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Terry Brill, feeling muddled, turned off the Bronco’s engine and coasted to a stop in front of Carlson’s Market. His condition owed partly to lack of sleep, partly to the eight mile ride that had brought him over foggy, washboard roads from his uncle’s ranch into town.
The loss of his job, if temporary, probably figured in too. One of the flunkies from the Portland Police Bureau’s human resources division had served him with papers the week before. Suspended him summarily for doing his job the way he’d done it in every one of his fourteen years as a cop. Old-fashioned hard-nosed policing. How many colleagues could match his case closure rate? Very few.
August Richards, the Bureau’s new chief, cared more about keeping up a clean front than he did about closing cases. Under Richards, methods once admired—even commended—were picked apart, deemed reckless, punished.
Good luck making these charges stick.
What a relief, Brill thought, having a place to wait the thing out, his aunt and uncle’s ranch, a refuge where he felt welcome at least, if at loose ends.
Brill pulled his key from the Bronco’s ignition and checked the rear-view mirror. Behind him, near the eastern edge of Carlson’s lot, a hay truck idled, hacking exhaust into the fog. Half a dozen bundled-up citizens stood close to the truck, clustered around a stocky old man who wore a sheepherder’s coat and a crumpled Western hat. Brill had eye-balled the group as he rolled in.
The old man appeared to be telling a story. The people around him hung on every word, leaning in, adjusting hats, coats, and scarves without ever taking their eyes from the geezer’s ruddy face. Frosted breath combined and rose like campfire smoke from the center of the circle. It must be one hell of a story.
And no concern of Terry Brill’s. While he was here in Kamiakin County, he intended to mind his own business. He’d already set himself tasks that would occupy his time, repay his aunt and uncle’s hospitality, and foster a positive outlook. Yes. Just lie low and, like a fever, let the Bureau’s investigation run its course.
Brill stepped out of the Bronco, up onto the raised walk that ran in front of the store. He pressed cupped hands to the window and surveyed the dim interior. Two check stands, but only one checker—the one he’d hoped to see, Aileen. He’d shopped the store three times during the past week and, through the back and forth, felt that he and Aileen had made a connection.
Brill glanced over his shoulder. The old man was still giving his audience an earful. Closer in, grocery carts were scattered about the parking lot like worn-out horses on a nibbled-down field. Brill snagged the nearest and ran it inside. At the foot of Aileen’s check stand, he drew rein. He leaned over the cart, forearms braced on the red plastic handle.
“Guess you pulled the short straw,” Brill said, drawling the last two words, hoping to impress with a mastery of local dialect.
“What’s that, hon?”
Aileen was in her late thirties, he guessed, forty at most, a few years his junior. No wedding ring.
“Working Thanksgiving,” Brill said. “You must have pulled the short straw.”
Aileen wore a hip-length black parka under her apron. The coat concealed her figure. Not big-big, at least, presentable. Brill meant to build on the established connection. He could picture it, him and Aileen, a night on the town. Why not?
“We trade off holidays, me and the other gals.” Aileen glanced at Brill and then looked around him, taking in the parking lot scene. “It’s my day.”
“Still tough duty,” Brill persisted, serving up his remark with a smile. “Leastwise it’s only till noon.”
He had seen the short hours posted on Carlson’s street sign.
“Forty-five minutes yet.” Aileen frowned at her watch. “May as well close right now with the business we’re doing.”
Brill didn’t get it. Aileen had been downright flirtatious in their previous exchanges. He straightened and turned, following her gaze out to the lot.
“What’s the story?” The checker’s curiosity had stirred Brill’s own.
“Haven’t the foggiest.” Aileen toe-danced back and forth across her rubber mat, straining to see. “Haven’t had a customer except you since Boyd Little parked his rig and started jawing. Whatever it is, he’s caught folks coming and going like flies to fly-paper.”
“Boyd Little being the gent in the cowboy hat?”
“He’s the one.”
