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The door of the Stop'N'Buy wouldn't budge.
Yet the market was clearly open for business. Frank Bennett could see people inside, partly obscured by the promotion signs, beer posters, and garage sale flyers plastered on the windows and door. With another impatient push, he felt the door yield slightly. When he finally got it open wide enough to squeeze his wiry body through, he found himself smack up against the well-padded posterior of Edith Marsden.
She brought up the rear of a line that stretched from the cash register, past the ice-cream cooler, snaking around the chip-and-dip display, to end right inside the entrance. What the hell was this? There was never a line at the Stop'N'Buy or anywhere else in Trout Run, for that matter.
Frank listened as Debbie Flint, the day-shift clerk, attempted to run both the New York State lottery ticket machine and the cash register while cradling the phone receiver between her chin and shoulder.
"I don't know what happened she's just not here. Of course I called, there was no answer. All I know is, I have to be out of here by four-thirty to pick up my kids. No, the sitter can't keep them any later you better come in."
"What's going on?" Frank asked no one in particular.
"Mary Pat hasn't shown up for her shift," said a burly man wearing the trademark khaki pants and green shirt of a Stevenson's Lumberyard worker.
"Now Debbie's here all alone to deal with the afternoon crowd," Edith chimed in.
Rush hour started early in the Adirondack mountain town of Trout Run, timed to the shifts of the lumber millworkers and the guards at the nearby prison boot camp, but it didn't amount to much. Waiting in line wasn't a familiar experience for the locals, even now in the fall foliage season, when tourists swelled the population.
"She's never been late before." Having hung up the phone, Debbie spoke to a customer at the head of the line. "In fact, she's always twenty minutes early. I'm kinda worried."
"She must be sick."
"She's never sick, but you know, she did buy some Tylenol yesterday said she felt kind of achy," Debbie continued. "But she would've called if she needed to take a sick day. You think I should check the hospital?"
"I'll do it." Roger Einhorn, who volunteered on the Rescue Squad, stepped off the line and picked up the phone behind the counter to call the hospital, thirty miles away in Saranac Lake.
Everyone in the store fell silent, listening to his end of the conversation, until it became clear that Mary Pat had not been admitted. Then the debate began again.
"Maybe you should investigate, Frank." Augie Enright, willing to wait any length of time to buy his weekly lottery ticket, elbowed Trout Run's police chief familiarly.
"I think people have the right to be late for work once in a while without bringing the police down on their heads," Frank answered with a smile.
"Yeah, Augie. If we called Frank every time you were late for work, he'd never have time to run the speed trap or anything," a voice called from somewhere in the store.
This brought laughter all around, except from Edith. But then, she always walked around with a twist to her face like she'd just stepped in dog dirt.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Mary Pat had an accident," she said. "It couldn't hurt for someone to look into it."
Frank took the "someone" as an arrow directed at him. Years as a detective on the Kansas City police force had taught him all there was to know about stakeouts and interrogating suspects, but had done nothing to prepare him for a job in which the primary qualification was the ability to endure unsolicited advice.
"She probably went shopping in Lake Placid and got stuck in traffic. You have to allow yourself more time to get anywhere this time of the year," Frank reminded Edith. He meant to reassure her, but Edith's snort indicated she saw his answer as just another example of civil servants dogging their responsibilities.
Frank took this as his cue to leave. The line had barely moved in five minutes, and he was sensitive to any implication that he used the taxpayers' time to run his private errands. When his predecessor had retired two years ago, a faction in town had wanted to save money by turning Trout Run's slight law enforcement needs over to the state police. They'd lost the battle, but the war simmered on, and Frank didn't want to supply any ammunition to the opposition.
"Well, I can't wait," he announced, to be certain everyone noticed he was leaving, and raised his hand in farewell. "If Mary Pat doesn't show up by six, give me a call."
Was it his imagination, or did more than just Edith give him a cold stare as he left? Surely they didn't expect him to launch a manhunt for a grown woman who was half an hour late for work? In Kansas City he would have laughed at the suggestion. But this wasn't KC.
