Sara steered the cruiser onto the shoulder, saw what was ahead, thought, Bad news.
Gravel crunched under the tires as the Crown Vic settled at an angle. The radio crackled.
"Eight-seventeen, are you on scene?" Angie, the night dispatcher. "Have you responded?"
Sara lifted the dash mike, keyed it. "Eight-seventeen here. On scene now. Will advise."
In the blaze of her headlights, Billy stood behind his own green-and-white cruiser, looking off into the swamp, hands on his hips. Farther up on the shoulder was a gray late-model Honda Accord, trunk open. Blue, red, and yellow lights bathed the night.
She replaced the mike, tried to memorize the scene, wishing the grants had come through for the dashboard video cameras. She looked at her watch. Two ten.
Billy turned toward her, face blank. She could see his jaws moving. He was chewing gum. After a moment, he looked back at the swamp.
She hadn’t seen him at the Sheriff’s Office, but she’d known he was on duty tonight, had heard him on the scanner. Part of her had hoped they’d cross paths before shift’s end, part of her didn’t. When she’d gotten the call, shots fired, she’d feared the worst. Now here he was, staring out into the swamp, looking lost.
What have you done, Billy Boy? And why did you have to do it on my shift?
She opened the door, took her portable radio from the passenger seat, and stepped out onto gravel. She fit the radio into its holder on her duty belt and plugged in the body mike clipped to her left shoulder. Her thumb slipped the holster loop that held the Glock in place on her right hip.
The air was thick, the heat oppressive after the air-conditioned cruiser. Hot for mid-October. No moon, but a sky full of stars.
The Honda had New Jersey plates. Billy had parked behind it, angled to the left, in the standard motor vehicle stop position, so the cruiser would protect him from oncoming traffic when he got out.
He half-turned. "Hey, Sara."
"Hey, Billy. You all right?"
He looked away from her, back at the swamp.
She had her hair tied up in back, could feel sweat form at the nape of her neck, drip beneath the Kevlar vest under her uniform shirt. She came up to stand beside him, followed his gaze. They were looking down a slight incline to the edge of the swamp. There was a patch of sodden grass, then a deeper dark where the trees started, Spanish moss hanging from them like cotton. In the grass, just short of the trees, a man lay facedown, right leg twisted under left, right arm extended.
"There he is," Billy said.
She looked around. She’d seen no traffic since she’d gotten the call, taken the turnoff for CR-23. Only locals used this route, few at night. To the east, acres and acres of sugarcane, then the distant glow of town. To the west, the gray ghosts of cypress trees, endless miles of wetlands stretching to Punta Gorda and the coast. She could smell the swamp, the rotten egg scent of sulfur.
The cruiser radios crackled in unison, the sound muffled by the closed doors. Off in the dark, as if in answer, bullfrogs sounded. Then another, deeper noise, the low bellowing of a gator. The light from their rollers painted the trees, the swamp, illuminated the body below.
"Is he dead?" she said.
He nodded. "Or close to it. He hasn’t moved at all. EMTs on their way."
She took the heavy aluminum flashlight from the ring on her belt and pushed the button. The bright halogen beam leaped out into darkness. She swept it across the man’s back. His head was turned to the right, and even from here she could see his eyes were open.
Chinos, blue dress shirt, a deep, dark stain between the shoulder blades, shirt soaked with blood. A black man, young, dressed too well to be from around here.
"I’m going to have a look," she said.
"Careful. You step into a chuckhole down there, you’ll break your ankle."
She shifted the light to her left hand, took a step down the incline, her right hand resting on the Glock. She could hear sirens in the distance.
She picked her way down the slope. When she reached the grass, she felt it give spongily under her shoes, water coming up around them.
She shone the light along the wet ground, looking for snakes. Something moved and splashed in the darkness. The noise of the bullfrogs stopped for a moment, then started again.
