BETRAYAL IS THE ONLY TRUTH THAT STICKS
Thirteen years ago.
He hoped she was right about the toolshed, that she hadn’t imagined it, a mythical structure spawned by the alcoholic barbiturate mush that had passed for her mind in the recent days.
Stopping at the edge of the thicket of young red maples, he looked out across the farmyard to the house and the two red barns beyond it. It put his own so-called farm to shame, the bitter taste of envy in his mouth.
Nevertheless, she’d been right. A small toolshed stood off to the right of the barns. He didn’t have the time or the inclination to question what a man with two big old barns would want with a garden-variety toolshed. Years later, he’d read about it in the newspaper, but for now it was of no concern.
It was well past midnight, but a light was still on in one of the downstairs windows of the house, an orange glow spilling out onto the wide back porch and the ground below it. With a full moon in a cloudless sky it might as well have been the middle of the afternoon as he darted across the yard to the small shed.
It was unlocked, as he’d hoped, all the expensive tools and equipment stored in the barns. Despite the darkness of the interior, it only took a minute to find a well-used shovel with a sturdy wooden handle hanging from a hook.
Standing in the deeper shadow of the shed doorway, he looked back at the house, his blood rising. The light was still on. He hoped the bastard didn’t suddenly appear at the window, to close the drapes or marvel at the beauty of the night sky before heading up to bed. Not because he was worried the guy might see him as he made his way back to the trees, come after him.
It was the other way around.
He wouldn’t be able to stop himself from kicking the door down, cleaving his head in two with the hard, unforgiving edge of the shovel blade. He closed his eyes. Felt the hideous impact, the righteous satisfaction in his belly, his fingers tightening on the smooth, worn wood of the handle at the thought of it.
He trotted back across the yard to the trees, worked his way through them to the patch of open ground that ran alongside the wire fence separating the property from the rutted dirt road he’d driven up.
Then, for the hell of it and because of who the boy’s father was, he looked up at the night sky, oriented himself, then drew a line running north-south in the ground, still damp from recent rain.
It didn’t take long to dig a shallow grave. He was fit and strong, accustomed to working with his hands, the soil soft and free from the roots of the young trees nearby. And he didn’t want to make it too deep, after all.
At one point he heard a noise, a soft rustling that didn’t come from the leaves above moving in the breeze. He looked up sharply, his grip tightening on the shovel. Every sense heightened, the earthy smell of the damp soil piled up beside him a memory that would stay with him, remind him always of this unholy task. Now, no light showed from the house still visible through the trees. Had the guy switched it off to mask his own movements, sneaking out into the yard to investigate an unfamiliar noise?
He would never be sure afterwards, but he thought he glimpsed a movement from behind one of the older, larger trees, a quick flash of pale skin in the moonlight.
He couldn’t stop himself from turning around, looking at the car parked on the dirt track behind him. Never had a vehicle been so inappropriate for the job circumstances demanded of it. Or so conspicuous. It may as well have had a flashing lightbar on the roof. If he’d come in his pickup it wouldn’t have been a problem. He’d have had a shovel too, no need to get so close to the house to steal one, risk being seen or heard.
It couldn’t be helped. Besides, it wasn’t a problem if the bastard had seen him—or at least it wouldn’t be a problem for long.
He finished digging, rested a moment leaning on the shovel. Admired his handiwork, an ill-natured smile on his lips at the sight of the wider end of the grave where the head would lie facing due north. A petty irreverent gesture. A finger raised to the age-old tradition of burying the dead facing east in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ, or to face the rising sun if your beliefs are more prosaic.
He swallowed back the hot bile rising in his throat, went to get the boy’s small body from the trunk.
‘Carl Hendricks wants to talk to you,’ Kate Guillory said.
Evan Buckley came awake like he’d sat on a cattle prod. A number of phrases could have produced a similar effect, one of initial surprise mixed with disbelief, quickly washed away by an unwelcome undercurrent of apprehension.
The Grim Reaper would like a word.
The Angel of Death says can you spare a moment.
Beelzebub has called three times now.
If he’d been asked, he’d have said the summons to see Hendricks was the least likely. Maybe even the most unwelcome. He’d need a follow-up appointment with a scrubbing brush and a bottle of Lysol afterwards, if nothing else.
‘I can’t tell you.’
It didn’t surprise him. Starting a conversation with the name Carl Hendricks had set the tone, as well as his expectations.
‘I’ve been told not to.’
For a moment he thought he was mistaken about who was on the other end of the line.
