police are really not fans of private investigators.”

“I have no doubt,” Thadeus said. “Almost. A few days, maybe.”

“So you’ve found the murderer?”

Thadeus smiled at the question, knowing Justus neither believed Birch had been murdered or that he was being condescending. He wanted a timeline on Thadeus’ departure.

“Closing in. Or giving up.”

“Giving up?”

“Maybe there is no murderer. Maybe Birch just died.”

“So all this was for nothing?”

“It’s possible. You can’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

Justus looked him over. “Why don’t I believe you?”

“Because I haven’t left town.”

“Because you still think Birch was murdered.”

“Things aren’t always that black and white.”

“They are when it comes to murder,” Justus said. “Either Birch was murdered, or he wasn’t.”

“True.”

“And you think he was.”

“True.”

“So…if you find new evidence, you’ll turn it over to the police?” It was a question uncomfortably asked.

“If I remember correctly, there is no case.”

“Technically.”

“Technically? So things aren’t always black and white.”

“There are always exceptions.”

“I’ll promise you this,” Thadeus said. “If I find anything new, anything you can use, I’ll let you know.”

“I’d appreciate that.”

“But I’m not looking for evidence. I’m looking for truth, not proof.”

“Aren’t they one in the same?”

“Not always. Sometimes it’s like a body that’s been a long time in the grave. There may not be enough left to make a definite I.D. but based on other evidence you know who it is.”

“Now it sounds like you’re giving yourself an excuse to give up.”

“And you sound like you want me to continue my investigation.”

Justus grimaced. “I hope I didn’t give you that impression.”

“I won’t hold you to it,” Thadeus said.

He put out his hand suddenly and Thadeus took it. “So you still think Birch was murdered.”

“No question.”

“But you’re not sure it can be proven.”

“Right.”

“Okay.” Justus turned and walked to his car, stopping when he opened the door. “It was a person who killed Birch, right? Not—” he jerked his thumb skyward, “—God? Or a convenient lightning bolt?”

“No,” Thadeus said. “It was a person. I’m just not sure if it was only one.”

Chapter 43

 

He didn’t ask for a ride this time, even though it was at least five miles to the Tyner place. He didn’t want the distraction of another mind. And it wasn’t because he needed time to think. He needed time not to. Too often in his travels had he looked back without much memory of detail and the resolution he made daily to enjoy the moment dissolved quickly amidst the turmoil he encountered.

He would try again.

About the third mile his hips began to ache and he re-evaluated his goal. Knowing to turn back at this point, past the half-way mark, would make the trip even longer—he held hopes for a ride back—he kept on, using his moments of introspection to calculate the cost of a hip replacement. The thought of seeing Wendy Tyner brought added energy and he plodded on. The dynamics of their second meeting wouldn’t be the same as the first but one never knew what the future would bring.

It wasn’t long before he found himself turning down their road and further still standing at the stone steps leading up to the Tyner house.

“Yoo-hoo! Can I help you?”

He looked toward the sound and saw Wendy near the barn, a bag of feed on her shoulder. She took a few steps before dropping it onto the ground by the door. He walked over. Her smile was big and white and her face glistening with sweat. He thought it had never looked so good on anyone.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning. I don’t see a car,” she said, looking around. “You didn’t walk?”

He nodded.

“That’s a long walk from Newbury.”

“I just happened to be passing by.”

The smile on her face remained but her eyes lost some sparkle. “Nobody just passes by out here. At least, not until this week.”

“What do you mean?”

Now the smile left, as well. It seemed no one could keep one for long. “People have come over to give their condolences. Men.”

“Ah,” Thadeus said, understanding. “I’m not here for that. No offense.”

“Breakfast?”

He laughed. “Not this time. Just came to talk. If you’d like.”

She jerked her head back to the barn as she turned. “Why not? I suddenly find myself with a lot of free time.”

 

“They sure are hungry.” He was pouring feed in a trough for the chickens, who were relentless as they pecked from their cages.

“And smelly,” Wendy said, She was removing trays from underneath the cages that collected their waste and dumping it into a trash can.

“I can do that if you want.”

“Why?”

“Well,” Thadeus began. “You shouldn’t have to.”

She slid a tray back forcefully. “Why not? It has to be done.”

“You’re right. You’re in charge of poop.”

She smiled again. “Bob said I was too pretty to be doing this type of thing. He always said I belonged in a beauty contest.”

“I think he meant it as a compliment,” he said with irony.

“Obviously. But after a while it’s not.” She banged a tray onto the can to get off some sticky residue. “It puts you in a box.”

“A cage?”

“Right, a cage. People—men—begin to see you in only one way. Beautiful, helpless. They always want to help you with what you’re doing but they can’t see it just gets in the way.”

“I can see where that would be a problem,” he said.

“It isolates you. It keeps you from being a real person and separates you from others.”

“Other women, I’d imagine.”

“Do you know how many close friends I’ve had in Newbury over the years?”

“Every guy in town?”

She frowned. “You’re not a very helpful listener.”

“But accurate.”

“That’s why I don’t have any friends here.”

“You’re too pretty,” he said.

“It sounds shallow when you say it like that,”

“Women are threatened by other women, beautiful or not. Add the beauty and you’ve got men doing things for you, buying you things, constantly buzzing around the flower.”

She grimaced. “Now it sounds even worse.”

“It’s not something that will garner a lot of sympathy,” he said. “It’s like complaining about being rich. It’s a problem everyone wishes they had. I’d guess being too beautiful is similar.”

“Do you think I’m too beautiful?”

Thadeus smiled. “I’m guessing there’s no right answer to that question.”

She sighed. “Men have been hanging around since I was young. Men, boys. And they always want to do the same thing, to make me happy. How does anyone know how to make someone else happy? Or what makes them happy?”

“They should ask.”

“They should. Most don’t. They think they know what a woman wants. So they do all the wrong things and say all the wrong things and before you know it, you’re going along with them because you like the attention. And you start to become what they think you are.”

“Did Bob do that?”

Her eyes, which had narrowed, widened. “No.”

“Is that why you married him?”

She hesitated. “No.”

“Why did you?”

She hesitated, thoughtful, then suddenly shot him a look. “What kind of question is that?”

“An obvious one. The beauty queen and the guy who was nice, but no Prince Charming?”

“He was…dependable.”

“You knew he’d never leave.”

“He never would.”

“No matter what you did.”

She nodded, frowning in remembrance. “I guess I used him as much as he used me.”

She slid the last of the cage bottoms back and dragged the trash can outside. They began walking together.

“What about Fred?”

“Fred? Fred was Fred.”

“He sold you this land.”

“He gave us this land,” she said. “There was some money involved but nobody was fooled. He gave it to us.”

“He wanted you close.”

She sighed. “It wasn’t that, not completely. He wanted things to stay the same.”

“You and him?”

She sighed again. “People think they know. They didn’t understand. We had an affair. But it was very brief, very unfulfilling and very stupid. But it was over long before he sold us this land.”

“Then why did he?”

“Because he liked things the way they were. He wanted people around who he was comfortable with. And he didn’t want things to change. When Bob talked about moving, it upset him.”

“He wanted you near him.”

Her face showed impatience. “I already said that wasn’t the case. That part was over. He didn’t want to lose Bob.”

“Bob?”

“He was his partner and his friend. They’d known each other since they were kids. Maybe he felt guilty about us, too, but he didn’t like the idea of Bob leaving. He didn’t want to be alone.”

“He wouldn’t have been.”

“It would be different. He and Bob were a good team. Fred could be abrupt and a big pain to be around but he was loyal, in his own way. If Bob left, things would change. It scared him.”

Thadeus stopped, looking at the ground. “This is where he was found.”

Wendy looked with him, saying nothing.

“You were going to meet him that night?”

She was silent.

“We don’t have to talk about it.”

“I might as well,” she said. “It would be good to tell someone. It seems easier talking to you.”

“You don’t know me, I don’t know you and nothing you say affects me. And in a few days I’ll be gone and you’ll never see me again.”

“Are you leaving?”

“Probably. Maybe. A probable maybe.”

“We would meet every now and then. In the shed,” she added, looking back in that direction. “That’s about all there is to say.”

“What did you do there?”

“Talked.”

“Nothing else?”

She steadied her gaze. “If we were going to do something else I would have insisted on a roomier environment.”

Thadeus cleared his throat.

“Like I said, that part was over. He wanted to talk. Just talk.”

“That’s an odd place to do it.”

“I know. Part of it was control. Bob knew about our affair. I think part of it was Fred’s way of rubbing it in Bob’s face, reminding him.”

