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January 27th, 2009

End Scenic Route

Naomi called at 12:01.

Naomi called at 12:01. She started to apologize, but I told her not to. I know her. She wouldn't call me at home if she didn't have to. And anyway, I wasn't asleep.

"It's bad, Travis," was the next thing she said, and I realized that that apology hadn't been as much an apology as it had been a way to buy time. She was rattled. And that meant it was bad.

"Tell me where," I said. I was already halfway out the door.

"The Sutter place," Naomi said, and there was no one around so I didn't have to hide my wince. The Sutter place hadn't had any Sutters in it since 1992.

"There in ten," I said and hung up. Too much irony in the sheriff killing himself because he's trying to drive and talk on his damn cellphone at the same time.

I realized as I backed the truck out that I felt this weird sense of relief. Another moment, my headlights cutting sharp wedges out of the night, and I figured out why.

I could finally quit waiting for something bad to happen at the Sutter place.

The Sutters had been all over the history of Camber and of Clayton County, but by 1992, there'd just been Paul Sutter and his wife left. Childless, good citizens, donated to local charities, close friends of the mayor, yadda yadda. The sort of people who, if they'd still been around, would've called me Sheriff Villette, with just enough emphasis--not to be impolite, never that, but just enough to show they didn't think I'd ever be able to fill Sheriff Leland's shoes.

But they weren't around anymore. Rosalie Sutter had died in 1990, laryngeal cancer and it'd been ugly, and after that, Paul Sutter had gotten a little . . . odd. I hadn't been here then, but I'd heard about it from Naomi and Ronnie and even from Sheriff Leland one night when he'd had maybe a little too much to drink. Paul Sutter had cut back his hours in his office first--not typical for a realtor, but he was past fifty and plenty wealthy for a widower with no children. But then he closed the office altogether, didn't try to sell it or anything. He let Darlene McCormick go with a severance package so generous that Darlene took a cruise through the Virgin Islands she was still talking about fifteen years later, which is even weirder if you know just how useless Darlene is in an office. He stopped going to football games, quit the bridge club he'd been playing in since before he got married. He stopped going to church. At first, Sheriff Leland told me, he'd talk to people who came to the house, although he wouldn't explain himself or even agree to the suggestion that there was anything wrong. But those conversations got shorter and shorter, and then he'd stopped answering the door. "And what could I do?" Sheriff Leland had said blearily. "Ain't no crime to prefer your own company, and he'd show himself at the window if I hollered long enough. He swore he was fine, he'd got food laid in, and all he wanted was for the whole damn town to leave him alone. So I did what he wanted. I left him alone." It was mid-September 1992, a year and a half after Rosalie Sutter's death, when Ronnie remarked to the sheriff that it sure had beeen a long time since anyone had sighted Paul Sutter, and how much food could he have stored in his house anyway? They went to the house, got no answer no matter how much they knocked and hollered, finally broke the door down. They found Paul Sutter in the bedroom, lying in his bed as tidy as if Peabody and Hamms the undertakers had laid him out themselves. Doc Gordon's best guess was that he'd starved to death three months previously.

So that was the Sutter place. Nobody'd been able to shift it, so it just sat there year after year, getting more rundown and overgrown--more and more the sort of place where bad things happened. The locals said it was haunted, of course, but it wasn't that, even though I knew why they said it--why no one would buy it, even out-of-towners who'd never heard of Paul Sutter. It just felt wrong, the way some places just do. And those are the places where the dark gets in.

Naomi was waiting for me at the foot of the driveway. She looked as rattled as she'd sounded, and I thought of the things I'd seen Naomi handle without turning a hair and felt pretty rattled myself.

"It's bad, Travis," she said as I got out of the truck, just like she'd said on the phone.

"Take it from the top," I said. "For starters, what are you doing out here anyway?"

