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Where I Can See You
By Larry D. Sweazy
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2017 Larry D. Sweazy
All rights reserved.
"You know how it is at that time of year; the days seem to last forever. It was as perfect a day as you could imagine — until she left.
"One minute she was there waving to me, telling me to be a good boy, then she climbed into a shiny black sedan and sped away behind dark windows. If I had known it was going to be the last time that I ever saw her, I would have run after her, grabbed ahold of her, and held her back with all my might. But I didn't budge. I waved and went back to what I was doing, just like it was another day."
"You still miss her."
* * *
The walls were bare and in need of a fresh coat of paint. Ghosts of pictures, diplomas, and an oversized dry-erase board glowed gray and looked like lost pieces of a puzzle waiting to be put back together. A herd of dust bunnies congregated in the corner, demonstrating no fear of being swept away anytime soon. The room smelled like a mouse had died in the wall, rotting away slowly, one whisker at a time. There was none of the sterile institutional aroma most often encountered in a police department headquarters. Funny thing was, the office hadn't been vacant that long.
One fluorescent light buzzed overhead and flickered like an ancient disco strobe. The other tube was burned out. There was no window, no distracting view of the world beyond, which was just fine with Hud Matthews. He wasn't there to daydream.
"It's not much." Paul Burke stood shoulder to shoulder with Hud, staring into the office. There was no evidence of shame or embarrassment on Burke's pockmarked face. Even though they were close enough in age to have been boyhood friends, Burke looked as if he'd walked headlong into a hailstorm all of his adult life, and any effort to grow facial hair of any kind looked to be futile. His face reflected a permanent, angry, expression, whether he intended it or not.
Hud squared his shoulders and straightened his spine so he was as close to equal in height as could be to Burke — nobody called the chief, Paul, not even his wife. "I'm just glad to be here."
Burke looked him in the eye. "It's not too soon?"
Hud dropped his shoulders again. "The wounds are healed; I need to get on with it. How many times do I have to tell you that ? The shrink said I was good to go. You got the report."
Burke shrugged, didn't blink, and stood with his arms crossed as though he was waiting for something more. It was a common expression and stance with him, especially in an interrogation. Paul Burke had the consummate skill of being an asshole without ever having to say a word.
"I'm not dead," Hud offered.
"I can see that. All right. I still have my reservations, you know that."
"You've always had your reservations about me."
"I've known you for a long time." Burke paused, looked away from Hud quickly, then back into the dismal office. "I won't coddle you."
"That's why I came to you for a job when it was obvious that Detroit didn't really want me back."
"That's the only reason?"
"Sure, what else is there?"
"Old business." The words echoed inside the office and bounced off the cold damp cement walls right back at Hud.
"I'm just glad to have a job," he said, as he stepped into the office and nodded his head with approval. "This'll be fine, just fine."
* * *
It was the perfect kind of day for someone to find a dead body: gray, overcast, a slight mist hanging in the air. Two county squad cars blocked a narrow lane that led down to the lake. Hud could see the smooth water as soon as he got out of his car — a six-year-old black Crown that, according to the garage mechanic Lonnie Peck, was on its second engine and temperamental as a back pasture mule. Times had changed. It seemed as if the whole department had been recycled and was held together with nothing more than duct tape, duty, and the eroding will to serve and protect.
Hud flashed his badge at the female deputy standing guard just beyond the bumper of a county cruiser. She was blonde, tall for a woman, had the lithe muscular body of a martial artist; obviously the kickboxer that Burke had warned him about on his way out the door. Her face held a scowl like she'd been personally done wrong by Hud, but he didn't know her, didn't recognize her from the past, didn't care what grudge against the world she held. She was at least ten years younger than he was. Their paths would have never crossed in places that mattered.
"So, you're the new one" she said. The other brown-and-tan cruiser was empty. "Another one of Burke's old pals come to save the day. Got lucky. Caught your first case three days in. Some people have to wait a lifetime for that around here."
Hud shrugged and stuffed his badge back in his pocket. The wallet was new, just like the badge. Didn't have a scratch on it. Only time would tell if it would show any wear. He didn't feel lucky. "She down by the lake?"
He was in no mood to explain to the kickboxer that he wasn't really new at all, that he'd worked plainclothes for a long time. Detroit would teach her a thing or two about justice just like it had him. Not that it would matter. Hud knew animosity when he heard it. The deputy was ambitious, had her eyes on detective grade as the ultimate prize. It would have been easier for her to stay in the ring, or dojo, or wherever she trained and fought. A title might have cost her a tooth, but it'd be worth it in the long run, easier on her soul.
The deputy nodded, twisted her lip and bit it, held back, restrained herself for now. "Yeah, half in, half out, a single gunshot to the head. No easy answers that I could see."