His spirits lifted on the drive from the Stop'N'Buy to the center of Trout Run. The trip took less than ten minutes, except in September, when everyone, even the locals, slowed down for the view at the bend in the road where Whiteface filled the horizon. Color drenched the big mountain in autumn stippled ruby and bronze highlighted by the lemon yellow of the birches. The mountain's smaller companions nestled beside it, so the wall of color seemed to stretch to infinity. For Frank, who had grown up on a farm surrounded by the flat, monochrome landscape of the prairie, the show never lost its appeal. Impossible to worry for long on a day like today.
All too soon he cruised past the score of buildings clustered around the Green that made up downtown Trout Run, and parked in front of the red clapboard Town Office. In the single large room devoted to the police department, Frank found Earl anxiously pacing the floor.
"There you are!" his assistant exclaimed.
Frank made a show of consulting his watch, which read twenty minutes to five.
"I know, I know, but Howard Jenks said he could only wait till five to show me the car he's got for sale." Earl had been without wheels ever since his previous car had fallen apart, literally, on the rutted dirt road leading to his favorite fishing hole.
"Howard Jenks! He's not trying to unload that old blue Plymouth with the brown fender, I hope?"
"Uh, that'd be it," Earl admitted. "He only wants $500 for it."
"Well, that's about $450 more than it's worth. If you can wait till Saturday, I'll take you up to Plattsburgh and we can shop around the used car lots," Frank offered.
"I don't have the bucks to shop up there. My best shot is to buy direct from someone around here." At twenty-three Earl was still young enough to live with his mother without embarrassment, since his modest salary as the police department's only civilian employee barely kept him in beer, gas, and satellite TV.
"Just one problem with that no one around here ever sells anything when it's still got some life left in it."
Earl shrugged his scrawny shoulders and ran his hand through his too-long bangs, tics that surfaced whenever Frank criticized him. "I'll just go look at what Howard's got. I bet I can beat him down on the price some."
Frank lifted one eyebrow. Howard could make a trader in the Kasbah weep for mercy. Nevertheless, he tossed his assistant the keys to his own pickup truck. "Don't be tearing over there like the devil's on your tail. I'll be here when you get back."
Earl grinned as he headed out the door. "Thanks, Frank!"
Normally, he set the phone to roll over to the state police by six on a weeknight, but since he couldn't leave until Earl got back, he let it go. No one called at six, and he relaxed. Mary Pat must've shown up at work after all. Then at six-fifteen the phone rang.
"Hello, Frank, is that you?" Without waiting for affirmation, the high-pitched voice continued. "This is Vivian Mays. Listen, we've got trouble over here on Harkness Road. I was walking my dog and I noticed a car pulled off the road into some bushes."
Frank's stomach tightened.
"When I stopped to see if they needed help, well, it turned out it was "
"Mary Pat Sheehan," Frank finished.
"Yeah, how did you know?"
"Never mind. Have you called the Rescue Squad?"
"No. I oh, dear, I'm afraid it's too late for that. She's, uh " Vivian stopped for a breath. "It's real bad, Frank. I came home to call, but I'll go back out and wait for you."
"I'll be right there." He slammed the phone down.
With the siren blaring on Trout Run's only patrol car, Frank headed out to Harkness Road. In a quarter of a mile he cut the siren; the road was empty and the urgent sound seemed hypocritical when only two hours before, he'd discounted everyone's worry. Had the poor girl been bleeding to death while he stood around trading jokes in the Stop'N'Buy? But even if he'd set off immediately to look for her, his search would never have taken him to Harkness Road. It was clear on the other side of town, nowhere near Mary Pat's home or job.
Still, he felt terrible. In Kansas City he had been able to put some distance between himself and the people he encountered in his work. The gang members selling drugs were not his neighbors' kids. The petty thieves he arrested didn't greet him at the supermarket. In Trout Run it was different. Answering a call on a domestic disturbance, he would find the young man who had cheerfully sold him some nails at the hardware store the day before, now turned nasty with drink and jealousy. He broke up a fight at the Mountainside Tavern, and the sheepish combatants waved to him the next afternoon as they ate lunch together in the park. Now he was on his way to pull poor Mary Pat Sheehan, who'd sold him snacks and gas almost every day for the past two years, from the wreckage of her crashed car.
He turned onto Harkness Road and pulled over when he spotted Vivian leaping up and down and waving her hands like a middle-aged pom-pom girl. Mary Pat's beige Ford Escort had been driven off the blacktop about fifteen feet into some tall meadow grass and scrubby bushes and trees. Approaching from the east, as Frank had, the car was almost totally concealed. Walking from the opposite direction, Viv had been able to see the rear end of the car jutting out of the trees, although cars driving down the road could easily have overlooked it.