“So he knew you were meeting.”

She took a breath. “We pretend, and then pretend we’re not pretending. I think he knew. I’m pretty sure.”

“And yet you kept on.”

“Fred thought he was in control,” she said. “He wasn’t. I was.”

They continued on the path with slow steps. They reached the fence at the property line and turned back without a word, like swimmers doing laps.

“He would come to talk,” she went on, “because he couldn’t talk to Catherine.”

“Why not?”

She thought before speaking. “Catherine isn’t the type of woman to ever look up to a man. She saw right through Fred. I think that scared him. He couldn’t talk to her.”

“He couldn’t fool her?”

“Right.”

“Couldn’t he fool you?”

“No. But I let him think so.”

“Why?”

“Because…because it helped Bob. It helped us. Fred needed to talk to someone who thought he was her hero. I let him think so.”

“You felt you were helping your husband?”

“Yes.”

“But what about your marriage?”

“I thought so in the beginning,” she said. “But when Bob found out he became withdrawn. By then it was too late.”

“You couldn’t stop?”

“Of course I could,” Wendy said. “I’m not a child. I wasn’t in love with Fred. But it’s somewhat addicting to be the person someone trusts with their whole life.”

“And that person wasn’t Bob.”

Wendy stared at the ground for so long Thadeus thought she hadn’t heard.

“In the beginning, it was. We talked about everything. Then—” She paused for a moment, looking up almost imploringly. “Why do we do the things we do?”

Thadeus shook his head. “Things changed between the two of you.”

“It was like he was no longer there,” she said. “He was still nice and polite and at times we’d even talk about important things. But it seemed like life went out of him.”

“When you lose trust, you lose everything.”

“Yes,” she said, nodding in agreement. “That’s what happened. And we lost everything.”

 

The shed was small and lined with shelves on which stood cans and tools and decades of items that should have been thrown away but were saved for future use they would never see. In the corner two poles were leaning against the wall. They were about six feet high, a wire wrapped around them both. There was a charger nearby. He knelt down and noticed dirt on the bottom of the posts, as if they had been in the wet ground not too long ago and the caked mud had dried in the shed. There were other tools either hanging or standing, different bags of potting soil and fertilizer, some hoses.

“Why did Fred want to meet in here?” he asked.

“It was sort of inbetween his house and ours. He liked the smell. It reminded him of the hardware store.”

“What’s this?” he said, pointing to the poles and wire.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It must be Jesse’s.”

“Is he here?”

“He’s at Harry’s.”

“What did he think about your meetings with Fred?”

“I’m sure he didn’t know about it.” Her look was questioning.

Thadeus shrugged, then looked out the small window as a car drove down the road. “I suppose we could ask him.”

Thadeus could feel her worried gaze on him as they went out of the shed and started walking back. Jesse was walking to the house when he saw Thadeus with his mother. His expression didn’t change; it had been dour to begin with.

“What’s he doing here?”

“I was just leaving,” Thadeus said, with a glance at Wendy and he could see her relax at his words. “How was work?”

“What is he doing here?” he repeated to his mother.

“We were just talking.”

“About what?”

“The weather,” Thadeus said. “Did you know that if you don’t like the weather in New England, you just have to wait a few minutes and it changes? Have you ever heard that?”

“Yeah,” the kid said. “Every day of my life.”

“We were talking about your father.”

Jesse’s face stiffened. “What about him?”

“About what a great guy he was,” Thadeus said, “and how everyone will miss him.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. And what a great guy Fred Birch was. And how everyone will miss him.”

The words took Thadeus by surprise, though he spoke them. He could hear Wendy draw in a breath. Jesse tensed, but his words were controlled.

“He was a son of a bitch. Nobody misses him.”

“Some people do,” he said lightly, his gaze moving from the boy to his mother and back.

Thadeus expected the boy to react violently and surprised himself again by standing his ground without flinching.

“Well, I don’t. I’m glad he’s dead. I’m glad he died here, on our property. On my father’s property. And if you still think he was murdered, then I just hope you’re right, because that’s what he deserved.”

“I found something in the shed,” Thadeus said, as the boy took a step to leave.

“So?”

“Two metal posts, about six feet high, with dried mud at the bottom.”

“So?”

“There was also wire nearby with some insulators and a charger. Looked to me like a make-shift electric fence.”

Jesse was still, not moving a muscle in his entire body, his gaze even. “So?”

“Do you often use electric fences here?”

“We have.”

“Lately?”

“No.”

“There would be no reason to,” Wendy said.

“The only reason I ask is because of the mud on the bottom of the poles. It did rain recently.” He paused. “The night Fred died. And I found two holes on either side of the path that were the same size and depth to fit these poles. An electrified wire between the two would have given anyone walking on that path a nice shock.”

Wendy looked at her son. “So?” he said again.

“Just tossing around ideas. But this one is hard to let go of.”

“The poles have been in here for years. They never moved.”

“Is that true,” Thadeus asked Wendy.

“I don’t know. I—” she looked at her son, “—I guess it is. Yes.”

“Then that solves that,” Thadeus said, looking at the boy.

“If you think otherwise,” Jesse said, taking a step toward him, “then prove it.”

Thadeus shortened the space by taking a step toward Jesse. “It would be impossible to prove. So in light of that, the only thing that can be said is that Fred Birch died of a heart attack. And that’s all anyone will every know. Ever.”

Jesse raised his head, as if struck by the fact, then without a word he walked off toward the house.

“What was the point of all that?” Wendy asked angrily.

Thadeus watched Jesse disappear into the house. “Get off it,” he said, matching her tone. “Being pretty doesn’t give you license to be an idiot.”

Her mouth fell open.

“You want to pretend, go ahead. I’ve got no time for it. I’m looking for the truth and the truth is that Jesse set a little trap for Birch. I guess he got tired of your late night meetings; you know, the meetings no one knew anything about? Since his father had died the day before he probably wondered if Birch—or anyone—would have the decency to respect that fact. But they didn’t, did they? Birch called and said he wanted to meet. And you, being the good wife that you were, couldn’t help but not go. Weren’t you even curious why Fred never showed up that night?”

Her expression had changed to reflect his. “You have no idea what I thought. And of course I was concerned when he didn’t show up. It was raining and miserable. But it wasn’t the first time so I waited a little while and left.”

“Why did you feel you had to go, especially that night?”

She took a breath. “I wouldn’t have but he was very upset. He was very close to Bob and he seemed to think that Bob’s death had an ominous meaning.”

“Meaning?”

“That he was next.”

“He was right.”

She started at that. “He was very agitated by the things the two of you had talked about.”

“He mentioned it?”

“Only very generally. But he had been drinking, so I didn’t know how much to take seriously.”

Thadeus looked up. “Did he drink often?”

“Now and then.”

“Where?”

“Where?”

“At home? In a bar?”

“I guess at home. I don’t know.”

“How long did you wait for him?”

“Maybe twenty minutes.”

“When did you find out he had died on your property?”

“The next morning. Jesse found him.”

“Good thing,” Thadeus said. “Otherwise, someone else might have found his fence.”

“So you think Jesse killed Fred?”

“I think he put up the fence to send him a message. I don’t know what killed him. He did have a bad heart, so maybe the shock had more effect than I think.”

“I can’t believe he did it.”

“Maybe you should thank him.”

“Thank him?”

“Who do you think he did it for?”

“For me?”

“No, not you,” he said. “For his father. For his father’s honor. For the honor of your family. And to do something his father couldn’t: get rid of the man who had caused them all such disgrace.”

Her expression was one of disbelief. “It all seems so…dramatic, especially these days.”

“Revenge is as old as the hills. Just be glad you didn’t end up on that fence.”

Her face flushed and she began shaking in anger.

“You said you didn’t want special treatment,” he said. “Well now you are. Maybe you’re too pretty to hear what people think of you. Maybe that’s kept you from a lot of reality but it’s also made it pretty easy to ruin some lives. You made Bob a shell of the man he was. You made your son hate him, and you, because of your selfishness. You know, you should have run away with Fred Birch years ago. You were made for each other.”

She clenched her teeth and stomped off, dust kicking up. Then she stopped and spoke without turning.

“Do you still think Fred was murdered?”

“I have no doubt.”

“Then why didn’t you ever ask me if I killed him? Or am I too pretty?”

Thadeus began walking long before she reached the house and slammed the door shut behind her, taking a long breath as he reached the road and thinking, The next time you feel like alienating the world, make sure you’ve got a ride back to town.