‘That doesn’t normally stop you. It must be somebody important who did the telling.’
‘It was. The Chief. He called me himself.’
‘I’m surprised he even knows who I am.’
That got a knowing chuckle from a person with a more realistic understanding of his station in life.
‘He didn’t. Not until Hendricks said he wants to talk to you.’
He wasn’t sure how that made him feel. To be defined by his association with a low-life degenerate like Carl Hendricks. She had something to help him get over it, bring a small ray of sunshine into his life.
‘There’s some good news I can tell you . . .’
‘He’s on death’s door?’
A stunned silence came down the line at him. Then her voice. It made him think of narrowed eyes, a head turned to the side. Craning forwards like a hungry bird watching a worm emerge from its hole.
‘How the hell did you know that?’
It was his turn to be surprised. He kicked back in his chair, went over to the window. Felt like jumping through it, a sudden lightness of heart carrying him away.
‘I didn’t. Just wishful thinking. It’s not a joke, is it?’
‘Not for Hendricks, it isn’t. Pancreatic cancer. Military grade. Late diagnosis, too. He won’t be needing a calendar for next year, not even next week. It’s only the spite in him holding him together.’
‘I wish we were in the Jerusalem Tavern. I’d drink to that.’
Anyone listening-in would’ve been shocked, appalled. But then they didn’t know who Carl Hendricks was, what he’d done. That would’ve had them reaching for their wallets to pay for the drinks.
‘So, he’s about to check out and he wants to see me before he goes?’
‘I know, I can’t believe it either. Who’d want to take your face to the grave with them? Unless it was to prepare them for what waited for them downstairs, of course.’
‘Hot stuff, you mean?’
A well-deserved and long-suffering groan came down the line at him, made him smile as he pictured the amusement on her face she wouldn’t want him to see. He turned away from the window, dropped heavily into his chair again, then swung his feet up onto the desk, hard-bitten PI-style. Admired his shoes as he wasted his breath.
‘At least give me a hint what it’s about.’
‘I can’t, sorry.’
‘Okay. What do I do? Head over to the prison now?’
‘Uh-uh. He’s in the hospital. The brass want to brief you first.’
‘Brief? Tell me what to say, you mean?’
He felt her head shaking all the way down the line.
‘No. To tell you to listen and pay attention. I tried to tell them it wasn’t going to work.’
He ignored the reference to what would—in polite circles—be called his headstrong temperament, said something encouraging.
‘I’ll do my best.’
‘That’s what they’re afraid of.’
‘Are you in the station now?’
‘Uh-huh.’ Starting to get wary.
‘Put Donut on.’
Donut aka Detective Ryder was her long-term partner, his long-time bête noire. Their non-relationship had started badly some years before and gone downhill ever since, the bottom still not in sight.
‘If it’s something really bad, he’ll be happy to tell me what it is.’
Despite the lighthearted tone, he couldn’t do anything to stop the tightening in his gut, the sudden dull ache coming from his ankle as if his bones felt he need to remind him of his shared history with Hendricks.
‘I assume talk means face-to-face, not over the phone?’ Mr. Hopeful said.
‘You got it. He was very clear about that.’
Only one question remained. He asked it even though he already knew the answer.
‘Do I have a choice?’
She worked a lot of reassurance and reasonableness into her voice when she answered. It still rang hollow.
‘Of course you do.’
‘Will anything bad happen to my license if I say thanks, but no thanks?’
The sound of air being sucked through a person’s teeth was the last sound he wanted to hear. That’s what he got, nonetheless, whistling unpleasantly in his ear.
‘What a nasty, suspicious mind you’ve got.’
He held back from suggesting where he might have acquired it, asked the question that marked his reluctant agreement.
‘Three p.m. sharp. Don’t be late.’
‘No problem. If I leave the Jerusalem Tavern at two forty-five . . .’
Any other day he’d have kept the repartee going for a little longer, made her squirm. But he’d heard something in her voice, a suppressed trepidation that lay behind the hard time she’d given him, told him it was important, that a lot was riding on it—whatever it was. She went ahead and proved him right, her voice unusually serious.
‘Try not to antagonize them, okay? It’s not only that the way you act reflects directly on me. I’m used to that. This will have a serious impact on other people’s lives.’
Her words gave him pause for a moment before he stated a very obvious fact.
‘I bet they wish it wasn’t me he wants to talk to.’
‘You have no idea . . .’
He had time to kill before his three o’clock appointment. Anyone who’d ever met him could’ve made a lot of money betting on how he’d spend it.