The gun was about a foot from the man’s right hand. She held the light on it. A blued revolver, .38 maybe, rubber grips. She made a grid with the flashlight beam, looking for another weapon, footprints. Nothing.
"Anyone else in the car?" she called up. The sirens closer now.
"No. Just him. I told him to stop. I told him."
She crouched, not letting her knees touch the ground. Up close, she could see the gold wire-rim glasses twisted beneath his face, one side still looped over his ear. He looked like a teenager, hair close-cropped, a small gold ring in his right earlobe. His eyes were wide.
She played the beam down the body. Left arm folded beneath, right outstretched as if pointing to the gun. The shoes were tan leather, polished, the upturned soles shiny and new. No way he could have run on this grass, gotten away.
She touched the side of his neck. A faint warmth, but no pulse.
From above her, Billy said, "He dead?"
"Yes. He’s dead."
Something moved in the trees, and her hand fell to the Glock. A shadow separated itself from the blackness, took wing silently. She looked up, watched it fly away, etched for an instant against the stars, wondered what it was.
She went back up the incline, careful where she put her feet. When she reached the gravel, Billy was standing beside the Honda’s open trunk.
"Check out this shit," he said.
She went over and shone the light inside. The trunk was empty except for a nylon gearbag, partially unzipped. She saw the glint of metal within.
"You look in there?" she said.
"Yeah. He was acting nervous, so I asked him to open the trunk. When I saw the bag inside, he took off. I told him to stop. When he got down there, he rounded on me, drew down."
His voice was unsteady. She looked at him, saw his eyes were wet.
Sirens rose and fell in the distance.
"Cold out here," he said. "When did it get so cold?"
He paused between words, chest rising and falling rapidly, as if he were hyperventilating. The onset of shock.
"You should sit in the car," she said. She tucked the flashlight under her arm, took the thin Kevlar gloves from her belt and pulled them on, punching the Vs of her fingers together to get the fit tight.
"I’m all right," he said.
"You don’t look it."
She shone the flashlight into the bag, reached down and pulled the zippered edges apart. Inside was a boxy MAC-10 machine gun with a pistol grip and a dull black finish. Under it were two semiautomatic handguns: a chrome Smith and Wesson with rubber grips, a blue-steel Heckler and Koch, both 9 mm. Boxes of ammunition, extra magazines for the MAC-10. No wonder he ran.
She heard a noise, turned to see Billy bent over on the shoulder, hands on his knees. He spit his gum out, gagged, vomited thin and watery onto the gravel.
"I’m okay," he said. He raised a hand to ward her off. "I’m okay."
He spit, straightened, turned away from her, bent and waited, ready to vomit again. She could hear his rapid breathing. He’s going to pass out.
He put his hands on his hips, sucking in air, getting his control back. She watched him for a moment, then walked around the Honda and shone the light through the windows. There was a folded Florida map on the front passenger floor. In back was a child safety seat and a brown leather overnight bag.
"He has a kid," Billy said. "You see that seat? He has a kid."
She looked down the road. Coming over a small crest, she could see emergency lights—two cruisers and an EMT van.
She looked at him.
"Anything you want to tell me before the sheriff gets here?" she said.
He looked at the approaching cruisers, then back at her, shook his head.
"No," he said. "I’m sorry, Sara. I never had a choice."
"You did what you had to do. It’ll be all right."
Sirens all around them, the cruisers pulling up abreast of her own, the EMT truck pulling ahead. She moved closer to Billy, stood beside him.
The sirens rose, fell, and died. Car doors opened and closed around them. They stood together in the nexus of rolling lights.
She looked up, saw the far-off silhouette of a bird against the starfield. An instant later, it was gone. She wondered if it was ever there at all.
"Well," Sheriff Hammond said. "What’s your take on this mess?"
They were in his office, the door shut. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out on the rest of the station. Through the window behind his desk, she could see the small stretch of lawn lined with whitewashed stone, a bare flagpole lit by flood-lamps.
