What Lies on the Mind

The fog rose off the lake like puffs of smoke blown into the atmosphere. Heavy drops beat down the humidity that tried to creep up from the soil. It didn’t have much of a fighting chance. Autumn gave up on its lie of better days to come with each dying leaf.

The breeze was dank against his skin, the bones in his knuckles aching from the morning dampness. His momma had been able to predict rainfall with an uncanny certainty. “Rain’s a comin’,” she’d say, never blinking as she rubbed her hands together, like she was trying to scrub off the years’ worth of calluses. “My arthritis is startin’ to act up. It’ll be here for long, you watch and see.” It wouldn’t take a half hour before the Lord would prove her right.

He stood on the wraparound porch, overlooking the dock he’d built with his bare hands and the shimmering paleness that stretched for hundreds of acres through the evergreens and around the crooks and bends in the protected woodland, named after Daniel Boone. The warm cotton from his uniform pants and long shirtsleeves, coupled with the steam rising off black coffee, made quiet times on the back porch cherished gems in the rough of his days.

Thunder broke through the rain and fog like an angry voice from the past, tired of letting him have his hour of peace. He didn’t bother to jump at the sound. He’d expected as much to come sooner or later, as if his momma was whispering a countdown in the back of his head.

He didn’t budge from the banister when the phone rang in the cabin. This was his time to think before whatever hell waited for him outside opened its arms to show him its handiwork for the day. Besides, he knew that a call this early wouldn’t be any good, and there was no sense in wasting any time with the awkwardness of one of his deputies trying to search for the right words to explain what had happened. He figured they could break the news quicker to a machine.

The answering service clicked on, and his wife’s voice started to recite the message she’d recorded years ago. “Hello, you’ve gotten caught in the Webb’s answering machine. We’re sorry to say that we’re not available right now. Please leave your name and number, and we’ll try to free you as soon as we can.”

He wasn’t a damn bit sorry for not being available, but his ears perked up anyhow to listen to whoever was aimed at pestering him at this morning hour.

“Uh, hey Sheriff Webb—this is your deputy—Jamie. We’ve got a car accident over on Highway 25—close to your place, I reckon. The car’s wrecked up pretty bad. Head toward town and you’ll find it. Anyway, I’m headed over there now. I guess I’ll see you at the scene, boss.”

The Sheriff threw back the last gulp from his mug while it was still close to hot. He held the coffee in his mouth for a few seconds while he stared out at the mist and the clouds and the darkness hanging over the speckled lake. He shook his head and turned toward the screen door.

He moved through the house as if he was a stranger to its way of life, only stopping at the places where he knew there was something of his to take. He grabbed his keys from the wooden table in the hallway, and fetched his raincoat and Clover County Sheriff’s Department cap from the coat rack beside the front door. Once he had these items, he turned to look at the lonely cabin behind him—a place that missed all the livelier parts of a life that no longer existed.

Sheriff Webb climbed into his Ford Crown Vic and looked over at his little Ranger pickup. There was a twinge of sadness that leapt up inside his throat every time he was called away from it—not because of what it was, but more likely what it represented. The pickup had known all the better times that he remembered. The youngest part of him felt sorry that his old friend had to stay home and endure the loneliness alone.

The cruiser rolled over the dirt and grass of the yard until the four rubbers crunched onto the gravel. The rock path snaked and arched through the woods of the holler until the nose of the Ford peeked its headlights onto the winding blacktop of the main roadway. Sheriff Webb stopped at the intersection, thinking about what he might find at the bend up ahead.

Once he straightened the car onto 25, his eyes drifted past the fields near the roadside, where the grass looked as if it had a few drops of life remaining in the dirt below. The faded green reminded him of the apron Jean liked to wear when she tended her garden—the emerald dye had bled out over the decades of repeated washings. He hadn’t had the energy to keep up what she’d planted this year—just another way he’d failed her as a husband, and as a man.