"I opened the door and touched her," Vivian started in as soon as Frank got out of the patrol car. "I hope that was all right, but I thought I could help her. You see, she doesn't even look hurt. But she was...cold."
Frank peered in through the driver's-side window and saw Mary Pat still strapped into her seat. With her head bowed and her hands lightly holding the steering wheel, she looked as if she were merely deep in thought.
Vivian began to sob softly. "Oh, this is terrible, terrible. What about poor Ann and Joe?"
"You did the right thing, Viv." Frank put his arm around the distraught woman. "I'll take care of telling her parents. You just sit in the patrol car for a minute until I'm done here, then I'll run you home."
Frank opened the car door and automatically checked Mary Pat for a pulse, in case Vivian, in her agitation, had been mistaken. But the young woman was certainly dead, and had been for a while, which eased his guilt. In the fading light, Frank couldn't see any obvious sign of injury not even a bruise where her head must have hit the steering wheel.
He took a few steps back from the car and assessed its trajectory in leaving the road. Harkness Road ran straight and level at this point, without the slightest curve to challenge a driver. No rain in days. No skid marks on the pavement. Yet Mary Pat's car had left the road, flattening the grass for a good fifteen feet before coming to a stop against a birch tree. Only four inches in diameter, it was really just a sapling hardly enough to have caused a fatal impact to a driver wearing a seat belt.
"I can't believe she's dead her car don't look beat up at all." Vivian had crept up behind Frank again and gave voice to his own thoughts.
"Yeah, that's the way it is sometimes with traffic accidents. Sometimes the car's barely dented and there's no survivors." But even as he said this to Viv, he felt unsatisfied with the explanation, and went around the car again looking for more damage.
"Maybe a deer ran in front of her, or another car came barreling down in the opposite direction and ran her off the road."
"Mmn." Let Viv believe what she wanted to believe. Frank suspected they wouldn't understand Mary Pat's death until the autopsy, maybe not even then.
Viv grew weepy again. "Poor Mary Pat. She had everything to live for."
Frank nodded. Bit of an overstatement, there. The girl's life was awfully tame, even for Trout Run. Unmarried, pushing thirty, still living with her parents. She had a dead-end job as a clerk in a convenience store, and, as Aunt Aggie used to say, she was as plain as a post.
He stood back and took one last look at Mary Pat in the car. She was shaped sort of like a telephone pole, measuring about the same circumference at chest, waist, and hips. Her broad face wasn't interesting enough to be ugly. Instead of the famed Irish peaches-and-cream complexion, Mary Pat was simply pale, with an overgenerous distribution of freckles, colorless eyelashes, and a mop of frizzy strawberry blond hair.
But Mary Pat had been unfailingly cheerful. She seemed to genuinely enjoy her work at the Stop'N'Buy. Once she'd overheard him say that he didn't believe in gambling, and after that she had jokingly nagged him to buy raffle tickets for the Mother of Mercy Catholic Church in Verona so that her CCD students could have new catechisms. He'd often seen her eating dinner at Malone's Diner with her parents, laughing and chatting as if she couldn't have asked for two better companions.
Unaccountably, he felt his throat tighten. Ridiculous, really he hadn't known her beyond those brief encounters. But somehow Mary Pat had always reminded him of his daughter, Caroline. Not that there was a physical resemblance Caroline had her mother's delicate build, dark hair, and lively gestures. Maybe it was more that the Sheehans, as a family, called up the memory of what he'd once had, but had lost.
He and Estelle and Caroline had always been a team, unshakable in their loyalty. In her tumultuous teenage years, Caroline had strayed, but never deserted them. Even when she had come east for college and stayed in New York after her marriage, the bond had not been broken. But Estelle's death had changed everything. The brain aneurysm that had felled her in a sudden cranial explosion had left him without a wife and Caroline without a mother, and somehow, both of them without each other. They were a tricycle missing one wheel; unbalanced, the other two wheels were useless, too.
Now it fell to him to tell the Sheehans that their team had also broken up. Mary Pat, their only child, was dead.
Copyright © 2004 by Susan Werlinich