"Mrs. Mitchell," Naomi said. I rolled my eyes, and Naomi snorted in that way she has when she doesn't think she should laugh, and I think we were both glad of a scrap of normality. Mrs. Mitchell spent her life minding other people's business; a good thirty percent of the calls we got in a normal month were Mrs. Mitchell, panting to share the "suspicious" thing she'd just seen.

But Naomi sobered again. "This was a little different, though. She said her neighbor's girl--Lizzie Hewett--saw a light at the Sutter place coming home from a study date, and she was too scared to call herself."

Lizzie Hewett was a sweet-faced high school junior, co-captain of the cross country team. I remembered that she herself preferred to go by Liz.

"So I said I'd swing by. And what with one thing and another, this was the fastest I could get out here. Wasn't no lights, but Lizzie wouldn't make something like that up. So I went up to check." Naomi stopped and hugged herself, as if it were cold.

"And?" I said, as easy as I could.

Naomi opened her mouth, then closed it again, shaking her head. "I thought I could just report it, but I can't. C'mon. Come see for yourself."

So I followed her and her Maglite up the driveway and around to the back of the house, where the sliding glass door was broken. By a tree branch, not by a human being, but it was a completely horrible non-surprise that somebody would see the opportunity and use it.

"That's how they got in," Naomi said.

"They?"

"In a minute, sheriff." Naomi only calls me "sheriff" when she thinks I deserve it--when I'm being stupid or an asshole. So I shut my mouth and followed her some more, careful of the glass.

The rooms were all empty except for the wall-to-wall carpeting that had been plush once-upon-a-time and now just looked ridiculous. And sinister, too, but I told myself not to be stupid--until we got upstairs to the master bedroom, and then I figured I could be as stupid and melodramatic as I wanted, because the blood was fucking everywhere.

The body was in the middle of the room, lying on its back; its arms were crooked up with the hands by the shoulders. There was a fan of blood across the beige carpet, like the poor bastard had staggered in a half-circle before he went down, and then a nauseatingly thick pool under the body's head and shoulders. And then from the fan of blood coming toward where we were standing in the doorway . . .

Footprints.

Human footprints.

Sneakerprints, in point of fact, and not big ones.

And even under all that blood, I could see the body was wearing a letter jacket.

"Oh fuck," I said, because it was Naomi and I didn't have to watch myself, and besides, she'd earned it. It's a mean trick, hanging somebody out to dry by playing it cool, and a lot of law enforcement in Clayton County, I'd learned, was about not being mean.

And Naomi nodded hard, almost like a muscle spasm or something, and said, "Can you tell who it is?"

We both knew all the kids at Clayton County High School by sight, but it was hard to match any of that up with this kid with his throat ripped out and blood as thick as paint on his face. I thought for a moment about going closer, but then I gave myself a good hard mental smack and got out my phone. "We'll find out soon enough," I said. I had Doc Gordon on autodial.

Me and Naomi and Ronnie are all the law there is in Clayton County, and we go to those continuing education conferences and learn what we can about crime scenes and forensics and what to do and what not to do, which pretty much boils down to "take pictures of everything ever" and "don't touch anything with your bare hands even so." Ronnie's good with the camera--and it helps, me and Naomi and Ronnie being all the law there is in Clayton County, for there to be something that's Ronnie's special purview, instead of me and Naomi doing it all faster and better and smarter--so I called him, too, and he took pictures and Doc Gordon took samples or specimens or whatever you call it, and Naomi and I measured the fuck out of those footprints. Either a girl or a younger boy, and whoever it was, they'd stopped and wiped their feet before they left the bedroom, which suggested a degree of cool-headedness that made both Naomi and me highly unhappy.

And then Doc Gordon sighed and straightened up and said, "Sheriff?"

"Whatcha got?"

Doc Gordon's mid-fifties, skinny and balding and kind of lawyerish to look at, but he was the guy took the bullet out of my leg the time Chip Priddy got liquored up and shot the hell out of his ex-wife's Datsun, and I couldn't have asked for anybody better. He said, "It's Vernon Weatherbee."