Brill pinched a limp store coupon from the bottom of his cart and smoothed it out on the counter. “Might be you’ll have a customer come back in looking for this.” It was an exit line. He’d have another go at Aileen when he checked out. “I best get on with my shopping.”
Brill steered his cart to the beer cooler at the back of the store. The cart’s right front wheel shimmied and clattered. Whatever his frustration with Aileen at the moment, he could at least be grateful that he had the store to himself.
Carlson’s Market was to a real grocery store what a Shetland pony was to a horse. Everything in it—the carts, the produce displays, the meat counter, the overhead fixtures—were half or, at best, three-quarter sized. Normally built people could barely pass in the aisles. Brill eyed the Corona through the beer cooler door. Nothing half-sized about the prices though.
A shoplifting mirror mounted above the beer coolers reflected the aisles and the front of the store. Brill checked the mirror. Aileen remained absorbed in the world beyond her windows. A farm girl, by no means dumpy but certainly plump, and here she was, more interested in local gossip than in getting something going. Priorities. A guy had to wonder. As for the beer, he yanked open the cooler door and slung two half cases of Corona into his pony cart. A holiday. What the hell.
Brill had promised his aunt he’d make dip for Thanksgiving dinner, a task that would chew up some time and explained the drive into town. Now he searched the shelves and coolers for ingredients. Turning a corner, the cart’s wobbly right front wheel locked up and squealed against the polished concrete floor. Aileen spun around, framed at aisle’s end by shelves that seemed to converge.
“You gonna be a few minutes yet?” she sang out.
“I expect,” he replied.
“Back in a jif.”
What now? The woman was leaving the store. She cleared the entry and jogged toward Boyd Little’s frozen circle, her outerwear reflecting the bounce of loose flesh. Brill averted his gaze.
It took him more than ten minutes to find his groceries: lemons, sour cream, Tabasco, onion soup mix, chopped clams, salsa, and chips. Might have completed the job in half the time with a little help from Aileen. He ranged back to her abandoned station. He paged through and re-racked a couple of check stand tabloids.
Come on now, sweetheart, duty calls. Imagine me in here stealing you blind.
At the front window, Brill looked across the lot, attempting by the penetrating force of his gaze to gain Aileen’s attention. She stood with her back to the store. At last, he made eye contact. Not with Aileen but with the tall, red-haired woman beside her. The redhead leaned down and whispered into the checker’s ear.
Aileen looked over her shoulder at Brill and turned back without signaling any intention to return to her post. Goddamn it. He still had to get cleaned up and make the dip. All before dinner. And, if he wanted to knock back a few Coronas at a leisurely pace, he had to get rolling.
Brill left his groceries on the counter and pushed through the market’s front door. The sound of highballing semis carried from the state highway farther east. Ropy plumes of gray smoke spilled from the chimneys and stovepipes of the ramshackle houses across the road, slid along frosted rooftops, and poured over eaves hung with icicles.
Cold inside, yes, but colder by far on the lot. Brill thrust his hands into his pants pockets and marched on Boyd Little’s gathering.
Besides Aileen and her red-haired friend, the group included a middle-aged couple dressed in wool overcoats, leather gloves, and fuzzy knit hats. Each clutched a heavily laden Carlson’s grocery bag in either hand. An older couple, stiff and rosy faced, looked as if they might have come straight to town from farm chores. The man wore padded coveralls. The woman wore multiple sweaters under a nylon shell and dabbed her runny nose with a wad of tissues.
Brill aimed to cut Aileen from the bunch and steer her back inside. He wanted to be cool about it, though, to preserve the romantic possibilities. Looking to ease into the circle, he caught the eye of a wind-burned kid who wore a blue snowmobile suit and black moon boots. The kid nodded and made a place for Brill between himself and the last of the group, a stout, bowlegged woman whose tiny head was wrapped in a wheat-colored scarf. Brill figured her for one of the East European immigrants who, according to his aunt, had lately infiltrated the south part of the county, beneficiaries of some sort of church-sponsored relocation.