Chapter 44

 

On the walk back two thoughts permeated his mind. The first, due to pain in his right calf, concerned compensation for weakness. If one walked differently to take stress off of strained muscles, it would only be a temporary relief. The pain would simply relocate to other areas unaccustomed to such movement.

The second concerned power and its lure. Though he admittedly gave attractive women too much credit in all aspects of life, he was still surprised that Wendy Tyner had been drawn to Fred Birch. Though their physical encounters (which he shuddered to dwell on) had ended shortly after they began, she had continued their clandestine meetings. They had long passed from being satisfying physical encounters, if they ever were, they were still satisfying on other levels.

For her, it was the power over Birch, knowing that she alone was the one he needed emotionally, even intellectually.

For Birch their relationship was a form of control, of possessing her in spite of—or perhaps because of—the fact she belonged to another. As men aged (so he had heard) that type of emotional high could be just as rewarding as the sexual act.

Perhaps even more intoxicating was the knowledge that many other people knew what was going on. For Wendy, it could have been her way of keeping Bob from complacency, keeping him always striving for her attention. Women sometimes used jealousy as a twisted way to build intimacy, Thadeus knew, also knowing that what they actually built were walls of mistrust. Rather than bringing people together, such actions pushed them apart. Consequently, the very act of meeting Birch became her only source of intimacy with another man. She had literally boxed herself in with her need for attention, acceptance and love and though the shed was not a confessional by any means, as more would be kept hidden than revealed, it had become the only place where she could speak freely and try to relive what she had lost.

It was all conjecture, he knew but maybe not far from the truth. He had seen shadings of things similar in other towns. As the verse said, there was nothing new under the sun. Some days it seemed to Thadeus as if he’d seen it all.

Ruth Schneider was sweeping off the steps again. It seemed an odd obsession with her, as if erasing remnants of the strangers who had shared accommodation over the years. Some hotels had a memory book, Ruth Schneider had her broom.

“Howdy,” he said.

She didn’t look up, so he stood until she did.

“I’ll be leaving in a few days,” he said.

Surprise passed over her face like the shadow of a bird flying overhead. “There are no refunds for early departure.”

“That’s fine. I just thought I’d let you know, in case you wanted to make preparations for the next tenant.”

“I don’t cross bridges until I come to them.”

“That’s probably wise. You never know what’s going to happen.”

There was a pause. “So you’ve finished your business?”

“Almost.”

She seemed as if she wanted to ask a question but wasn’t sure how. After a second she moved past him and continued sweeping.

Andy’s door was open and he was leaning against the counter, looking out as Thadeus walked in.

“Hey, neighbor,” he said, lifting his coffee mug.

“Morning.”

“It’s afternoon. Did I hear you say you were leaving our humble abode?”

“Yup.”

Brewer chuckled. “I take it you’ve solved the case. Or given up.”

“Yup.”

“Well? Which is it?”

Thadeus hesitated. “I’m not sure.”

“Not sure? How can you not be sure? Either Birch was murdered or he wasn’t?”

“He was,” Thadeus said. “I’m just not sure how. Or by whom.”

“I think it was a group of people,” Andy said. “It might have been everyone in town. They all took turns stabbing him in the railcar.”

“I read something similar,” Thadeus said. “Though there were no marks on Birch’s body.”

Brewer snapped his fingers. “They all took turns thinking bad thoughts at him. It was too much for his psyche so he dropped dead.”

“If that were the case then there would be no politicians alive.”

Brewer chuckled. “If you’re leaving in a few days, you only have that much time to figure it out.”

“True, though it is a self-imposed deadline. However, I’m pretty sure I’ll be gone by then.”

“So what is your course of action?”

Thadeus yawned. “Rest.”

There was no escaping dinner and the short nap he took left him hungry, though a bit irritable. He went down the stairs and out quietly and quickly, making his way towards Harry’s without looking at anyone.

He passed by Alba as she was taking an order and took a seat at the counter. She came by presently.

“Mr. Cochran. I thought you’d left town.” Her tone was light, flippant.

“Who told you that?”

“I believe Jesse mentioned it.”

“I didn’t tell him.”

“News travels fast.”

“What’s good tonight?”

“Not much. We’re breaking in a new chef. But he’s been around.”

“Around where?”

“Other places. Restaurants the Health Department shut down. When in doubt, try the veal.”

Thadeus snorted. “I would, but I won’t be here all week. Think he can handle steak?”

“With his bare hands,” she said.

He was finishing mopping up the ketchup with a forkful when Alba returned. It seemed she had been purposely avoiding him, though it may have been paranoia. It was moderately busy in the place. The lull after the storm.

“How was everything?”

“Good.” He took the last bite and wiped his mouth. “Your new cook seems to have cooked all the bacteria out. At least I’m not throwing up…yet.”

“What high praise. ‘I managed to keep it down.’ You should write reviews.”

“Where’s Jesse?”

“Home.”

“Just home?”

“Just home.”

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“Because I’m a foreigner?”

“That’s a given.” He studied her face. “You have a suspicious look.”

“Because I’m a foreigner?”

He shrugged. “It’s none of my business.”

“He said he had things to do.”

“Okay.”

“I hope you weren’t going to leave town without saying goodbye.”

“When I leave,” he said with emphasis, “I’ll be sure to stop by. But it won’t be long.”

“How long?”

“Couple of days.”

She looked confused. “What about Birch? You said before you thought you knew who killed him.”

“I think I know. But I’m not sure. Sometimes it’s not as cut and dried as you’d like.”

“Jesse says you think he did it.”

Thadeus raised his brows. “He told you that?”

She nodded.

“I never said that.”

“He said you asked him.”

“No, I didn’t ask. I may have alluded.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“Maybe. But I suspect everybody.”

“Even me?”

“Especially you.”

“Because I’m a foreigner.”

“Exactly. Is that the real reason he’s not here?”

“What do you mean?”

Thadeus leaned closer and whispered, “Maybe he’s destroying the evidence.”

“He already gave me the arsenic and gun,” she said. “So why are you leaving if you’re not sure?”

Thadeus groaned a sigh. “Things don’t always go according to my timetable. Sometimes they just don’t go at all.”

Alba frowned. “Sounds like you’re giving up.”

“Sometimes the road ends at the bottom of the mountain.”

She made a derisive face. “When we start selling fortune cookies I know who to call. So who do you think killed Birch?”

“I’m not sure.”

She turned abruptly, the same look on her face.

“What if Jesse did kill Birch?” he asked.

She stopped. “Are you saying he did?”

“No.”

“Are you saying he didn’t?”

“No.”

She sighed, thoughtful. “I guess if he did, I’d have a lot more respect for him.” She said it almost jokingly, a half-smile on her face. But after a moment it faded and her expression was almost sad.

“Don’t leave Newbury without saying goodbye,” she said, looking into his eyes for confirmation before walking back into the kitchen.

Chapter 45

 

He dreamt of his father and awoke with a weight of sadness. It wasn’t simply because his father had been gone for so many years. It was because the years were gone, as well, taking with them a past that was fast becoming a series of fragmented memories. Bit by bit the affirmations of existence were disappearing and he was afraid that with the passing of time and faces there would be nothing but memories. With the passing of time, they were becoming hard to find.

Newbury Donuts, he decided, was a place to bury those thoughts and exchange them for some quick energy. There didn’t seem to be any lingering effects from his walk of the day before and since he had burned all those calories he deserved a treat. A half hour later, with medium coffee and two glazed in hand, found him wandering the streets as he savored each bite. By the time he was finished both he was standing in front of St. Martin’s.

Thadeus rinsed his sticky fingers in the fountain, dropping in some change for the service, then walked around the building. The back door was open so he went over and looked inside. It was the same room that had been used for the spaghetti dinners, though now it was empty, the chairs stored away and the tables flat against the wall. As he began to leave, Father Connelly entered through a far door and walked quickly through the room. His gaze was forward and Thadeus was tempted to remain still and unseen but discarded the idea as too childish.

“Father.”

The man stopped, startled, then smiled with recognition and walked over.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Morning, Father. I’m Thadeus Cochran,” he reminded him.

“Right, right. You’re up early.”

“As are you.”

“There’s plenty to be done,” the man said, looking around. “The roof needs repair. The kitchen needs work. This floor needs stripping.” He shook his head forlornly at the verbal list. “But now’s the time to do it, while the weather’s good.”

“It’s a beautiful place. I wanted to thank you for being so welcoming.”

“Well, that’s why we’re here. And feel free to come, anytime.”

“I’m not Catholic.”