And Naomi and I looked at each other and we didn't need to say it. Because along with the horror and the tragedy and the fucked-uppedness of it all, we now had Marion Weatherbee to deal with, and that was enough to strip anybody's gears.

So when we were done with the Sutter place and what was left of Vernon Weatherbee, Naomi went to notify Dale and Marion Weatherbee--I leave bad news to her as much as I can, because she's better at it, and she takes it out in trade by making me babysit the drunks at Homecoming--and I went the other, back to the department to drink coffee and and write this all out and wait for morning so I can go down to Clayton County High School and start asking questions.
End Scenic Route

Naomi came in at quarter of seven and went straight for the coffee.

Naomi came in at quarter of seven and went straight for the coffee. I didn't need to ask if it'd been bad, but I had to give her an opening, so I said, "Doc Gordon was right?"

"Oh fuck yes, Doc Gordon was right," Naomi said immediately, like tapping a keg that was ready to blow. "Vernon never came home last night, and they just figured his girlfriend was lying to them about it."

"Nice," I said. "Girlfriend?"

"Yeah. Fuck." She put about half the sugar bowl in her coffee and began grimly opening creamers, one after another. Naomi took her coffee black. "Peggy Marie Procnow."

"Oh jeez," I said helplessly, because Peggy Marie was one of the town Good Girls and seriously the last thing we needed to add to the mess on our plate. "You think she's our footprint girl?"

"No, I fucking well do not," Naomi said. "I cannot see Peggy Marie setting one foot on Sutter property, no matter what Vernon promised her."

"But the Weatherbees thought she'd lie to them," I said, as if I didn't know what kind of a horror Marion Weatherbee was and the things she'd accused adults of with less reason. My personal feeling was that Marion needed a therapist, if not some very heavy drugs, but it wasn't like anybody was asking for my advice.

Naomi turned around expressly to roll her eyes at me. "Don't be a dumbass, sheriff." And then her face changed. "You skinny piece of shit."

I grinned at her. "Count your creamers, Naomi."

She turned back, looked at the devastation, and cracked up.

"I'd give you hazard pay if I could," I said.

"And I have earned it," she said. "You know, I don't think I can drink this."

"I don't think you should try. Did the Weatherbees tell you anything helpful?"

She sighed, and her shoulders slumped. "Well, Dale knew about the door being broken. He was going to go fix it this weekend."

Every landlord in town had Dale Weatherbee as their maintenance man; he did it on the side of running the hardware store.

"So Vernon knew."

"Yeah. Dale says Vernon knew." She poured a fresh cup of coffee, put nothing in it, and came and sat down on the other side of the desk.

"So Vernon was cheating on Peggy Marie."

"That's kind of how I figure it," Naomi said. "But, you know, we don't know that. For that matter, we don't know he's dating Peggy Marie." She raised an eyebrow at me. The complicated social life of Naomi's teenage son had carried us through more than one drive across Clayton County, and I understood what she meant.

"Well," I said, "I guess I know where to start, then."
End Scenic Route

(no subject)

Oh god I need a drink.

Or food.  Food would do.
End Scenic Route

(no subject)

So my first interview was with Peggy Marie Procnow, and I did that horrible thing they always do on TV shows, where I didn't tell anybody why I was there, just to send me Peggy Marie when she got to school.

She was white around the eyes when she showed up (7:30, plenty of time before the first bell), like I was every monster she'd ever imagined being under her bed. Which was pretty much what I expected. All teenagers have a persecution complex, and about three-quarters of the time, they're right.

Peggy Marie always looks to me like she should be modeling for Aryan Youth posters: tall and blonde, with those orthodontically perfect white teeth and bright blue eyes. And she's one of those girls who just radiates, I don't know, health or something. I hope for her sake high school isn't her glory days, but I'll understand what happened if it is.

"Good morning, Peggy Marie," I said. "Sit down, please."

She sat, on the very edge of the chair, and stared at me like a rabbit.

"You're not in any trouble, honey. I just need to ask you about Vernon Weatherbee."