“So the truck was running,” the kid in the moon boots said. Inexplicably, he held his chapped hands up high and extended, rubbing them together as if before a barrel fire.
“It was,” Little said. “Sitting way out there in the middle of that pasture.” The stout woman leaned in to hear—perhaps to understand—Boyd Little’s words. Little cleared his throat and smoothed his collar.
A banty rooster type, Brill thought. Cocksure. A chip on his shoulder. No doubt telling his story for the third time at least.
“Still running,” Little said, “stock all around it, trying to get at what hay was left in the bed.”
“But that wasn’t where Van was at.” Aileen’s companion seemed to want confirmation. “You say he was up by the road.”
“Lying right there,” Little affirmed, “just inside the fence.”
“Van must’ve known who it was,” the kid said. “Seen him and went up to talk.”
“Expecting to go back after,” the man in the city overcoat said, “and finish feeding his cattle.”
“In this weather,” the man in the coveralls said, “he might have left his rig running even if he planned to be gone a spell. Course, where would he go Thanksgiving morning?”
“Our place,” the stout woman said, “is just a few fields away.” Her accent confirmed foreign origins.
People nodded and murmured their sympathies. Brill shuffled his feet and felt grit under his boots. Store management must have sanded for ice. It hadn’t snowed yet, according to his uncle. The frigid air smelled of wood smoke and diesel.
“Was Van’s rig broke into?” the kid asked.
“From the road I didn’t see no sign of it,” Boyd Little replied. “But I don’t expect it was locked.”
“And no idea whatsoever who done it?” the woman with the tissues asked. She dabbed her nose and raised her glasses to wipe both eyes.
Boyd Little let the seconds drift by like leaves on an Indian summer breeze. He pulled a lemon-sucking face and wagged his head. He scuffed the pavement with the toe of his boot. At long last he replied, emphasizing his words by leaving spaces between them. “Not a clue.”
Playing the scene for all it was worth.
The woman in the city overcoat lowered her bags to the ground. She opened and closed her hands and flexed her shoulders, apparently trying to restore circulation.
“How’s Linda taking it?” she asked.
“Well, now,” Boyd Little said, “being as she’s the one who found him, and also his wife, not too good, I expect.”
A little snippy there, Boyd. The woman must be a newcomer. Or maybe her city clothes and over-stuffed grocery sacks roused class resentment. Brill snatched a glance at Boyd’s seamed face and greasy coat.
“But you didn’t talk to her,” Aileen broke in, “or see her either. Linda, I mean. Maybe you already said this, ‘fore I come out.”
“No,” Little said. “She was home where she’d gone to call the sheriff. I understand one of the deputies fetched her from there. I expect she’s at the sheriff’s now. Or they took her over to the hospital.”
“On T’anksgiving,” the stout woman said.
“One round,” Little said. “Right through the chest. A big gun too, judging from the wound.”
“We not gonna sleep good tonight,” the stout woman muttered.
Brill looked around the group. No one poised to speak. Each absorbed in personal reflection, even puffed-up Boyd Little. A short in the street sign’s electrical circuitry made a low buzzing sound. Brill looked up at the sign and then over at Boyd.
Could he allow himself a question? No? Yes? One question. “Around the wound,” he asked, “did you notice any powder burns, any scorching?” He felt awkward butting in, but he wanted to know.
“And you are?” Little asked, turning a haughty gaze on Brill, nothing pleasant or polite in his tone.
Brill had failed to anticipate this rejoinder, which, especially in company, felt like a slap. Reflexively, he fixed Boyd Little with his bad cop stare. Locked it on, screwed it down. Didn’t say a word. Your move, pal. The banty rooster type always had pissed him off.
Boyd frowned and shifted his feet. He searched the faces of his companions as if seeking closer alliance. He looked at his truck as if it were calling his name.
Brill squared his shoulders. He lifted his chin and stepped into the circle.
“I’m a police detective,” he said. “Up visiting from Portland. Terry Brill’s my name. Who the fuck are you?”