The Sheriff settled his gaze upon the hills at the ridgeline, the maples and oaks showing off their burnt oranges and fiery reds, pieces of the dying sprinkled over the last of the living. Both his wife and daughter had been born in the fall, and he figured that explained their love for the season. He’d always thought pumpkin pies and turkey salad were the only good in these months—but that was only because Jean and Marilyn had made both of those things.

Every phone call that rang into the office, or to his home, made him fear the worst. His mind wanted to always ready him for the looming truth that his baby girl was gone and she wouldn’t be coming back. Marilyn had forever been wild and free, but she loved him and her mother more than anything else he knew about. She never would’ve just left without as much as a note as to where she was headed. But that’s what had happened and he couldn’t explain it.

He knew that Marilyn leaving had something to do with her husband. That seems to always be the case. Just as the lack of sunlight and the cold kills most of the leaves in the trees, he was sure that Bill Sexton Jr. was the cause behind his daughter’s disappearance. Jean thought as much, too. Once the idea had taken root in her brain, it was a thought that couldn’t be dug out without damaging the nerve endings. He reckoned that’s what brought on the aneurysm.

The car crash didn’t take long to sneak up on him. The flashing lights from the police cruisers caught his eyes first, like the bright beacons the carnies used to lure all the country kids out of the woods during the county fair. Somehow he had to remind himself that those red and blue spinners didn’t go with happy. He didn’t hear the ambulance sirens yet, so maybe he had time. His deputies had already taped off the space where the vehicles had gone off the pavement.

From the looks of things, he knew that one of the cars had forced the other into the embankment against its will. Such truths end up being evident after one has seen them enough. He pulled his Ford behind the other two cruisers and cut off the engine. He could already smell the burnt rubber and smoke, as thick as the rain clouds overhead, and flooding the interior of his Crown Vic. He imagined it to smell like Los Angeles smog, but he couldn’t be sure.

When the Sheriff wandered over to the mess of metal that lay in the mud with the wet leaves, he could hear his deputies, Jamie and Boyd, chatting while they circled the wrecked vehicles. A black Ranger pickup sat with its nose planted in the hillside like it was growing there, and a white Chevy S-10 turned over next to it—the side of its bed crumpled.

“Did you watch the Kentucky game last night?” Jamie asked, shining his flashlight inside the black pickup. Boyd did the same thing on the passenger’s side of the truck.

“Nah—I didn’t reckon there was much to watch this year. How’d they do?”

“Not bad, actually. They got a couple homegrown boys this season to go along with some of their upperclassmen. If Tubby can manage them, they might get back to the Final Four.”

“They still got that boy from out in California—Compton, I think it was?”

“Yep, he had a hell of a game last night. I mean—they weren’t playing nobody worth bragging about, but he had a double-double by halftime. He had over twenty at the final buzzer.”

“They’re gonna need him to put up those kind of numbers every game, if they’re gonna have a chance. My brother played with that California kid at a basketball camp. He said he caught the ball on a fast break and jumped over top a high school boy that tried to take a charge.”

“You two gonna tell me what the hell happened here, or should I wait for the play-by-play from Monday Night Football, too?” Sheriff Webb asked, staring daggers at his deputies.

“Oh shit—sorry, boss,” Jamie said, whipping around from the driver window.

“Sorry, Sheriff,” Boyd echoed, walking around the back end of the open tailgate. “Driver of this here pickup is deader than a doornail. He was gone before we got here. We were just checking for dope or booze until the medical team pulls him outta that cab.”

“And where is the ambulance, exactly? It has been called, right? A passerby rubber neckin’ usually gets it called in before we even have a chance to pick up the phone.”

“Yes sir, it’s been called in,” Jamie confirmed. “Both of the ambulances were already out this morning on two other car wrecks. A woman on the Owsley line had some bad luck—hit two deer, and a man over close to Clay County fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a creek bed.”

“Who’s inside this one? I don’t think I knowed of another black Ranger in the county.”

“Just a youngun, Sheriff—Nathan Isaacs. He was a senior— worked at Bob Sexton’s gas station. I don’t guess he had the pickup very long. I’ve only seen him driving it a few times.”