And I watched her face. She was as transparent as a window pane, and I knew right off that she hadn't had anything to do with Vernon Weatherbee's death. Which I hadn't thought she had, but I'd been wrong about stranger things.

"Did Mrs. Weatherbee make you come down here?" she said, and she was indignant, but also upset. "Because I swear I wasn't lying, Sheriff. I didn't see Vernon at all after school yesterday."

"But you're dating?"

She made a face. "Sometimes. Sort of? I mean, I like Vernon and all, but . . ."

"But?"

"Vernon says he doesn't want to be 'married.'" And her air-quotes were sarcastic and hurt, both mocking Vernon and full of the memory of being mocked. "So sometimes we're dating and sometimes we're not."

"Depending on what Vernon wants, huh?"

"Oh god." Her face crumpled for a second, the toddler Peggy Marie shining through the teenager, but then she pulled herself up. "But why are you asking about Vernon? Is something wrong? Did he get hurt?"

"I'm sorry," I said, and I glanced for a second at Linda Hogan, the principal's secretary, who'd ponied up to play witness that I wasn't sexually harassing Peggy Marie or something. "Vernon died last night."

Peggy Marie didn't take it in at first; then I saw all that healthy color start draining out of her face. "Dead? Was it . . . was it a car accident? I know he drives that Camaro way too fast."

"No, I'm sorry," I said, and I don't know if it says something about me or something about the job, but I was breaking the news of her boyfriend's death to a sixteen year old girl, and what I wanted most was to be able to write a note to myself about Vernon Weatherbee's Camaro. Because where the fuck was it?

"He didn't kill himself," Peggy Marie said; there were tears in her eyes, and her voice wobbled hard, but she was adamant. "Vernon Weatherbee did not kill himself."

"No, ma'am," I said, because she'd earned a ma'am from me. "He didn't."

As Peggy Marie started to cry for real, Linda Hogan got up and came around to her, and gave me a look that wanted to lay me out like roadkill. "That wasn't a nice thing to do, Sheriff."

"I know," I said. "But I needed to talk to her before she started crying."

Peggy Marie gulped hard and said, "You can talk to me now. I mean, what happened? Or is it like on TV where you can't tell anybody?"

"For now," I said, "I really can't tell you the details. I'm sorry." Because if Peggy Marie hadn't been our footprint girl, that girl was still out there, and my job would be about a thousand times easier if she didn't know we were looking for her.

She nodded and gulped again and said, "Mrs. Hogan, I'm sorry, but could you get me a kleenex?"

"Of course, honey," Mrs. Hogan said, with another death-glare at me.

Peggy Marie was still trying to hold it together; there was more iron in her than I'd expected. She sniffed hard and said, "Can I help somehow? I mean, do you need to know . . ." Her voice squeaked off into nothing; she took a deep breath and brought it down again. "Is there stuff you need to know?" And I guess my face showed just how dubious I was, because she said, "I mean it," and she sounded like she really did.

"Okay," I said. "If you didn't see Vernon after school yesterday, who would've?"

And god bless her, she told me. Mrs. Hogan came back and handed her a box of kleenex (and said acidly to me that the principal wanted to know when she could make the necessary announcement or did they need to get me a copy of the Freedom of Information Act first?), and Peggy Marie blew her nose and gave me the rundown of Vernon Weatherbee's friends. She got the hiccups halfway through, but she stayed the course.

So I spent the rest of the morning interviewing football players. People make jokes about growth hormones in the milk, but sweet merciful Jesus on stilts, I'm not sure it's a joke anymore.

I didn't find anyone who'd admit to seeing Vernon after football practice was over, around five-thirty, but Howard Pulaski gave me a good description of Vernon's car (and confirmed that, yes, he was driving it yesterday--trust a car nut), and Freddy Carmody, who was the only one of the bunch man enough not to care that I could see he was crying, told me the names of some of the girls Vernon "hung around with."

"I don't want to get anyone in trouble, Sheriff," he said, taking a kleenex from the box I pushed across the table at him.