“I remember,” he said. “And I’m praying for you.”

“Thank you, Father,” Thadeus said sincerely. “I appreciate that. Maybe I will come back, someday. I’d like to.” He paused. “I also wanted to apologize.”

“Apologize?”

“For being so abrasive when we spoke yesterday, after the service—”

“I remember that, too,” the man said in a soft tone. It seemed to hold a tinge of pain.

“I want to ask forgiveness, Father.”

The priest’s eyes widened. “Why, of course, thank you,” he said after a moment, then repeated the words. “Thank you. Certainly I forgive you, certainly. Of course.” He blinked, his eyes moist. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s come to ask my forgiveness. I suppose that’s only natural, with the scandals in the church. Many have been hurt very deeply and for their whole lives.”

Thadeus nodded. “There’s certainly no excuse for it. But there’s no excuse for any bad behavior. The abuse that occurs in the secular world far surpasses that in the church. But there won’t be many articles written about that.”

“No,” he said. “I suppose not. It’s just a shame for the children that it happens at all.”

 

Thadeus opened the door to Spools and Tools as quietly as he could but the hanging bells gave him away. Amy was feeding fabric through her sewing machine and looked up when she came to the end of the material. She did not smile.

“Good morning.”

“Morning,” she said, grunting it out as if it were one word. She continued gathering the material and turning it around, placing it in the machine again. It was a quilt, of course, with red, white and blue blocks surrounding a large flag in the middle.

“That’s very patriotic.”

She didn’t look up. “It’s for the fourth of July raffle.”

“You’re getting an early start.”

“If I’m lucky,” she said, “I might be done by then.”

“I came to apologize. I know I was a bit abrupt yesterday. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not important,” she said, running the machine. Her lips were thin and tight. He quietly cursed the coroner.

“I think it is. Anyway, I wanted to say I’m sorry.”

She finally looked up, a wry sort of smile on her face. “Are you sure you’re not just saying that so I won’t get you in trouble with the police?”

Thadeus set his face and took a deliberate step forward. “I didn’t realize your influence with the police went that far.”

Her face reddened and she looked down again. “I—doesn’t,” she stammered. “I just thought…that…because Donny was there, Officer Rowe, that—”

He stood straight. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me.”

She looked up with a glare, not holding back her anger. “I don’t have to explain myself to anyone.”

“No,” he said. “You don’t. Listen,” he said, making the tone lighter, “let me make it up to you. Let me take you to lunch.”

“I have plans.”

“Gotta eat sometime.”

Her eyes and face were drawn tight. For the first time since he’d met her, she looked her age. “Not with you, I don’t.”

He took a breath. “Okay. In that case, I’ll leave you to your work.” He started toward the door.

“I hear you’re leaving town.”

He turned. Her face had not softened. “Word does get out, doesn’t it? Yes. Soon.”

She nodded, then looked down and resumed sewing.

 

Todd Torkelson was emptying coins from a Newbury News rack when Thadeus came out of the shop. He tried again to be unseen, almost tip-toeing by, but the man caught his reflection in the plastic window. “Cochran,” he said, shutting the lid before spinning around. “How’s it feel to be a celebrity?”

“I don’t know. You’re the first person I’ve spoken to.”

“Besides Amy,” he said, indicating the shop.

“Oh, right, though to be accurate, she didn’t speak much.”

“I hear you’re leaving town. Not on account of me, I hope.”

“No. Nothing to do with you. It’s just time.”

“Then who killed Birch? That was the scam, right? You wouldn’t leave until you unmasked the murderer?”

“Yup, that’s the scam. No comment.”

“There’s still time for an interview.”

“Just make something up.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he said, chuckling.

“Ethics in journalism? I thought that went the way of Watergate.”

“That was a bit before my time,” he said, then sighed. “Sad to say, your story’s not as big as I hoped it would be. I haven’t received a single death threat.”

“Can I borrow your phone?”

“Besides, your story’s about to get bumped.”

“Bumped?”

“Yeah. You get to sense when a story doesn’t have legs and yours have just about run its course. People are ready for something new. I’m not even going to do a follow-up. Sorry.”

“No, that’s fine,” Thadeus said, surprised at the disappointment he felt. “What’s taking my place?”

“Sewage.”

“Sorry?”

“There’s a group wanting to put a sewage treatment plant nearby.”

“Where?”

“The story isn’t about where,” Todd said impatiently. “It’s about intent. Even if they’re just considering it, that’s enough.”

“What if it’s just a rumor?”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. It’s about the emotion of the issue.”

“Emotional sewage?”

“You start messing with people’s sewage, they get testy. And if they think you’re going to put a plant next door,” he added, “they buy papers. You heading out today?”

“Soon.”

Todd extended his hand. “It was good to meet you. Maybe we’ll meet again, down the road.”

“You never know,” Thadeus said, shaking it.

“Could have been a great story,” Todd said, smiling. “I could have made you a star.”

“For a few days.”

“A few days is more than most people get.”

Thadeus paused. “The next story might be more interesting.”

“Sewage?”

“No. Something else.”

Todd’s interest was peaked. “About Birch?”

“Maybe.”

“You know something, something you’re not telling me.”

“I know a lot of things I’m not telling you,” Thadeus said. “Call it a hunch but something will drop. Keep your ears open.”

“That’s what I do,” Torkelson said and walked off to the next rack.

 

He called from the pay phone at Ben & Leo’s Market. It hung in the hallway between the two restrooms and afforded some privacy, except from either Ben or Leo, who walked continually from the office to the front register depending on the customers.

“Fox, hey,” he said when he heard the coroner’s voice. “Thadeus Cochran.”

“Cochran,” the man answered, his voice light and joyful. “What’s up?”

“Still working on the same case.”

“Oh, right, the babe with the thin lips. Ever nail her?”

“I’ve got a question,” he said, ignoring the one asked.

“Go, baby.”

“A guy’s taking heart medication—”

“—and he walks into a bar with a nun and two Presbyterians. I’ve heard it.”

“Focus, for once in your life. A guy is taking heart medication. Can a heart attack be induced if he mixes his medication with another drug?”

“There’s nothing like being specific,” Fox said. “And that’s nothing like being specific. What was he taking?”

“I don’t know.”

“How many medications was he taking?”

“I don’t know.”

“Going on that information, sure, whatever you want. Is this about the guy who threw you in jail and then kicked in a field?”

“Yes,” Thadeus said, admiring the man’s ability to condense two weeks into a handful of words. “Maybe you can narrow it down. How many heart medications could interact with another drug and cause a heart attack?”

Fox laughed. “All of them.”

Thadeus groaned.

“Yeah, that’s what I’d say, too. Look,” Fox said, “you don’t even have to go that far. Take enough of any medication and it could cause a heart attack. Too much water can kill you. And in a world of killer peanuts, the way each individual body reacts to any drug is anyone’s guess. Throw in a combination of different drugs and the variations are limitless.”

“How about alcohol?”

“I’d love some,” Fox said. “Alcohol mixed with heart medication? It would have some affect. Not much. Make you more tired.”

“Is that your professional opinion?”

“It’s my personal experience and my professional guess, for the same price.”

“How about alcohol mixed with another substance and the medication?”

“Same answer. Could be, maybe, possibly. Look, when you’re giving me nothing to go on, my answer will always be the same.”

Thadeus paused. “What about sildenafil?”

Fox snorted a laugh. “Yeah, there’s been cases. If the medication he was taking was nitrate based, it’s possible. Do you know that small detail, at least?”

Thadeus sighed. “No.”

“I can see the headlines,” Fox said. “‘Cause of death: stiffness.’ Let’s hope he was an organ donor. No, a boner doner!”

Thadeus held the receiver from his ear until Fox stopped laughing.

“I can’t say you’ve been real helpful.”

“Sorry,” Fox said. “But you’re not going to find any answers without an autopsy.”

“He’s already buried.”

“Get a shovel.”

“Have him exhumed?”

“If you’re a stickler.”

“And that means—”

“—permission from the family.”

“The police say there’s no reason and his wife won’t go for it. His widow.”

“Window, huh? Is she hot?”

“She’s…attractive.”

“Attractive in an old, fat kind of way?” he asked. “Does she at least have money?”

“Getting back to the deceased—”

“Without an autopsy, kiss your murderer goodbye. Unless you can get a confession.”

“I’m already counting on that,” Thadeus said.

“Oh, really?” The words were filled with skepticism. “Somebody’s going to confess to a murder just because you ask them about it?”

“Something like that.”

“How can you be sure about that?”