Hud exhaled and walked on. He knew he was right about her ambitions. She wouldn't take his advice — try another department, maybe the city police instead of county — if he were willing to dole it out. He wasn't. She wouldn't be the first woman to think he was aloof, a sonofabitch. He didn't give a shit what she thought.
The water smelled distantly fishy, but not in a dead rot kind of way. The smell just announced that aquatic life was present and plentiful; he knew it immediately, knew it like a simmering stew on the stove. It was the smell of his childhood summers, the smell of home. He was immediately comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time. He had missed that smell, longed for it deep in his sleepless nights, but now it made him want to puke.
There were no boats on the lake. It was vacant and lonely, smooth as glass. The air was chilly, and most of the vacation people had packed up, shuttered their cottages, and gone back to their real lives after the Labor Day weekend.
The leaves were starting to turn color: fiery red, dangerous orange, fragile yellow. On a sunny day their decay would be a splendor to see: a beautiful impressionist painting, something to hang on the wall and reminisce about, or a line of poetry to write, if one was inclined. Hud wasn't.
He pushed forward, slowly, from the farthest perimeter of the crime scene toward the center of it, toward the victim.
After the initial impression of the path, it was easy to ignore the state of the trees and shrubs on both sides of the lane as Hud searched the ground before him. He was looking for anything out of place. A broken branch, a lost shoe, a fake fingernail torn off in an attempt to flee, things he'd seen before, things that had helped him solve murders in his previous life.
All the while, Hud listened intently: a blue jay chattered in the distance, not alarmed, just enjoying the sound of its own voice; there were no hawks about. Beyond that there was silence. There was no wind to clatter a screen door open or closed, and there seemed to be nothing, at least on his first pass, that stood out on the ground before him. Nothing seemed unusual; nothing out of place caught his eye. He wasn't surprised. It usually took more than one pass to see things clearly, to spot something that held meaning.
Three men were gathered at the water's edge, looking down at the ground as though they were in prayer. The shroud of first responders was always dark and mournful, that moment before mass or some other formal ceremony was set to begin. Conversations on the radio had told him that one of them was the CO, the Conservation Officer, who had found the girl; another was the first deputy on the scene, who had most likely arrived in the cruiser next to the kickboxer's; and the third was the coroner, who had just arrived minutes before Hud. Men accustomed to seeing the worst of what humans could do to each other and to animals but who never got used to it. At least Hud never had.
He stopped fifty yards from the trio and surveyed the lake. If he were being honest, Hud would have confessed that he avoided the water, looking the other way whenever possible. Seeing and smelling it was like being in the presence of an old lover who had betrayed him in a deep and profound way. You took something from me I can never get back.
The water was smooth as black ice, drinking in the mist after a thirsty, dry summer. A wedge of Canadian geese suddenly honked with anxious fortitude on the other side of the lake, cutting south in a hurry, ready to leave the lake like the rest of the part-timers, like they were late in their departure.
Abandoned cottages on the opposite shore looked small, and the wedge even smaller, like the stroke of an artist's brush pushed through thin black paint into a perfect V. Hud had forgotten how big the lake was. It covered almost a thousand acres, with fifteen hundred miles of shoreline on its edge.
"Detective Matthews," the CO said, pulling out of the group. He walked toward Hud with confidence, as though he was in charge. They met on the path and stopped to face each other. "They said you were coming. It's just you?" The department was small. Three detectives besides the chief, Burke, eight deputies, and a handful of reserves. The surrounding towns had marshals, some deputies, mostly part-timers. They pitched in, along with the state police, when there was a need.
"Do I need backup?" Hud said. He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his overcoat. He'd left his thin winter gloves behind, hadn't remembered how a day like this could chill you so deep you thought your veins were going to freeze.
"Not that I know of. It's just this is a little disturbing. First murder we've had around here in a few years. Last one was an easy case, the result of a domestic dispute."
"I'm the only one on shift. Department's stretched a little thin," Hud said.
"Aren't we all."
"How do you know this one's not?"
"Domestic? How do you know this one's not a domestic?"
"I guess I don't." The name badge over the CO's right breast pocket said SHERMAN. It was old but highly polished. The man had a fair amount of gray at the temples, and his uniform was stiff and starched yet faded enough to be comfortable. He'd worn it in regular rotation over years of service, not months. Of the three men, he was the only one without a hat. His hair was glued to his head from the light mist that hung in the air, but he didn't seem to mind the dampness. Hud had to look up to make eye contact with him. "I was surprised when I heard they'd replaced John Peterson when he retired," Sherman said, like he was anxious to change the subject.
"I came cheap."
"I bet you did."
Hud settled his neck so he looked ahead, beyond Sherman to the girl, to the other two men — who had taken their attention off the ground and were watching the conversation between the detective and CO.
"Tell me what you've got," Hud said.
Excerpted from Where I Can See You by Larry D. Sweazy. Copyright © 2017 Larry D. Sweazy. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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