"The only person who's in any kind of trouble is the person who killed Vernon," I said. "And we don't know who that person is. Don't have the first idea."

Freddy Carmody's smarter than you'd think to look at him; he's going to get to college on football, the way most African-American boys in Clayton County have to, and then I don't think he's ever going to look back. I don't blame him. He understood what I was telling him, that I wasn't on a witch hunt, and that being one of Vernon Weatherbee's girlfriends didn't make anybody a murderer. So he said, "Vernon had a lot of friends who were girls, and he'd go to movies and stuff, but I don't think he was dating anyone but Peggy Marie." And he gave me three or four names, and then he stopped and rubbed his face and looked at me again. "And I saw him once or twice with Alma Finnister, but I don't know what that was all about."

"Alma Finnister?" I said, sorting through my head to find a face to put with the name.

"Yeah, you know," said Freddy Carmody. "Crazy home-schooled Alma Finnister."

"Right," I said. "I'd forgotten she was starting at CCHS this year."

"Oh yeah," said Freddy Carmody, and that was all I got out of him about Alma Finnister.
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(no subject)

I had to fight with myself about it, but I sent Ronnie to look for Vernon Weatherbee's Camaro. Honestly, I wouldn't trust Ronnie to question a can of tuna, much less a teenager.

So I got to go back to the high school. Lucky me.

The morning was football players. The afternoon was a mix of cheerleaders and girls from Vernon's AP classes. Where the boys had all been closed off and trying not to show any emotion, the girls tended to start crying before they sat down. And Peggy Marie was the only one who I'm sure wasn't using it to keep from having to talk to me. The rest of them, I can't tell.

But around the weeping, I got what I think is a pretty clear picture. Vernon was fun to hang out with. He was funny and he had a car and he had plenty of spending money (working afternoons and weekends in his dad's hardware store) which he didn't mind sharing. And Freddy Carmody was right. None of these girls had gone on dates with Vernon. They'd just hung out with him. Most of them thought he was kind of an asshole for the way he treated Peggy Marie, although nobody came out and said so, and I got the picture, a piece here and a piece there, that Vernon had been an asshole in other ways, that sometimes when he was funny, it was at other people's expense. Not that that's anything unusual for teenagers.

Nobody mentioned Alma Finnister, and she was the last person I talked to. Partly because she was the piece that didn't fit--the anomaly in the picture of Vernon Weatherbee I was building--and partly because, being the anomaly, she was my best candidate for those footprints, and I wanted her off balance.

Ganging up with myself against a teenage girl. I'm a real prince.

And boy, you could write a book on the ways Alma Finnister didn't fit. CCHS students aren't a real eclectic bunch. Oh, there's some kids who wear black and some kids who wear flannel, but mostly it's t-shirts and jeans, polo shirts and chinos, and the girls wear kicky skirts when they feel like it. Alma Finnister was wearing a dress. A calf-length floral print dress that looked like she'd borrowed it from her maiden aunt librarian if she had one. She was skinny, with bad posture and a bad complexion; her hair was mouse-brown, straight headed towards lank, and she had it pinned off her face with two barrettes like a girl about half her age. I don't know what color her eyes are, because she never once looked anywhere near my face.

And she lied.

She was a bad liar, and she was obviously scared out of her wits, but she had one thing going for her: she was stubborn as a mule. Her position was, she didn't know Vernon Weatherbee and she certainly hadn't seen him at all yesterday, and she stuck to it, even though she knew I knew it wasn't true.

And I didn't feel like getting out the rubber hoses and the bright lights, not least because Linda Hogan was still giving me the stink-eye. So after we'd been around the thing like a damn maypole three or four times, I let her go and went to find out how Ronnie was doing. Because really, she told me everything I needed with that lie. She did know Vernon Weatherbee, and she had seen him yesterday, but to get more than that--and to get something that wasn't a proof by opposites--I need some leverage. Which would be that Camaro.

Which, of course, Ronnie hasn't found.
End Scenic Route

(no subject)

Well, it's all over now but the shouting.