“Because,” Thadeus said, “some people just can’t shut up.”

 

“Did you really think I’d say yes?” Catherine Birch asked, sitting at her desk. Thadeus had found her in the back of Birch Lumber and asked for a few minutes of her time. It was minute two and it didn’t appear he’d be getting a third.

“I had to ask,” he said.

“Everything you said sounds ludicrous.”

“I can understand that.”

“You want me to exhume Fred and have him cut open on a hunch?”

“I had to ask,” he said again.

“Have you ever seen an autopsy?”

‘No.”

“Unfortunately,” she said, “I have. It was in college and I’ll never forget it. The smell…” She blanched, then took a sip from her water bottle. “I’ll never forget that, either. What you wish you could forget is that it’s a person lying there. They covered the face but not the arms and legs. And one by one they start removing organs.” She shuddered. “You said you were married before?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me. Would you like to think of your wife having to be butchered like that?”

Thadeus squeezed his lips together. “I see what you mean. No, I wouldn’t.”

“If someone asked you what you asked me—with no evidence behind it—what would you say?”

“I’d say no.”

“Fred and I didn’t have the perfect marriage,” she said. “But I wouldn’t do that to him.”

“Even if it proved he was murdered?”

“I’d rather a murderer go free than have him go through that.”

Chapter 46

 

Thadeus could see the wisdom of not displaying a clock in a business where people had to wait. He had been standing in line at Newbury Pharmacy for over ten minutes while the gray-haired gentlemen behind the counter seemed to find every task he could rather than acknowledge him.

The phone rang and Thadeus groaned as the man walked over to answer. “Newbury Pharmacy,” he said, then: “Yes, what? Oh.” He put the phone down, grumbling, then left and came back quickly with a plastic bag. “Yes, we have it right here. No, we do not deliver. No. No. No. Fine. It will be here when you come in.” He hung up and was about to disappear behind the counter when Thadeus cleared his throat. The man looked at him, frowned and said, “Can I help you?”

Thadeus stepped forward, smiling. “I just have a question.”

“Go on,” the man prodded at the second of silence.

“I need to know if one needs a prescription to attain certain medication.”

“Such as?”

“Having to do with sexual…areas.”

“Yes?”

Thadeus looked around. He was still the only person in the store. “Erectile dysfunction.”

The pharmacist nodded, his expression one of slight disdain, as if he had dealt with the issue too often; either professionally or privately. “Not necessarily. You can always buy medications to help…that problem…over the internet. For less generic medications, you would need a prescription.”

“I see. Would any doctor be able to fill that prescription.”

“If he’s licensed.”

“What would that entail?”

The man narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Would that mean getting a physical?”

The man shifted his feet. “I’m sure I don’t know the details of what goes on inside a doctor’s office when it comes to determining who does, or doesn’t, need help with their sexual…” he scanned the ceiling, searching for a word, “…equipment.”

“The reason I ask,” Thadeus said, forcing a laugh, “is that I’ve never had a problem, until recently. I wasn’t sure of the procedure.”

“Do you have a family physician?”

“Yes.”

“Then you should tell him.”

“The thing is, he’s been a friend for a long time. I don’t want him to know.”

“You don’t want your doctor to know your medical concerns?”

“Not in this case.”

“I don’t know how I can help you. I could recommend a good physician. Doctor Dombrowski is well qualified and has a practice in town.”

“Does he require insurance?”

“That is something you would have to take up with him,” he said. “Now, if you don’t mind I have a lot of orders to fill.”

“The reason I came here at all,” Thadeus went on, causing the man to bite his lower lip, “was that a friend of mine recommended me to come here. He was under the impression I could acquire these pills without having a prescription.”

“He was wrong,” he said firmly.”

“Are you the only one who works here?”

The pharmacist seemed to be sorting out words before he spoke. “No. But no matter who was working here, you would still need a prescription.”

“Can I speak with the manager?”

“We don’t have a manager!”

“I hate to be insistent but I’m sure my friend wouldn’t lie about not needing a—”

The pharmacist’s face seemed on the verge of exploding. “Sir! I don’t appreciate the implication that anyone in this establishment would ever go around the law.”

“I’m very sorry,” Thadeus said, his voice soothing. “I probably should take everything Andy tells me with a grain of salt.”

The man raised his head, then nodded, almost to himself, in understanding. “Yes, well, I think I see the problem. Everyone—” he began, then stopped. “We do not give out pills of that sort without a doctor’s prescription. I have told you where you could attain that. I don’t know what else I can do to help. If you want pills for erectile dysfunction you will need a prescription.” He took a breath, relieved and looked over Thadeus’ shoulder. “I’ll be with you in a moment, Nora.”

As he disappeared around the shelves, Thadeus wondered if he could leave the store without showing his face. Smiling foolishly, he turned to find Nora, the lady from church, waiting patiently in line with a smirking smile. He nodded greeting as he took a few steps closer.

“Nora,” he said.

“Mr. Cochran. I hope you got what you came for.”

“Oh, that. Well you see—” he began, then, smiling to himself, leaned close and whispered, “Got a late date.” He winked as her mouth fell open, then continued on out of the store.

Chapter 47

 

Justus was typing erratically as he moved his eyes from the papers on his desk to the computer screen. He gave Thadeus a cursory look when he entered. After a few minutes of tapping the keys, Justus pushed away from his desk. “I thought computers were supposed to take care of paperwork. Now I just have copies of every file in every form possible. What can I do you for?”

“I came here to apologize for the other day,” Thadeus said. “I was a bit abrupt. I’m sorry.”

Justus waved his hand. “I don’t even remember what you said.”

“I’m not apologizing for the words. Just the tone.”

“In that case,” Justus said, voice even, “I do remember the words.”

“I wasn’t upset with you, if that’s any consolation. I guess I was just upset with life.”

“How so?”

“I guess I expect too much from people.”

Justice nodded. “I think we all do. Anything specific?”

“Truth. Honesty.”

“I never expect those anymore. That way I’m surprised if they show up.”

“I said the view cops have of people was skewed. I was wrong. It’s probably more accurate than you know.”

“Even I don’t want to agree with that,” Justus said.

“I also came to tell you I’m leaving Newbury.”

“Oh?”

“I thought you might know already. Everyone else seems to.”

“Yes,” he admitted. “I did.”

“Andy Brewer?”

Justus hesitated, then nodded, standing to walk over to the coffee pot. “Him and others.”

“You must have quite a network here.”

He poured a cup, holding the pot to Thadeus who shook his head. He came back and sat down on the corner of his desk. “It’s not quite as sinister as you make it sound. People like to talk. Ninety percent of my work is done the old-fashioned way. I get a call. Though most people,” he added, “don’t feel the need to tell the police when they’re leaving town. They just leave.”

“Under the circumstances…” Thadeus began.

“I thought you might have come in for another reason.”

“Oh?”

“You don’t know?”

“Not yet.”

“Jesse Tyner came in this morning and confessed to killing Fred Birch.”

Thadeus burst out laughing.

“Is that funny?” Justus asked sharply.

Thadeus shook his head, then laughed again. “Did he say how he did it?”

“Something to do with an electric fence. I didn’t quite understand the details. Donny went back to the farm with him to check some things out.” He waited. “Well?”

“Crazier things have happened.”

“Do you believe it?”

“My belief doesn’t hold any weight,” Thadeus said. “Here, or in court.”

“I’d like to hear your opinion, anyway. You were out there a number of times. You spoke to everyone involved. You’re the one who said Birch would be murdered. Now someone’s confessed to doing it. So I’m asking: Is there anything to this?”

Thadeus thought a moment. “Jesse thinks so.”

Justus’ face tightened, his next words clipped, though controlled. “What do you think?”

“I think,” Thadeus began, “that if I said it was nothing, you would still investigate as if it were. And if I said it was something, you would do the same.”

“I already know how I have to respond,” he said. “I just thought you might have an opinion.”

“My opinion,” Thadeus repeated. “Okay. Fred Birch died of a heart attack. There is no case.”

Justus seemed to relax, though his expression hadn’t changed. “I suppose not. But there’s more to this. More than what you’re saying. More than what you’re not saying.”

Thadeus nodded. “There always is.”

 

He was folding a pair of pants by the bed when Ruth Schneider appeared at the door.

“I heard you were leaving,” she said, hands clasped in front of her. “Not that I care, mind you. But I’d like to know if I’m going to have an empty room or not.”

“I am leaving. Today.”

“The rent is non-refundable.” She said it automatically.