“That’s a terrible shame. He came from a good family. His daddy pastors a church over in East Bernstadt, I reckon. I’ve knowed his folks since we were younguns ourselves. I hate to have to lay this kind of grief on their hearts. They sure won’t forgive me for it any time soon.”

“I guess you can guess whose S-10 that is,” Jamie said, nodding to the white pickup lying up on its passenger side. “You have to hand it to him—he knows how to find trouble.”

“That Harold’s truck?” the Sheriff asked, knowing the answer. Jamie and Boyd nodded back at him. He sighed and shook his head at their confirmation. “Where is he? Is he alright?”

“He looks no worse than usual, Sheriff,” Boyd replied. “He might have a concussion. He says he needs to speak with you in private—about matters not meant for our ears.”

On the other side of the police cruisers, sitting closer to the highway than most men would feel comfortable with, sat Harold Collins, squatted like a youngun in kindergarten class, legs tucked up under his tail. When Sheriff Webb got closer to the man next to the road, Harold’s eyes popped open like
a tripwire had been snagged by the Sheriff’s britches leg. This stopped Sheriff Webb in his own tracks, and he looked Harold over with more caution than care.

“You okay, Harold?” he asked, looking him up and down. “Anything broken?”

“I’ll live, Ansil,” he answered, keeping his stare fixed. “I shouldn’t have lived, God Almighty knows that better than anyone—the way that boy was driving. He came around that curve like a bat out of Hell—never even braked once as far as I could tell. I’m lucky he hit the truck bed instead of my driver door, or you and I wouldn’t be having this talk now.”

“I have to ask, Harold. Have you been drinkin’? You know how this is gonna look.”

“Ansil—you know there ain’t many a day that goes by without me taking a drink. But, as it happens, I ran out last night, and I woke up with a craving for some biscuits and gravy. I was on my way over to Marlene’s Place to get me a bite to eat when Evil Knievel knocked me over.”

“My deputies say you wanted to talk to me in private? Well—here I am. What was so important you couldn’t tell them?” Harold blinked twice and lowered his chin to his chest.

“When his pickup hit me, I thought it was gonna blow us both to smithereens. But my S-10 spun sideways and tilted. My seatbelt held me behind the wheel. I knew how hard he must’ve hit the bank after plowing through me. I climbed out and got to him as quick as I could. He wasn’t making any sense, Ansil— death was all over him—gargling with brain trauma.”

“Harold—are you sayin’ that boy was alive when you found him? Did he say any final goodbyes to his folks or anything? Speak as straight as you can to me now.”

“Dammit, Ansil—I’m speaking as plain as white bread. Yes—the boy was alive. But he didn’t say goodbye. What he did mumble—between gurgles and slurring—was simple. ‘Tell Sheriff Webb—it was Bill Jr. I saw him dump them.’ The Lord took him after that breath.”

***

Sheriff Webb sat alone in his Crown Vic, his eyes carving out holes in his dashboard like mice nibbling away at all the plastic between them and anything real. He thought about Harold’s voice and Nathan Isaacs’ words over and over again— words that were uttered in a dying breath. He reckoned that anything worth saying with death sitting beside you ought to be worth saying. Nathan could’ve said anything in that moment, but he chose to pass on a message instead.

The medics were loading Nathan’s body inside the ambulance when Harold started to ease down into the back of Boyd’s cruiser. He’d passed a Breathalyzer blow—maybe the first time since he and the Sheriff had been younguns. Boyd offered to give him a free ride to the hospital, and he’d accepted as long as Boyd would take him to get some biscuits and gravy afterwards. Harold turned and nodded at the Sheriff one last time before he ducked inside.

When both the ambulance and Boyd had driven off, he got out of the police car and approached Jamie, who was still piddling around the wreckage—taking photos and notes.

“So, what did crazy ole Harold have to say?” Jamie asked, as the Sheriff got nearer. Sheriff Webb shook his head and spit a mouthful of tobacco juice into the weeds at the ditch.

“Son—there ain’t one crazy bone in Harold Collins’ body. He’s a professional drunk—I reckon he’s been that ever since comin’ back from the war. That don’t make him a bit crazy.”