And shouting we are going to have a lot of. A whole hell of a lot.

Naomi's on night shift this week--she and Ronnie trade off, because they still tell stories in Camber about Deputy Vincent Hollingsworth, back in the sixties, who was stuck on the night shift for six straight months and went completely batshit crazy. Deputy Hollingsworth came within about six inches of committing the only successful assassination of a public official in Clayton County history, and the first thing Naomi did, as soon as I was officially "Sheriff Villette," was move the filing cabinet so I could see the bullet holes.

"But the thing is," she said, and I've heard it other places, too, "he didn't try to shoot Sheriff Watson for being a sadistic son of a bitch, which he was. He tried to shoot him for being a hole in the world."

"A which in the what?" I said.

She gave me a helpless kind of shrug. "He was shouting it all over the place when they arrested him, and then at the trial, and then out at Mattichitaw until he died in '85." Naomi's Aunt Loula is still a nurse out at Mattichitaw Mental Hospital, so I figured I knew what her sources were. "A hole in the world. Completely crazy." And she shoved the filing cabinet back into place.

So nobody in the Clayton County Sheriff's Department ever works nights for more than a month at a stretch. But sometimes I kind of wonder if Deputy Hollingsworth felt about Sheriff Watson the way I feel about the Sutter place. I've never met a person who made me feel that way, but that doesn't mean such a person couldn't exist. And I've heard other stories about Sheriff Watson--about whom the nicest thing anyone has ever said was that he was a member in good standing of the KKK--and he sure sounds like a walking talking version of the Sutter place, like nothing good could ever survive near him.

Don't mind me. I get a little crazy myself sometimes.

I waited until Naomi came on duty--did paperwork and all the other ordinary shit that piles up while you aren't watching--and then gave her the rundown of what I'd learned.

"You think it's the Finnister girl," she said.

"Yeah. She's the only one I know for a fact was lying. And she was the only one who was scared."

"Oh she was not."

"Okay, okay. But she was the only one who was that scared."

Naomi nodded reluctantly. "So what do you want to do?"

"Well, Ronnie didn't find the Camaro anywhere, and Ronnie's thorough."

"Is that what we're calling it today?" Naomi muttered, but she flapped a hand at me, about half apologetically, to go on.

"So we know it's nowhere near the Sutter place, and we know it's not anywhere obvious. Because face it, a bright red 2002 Camaro is going to be hard to miss in Camber."

"Okay," said Naomi. "I'm with you that far."

"So somebody hid it. Either Vernon or our footprint girl, and I'm thinking it wasn't Vernon or we'd've found it in the Sutters' driveway. So I want to cruise by Alma Finnister's house and take a look."

"Is this the we-need-a-warrant kind of look, sheriff?"

"Well, that's why you're coming with me, Naomi," I said. "So you can testify it isn't."

"And if you don't spot the Camaro?"

"Then we think of some damn thing else," I said. "Come on."

The Finnisters lived across town from the Sutter place, meaning about a five minute drive. Aside from the home schooling thing--which most people took as an insult to the Clayton County Schools--there was nothing particularly crazy about Gordon and Dolores Finnister. They were devout Christians of a somewhat fundamentalist stripe, and the worst you had to worry about from them was getting pinned down and harangued about "Christian education." I was pretty sure that neither of them had grown up in the kind of restricted environment they were inflicting on their daughters--Alma had two younger sisters, Lois and Carol--but that's not legally child abuse, no matter what I think about it.

I turned left on Bucknell, and Naomi shot me a look. "Finnisters live on Bolt."

"And their house backs on Chester. Along the ravine."

"Oh," said Naomi. There's a good stretch of Chester Road with no houses--ravine on one side and the ugly ass-end of the industrial park on the other. In the summers, kids go there to make out and smoke pot, but in January, it's not somplace anybody wants to be. It's where I'd hide a car if I had to, and for Alma Finnister, it had the advantage that she could walk home with nobody the wiser.