“I remember.” He noticed her staring at the clothes on the bed. “I’m leaving these here.”

“I got no room for ‘em.”

“Maybe not, but they’re yours. You gave them to me the day I arrived.”

“I don’t want ‘em.”

“Throw ‘em out.”

He put the pants on the pile, picking up another and folding them as she watched. When she spoke a moment later it was soft, quiet and tentative, her voice almost quivering. “I hear Jesse Tyner confessed to killing Fred Birch.”

He nodded. “I heard that too.”

“Did he?”

“Did he confess?”

“Did he kill him?”

“He says he did. He thinks he did.”

“But did he?”

“How would I know?”

“You know,” she said with intensity.

Thadeus found her conviction oddly unsettling. “Whatever I know can’t be proven in court.”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“No. Not ultimately.”

“Does Justus know?”

“Does he know what I think is the truth? No. He knows what I think isn’t.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

“No.”

“Shouldn’t he know the truth?”

Thadeus dropped the last pair of pants onto the pile. “The truth in this life is what can be proven. Or what people choose to believe.”

“So it’s just swept aside.”

He shook his head. “The truth remains. It’s just that, this time, only a few will see it.”

“So someone gets away with murder.”

The silence only seemed to enhance the troubled look on her face. It was as if she were in some type of private mental struggle.

“It ain’t just,” she said, finally.

“I didn’t know you cared so much about Fred Birch.”

She shot him a glare. “I didn’t care a whit for him. But it ain’t right.”

“No,” Thadeus said, though she had already left the room. “But it happens.”

He gave the room a brief once-over before heading down the stairs. When you travel light, he thought, there’s not a lot to leave.

Brewer’s door was open. Thadeus looked in briefly, saw the room was empty and walked out the front door.

Andy was sitting on a lawn chair in the yard. There was an empty chair next to him, a blue and white cooler inbetween. He shielded his eyes as he craned his neck. “Thadeus Cochran. I hear you’re leaving our little town.”

“Yup.”

“Are you in a hurry, or can you sit and chat for a minute?”

Thadeus walked over and sat, adjusting the seat and rocking it to the shade. “Looks to be a warm one.”

“As if God is smiling down on us,” Brewer said.

“What did you want to talk about?”

“You pick the subject.”

“Okay. Let’s talk about why you killed Fred Birch.”

Andy Brewer began to chuckle.

Chapter 48

 

“Very good, very good,” Brewer was murmuring into the bottle he held to his lips.

“Are you going to tell me about it?”

He raised the beer. “To Fred Birch.” He took a few gulps, then belched loudly. “The memory fades but the taste remains. The papers and police tell me he died of a heart attack. Since I have yet to be visited by a higher authority—of any type—I’ll take it on faith. Though I hear from the grapevine that Jesse Tyner has confessed to the crime.”

The roots of the vine reach deep, Thadeus thought. “So you should have no fear in discussing it.”

Andy chuckled. “An interesting word. Fear. Combative, meant to elicit a defensive response. I’ll assume it was your first salvo. I’ll also assume you dismiss his confession.”

“Mostly. But if he really thinks he killed Birch, I’ll let him.”

Andy opened his eyes. “Why, I’m not sure if you’re being blasphemous or magnanimous. You would let an innocent man be arrested for a crime he didn’t commit?”

“No, I wouldn’t do that. I have no involvement whatsoever.”

“You would sit idly by and do nothing?”

“I don’t know if I’d be sitting,” Thadeus said. “Sleeping, maybe.”

“That’s a pretty cavalier attitude when it comes to life and death.”

“He thinks he’s avenging his father, or family honor, or something. I’m not going to take that away from him.”

“Very good,” Andy said. “I’d almost given you up as a fundamentalist. I’m glad to see you can still think for yourself.”

“When there’s a need,” Thadeus said. “Now…Fred Birch.”

“Fred Birch,” Brewer repeated lightly. “The good do die young. Where to begin?”

“I already know the history.”

“And you know the present. There’s nothing left but the future. Tell me, does Birch find his way to heaven in that future?”

“No.”

“You’re pretty quick with your condemnation.”

“Again, it has nothing to do with me. I’m just guessing based on what I know. What’s your guess?”

“Very good,” Andy said. “Keep the focus on the subject, not the objections. If there’s any justice, Birch is in the deepest depths of hell. But I don’t believe in that crap anymore. There’s no justice here, no justice after. We live, we die, we return to dust to be walked on, inhaled and coughed out by the rest of humanity until the sun explodes.”

“Sometimes destiny has a helping hand.”

“Sometimes.”

“Birch came to visit you that night.”

“Late afternoon,” Brewer corrected. “He came here every week.”

“For how long?”

“Ever since I’ve lived here. What’s that been, five years now? Ten? Somewhere inbetween.”

“It seems odd he would visit on such a regular basis.”

“He had to.”

“Why?”

“To drop off the rent.”

“He paid your rent?”

“Of course,” Andy said. “It was only fair. After I lost my job—and my wife—I couldn’t stay in the church house and I had nowhere else to go, so Birch graciously stepped in—or more accurately, stepped down—to help.”

“Pretty generous of him.”

Andy snorted. “Hardly enough to offset ruining one’s life.”

“Why didn’t he just send the money? Or pay monthly? Or for the year?”

“And lose the close friendship we had?” Andy finished his drink, dropped the bottle onto the grass and got another out of the cooler. “He needed to remind me who was in control,” he said, grimacing as he twisted the top off the bottle. “If the rent was paid for the month I might begin to feel secure. Week to week, I was still at his mercy.”

“Somewhat similar to the relationship he had with Wendy.”

“How so?”

“Their meetings had become an exercise in control, where he could feel he was asserting his manhood.”

Brewer smacked his tongue against his teeth a few times as if he’d tasted something bitter. “I’m not sure I like the comparison. It makes me feel like the next guy in the barrel.”

“What did you find to talk about after all these years?”

“Who talked?” Andy said sourly. “He wanted someone to listen; about who he screwed that week, who he was going to screw next week, who kissed his ass to avoid the screwing. To him the world was full of people who were either out to get him or too scared or stupid to know how.”

“Did you ever talk about Bob?”

Andy smiled. “You made that connection easily enough. That was Bob’s role, wasn’t it? The punching bag. The incompetent boob. The silent partner, who stayed silent no matter who had his wife.”

“Was that how you saw him?”

His face softened. “No.”

“Did you know him very well?”

“If you knew Bob Tyner for five minutes, you knew him well. The first time I met him he told me his life’s story. A world full of Bob Tyner’s would make me reconsider my faith. Since it’s filled with Fred Birches, I shall continue my apostasy.”

“You must have forged some type of relationship with Fred.”

“Mutual need,” Andy said. “Two parasites looking for a host. He needed to demean someone, I needed the money. The perfect symbiotic relationship.”

“Maybe you thought you deserved it.”

Andy’s expression was amused. “I deserved the abuse? Why?”

“You tell me.”

Brewer sat in silent contemplation, his eyes locked on Thadeus. His eyebrows lifted. “Penance? Interesting. For…my lack of faith? Leaving my calling? Ah,” he said, as if with deeper understanding. “For my rejection of God.”

“Something like that.”

“Well,” Brewer said, drinking his beer, “I didn’t reject God. He rejected me. So He can take His punishment—” he said, addressing the sky, “—and shove it!”

“But you don’t believe in any of that crap,” Thadeus said.

“Exactly.”

“You keep forgetting.”

“It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“What happened the last time Birch was here?”

“The usual,” Andy said. “He came, he drank, he left.”

“What did he drink?”

“Same thing I’m drinking now.”

“What did you put in it?”

Andy’s eyes twinkled. “Did I put something in it?”

“Apparently.”

“If you know what happened,” he said, sitting back, “then you tell me.”

“Okay,” Thadeus said. “In spite of what some people might say, Birch didn’t die from anything external. No lightning bolt intervened to keep him from his meeting with Wendy. And though he may have felt a slight tingle at the electric wire Jesse put across the path, it would have taken a much stronger source of power and heavier gauge of line to have any real affect. There were no marks on his body indicating a wound of any type. So if he didn’t die naturally, whatever killed him had to have been something he ingested. It couldn’t have been lethal or he would have died where he had taken it. That leaves out poison. It had to have been something that would induce a heart attack but would also react in his system slowly. I’m guessing a common household substance or something anyone could purchase over the counter.”

“There must be a lot of guessing in your line of work,” Andy said.

“The day Bob died must have been pretty hectic,” Thadeus continued. “The death of a friend or family member is very draining. Yet in spite of all that, Birch made time to visit me in jail and seemed to be in a very positive, even triumphant, mood.”