“Sorry, boss. I didn’t know Harold was a veteran. Where did he serve?”

“There’s books full of things you don’t know, Jamie. Harold and I grew up together—back when the coal and lumber companies owned anything worth mentionin’ in this county. We both served in Korea and we lived to tell about it. Sometimes I reckon Harold wishes he didn’t come back home a’tall. Jim Beam and the prison are the only company he’s kept for fifty years.”

“Well—you think this here was just an accident? We’ll do a tox screening on Nathan, but we didn’t find any obvious evidence in the truck—not even rolling papers or a pill bottle.”

“The way Harold tells it—Nathan didn’t even bother slowin’ up. His story seems to match the lack of skid marks on the asphalt. Have that Ranger towed to a garage outside the county and inspected for any foul play. You give me the word as soon as you know somethin’.”

“10-4, boss—will do. Whatta you gonna do with the rest of your morning?”

“Well, for starters, I have to drive over to Sharon and Donnie’s home. This mornin’ will likely be the last time I’m welcome to pay them a visit for a good while.”

He turned away from Jamie at that point and took a few steps toward the painted lines on the highway like he might keep on walking plumb across the county. As soon as his Red Wings felt a few pebbles beneath them, he stopped and looked over his shoulder at his deputy.

“Say—tell me somethin’, son. If you got wind that someone had dumped a body, and the informant didn’t tell you where, what would be your best guess?” To his surprise, Jamie didn’t take more than a few seconds to think about it. He sat his camera and notepad down on the open tailgate and jammed his plump hands down into his brown uniform pants.

“Well, boss—dump sounds like water to me, if we’re talking about bodies. Where else would any criminal mastermind think the law wouldn’t find their wrongdoings? I can’t speak for you or Boyd, but I don’t go swimming very often. How come you ask? Are we missing a body?”

“I just had evil on my mind, son. There’s been too much bad goin’ on lately—those McElroy folks gettin’ burnt up last summer; my Marilyn been missin’ now since not long after that fire; Jean’s passin’; and now this Isaacs boy runnin’ off the road for no good reason.”

“Maybe it’s the change of the times, sir—the new millennium and everything. But—as far as dumping bodies goes—there’s only one place in Clover deep enough for that kind of behavior, and your cabin sits right next to it. Who would have such gumption to take a chance?”

“I don’t reckon that anyone desperate enough would be scared off on account of me livin’ next door to the only lake in the county, son. Surely you’ve seen enough stupid movies to know better. Besides, there are a few other entry points I can think of right off top of my head.”

“Well—even so—there ain’t too many places in the lake deep enough that anybody would trust a corpse to not float back into the daylight. You’d have to be near retarded.”

“Or—like I said before—desperate, young man. You add that with a little cockiness, and you’re bound to find yourself more than a handful of common criminals. You get to movin’ on that pickup inspection. Let me know as soon as you get word of anything of interest.”

Sheriff Webb slid down in the Ford cruiser and didn’t waste any time firing the engine back to life. It hummed like the inside of the Sheriff’s brain, which was full of thoughts he wanted to shout to the wind. He was angry and curious and sad—all at the same time. Was there any truth in Nathan Isaacs’ final words? Why would a boy have a lie on his mind before he was about to meet his maker? He didn’t find it sensible to put too much stock in coincidences.

The cruiser’s wheels gripped the grooves on the roadway like bubble gum on the high school sidewalk. Sheriff Webb pushed his boot harder into the accelerator, climbing each small hump in the pavement and lifting his foot to coast into each dip, riding the momentum around the never-ending curves between Nathan’s Ford Ranger and his folks’ place up on Coyote Creek.

His eyes darted from side-to-side, peering into the lightening clouds that hung over top of the mountains as if they were canvas drapes, becoming more transparent as the day unfolded. His jawbone was sore, and when he brought his hand to the side of his cheek, he realized that he was gritting his molars into a fury against one another. Only his less-than-Christian son-in-law could provoke such mindless anger, and he wished he had more than the words of a dead boy.