We were about two lots down from the Finnisters' backyard when Naomi said, "Holy shit."

I braked and pulled over. Another second and I saw what she'd seen--a glint of red down among the scrub trees. We got out and went to the head of the slope.

Bright red 2002 Camaro. Vernon Weatherbee's license plate and a bumper sticker that said GO CLAYTON COUGARS!

I looked at Naomi. Naomi looked at me. We started down.

There was blood on the steering wheel, blood on the gearshift, blood on the driver's door, bloody smudges of fingerprints on the rearview mirror. And a stupid bobble-headed football player on the dashboard with Vernon Weatherbee's number painted on it in what looked like nail-polish.

"Jesus," Naomi said under her breath. "Jesus."

There wasn't much else to say. We hiked back to the car, took Chester to Ford, Ford to Bolt. Parked in front of the Finnisters' house. Nice enough house, no uglier than three-quarters of the houses in town. And the yard was immaculate. No children's toys, certainly no swing-set. Just winter-yellow grass and bushes waiting for spring, and a stupid concrete cherub in the flower bed by the door.

I rang the bell. Naomi stood back a little. Moral support and also just in case anybody did anything dumb.

Dolores Finnister opened the door.

"Mrs. Finnister," I said, hating every word. "I need to speak to Alma, please." And seeing Alma coming into the hall behind her mother, I added, "It's about a Camaro."

Alma Finnister went a horrible color, and her hands came up to her face. "I kept hoping it was a dream," she said, barely loud enough that any of us could hear her, and then she started to cry.

That was when the shouting started, and it's not done yet. I had to tell the Finnisters which lawyer to call--there's more than one that does criminal work in Clayton County, and more than one that does juvenile, but the only one I'd trust to hold a baby is Eli Chilcoate, and he has to drive in from Sparta. I just saw his car pull up, and in a minute, we'll go back to our so-called "conference room," and see if Alma Finnister can tell us what happened to Vernon Weatherbee last night.
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(no subject)

When Sheriff Leland died, his widow came to clear all his junk out of the office. I'd always liked Ruth Leland, in that way you like somebody you don't see often and never get to talk to much. She was an outsider like me--Sheriff Leland had met her at Texas A&M, and then they had one of those weird twenty-year-reunion courtships that led to her moving to Camber and marrying him. They had about ten years before the heart attack got him, which in some ways of looking at it is a lot of time, and in other ways, no time at all. She left Camber as soon after the funeral as she could, so the day she came to box up his personal stuff was the last time I saw her.

She didn't say much--she never did--but when she'd packed up the photos and the diplomas and certificates, she came over to the desk and touched the little statuette of Justice, with her blindfold and her scales, that Sheriff Leland had kept next to the phone. Mrs. Leland said, "Will you keep this?"

It was a funny way of putting it, not Would you like this? or even I think he'd like you to have this, just a simple, factual, yes or no question. And it's what I always think of when I remember Mrs. Leland.

I said yes, and Blind Justice is still right where Sheriff Leland put her. I'm looking at her now, and I'm thinking she's lucky to have that blindfold on. And I'm talking about her because it's saving me from talking about Alma Finnister, which is a pretty cheap and obvious ploy there, Travis. Cowboy up and get it down.

You know, I would've felt better if she'd been angry. Or if she'd been stubborn, the way she was this afternoon. But she wasn't. Alma Finnister was grateful. Because we were the adults. We could make it okay again.

Eli wasn't happy about it, but he couldn't keep her from talking. Couldn't keep her from confessing, and although I knew her parents weren't the Catholic type of Christian nut, there was something religious about the way Alma Finnister insisted on telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. She kept her hands folded in her lap and her eyes fixed on the wall just above the door, like every picture I've ever seen of Joan of Arc.

In a funny way, the hardest part for her to admit was the part that wasn't about Vernon Weatherbee with his throat ripped out: why was she in the Sutter house with him in the first place? She went an ugly red that made her acne stand out in magenta and fucsia, but she said, "He was my boyfriend."