He floated downstairs in a daze, his restless mind spinning away out of control. Vivid memories that had only recently and reluctantly relinquished their grip on his subconscious mind now came flooding back with a vengeance, intruding on his consciousness. And with them came the sounds and smells and images, of remembered pain and helpless paralyzing fear.
Now he was in his car without being aware of how that event had transpired, driving a route that horrified him. Not because of what awaited him at his destination, but that he should remember the way, that the details he’d thought forgotten, gone forever, were instead simply waiting, biding their time.
And their time was now.
Like the first bars of a song not heard for thirty years, every detail was immediately clear in his mind, as if all he’d done was drive around the block since he last left the godforsaken place.
Except Carl Hendricks’ farm, Beau Terre, was not quite as he remembered it.
The old farmhouse looked as it always had, if a little unloved. The two barns were just the same, what remained of them. Charred timbers pointing at the sky like blackened fingers protruding from the rubble of their collapsed roofs. Half of the tunnel that had connected them to the house had fallen in on itself, the pile of debris that now blocked it having prevented the fire from reaching the house itself. The weeds were bigger and more vigorous, aggressively colonizing every crack and patch of open ground, reclaiming for mother nature what no man wanted.
Except that wasn’t true.
Even as he drove in, he saw that somebody had started to clear the trees that stood to the right of the burned-out barns, a bright yellow backhoe parked off to the side.
He drove around the house, got tucked in behind it, out of sight from the road. His presence would not be welcome here. He sat for a minute in the car with the windows open, the wind coming off the fields whipping through. He’d have sworn he could smell the timbers still smoldering, the smoke scratching at his throat, his mouth suddenly dry.
Big fat raindrops started to fall as he got out of the car, bouncing off the hood with a steady metallic plink. He dashed up the steps onto the back porch, not knowing what he was doing, why he was here. The rockers he’d sat in with Hendricks the first time they’d met were still there, a small table between them, dried leaves under it rustling in the wind. He lowered himself into the nearest rocker, then sat and watched the rain come down.
It was comforting to be so close to the rain but protected from it as it hammered down. It should have been peaceful. Snuggled into the solid old rocker, nothing more than a flex of the toe needed to gently rock back and forth. Except this place wouldn’t ever be peaceful, not for him. Not if peaceful went beyond a lack of traffic noise and the everyday hubbub of too many people crowded onto one small planet, extended to what went on inside.
No man-made structure could protect him from that.
The place had too many memories, all of them bad. Some just less so than others.
And the man at the root of all that misery and pain wanted to talk to him. Had something to say to him before he went to meet his maker, an event that was long overdue in the opinion of any right-minded person.
He couldn’t sit still for long. His mind was too full of what it might be that Hendricks wanted to say to him. And why. Because Hendricks despised him as much as he loathed the man back. With good reason. He was the man responsible for the monster Hendricks spending the last years of his miserable life in prison, housed in a segregated wing for his own safety.
He pushed himself up out of the rocker, tried the back door. Locked. He was surprised it hadn’t been kicked in years ago, or at least the windows broken. Except he wasn’t. The events that had taken place inside were sufficiently horrific to cause children to adhere to their parents’ warnings, to stay away. He could have smashed a window pane himself, broken in. But what was the point? He didn’t need to go inside to re-live the events that had taken place with any more clarity. All he had to do was close his eyes. That was sufficient to bring to mind enough gruesome detail to turn his stomach over once again.
Despite the rain, he came down off the porch, went across the yard towards the burned-out barns. They too held no interest for him, no more than the house itself. Head down against the rain, he bore right, went past them with barely a second look to where the backhoe had been working. The ground had been superficially cleared, starting from the far edge of the property where a low wire fence marked the boundary. A tangled mess of roots and branches had been scraped away and piled up on the side.
Something wasn’t right.
It might have been the effect of the farm itself with all of its unwelcome memories. Or the unexpected and unexplained summons to visit Hendricks on his deathbed that was making his normally suspicious mind more so, making him see things that weren’t there. The tight knot in his stomach suggested otherwise.
He wasn’t an expert on using a backhoe, but even to his untrained eye it looked as if the amount of work done would’ve taken half an hour at most. It wasn’t as if the job was finished, either, barely a dent made in the impenetrable undergrowth that had encroached in the years the property had languished after Hendricks’ incarceration.
He walked up and down the muddy ground, his shoes becoming heavier with each step as the mud clung to them. Guillory’s words came to mind, made him smile.