Bill Sexton Jr. had always been a rich man, and as best as he could figure, that’s all Marilyn ever saw in him. The Sexton family had made their fortune during the Depression, buying and renting all the land and real estate in the county. Only a small piece of the population had been able to afford their own property, and the Sextons preyed on the rest. He could even remember his own family renting from Bill Sr.—before the war and before they built their cabin.

Both Bill Jr. and his brother, Bobby, had been as ruthless as their father ever since they were big enough to wipe their own asses. Bobby went into private business and opened his own full-service gas station. He eventually ran off most of his competitors when he started lending credit to God and everybody under the sun. The wealth and freedom was enough for Bobby.

Bill Jr. wasn’t satisfied with all the money he inherited from his daddy’s sins. He went to college and became an elementary teacher just for show. Marilyn always spoke to him and Jean about Bill Jr.’s aspirations, and how he was aiming his sights higher than school administration. It didn’t take him longer than a few years as a glorified nanny before he used his money to get elected as superintendent. Marilyn disappeared not long after.

Sheriff Webb pulled onto the busted blacktop that ran parallel to Coyote Creek, and slowed his speed to not much more than a cruise. He knew the Isaacs lived at the end of the holler and there were about thirty houses and trailers between the mouth and the five miles that stretched to the mountain bank, each sheltering any number of pre-school younguns itching to scratch a wild hair and run out in the middle of the road. The thought made him slow to a crawl.

Sharon and Donnie’s white house sat at the end of the narrow cul de sac like a pristine government dwelling compared to most of its neighbors, who actually did rely on federal funds to keep the lights on. Donnie was a good man, but you could make the argument that he’d provided for his family with the prayers of others—most of which lived in his neck of the woods. Their older son was off at a Bible college in North Carolina, learning the family business.

The Ford whistled its arrival like a braking train when it pulled to a stop on the short concrete driveway—gears squeaking as it parked beside the Isaacs’ chain-link fence that encased their half-acre of yard. When Sheriff Webb stood up beside his open door, Donnie already waited on the porch, his hands resting inside his blue jeans. He waved his hand like there were hundreds of miles between him and the police car, wondering if he could be seen.

“Hidy, Sheriff,” he called from their black, wrought iron door. “Your deputy said we could be expecting you. You just missed him on the phone. He said he’d call back.”

“Well—that’ll be fine. How are you, Donnie? Everything alright at the church?”

“Oh, just fine and dandy—plenty of good people gathers to worship every Wednesday and Sunday. Lot of good folks in this holler makes the trip. We sure wouldn’t mind seeing you there anytime, Sheriff. We’d be honored to have you join us in fellowship whenever the spirit calls you.” The Sheriff spat the jawful of tobacco into the weeds, before biting his bottom lip.

“Thank ye for the offer, Donnie. I’ll give it some thought. I guess Jamie was the one that gave you a call, was it?” He looked careful across the yard to see what Donnie knew.

“Yeah, I reckon so. He said to tell you he took the pickup to Laurel County. He said he’d have more information for you soon. You want to come over here and have a seat? We got fresh coffee brewing inside. Sharon made a delicious pound cake last night. That sound good to you?”

“Well—I don’t reckon I should stay too long. I’ve got other business to tend to today.”

“Aw, nonsense. At least have a cup of Joe. Sharon—Sheriff Webb’s here. Bring him a cup of coffee, honey. Don’t mind that gate, Sheriff. Come on over here and sit down.”

He lifted the metal latch on the fence and stepped through the gateway onto the sidewalk made from creek rocks. He watched his feet as he took clean steps to avoid snagging his soles on one of the jagged edges sticking out of the concrete holding the family of stones together. He sat down on one of the patio chairs facing Donnie, reluctant to look him square in the eyes.

The iron frame opened and Sharon backed her way through the doorway. “Here you go, Sheriff. Do you take cream or sugar with your coffee?” He shook his head and tried to smile.

“No, ma’am. I like my coffee as black as the night—always have, I reckon. I can’t start addin’ sugar to everything at my age. I’ll have the diabetes quicker than lightnin’ can flash.”