"Everybody we've talked to says he was Peggy Marie Procnow's boyfriend," I said.

"He was my secret boyfriend," she said, and any other teenage girl would have rolled her eyes. "Mama and Daddy would have a fit if they knew I was even talking to a boy."

"And Peggy Marie?"

"Vernon said he couldn't hurt her by breaking up with her. He said when he graduated, he'd just let it die off. But he promised he'd write to me. Every week."

"Uh-huh," I said, and I guess I let too much of how I was really feeling into my voice, because she flared up like the Fourth of July.

"He did! He promised!"

"And that's why you were in the Sutter house," I said.

"Sheriff," Eli said.

But Alma was already talking. "We had to. There wasn't anywhere we could meet where somebody wouldn't see. And Vernon said it was okay because his father was going to fix the door on Saturday, so we were only sort of borrowing it. And we weren't going to damage anything. We just wanted to be alone."

"Vernon talked you into it," I translated.

That knocked a big dent in Joan of Arc, but she looked down at the table and nodded.

"Okay, honey," I said, because really, a little breaking and entering was the least of anybody's problems here. "Just tell us what happened."

"Well, we got in," she said. "Vernon had a flashlight and we looked around a little. It was really creepy, but it was kind of neat, too. So we sat in what we thought was the bedroom and we talked for a little. And then, um, Vernon kissed me. And I kissed him back." She lifted her chin, like Joan of Arc waiting for somebody to light the fire.

I thought some very nasty things about "Christian education," but I kept my voice gentle when I said, "Then what happened?"

I guess part of me had been hoping, even then, that she'd say, "then a one-armed man jumped through the window" or "then Vernon pulled out his Leatherman and started sawing." But she frowned, unhappy and puzzled and sick, and said, "I don't know. I just got so hungry."

"Alma," Eli said, and he was visibly alarmed, which is something you never want in a lawyer.

"I don't know!" Alma said. "I really don't. I was just so hungry," and she sounded dazed by it, even now. "So hungry and so angry, and then there was blood, there was blood everywhere, and Vernon was in the middle of it and he wasn't moving." Her voice rose and rose, and then she was crying, like Peggy Marie had been crying that morning.

I went out into the hallway; after a couple minutes, Eli came out to fetch Alma a Dixie cup of water.

"Insanity?" I said.

"What else can it be?" Eli said and went back in.

And that's the question, isn't it? The question I'm sitting here asking Lady Justice. Naomi came back from getting the Camaro photograhed and dragged out of the ravine, and she said, "You know, laryngeal cancer is a hell of a way to go."

"Hunger," I said.

"And, well, you know the stories, don't you?"

"Which stories?"

"About Darlene McCormick's 'severance package,'" Naomi said, with the most eloquent air-quotes I've ever seen.

It took a moment for the pieces to click together, and I felt my eyes go wide. "You mean . . ."

"Oh yeah," Naomi said. "And the way I heard it, Mrs. Sutter knew."

"That can't have made her very happy," I said and winced when my voice squeaked.

"Mrs. Sutter wasn't a very forgiving woman at the best of times."

"Hungry and angry," I said, echoing Alma Finnister.

"Not that Alma Finnister didn't have good reason to be angry at Vernon Weatherbee, but apparently she wasn't."

"No," I said. "She wasn't."

"But maybe," Naomi said softly, "Mrs. Sutter was."

I had a chill go straight up my spine like a cramp. "Naomi, you realize what we're talking about here is crazy."

"Crazier than a girl tearing her boyfriend's throat out with her teeth? Crazier than a man starving himself to death with a full pantry?" She shook her head. "I gotta go tour the county roads, Travis. You go home and get some sleep."

But I'm still sitting here thinking about Paul Sutter and Vincent Hollingsworth and holes in the world. And what do you do about justice when every version of the truth is crazier than the last? How do you make it okay? How do you do your job, Sheriff Villette?

Naomi was right. I need to go home. But I don't think I'm going to get much sleep.