“Triumphant? Interesting.”

“Why not?” Thadeus said. “He beat death, at least the death I predicted. Concurrently, beating death meant beating me meant beating God. That’s quite a triumph.”

“Very good.”

“But it was all false bravado.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because he still needed the safety of the routine. He needed to see you and Wendy, on schedule, to reassure himself that nothing had changed, that there were still things in life he could count on, that he still had control of. Of course he didn’t.”

“The heart controls us all,” Andy said, then, with a wink, “one way or another.”

“Did you know he had a heart condition?”

“Of course.”

“Did you know he had a pacemaker?”

“Of course.”

“Did you know he took medication for his condition?”

“Sure. All you had to do was ask and he’d tell you the details of his last rectal exam.”

“Did you know he had high blood pressure.”

Andy nodded. “Too much stress.” He raised the beer. “A man’s got to know how to relax.”

“Did you know if he was taking any medications??”

“No. But I assume everyone over sixty is taking a pill for every organ. Or,” he added, “almost every organ.”

“So he came to see you,” Thadeus continued. “He wanted to unwind, to recalibrate, to reassure himself that even though Bob had died, things were going to stay the same. He had a beer, maybe two, maybe three, to which you added an unknown substance. He leaves. Forty minutes later he’s walking in the rain, in the dark, to meet Wendy in the shed as he had so many times. He begins to feel the affects of the drug. He’s embarrassed, confused and somewhat light-headed. His vision is affected. Suddenly he feels a shock, staggers back and drops the rose he was going to give Wendy.”

Andy blew out. “A romantic to the end.”

“He sees what caused the shock—the electric wire—and no doubt realizes who put it there, and why. But he won’t be deterred and keeps walking.”

“That sounds like Fred.”

“But after a few seconds he starts having more serious complications. His heart races, his breathing is strained, he’s overcome with dizziness but refuses to stop. The more he fights the worse it gets. He becomes disoriented. He stumbles, drops to one knee, tries to catch his breath, then lays down on his back, exhausted. And then, slowly, he dies.”

The was the briefest moment of silence.

“Very good,” Andy said, breaking it. “Very compelling. You spin a good yarn. It was almost as if I were there. How I wish I had been.”

“I spoke to a medical examiner,” Thadeus said, watching his expression. “He gave me a few ideas about what Birch might have taken to induce a heart attack.”

“You should tell the cops. They haven’t got a clue.”

“He wasn’t positive, either,” Thadeus said. “The list of substances seem to be limitless. And without an autopsy it’s impossible to tell.”

“And that will never happen.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Because I know Catherine. I know you asked her permission to grant one. And I know she refused.”

“The grapevine again?”

Andy smiled. “One thing I miss about being a pastor is that people assume you’re worthy of their trust.”

“But Catherine is Catholic.”

“Oh, she never attended my church,” Andy said. “You can’t be seen crossing enemy lines. But sometimes that’s a plus. You can tell your pastor what you can’t tell your priest.”

“So she would confide in you?”

“Now and again.”

“Why?”

“Who else did she have? Fred? The women in Newbury?” He shook his head. “Catherine and I had a lot more in common than you might think.”

“And the same needs?”

Andy smiled to himself. “It never got that far, but it could have. Very easily.”

“And not just to get even?”

“Catherine has her charms,” he said. “And communication can be an aphrodisiac. I envy Priests, in a way, the thrill of the confessional. It’s an addictive power, having someone reveal their soul to you. And it can be addictive revealing your soul to someone else.”

“Like therapy.”

“The secular substitute,” Andy said. “That’s all people really want deep down. To reveal their secret desires and innermost thoughts without judgment. To know completely as we are completely known. To be naked without shame; like they were in the garden, if one believes the fairy tale. But conversely, that’s the reason we can never be open to the people we’re closest to. There’s too much history, they know our sins. We can only be pure to those who know us least.”

“So you got to know Catherine well.”

“For a time. We’re not made for such depth of intimacy. It gets tiresome and tiring. We become suspicious. And a small town is a small town. It’s hard to be discreet in an elevator.”

“Well, however you knew,” Thadeus said, “Catherine refused the autopsy and my request to exhume her husband.”

“I spoke to her about it.”

Thadeus’ eyes widened. “When?”

“Right after Fred died.”

“You told her not to have an autopsy?”

“That was my intent,” he admitted. “But she was already against it, for reasons she no doubt mentioned to you. She did love him,” he added. “Go figure.”

“I could still speak to her.”

“She won’t change her mind.”

“Maybe not about that. But if I told her what you put in Fred’s drink to cause his heart attack, she might not find it as amusing as you do.”

“It would be only words at this point,” Andy said. “But since you’re adamant, what do you think was in his drink?”

“Viagra, or a similar substitute.”

Brewer laughed, bouncing slightly as he did. “What sweet irony, if it were true. On his way to a somewhat dry tryst, Fred has a reaction he hasn’t had in years, quite literally out of the blue. What a shock it must have been. It may have even driven him out of the house and into the storm that much sooner.”

“Why?”

“Think of it.” He chuckled to himself, eyes staring off as if imagining the scene. “He couldn’t have Catherine seeing him in such a state of sudden arousal. Why, the very idea of having to satisfy her after all those unsatisfying years would have sent him running into the rain.” He held the bottle with both hands and smiled at no one.

“How did you know how much would kill him?”

Brewer paused. “I almost don’t want to tell you what I’m about to. The lie is so much better. But I think it will add a certain dimension to the situation.” He sat straight, his expression serious beneath the smile. “I have something to confess. Two things, in fact.” He closed his eyes and pointed his face to the sun. “I can almost feel my soul being cleansed even as I speak.” He looked back at Thadeus. “I didn’t put it in his drink to kill him. It was just my own private joke. Oh, in the back of my mind I hoped it might facilitate his death. I’d done some reading on the subject so I knew there was a chance. I was fortunate to have fate smile upon my plans.”

“How much did you give him?”

“Two pills per bottle,” he said. “Six all together. He drank each one.”

“What’s your other confession?”

Andy lifted his head slightly, taking a contemplative breath, enjoying the moment. “It was only when you came to Newbury that I even thought of killing Fred Birch. It’s only because you came that I decided to kill him.”

Thadeus nodded. “Okay.”

Brewer’s countenance darkened slightly. “Maybe you’re not understanding my meaning. Let me summarize the past weeks. God sends you to Newbury to solve a murder that has yet to occur, or so you said. But by the very act of you coming here, and then announcing the reason you came, the idea to kill Fred Birch came to my mind. Until then I had never thought about it. Don’t you get it?” he asked with impatience when Thadeus remained silent. “By all intents and purposes, you are the one you caused Fred Birch to die. If you hadn’t come on your ‘holy mission’,” he said mockingly, “Fred Birch would still be alive.”

Thadeus couldn’t remember such an expression of pure triumph on anyone’s face as he now witnessed with Andy. It seemed to encompass the man. He hated to burst the bubble.

“I’ve fought through those issues long before I came to Newbury,” Thadeus said. “I’ve gone over every scenario possible. Everything you said I considered years ago, and it doesn’t change a thing.”

“It changes everything,” Andy said, voice shaking. “Don’t you see it? God made a fool of you. He gave you a calling and someone stepped in and took it away. If you hadn’t come there wouldn’t have been a murder. His act of sending you caused it to happen.”

“Maybe,” Thadeus said. “But that doesn’t matter. You’re the one who did it. You’re the one responsible.”

Andy frowned, unsure, then waved his hand. “It was just a joke, like I said. Just like my life. Except this time Fred Birch was the punch line. Besides,” he added, “I can always pass the spiritual buck. God is to blame. He could have stopped me. He didn’t. We are none of us responsible, yet we are all absolved.”

Thadeus nodded to himself, then put his hands on the arm rests and pushed himself standing. “Thanks for the talk.”

“Leaving already? I hope my words didn’t upset you.”

Thadeus reached up with both hands, stretching with a groan. It would be a long walk.

“So what now?” Andy asked. “Off to the next murder that won’t be solved?”

“You never know.”

Brewer raised his hands questioningly. “So what? No recrimination? No punishment? Not even a Hail Mary? A man has died. Will only the innocent be punished? Where is God’s justice?”

“Forthcoming.”

Andy seemed perplexed. “So that’s it?”

“There is one more thing,” Thadeus said. “I have a word for you.”

Andy’s face lit up. “A word? A message? From whom? From God? To me? Well,” he said, his body relaxing. “I am honored. Are you sure it’s from Him and not you?”