“I thought you’d be a black coffee man. Let me know if it’s not strong enough for you.” He took a careful sip from the mug and the bitterness reminded him of his mission.

“Thank ye for your hospitality, Donnie. Sorry that I didn’t give you any notice.”

“Don’t you worry about it. I’m surprised you had the time to stop by so early. The scanner sure has been busy with those car accidents this morning. This foggy weather might be the worst for anyone getting out on the road—just short of the snow and ice waiting for us.”

He could feel his face tighten where all the lines met one another, and his heart pounded at his chest like a bass drum at a Friday night football game over in London. He waited for the hot liquid to warm his vocal chords, as he searched his mind for how to deliver the awful news.

“That coffee doing the trick, Sheriff?” Sharon asked. She smiled at his distant nod.

“What did you folks hear on the scanner about the car accidents?”

“Oh, nothing much—just the usual facts. One told the make and model of the vehicle that hit the deer over close to Owsley. The last one that came on said there was a fatality—”

Sheriff Webb watched Donnie’s eyes change, his brow drooping to reveal he suspected something that hadn’t been as clear to him before the sun shone on it at just the right angle.

“Just why are you here, Sheriff?” he asked, swallowing a dry gasp of air. He reached over to take Sharon’s hand, and she looked at him with a confused stare like she didn’t understand why he was being so forward in front of company. Pinkness rose to her cheeks and she smiled.

“I’m sorry for not being forthright with you folks. I’m sorry for accepting the invitation to your porch to drink your coffee. The truth is—” Sheriff Webb paused and sat the half-full mug on the iron table. He clasped his hands together like he’d seen his momma do so many times when he was a younger man. His hand reached up to remove his cap and he bowed his head.

“The truth is—I’ve come here today on official business as your Sheriff, and as your neighbor. I’m sorry to tell you that your son, Nathan, passed on this mornin’. His Ranger hit another truck’s bed and plowed into an embankment. I can’t tell you how sorry I am to say this.”

Sharon didn’t say anything. Her face shriveled and her lips curled. Donnie’s eyes got as soggy as the ground beneath the porch. He pulled his wife close to him and squeezed her tight while they whimpered and held one another. The cordless phone began beeping on the table. Neither of them moved to answer it, so he took it upon himself to usher the phone away.

“Isaacs residence,” he answered, walking down from the porch steps.

“Sheriff Webb—this is Jamie. I’m still in London with the pickup. The inspection ain’t finished yet, but there was an easy find. You’re never gonna believe this, Sheriff. Nathan Isaacs’ brake lines were cut—sliced in half like chopped spaghetti. I’d say Nathan had an enemy.”

***

He’d been sitting on his son-in-law’s front porch for nearly two hours when his eyes caught the first glimmer of light that must’ve reflected off one of the many pieces of chrome that adorned the Ford F-250. It slowed at the end of the quarter-mile, blacktop driveway, and he knew that the driver could look across the open field and see him sitting there, rocking back and forth like he was just waiting to catch up and talk about old times.

He followed the rumbling truck with his eyes as it climbed the gradual incline over the little bumps in the pasture. The shiny fiberglass looked as blue as the uniforms the Wildcats wore on the television for away games. He reckoned that Bill Jr. probably paid more for the special paint job—no more than a drop in the bucket compared to what he’s worth. One of the four garage doors opened—the one near the house—and the truck moseyed inside.

Bill Jr. walked outside onto his driveway through the open door and he kept it raised. He gazed across the field like he was examining the growth of a pretend crop. Then he hacked up something from deep in his thick throat and let it drip out of his jiggling jaws onto the grass.

“I didn’t expect to see you today, Ansil. And what do I owe the pleasure?”

Bill Jr. let his suit jacket fall off his broad shoulders, exposing the wet spots under his arms and at the place where the Sheriff guessed his navel would probably be—like a tiny hole in the middle of a giant doughnut that always tried to protrude through the buttons of his shirts. The Sheriff unscrewed the lid from a plastic Coke bottle and spat a stream of brown juice inside.