Four A.M. and he was in jeans and flannel shirt, unshaven. His hair was longish, his nose laced with broken blood vessels. He was from Mississippi, had come east thirty years ago but never lost that soft accent.
Sara had a bottle of water from the break-room vending machine but hadn’t touched it yet. She wished she had an aspirin. It was her first midnight shift in months, and she’d been tired all night. Now she could feel the familiar beginnings of a migraine, the pulsing of a vein in her temple.
"From what I saw," she said, "it looks like it played out the way he told it. I responded as soon as I got the call. There wasn’t a whole lot of time between the stop and when I got there."
He took an unsharpened pencil off the desk and leaned back in his chair. His desktop was cluttered, a bundle of papers held down by a dummy hand grenade he’d brought home from Vietnam, wire IN and OUT baskets, a framed photo of his daughter as a teenager.
On a credenza behind him was a computer, shut down for the night. Beside it, in a plastic liner, was his sheriff’s campaign hat, which he wore only on formal occasions. When he’d taken over the Sheriff’s Office, he’d discontinued the use of their Smokey the Bear hats, opted for black baseball caps instead, and then made those optional as well, a change Sara had always been grateful for.
He scratched his jaw, tapped the pencil on the edge of the desk. She could sense his awkwardness.
"The lawyer from the Fraternal Order of Police is on his way," he said. "Boone from the state attorney’s office in La Belle is still at the scene, but he’ll roll back here soon. He’ll be talking with you as well. That might be a little uncomfortable."
"He’ll have to know about you two."
Doesn’t everybody already?
She cracked the cap on the bottle, drank, replaced it.
"I understand that, Sheriff. But just for the record, that was over two years ago."
"I know. I’m just saying. Small county like this, small town, small department. If we don’t tell him, someone else will. It’s better it come from us."
"I’ll tell him."
"You’re a woman in an otherwise all-male department, Sara. That puts you in a unique position. It’s not fair, and I know it, but sometimes you have to be realistic about what other people might be thinking."
"This your first overnight in what, eight months?"
"Your first shift with him that entire time?"
She nodded, sipped more water, set the bottle on the floor. He pulled a yellow legal pad across the desk toward him.
"They ID the driver yet?" she said. She was feeling 4:00 A.M. fatigue, a slight dislocation from everything around her. The adrenaline was fading, and she wanted sleep.
He tilted the pad to read it.
"Derek Willis," he said. "Twenty-two. Had a current driver’s license on him. A resident of Newark, New Jersey, and only one arrest, a misdemeanor joyriding charge. Ran him through NCIS. No hits."
"That the name on the registration?"
"No. Car’s registered to a Wendell Abernathy, also of Newark. No hits on him either."
"Good," she said.
"That could change, based on what Boone finds. If he feels he needs to bring them in, he will."
"Whatever the situation, this Willis wasn’t a tourist, out there in the middle of the night, weapons in the trunk."
"I expect not."
"And what was he doing on that road in the first place? There’s nothing out there for miles. If you’re just passing through, heading south, interstate’s easier, safer."
"Hopefully, all questions which will be answered."
She drank more water, put the bottle down, rubbed her left temple.
"Who’s watching the little guy?" he said.
"JoBeth. She’s at my house."
"She’s driving now, so it’s easier for her."
"JoBeth’s a good kid. And her father’s a good man. She babysit for you a lot?"
"She’s good with Danny. He likes her."
"How’s he doing?"
"He has good days, bad days. The chemo’s been rough."
"You ever hear from his father?"
She shook her head, looked away.
"I’m sorry," he said. "It’s none of my business."
"It’s okay. There’s just not much to say. We’re getting on with our lives, you know? We have to."
"Don’t we all."
Excerpted from Gone ’Til November by Wallace Stroby.
Copyright © 2009 by Wallace Stroby.
Published in January 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.