“It must be. I’ve got nothing to tell you.”

“It’s been a long time since God’s spoken to me,” Andy said, pleased, “or me to Him. It must be important if God sent you to tell me.” He adjusted his chair dramatically. “I’m ready. Go ahead. What is God’s message to me?”

“You win,” Thadeus said simply.

Andy jerked his head as if not hearing. “What?”

“You win.”

“You win?” Brewer repeated. “What does that mean?”

“It didn’t come with a translation.”

Brewer was frozen in thought, his brows furrowed and his gaze far off.

Thadeus made his way past the gate, unsure if he heard the two words repeated again before he was beyond earshot of Andy Brewer’s voice.

Chapter 49

 

He wasn’t more than three minutes down the road when he heard the familiar sound of Alba’s car. It rumbled by, then made a wide u-turn to pull abruptly to the curb. Alba got out and almost ran to the sidewalk, blocking his path.

No one is more popular, he thought as he came up to her, as the man leaving town.

Her hair was pulled back, her lips stretched and eyebrows thin. Anger in a woman, he knew, ruined everything. She wore a long black short-sleeved dress cut low in the front, but he knew even without the bra it wouldn’t help.

“I meant to stop in and say goodbye—” he started.

“Do you know what Jesse did?”

“Yes.”

“He confessed to killing Fred Birch.”

“I know.”

“He said you would have gone to the police if he hadn’t.”

“Nope.”

“So did he kill Fred Birch or not?”

He paused. “What would you like to believe?”

“What actually happened.”

“Ask the police.”

“I don’t believe them.”

“But you believe me?”

She exhaled loudly. “I just want the truth.”

“Ask Jesse.”

“He says he did.”

“Okay.”

“I want to know what you think.”

“What I think means more than what he says?”

She took a step closer, which he hadn’t thought possible, and locked on his eyes. “I want to know.”

“Okay,” Thadeus said. “The truth is Jesse thinks he killed Birch.”

“Did he?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Did you tell the police that?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

He took a step back as her voice rose. “I just found out he confessed, for one. And two, the police and I are not on the best terms.”

Alba glared as she looked him over. “I don’t think that’s the reason.”

“Then what is?”

“Without his confession, you don’t get the glory.”

“The glory?” he asked, stifling a laugh. “If I got it I must have missed it. What form did it take?”

She almost snarled the words. “If nobody killed Birch—if he just died—then everything you’ve said all along is a lie. But if someone admits to it, true or not, then you’re proven right. You become the Great Prophet,” she said, emphasizing the words derisively. “That’s why you won’t go to the police.”

Thadeus blew out in exasperation. “Jesse’s a big boy, he knows what he’s doing.”

“He’s doing what you told him to do.”

“I must be pretty persuasive, what with people confessing to murders they didn’t commit left and right.”

“All I know is that he’s in jail.”

“Go visit,” he said, remembering.

“You’ve got to do something.”

Thadeus considered placating her, but annoyance pushed that aside.

“Nothing’s going to happen.”

“Oh, have you seen his future, too?”

“There’s no evidence. There’s no case. Nothing will happen.”

“But that’s not even the point anymore, is it?” she said. “You predicted a murder and someone confessed to it. That makes you the big man. It’s all about you. It always was,” she added scornfully.

Thadeus sighed, looking down the road. For the first time since coming to Newbury the thought of leaving brought peace.

“As if God would tell you, or anybody, anything about the future,” Alba continued. “It was all a lot of crap.”

“Then why are you angry?”

“Because you don’t care who you hurt.” She was breathing hard, shoulders shaking, emotion being pushed out of her strained lips. “You play with people’s lives and trick gullible fools into believing God cares about them, just like organized religion has been doing for thousands of years. Talking about some grand plan when it’s all about your ego and what you can get. You’re a real spiritual man, at least when you’re not trying to get into my pants. But it’s all a big lie. I’ll never believe any of the crap you said about God or death or life…or anything.”

Thadeus moved to go around, then pushed her aside as she stepped in his way. “Who the hell asked you to?”

 

He didn’t look back. He wouldn’t look back on Newbury again, he decided, though the music of the town beckoned. He would leave it behind and each step would erase another memory.

He came upon Amy Emerson’s house. Full circle. Her car was in the drive but now it had company. A white pick-up was parked behind it. The sticker on the back window proclaimed support for Connecticut law enforcement. A vague questioning crossed his mind, but before he could focus his breath left him.

The roses which had lined the fence had been ripped out of the ground by their roots and now lay like fallen soldiers on the grass. A shovel stood sticking out of the ground nearby, hand clippers near that along with an empty trash can waiting to be filled. Even the archway was bare. He stared at the holes and the plants, mesmerized, as he continued on.

A plastic tag had fallen onto the walk and he bent to pick it up. There was an image of a dark red rose in full bloom on it, a name beneath. Forgotten Dreams.

The sliding door in the back of the house opened and Amy emerged carrying two glasses. A tall blonde man followed, holding a pitcher of red liquid which he set on the patio table. They both wore clothes suitable for yard work except he wore no shirt. As she sat, the man adjusted the umbrella for shade and then turned.

It was Donny Rowe.

She filled the glasses and handed him one. Rowe took a sip, then put his glass on the table. He took her hands in his and raised her to her feet. Leaning closer, he snaked his arms around her body and kissed her on the lips. She stiffened momentarily, arms hanging loose, then reached out to encircle his body as they kissed hungrily and her nails tore into his back.

Thadeus tossed the plastic tab away fiercely and watched it spin into the gutter.

 

The sidewalk ended, the road became dirt, and soon the ordered landscaping of the town became wild woods and weeds. The cool canopy of unpruned branches brought a refreshing respite, but too soon he was out of the shade and back onto the baking dirt. He wiped sweat from his face, thinking about a cold drink of strawberry lime tea and prayed there would be relief at road’s end.

As if mocking his thoughts, a car drove up fast from behind, missing him by inches and kicking up a cloud of dust which stretched out in the vehicle’s wake, settling around him as he made his way through the dirty fog. He would take more from Newbury than memories, though he wasn’t sure which held more substance.

The cows which had greeted his arrival so enthusiastically weeks before were now gone from sight, neither lining road nor lazing under tree. They sought less intrusive quarters, he guessed, far from the irritatingly conversant. Just as well. There had been enough goodbyes.

The road ahead was empty, lonely and long. But he would reach his destination before dark and there was comfort in being surrounded by things familiar. He hoped the day would come—before he reached his final steps—when there would be more awaiting his return than a cold house filled with silent memories. But for now it was enough.

And there was something else, something that brought the breath of renewal. There was the impression—without form, definition or detail—that he wouldn’t be home too long. There was a place he was to go, another town on another road, and he found his pace quicken at the thought. He wondered about the people he’d meet and the circumstances he’d find.

Would a murder of passion have just taken place? Would there be one to uncover in the silent echoes of the past? Or was one being planned at that very moment?

He didn’t know.

He only knew one thing:

Because he was coming…

 

STEVE BENNETT was born in Boston and has remained literary ever since, even after moving to Southern California. He has written short stories, novels, humorous commentaries, light verse and songs. You can follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@SBennettWriter

Or on Facebook:

www.facebook.com/StevenDBennettWriter.

Or contact by email: [email protected]

 

Also by Steven D. Bennett

 

Throne

The Chuck-It List

Trace the Dead Eye

Humor of the Gospels

Humor of the Gospels – Daily Study


Somebody Dies

In "Somebody Dies", Thadeus Cochran has come to the small Connecticut town of Newbury to solve a murder. There's just one problem; there hasn't been one. Yet he knows he's not there by chance. And whether it's clairvoyance, calling or coincidence, when he arrives someone will depart. It's just a matter of time. As he meanders the streets getting to know the heartbeat of the town, faces fall into his path as if puzzle pieces and with them emotions he thought long dead. There is the excitement of connection, the stir of passion, and even the hint of love to help alleviate the pain of his own recent loss and present loneliness. But as he eases into a possible new future, pride leads him to indiscretion and the dream fades in the light of his calling. When someone does finally die, it is deemed by natural causes, which seems to negate his whole trip. Worse, Thadeus is shaken to the core of his calling and beliefs. As he continues asking uncomfortable questions, pressure mounts for him to leave town. But he presses on, in faith, to find the murderer he knows must exist.

  • Author: Steven D. Bennett
  • Published: 2016-02-25 00:40:21
  • Words: 103787
Somebody Dies Somebody Dies