“Why do you reckon grown men lie, Bill Jr.? I s’ppose we’ve all got our own reasons for not bein’ honest with ourselves. When I wake up in the mornin’ and understand that I’ve lived through another night—to face another nightmare of a day without my Jean, or without my baby girl—I choose to tell myself the lie that this might be the day that one of them comes back to me.” The Sheriff looked over at his son-in-law. “What lies do you tell yourself?”

Bill Jr. chuckled enough to make the fat at his neck shake like Jell-O. “I don’t rightly know what you’re really asking, Ansil. I try not to dabble in lies, whether I’m thinking out loud, or sharing a conversation with fine Christian folks like yourself. What’s this all about?”

“You heard from my daughter, Bill Jr.?” he asked, leaning forward in the rocking chair to stop its back-and-forth motion. He sat his Coke bottle down and shifted the ball of tobacco to his other cheek. Bill Jr. laid his jacket on the porch banister and pulled his britches higher.

“No, I haven’t. You know I’d tell you if I’d heard a whisper of news about Marilyn.”

“Uh-huh—of course you would. I know that’s likely true. Problem is—I’m a bit concerned about whether we’re ever gonna hear from her again. And I bet you’d shit your pants if you ever did hear from her. The dead don’t make it a habit of carrying on conversations.”

“Now what proof you have of saying something like that, Ansil? Jesus Christ, you worry me sometimes old man. You need to get that idea out of your head. Marilyn left me, too.”

“Don’t blaspheme, Bill Jr. You’re gonna need all the brownie points you can buy with the Lord above. We got an interestin’ tip—said they saw you dump somethin’ big in the lake.” He saw a change flicker in Bill Jr.’s eyes like sharp steel at sunset, fearing what he didn’t know.

“The funny thing is—that tip was given to us by a youngun with his final breath of life. He died this mornin’ when his truck wouldn’t stop. We found out later that his brake lines had been severed. Who would do such a thing, you wonder? Must’ve been coverin’ a lie.”

“I wouldn’t know, Ansil. I don’t have a damn thing to hide, much less from you.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that, Bill Jr. Judge Peters was kind enough to grant me a warrant to search your property— considering the circumstances. We’re also gonna drag the lake. You and I both know there ain’t but a handful of deep spots. It shouldn’t take us more than a few days to find what we’re after. You could save us all the time and trouble, and spit out the truth.”

“That’s too bad about the boy, but you’re not going to find anything at the bottom of that lake I’m responsible for, Ansil. As for my property, knock yourself out. There’s plenty to search. You should’ve brought along a small army to help you canvass this farm.”

“You might be right about that. But, I figured I’d just start fishin’ in your truck box and go from there. You see—any man that’s got a mind to cut someone’s brake lines probably don’t have the mind to clean their tools real nice before they show up for a day of work at the office.”

Sheriff Webb rose to his feet and stepped off the porch. He handed the folded piece of paper to his daughter’s husband, and walked past his round outline. He hadn’t made it out of the yard before Bill Jr.’s hands wrapped around his throat like two boxing gloves on a banana.

“I’ll give you something to look for old man,” Bill Jr. whispered in his ear. “I’ll teach you what you get for snooping in places where your goddamn nose don’t belong.”

Two gunshots ricocheted off the hillsides like firecrackers in a cave. He felt Bill Jr.’s grip loosen and his weight collapse behind him. The heavy man lay on his side, clutching his legs and grimacing as if he’d been stung by a couple bees. His khaki pants showed crimson at the knees.

The Sheriff looked down at Bill Jr. for a moment, and then he raised his eyes to Harold Collins and gave him a nod. He turned toward the blue pickup and didn’t stop until he was at the toolbox behind the cab window. He put on two latex gloves and opened the lid to rummage through the steel container. His heart sank when he pulled the bolt cutters from the darkness.

Jeremy S. McQueen is the author of the essay and poetry collection Pillow Talk Confessions. An excerpt from McQueen’s unpublished novel, Nights on Fire, appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Still: The Journal. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Berea College and his Master of Science degree from Eastern Kentucky University. He lives on Solar Place Farm in Somerset, Kentucky.

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