Try not to antagonize them, okay?
Did walking mud across the Chief of Police’s carpet count as antagonizing?
After a couple of minutes, he climbed up onto the backhoe to get a better view, then slipped into the unlocked cab as the rain intensified. Couldn’t help thinking that life as a backhoe operator had its attractions. Get up, go to work, move a ton of soil from A to B, go home. Repeat on a daily basis. No monsters like Carl Hendricks coming back to haunt you from the past, demanding your unwilling presence.
From the backhoe’s cab it was obvious they’d done more than clear the vegetation that was piled up to the side. They’d dug up the soil and then put it back again. Done their level best to make it look as if they hadn’t, beating the ground flat with the backhoe’s shovel.
Had they found something buried? Something that made them want to immediately re-bury it?
Staring out through the rain-streaked windscreen, he was trying not to think about what that something might have been, trying to ignore the fact that he was on Hendricks’ property, when his phone rang.
He groaned when he saw who was calling.
Even as he answered he knew she wasn’t calling to cancel.
‘The meeting’s been moved up to one p.m.’
He nodded to himself, went for a clarification.
‘Is that the same as, is it okay by you if we move the meeting up a couple of hours?’
‘That’s what I said, wasn’t it?’
‘I hope this isn’t to make sure I don’t have time to go to the Jerusalem first.’
‘Of course not. They’re busy people, that’s all.’
‘Unlike me, you mean?’
A short silence ensued, made him regret the comment, the concern that he’d heard in her voice when she asked him not to antagonize her superiors in his mind once again. She soon recovered.
‘Don’t be so touchy. I bet you haven’t got anything scheduled anyway.’
Now it was his turn to be silent. The last thing he wanted was to admit where he was, what he was doing. She saw it as proof that she’d been right. He wouldn’t have minded—if she’d left it there.
‘Where are you?’
The third silence was the one that did for him. His wasn’t the only mind that had become more suspicious as a result of Carl Hendricks’ unwelcome intrusion into their lives.
Her voice could’ve peeled the yellow paint off the backhoe at fifty yards.
‘Tell me it’s not true.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I need to hear you say the words.’
‘Jesus, Evan. Tell me you aren’t at Hendricks’ farm.’
He considered making a crackling noise into the phone, some hissing, as if the bad weather was interfering with the reception. In the end, he went with something equally implausible.
‘I was passing.’
‘Passing.’ Making it sound as if he’d said he was thinking of buying the place.
‘Uh-huh. You know—’
‘I assume you don’t mean passing as in, pass me my gun so that I can shoot you?’
He admitted no, not that interpretation.
‘What exactly are you doing there, after you happened to be passing?’
He smiled to himself. A nice easy question.
‘I’m sitting in a backhoe.’
That slowed her down a bit, but not by much. She’d known him a long time, after all.
‘Of course you are. And why are you sitting in a backhoe? Considering a new career? I think I’m the only one around here who wouldn’t be in favor of that suggestion.’
‘No. Because it’s raining.’
‘Okay.’ Stretching it out, the sound of a person wishing they hadn’t asked. ‘I’m going to go now. I might not be in the station when you get here.’ Making it sound as if she’d be in the nearest establishment that sold strong liquor. Or banging her head against the wall in the ladies’ room.
The rain had eased by the time the phone went dead in his ear. He jumped down from the cab, made his way back towards the house and his car. He took his time. Earlier, he’d taken only a cursory look through the kitchen window when he found the back door locked. He’d ignored the remains of the barns completely. Thinking about the events of the distant past, how there would be nothing of interest relating to those events after all this time.
Now he was thinking about what might have occurred in the very recent past. Events that might have something to do with his forthcoming interview with Hendricks.
He saw it immediately.
A small shred of yellow and black crime scene tape caught on one of the trees scheduled to be cleared. Ordinarily, there would be more evidence of recent police presence. The bulk of the tape would have been removed, but there would be remnants tied to the trees or the fence posts, left there after a hasty cleanup, a quick tug rather than a meticulous removal.
But here at Hendricks’ farm, there wasn’t a trace apart from one small sliver caught and ripped on a sharp broken branch. It focused his earlier conclusions, channeled them down a route that went some way to explaining Guillory’s reticence to tell him what was going on, her reaction to his presence here now.
It looked as if the backhoe operator had dug something up that necessitated calling the police.
A body was the obvious conclusion. That also fit with being on Carl Hendricks’ land.
But what was it that made them go to the lengths they had to make it look as if nothing had happened at all?